I still remember the look on the woman’s face. A half-smile somewhere between wistful and trying to look happy. But her eyes, tipped down at the outer corners, belied the attempted smile.
The look was envy, and I’d never seen it directed my way before. I’d worn it plenty though, usually when a fancy, new horse came to the barn or—let’s be honest here—a tall, leggy heiress walked by with no hint of saddlebags in her Tailored Sportsmans that she bought new instead of on eBay.
It happened more than 15 years ago, at a book signing for Horse Of A Different Killer. “You’re lucky,” the woman said, looking at me that way. I should have agreed readily with a chorus of “Amen, sister.” But I was too inexperienced with loss to know how profoundly right she was.
Instead, I said, “Lucky? Me?” That wasn’t how I’d looked at my life. My childhood was tumultuous, my young adulthood only slightly less bumpy. I was short, scrappy and had to work hard for everything I’d gotten. The only natural blessing I thought I had was my red hair. Even that was mixed. I’d been taunted as a child with chants of “Hey girl your hair’s on fire,” or “Better dead than red in the head.“
There was one blessing I hadn’t even considered, the most obvious one to anyone who’s spent more than 30 seconds with me.
“You’re lucky you have a Grand Passion,” she said. “I wish I had one.” She flashed her sad smile again.
She was talking about my untamable love for horses. It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy her life, she explained, it’s that she wanted something that ignited her as horses ignited me. She wanted something that drove her as hard as I was driven to make my life about horses. And it was then that I finally got it. Not everyone has that searing guiding light inside that keeps directing them on a path, regardless of the consequences.
And wouldn’t that be the definition of a Grand Passion?
The Line Between Passion And Addiction
Turns out it might also be the definition of addiction. So where does passion stop and addiction begin? Have I crossed the line? And by “I,” I mean “we”—all my fellow horse-crazed sisters (and brothers) who continue to ride injury after injury. The joke in our house is: get a bunch of horse people together and within minutes we’re playing medical geography. “Broken collarbone? I’ve got one of those.” “Three bruised ribs? That’s nothing, I broke all mine.” “I hit my head and forgot my name for 10 minutes.” “Well, I face planted and forgot my father’s name for a week.” And so the volley goes. I’ve yet to find a rider who can’t join in with an equally impressive medical history.
A few months ago I talked to a trainer in Pennsylvania whose horse flipped with her. She wasn’t wearing a helmet. “I misread the baseball cap on my head,” she told me, thinking it was her helmet. That’s about the last thing she remembers. She woke up in the hospital, and her recovery has been difficult. Her vision was off—she’d grab the doorframe thinking it was the doorknob—as was her balance. Her doctor told her another fall could kill her. Yet she still rides. Sound familiar? I could go on for hours with similar stories from readers who’ve written me about their accidents, all of whom continue to ride.
So are we all nuts? Is our DRD4 gene—the adventure gene—the alpha mare of our body? Has our Grand Passion morphed into a monster?
Yes, according to Bob Hedaya, a friend who teaches psychiatry at Georgetown University and has been shrinking people for more than 30 years. He thinks I crossed the line from passion to addiction many injuries ago. And my injury list is considerably shorter than many others’.
As a scientist, Bob first gathered the facts before he drew his conclusion. How long had I been riding? More than 40 years. And how many injuries? Broken leg (bones severed!). Broken collarbone. Two concussions in the last three years. I left out the inconsequentials: a few broken toes, a bruised rib here and there, some stitches and a dislocated pinky finger.
“You’re Crazy If You Keep Riding”
Bob zeroed in on the head injuries. They are, as we used to call it in the newspaper biz, the disease of the week. You can barely pick up a sports section without reading something about concussion. “You’re now looking at weighing the risk of head injury—dementia—versus riding,” he said. “It seems like that would fit the criteria for addiction. If you were my patient or family I’d say you’re crazy if you keep riding.”
This conversation was not going the way I’d wanted it to. “It was only two head injuries," I said sheepishly, not including ancient history: the 1970 episode requiring 10 stitches to the back of my head after sailing off a bratty Shetland pony; or a few years later when I got thrown from my first horse, Homer T., and couldn’t remember my name for a few minutes. Though I never forgot his.
“Two’s enough,” Bob said. “Find something else.”
His comments surprised me because he’s a holistic psychiatrist, and I’d assumed he’d understand how horses nourish my mind, body and soul. Well, maybe not my body so much. But they do keep me happy. And isn’t that what a psychiatrist wants for his patients?