I never really knew “The Dominator.” I was three years old when my mom had to make the difficult decision to retire him to the endless, green pastures in the sky. She was forced to say goodbye to the 22-year old American Saddlebred that for thirteen years had earned her a collection of blue ribbons and silver trays from horse shows up and down the state of California. “He was a powerhouse and could be a stinker if I forgot to carry a stick,” she once reminisced. “When I did, he was a gentleman.”
While the mere presence of a crop tamed his younger years, she said The Dom’s patience wore thin as he got older. Mom and The Dom had a mutual respect for one another, but he was too much for anyone else to handle on the ground (vets, farriers). Theirs was one of the special relationships about which movies are made, and The Dominator was the crowning achievement of mom’s twenty-year riding career. She never owned another horse again.
As I was growing up my mother did not offer much about her equestrian past, even though riding was something I longed to pursue. It was many years before I even realized just how accomplished a rider she was (with thanks to Nana) because in our house there was never a trophy or other accolade of hers in sight. The only hint of my mom’s time with The Dominator existed in the form of his brass nameplate, stored in a small antique box on a table near the piano. Occasionally, I would take it out and study it, running my fingers over the engraved letters, and wonder what my mom’s life had been like with a horse that was given such a formidable name. Naturally, the curiosity of it all only incited my desire to ride.
My mom would reveal trace amounts of a quiet passion by drawing the most lifelike horse portraits: the muzzle and chin groove would be exact; the ears trim and forward; and there was always a blaze cascading down the face. I was in awe of her artistic accuracy. In fourth grade she allowed me to persuade my best friend to (reluctantly) ask her grandmother if we could catch the bus after school to their family’s ranch for riding lessons. I’d take any chance I could to be near the gentle giants, savoring the smell of their sweaty coats beneath the dusty leather. Trail rides were the highlight of summers spent camping with my family in the Sequoia National Park. Still, I never had a horse of my own, and perhaps my mom was hoping to protect me from an inevitable heartache.
When I picked up riding more seriously after college, my mother started to open up about her devoted time in the saddle, and so as adults it became a topic over which we were able to bond. I began to appreciate some of the reasons she did not encourage a horse-obsessed daughter to follow in her trot steps. My mother missed out on what some would consider a “normal” childhood. She was always on the road to shows or training at the barn, absent from at least a month of school each year. Furthermore, she was shy by nature, and equitation was a very individual, isolating sport, making it hard for her to maintain friends. But later as a mother, she still valued the hard work, responsibilities, maturity, and time management required for keeping livestock-as-pets, and made sure our rural upbringing included goats and sheep and chickens and pigs and the chores that accompanied them (an ode to all 4-H moms!).
Not long ago, I said an unexpected goodbye to my first gelding, nearly the same age as Dom when mom bid him her own tearful farewell. One hysterical phone call to mom and I was gently reminded how chapters of life eventually close, and you have to move on to the next, with or without another horse, and honor that memory in your own personal way.
These days, riding is something my mother and I discuss or text over the phone several times a week. She has accepted my horse(s) as her grandchildren, and is intrigued (or possibly terrified) by my chosen discipline of eventing, therefore always inquiring about my progress. Meanwhile, it seems the dormant love of a lifetime ago is stirring in her soul. Recently, she gave into nostalgia and hauled approximately 100 show ribbons out of storage and sent me a photo of the entire lot scattered across the kitchen counter. Soon after, The Dominator’s nameplate was framed in a photo and placed proudly on a shelf. And just the other day she shared that she will begin volunteering at an equine therapy barn, where she will also benefit from the healing presence of horses, and use the physical exercise as part of her recovery from a recent back surgery. Though it has taken her forty years to do so, I am happy that she has found a way to invite horses back into her life, for she will always be the reason they became a part of mine.