First published in the December 2017 Equiery
by Elizabeth Kovalak
There are no coincidences in life.
It was a Thursday in July, and I was having lunch at the Old Brogue in Virginia when a nice lady came over to my lunch table and asked if I’m Elizabeth. Well, it was my former trainer from Poolesville, Susan Porter!
In the course of our conversation, I asked Susan if she know how my old horse, Phoenix, was doing. I had sold him in 2009. Apparently, she in turn had donated him to a therapeutic riding program, where he had had a wonderful career, and now was permanently retired. Two days later, Susan and I were on our way to see him at the Therapeutic Recreational Riding Center in Glenwood. I was ecstatic!
It’s an hour from my house to TRRC. A million memories were running through my mind on the drive. The ribbons, the trail rides, beating a top trainer’s $150K horse in a show! How Phoenix would run to me in the pasture when called, reading books curled up next to him as he lay at night in his always-clean stall, and the hollow, gutted pain that day he got on the trailer because I felt that I had failed him financially.
What if he’s a big bag of bones? What if this is a bad idea? What if he doesn’t remember me? What if I cannot handle this? This horse and that world were such a big part of my identity. Selling him meant that life had disappeared.
We arrive. I’m impressed at this gorgeous facility that runs like clockwork. I see the indoor ring, sponsored by Susan Porter’s late parents, and am in awe of the army of staff and volunteers who really care about these kids and horses. I stand in front of Phoenix’s stall and unlock the door. He puts his face in my hands and I come unglued. He remembered me. The kind staff give me space, then come back and I show them the picture of us at a horse show from 2003. They get it. I was his mom for the longest stretch of any human in his life.
One of the staff who works closely with Phoenix asks me about his earlier life. We talk about how he’d do anything for peppermints, how he’d survey the jumps in a ring and know exactly where to go – winning against the best, how there’s a spot on his belly if you rub with a curry comb he’ll flip his upper lip and drool. A sweet boy asks me if I’d like to feed Phoenix carrots. He saw that I was crying and wanted to share, saying it will make me feel better. It did.
He’s the same quiet-tempered, cerebral, thoughtful, friendly, carrot-loving gentle 17HH giant Oldenburg he always was, just understandably un-muscled and slightly sway-backed. I take him out for grass and watch the same hard S-shaped graze pattern I remember him methodically following, and how he loves clover the most. I swear on my dad’s grave I see a four-leaf clover in front of us and never saw one before that day.
And in that moment, something shifted.
In that moment, I adjusted my career plan. I am a real estate agent, and effective this past July, $100 from every property that I sell will help to fund a grant for TRRC. This year, thanks to my clients, TRRC will receive over $5,000, which they will use towards farm improvements.
TRRC relies on donations and volunteers to survive. Watching the kids learn to brush, tack and ride in a safe place without judgment is heartwarming. Seeing them smile, knowing they have friends here, I can’t help but sense the wave of relief and acceptance parents feel, as here their kids are protected from a world that’s quite hard on individuals with special needs.
My daughter Brooke is now taking riding lessons every Saturday on Dude the wonder pony. Years ago doctors told us that our now seven-year-old daughter may never walk or talk, yet this summer she crossed a stream riding a pony on a trail ride – keeping her heels down and always looking ahead – and I can’t help but marvel at the odds she has defied.
Phoenix helped me through the fog of loss and the hard life lessons of my 20s and early 30s. He then helped wonderful kids find their happy place when the outside world would sometimes forget them. But not a day went by that I didn’t think of Phoenix and wonder how he was doing.
A week after I visited him at TRRC, he returned with me to his old barn in Poolesville as the cleanest, most expensive, and most spoiled lawn ornament in the U.S., but also the object of complete adoration by his own little girl.
I’m honored to have this opportunity to be the change I want to see in the world. I’m ecstatic to help kids who need us as a society to accept them and understand they have gifts to offer us too. And I’m thankful for all those on the yellow brick road of life who made this journey possible – from those living angels like Susan Porter who connected me to the past to make it the present, to Dr. Tuel and the TRRC staff and volunteers who took great care of this wonder horse who is my everything.