How hard could it be to go steady with a horse?

The happiness that accrued from mucking stalls, riding, and hugging a four-legged hunk named Alex.

Holly contemplates Alex at Blackthorn. Photo by Adrianne Ryan

It started with an equine eye.

My friend, the amazing photographer Adrianne Ryan, snapped a shot of her horse Oliver’s eye, enlarged the photo, and set it like a jewel on her timeline. It was dark and bottomless and seemed to sparkle as if Stephen Hawking’s “The Theory of Everything” could be grokked by gazing into it.

Are horses the new dogs? I suddenly thought I might be onto an emergent trend. Think of all the girls and then women we knew in our past who fell in love with horses and never grew out of this essential passion, and how happy and well-adjusted they all seemed and seem.

For a long time now, I’ve been espousing a dog companion as life’s chief answer to loneliness. My Boston terrier, Huxley, has seen me through divorce, flood, and famine (well, the last two metaphorical), but now I was starting to think if I could only wrap my arms about the long, tall, noble neck of a horse, and stare into one of its oracle-of-Delphi eyes, all the answers to life’s persistent questions would stand revealed.

I called my buddy Amy Reece, Oak Bluffs resident, writer, and teacher, mother of three grown kids, and wife of the charming Doug. Amy grew up in horse country in Missouri with a mother who always encouraged her to ride. Nowadays she owns a horse named Alex, so I asked if I could hang out with her at Blackthorn Farm in West Tisbury where the big boy is stabled. Would she mind if I helped with the chores and cozied up to her steed? Quite honestly, I had no particular plans to ride at any point of the day. Mostly I wanted to test out my hypothesis that a human and a horse were meant to enjoy a close, daily connection, and to hell with the Industrial Revolution and all the stupid cars that had driven us apart!

I’d done a little riding in my youth. In summer camp, on days when horseback riding was on the docket, I was happy as a pig in equine manure. This was out West, where cowpokes — and summer camp girls — used the déclassé, groin-bracing saddle. Whenever the horse bolted into a trot or canter, you clasped that gourd-shaped horn for dear life. Oh course, John Wayne galloped with grace, but all the old cowboy movie stars had to either learn to ride or take acting lessons.

In my early teens, I tried a few rides with that whole Brit saddle thing where you sit on a slippery sled, and hold a rein in each hand. You’re instructed to do something called posting, where you dig your heels into the stirrups and pop your bottom up and down for no apparent reason other than sparing it from the spanking saddle.

On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, Amy and I arrived at the bucolic Blackthorn Farm, but we only got a chance to wave at tall, dark, handsome Alex at the far side of the paddock. Making contact with him was far down on the list, because first we had to take up pitchforks.

Horses defy that age-old mammalian law of not pooping where they sleep. Alex’s stall was strewn with bedding that reminded me of gerbil pellets, mixed in with an impressive amount of excrement. Amy showed me how to scoop the combo, then shake it around so that the straw bits tumble out. Then, voilà! You shovel the solid waste into a wheelbarrow. After a number of shake-and-throws, Amy told me I was great at this task. Yes, but could I monetize it?

Alex’s shed was stripped down to the cleanliness of a monk’s cell. Amy and I took off to collect her guy. Did he seem happy to see us? Well, truthfully, horses betray affection in ways hard to identify. He let his mama slip a bridle around his long regal nose and up around his ears, and we led him to the barn. Once there, we took up grooming brushes and swept away a fine, pale lavender layer of dust along his neck, flanks, and legs.

And now came my big chance to promulgate my soul’s awakening by gazing into his eye.

The orb in question was a beautiful amber color but, oddly, the pupil was a brown rectangle. What had the Intelligent Designer been thinking with this model of eyeball? Amy said her daughter Lily, currently in her sophomore year at Emerson College, once observed that frogs, too, have rectangular pupils. Hmm … did frogs hold the secrets of the universe, or was their only specialty being kissed and transformed into princes?

We marched Alex back to the paddock. Amy threw a blanket, then a saddle over her steed, cinching it tight. which made him grimace, exposing big white square teeth, then she suited me up in a helmet and vest, brought over a stepladder, because Alex is fully two stories high, and boosted me into the saddle.

Oh. Had we talked about me riding?

She led us by the reins, then she handed me the reins, and then it was all up to me and my new beau: I was skimming high above the earth, the way angels float when their wings are practically touching the ground, and everything that bedeviled me in my real life flew away — the bills, the deadlines, the sadness of darkness descending at four o’clock, the scarcity of peace in the world. When the ride ended, and high-strutting Alex juddered to a stop, I prostrated myself over his head and neck, and embraced him for a very long and heartfelt time. And he let me.

Later the hay guys arrived, and we had to tote those bales from the back of the truck into the barn, and up a clanking, moving ladder. It was such hard work. Such. Hard. Work. I had to resist just giving up, falling face-forward on top of a bale, and riding it up to the loft, where some kind soul could lay me out on a scratchy bed.

Is it worth it, all the effort that goes into that brief celestial ride on the back of a stalwart mount? Ah, that is the question. There is always the rich person’s method: Pay a barn owner a brickload of money to take care of your horse, then come and ride between yachting jaunts to Ibiza, and Champagne tours of chateaux country.

Yeah, that’s how I’ll do it, once I figure out, as we all spend our lives doing, how to wrangle the money part. Until then, I can dream. Alex, do you have a brother?