M***** ******! My expletive burst forth into the chilly evening sky as the wheelbarrow fell over crashing to the ground, spilling the bags of pelleted bedding. It was dark, I was angry, and I was exhausted. I had had enough. It had been a very long day and it was now after 10 pm. My day hadn’t been so bad until the second from the last appointment of the day, a very difficult session. One that left me angry and sad. And now here I was in the dark, alone, and with one more dirty stall to clean.
As I stood there with my heavy heart, feeling sad and lonely, a voice called out in the darkness: “Are you okay?”
Crap, I thought, blushing a little in the night air as I thought about how I had just sworn so vehemently. It’s not like I don’t swear, I just hardly ever use those two words together, probably because they always seem so harsh. And that’s why I had used them. I wanted some angry words to hurl.
As I looked around the corner of my van I could see someone walking towards me. A woman, dressed casually, holding a cigarette yet unlit.
“I heard the crash and thought I would come and see if you needed some help,” she said. “Are you still cleaning stalls? I could help you.”
“No, that’s okay. I’ve just had a really long day. I’m exhausted and I am just really done. Swearing just seemed like the thing to do,” I told her.
She came forward into the light and I could see her better. A woman of about my age, dressed in white jeans, a white top, a white parka, and looking a bit tentative herself. A pretty good reflection of how I was feeling at the moment.
“Is that horse yours?” she asked, pointing her finger at my big Belgian mare.
“Yes, she is,” I answered. “She’s a big sweetheart.”
She went on to ask me questions about all three of my horses, their friendly heads over their stall doors, munching hay. We exchanged pleasantries in the night, the horses the only witness to our late evening conversation. I kept unloading my bags of bedding from my van as we talked, placing it in the wheelbarrow. I usually carried it a bag at a time into my tack room, but I was just too damn tired tonight.
When I was finished, I remembered the cookies. My daughter had left a package of Oreos in the van, and I offered some to my new acquaintance. She accepted, and I walked around the van to get them. We stood there in the dark night; the stars bright above, the pale barn lights illuminating the shed row behind us. She told me she was there to check on her friend’s horse, an aging old boy with cataracts. She asked me if I kept my horses there all the time, and I told her how I can’t wait to take them home next month. We were boarding our horses during the winter so as to be closer to the practices my daughter attends for her equestrian team, but it hadn’t turned out as wonderfully well as I had hoped.
“This feels like horse prison to me,” I said. “They’re all cooped up in these stalls all day and it’s just not natural. That’s why I can’t wait to take them home. We were just here for the winter.”
And it was true I couldn’t wait to take them home. This winter I had spent more time cleaning stalls than I would care to admit. By the time we got done cleaning stalls it was often so late and so dark we didn’t want to do anything else but go home, a 40 minute drive. So our grand plans of riding all winter had slowly drifted down the drainage pipe, and we had spent more time in the stalls than in the saddles. Out where we live it is uncommon to find anywhere that gives full-service boarding. So the feeding and watering was kindly done by others and we helped out those who helped us, too, taking turns at taking care. We couldn’t have done it without them and it’s a neighborly way of taking care of horses. But when it came to the stalls that was another matter. And our three great big horses had plenty to offer up in that department. Their mamas had not taught them how to keep their rooms clean. As a result, my daughter, her friend, and I had been spending way more quality time with manure than with the beauties who produced it.
As I leaned against my van in the dark, talking to this friendly soul, I could feel the anger and the frustration of the day slip away from me. My days did not usually end this way. I have work that I love as a family therapist, and most days ended on a positive note. This particular afternoon I was frustrated by a session that made my heart sad. My anger was for my client and the domestic violence situation she was in. My frustration was because I couldn’t just magically make everything all better for her. And while my work is not about me, but about my clients, sometimes I wish they could see who I really am. So they could know that I am more than just another well-meaning therapist in a brightly colored dress. I’m a mom, a wife, and a woman who knows how to shovel shit, damn it. I know what hardship is like, and I do get you.
In the darkness with this new friend, sharing cookies under the stars, talking about horses and how they got their names, I felt my sadness melt away. I remembered why I love my horses so much, why they will always be a part of my life, and why I will keep shoveling manure. And why I do what I do. Why I’ll go back to my work tomorrow and find ways to be even better at what I do.
I think that woman in the dark…dressed in white, by the way…I mean, who goes to a barn dressed in white?…was sent to bring me that reminder and to show what a difference a friendly voice in the dark and a cookie can make.