It seems fitting that Woody, aka The Doctor of Confidence, leaves my farm right as my people celebrate the new year of 5773. He and I are both off to new and separate adventures.
I realized my dream this summer of riding my horse Katie in a classic and getting to wear a shadbelly for the first time. I will continue to show her in the Special Adults as well as bring along my sweet OTTB, Cassie. I’ve also discovered my 3-year-old Paint/Thoroughbred isn’t the only one with cow in him. Turns out I do, too. I spent last weekend cutting cows atop Jimmy, and short of jumping, I don’t think there’s anything more fun to do on horseback.
I couldn’t have done any of it had it not been for Woody. But our time together is over. There’s another woman in Virginia who’s got a big case of The Scareds. She loves horses too much to give them up and needs to find a way back to feeling comfortable. I know Woody will work his calm magic on her, because he did it with me.
But before he steps onto his next patient’s trailer, I will dip an apple in honey and feed it to this kind, gentle and, yes I’m going out on anthropomorphic limb here, wise horse. During Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, we dip apples in honey, symbolizing our hopes for a sweet new year. And if there’s anyone who deserves the sweetest of years, it’s this big, red Thoroughbred.
Just What The Doctor Ordered
Woody came into my life when I was considering a life without horses. I’d had two head injuries in two years from falls off a horse. Neither was bad enough to leave me drooling. But the first injury left me with short-term memory loss for a couple of hours, and the second wiped away an entire day of my life, which rattled me to my soul. Enough to make me wonder if it was time to stop riding.
Enter Woody, whose first career as show ring hunter left his owner Diane Wade with a wall full of ribbons from the country’s biggest shows. He moved into his second career, doctoring frightened riders, when a friend of Diane’s needed a confidence booster. I was his fourth patient; I’m including Diane who tells of a time she was so scared she sobbed around the course as Woody just marched on like he had George Morris on his back. They won the class.
Now he goes to Leah Coxsey, a refreshingly earnest 32-year-old woman from Middleburg, Va., who started with a mild case of the The Scareds 10 years ago when her mother died. Losing a loved one, especially someone as important as your mother, slaps you in the face with your own mortality. Compound that with a spooky horse, a few falls, and life in general, and you have a full-blown case of The Scareds.
“I want to get back to jumping,” Leah told me. “There’s no feeling in the world like it. That’s how I fly.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. That’s exactly how I felt. But like I was before Woody came into my life, Leah’s too scared to jump. She says she’s going to give it one last try, with Woody. I know this will be a successful mission. Just ask the judge at that Thoroughbred Celebration show who dubbed Woody “Steady Eddy” as he carted me around over my first course of jumps at a horse show in too many years to remember.
In a way, I envy Leah’s upcoming journey. Conquering a fear is powerful medicine that carries over into all aspects of your life. What was daunting yesterday seems not only doable today, but also challenging and exciting. Plus, for me, there’s no better way to feel connected to nature—to experience on the most visceral level how we as humans interlock with all the creatures on Earth—than handing over your trust to a 1200-pound being that doesn’t speak English and could kill you with a strike of a leg. It’s not so easy to do after you’ve been injured, either emotionally or physically. And it takes a special horse to make you feel safe enough to do this.
Woody is that special horse. The minute you sit on him, you can feel his calm, his steadiness and, dare I say, even his sense of mission. Did he know how nervous I was that first ride? Of course. A horse can feel a fly land on him, so surely he can feel a rider tensed tauter than a coiled spring. It didn’t matter to him, he just walked, trotted and cantered like he had a confident pro on his back. And that’s when his magic started to take hold. With each step, I loosened a little more. By the end of the first ride, I felt like I’d come home. I was on a horse, and I wasn’t scared.
The Seeing-Eye Horse
It wasn’t long before we were jumping. Woody is a metronome. He stays at the same beat regardless of his rider’s nervous gyrations, which makes it very difficult to miss a distance. That, and he’s got a better eye than I do. Recently, I let my eventer friend jump him because she said she’s struggled with finding the right distances. “Wow!” she said, with a huge smile. “So that’s what it’s supposed to feel like. This horse gets you right every time.”
Yup. And then some. Last year I got on him a day after oral surgery. I wanted to ride, but it was too soon, which I discovered about 15 minutes out on trail when I got dizzy and had to close my eyes. I just chucked the reins to Woody, wrapped my arms around his neck and waited until he brought me home.
“Now we can add seeing-eye horse to his list of accomplishments,” said my old trainer Peter Foley, who also trains Woody’s owner, Diane.