A Beach Day
By Tracy Van Buskirk

     "We need to go to the beach."  Martha was right.  We needed it more than anything right now.  We were three friends.  Three middle-aged friends.  In the suburbs.  With horses.  We'd been riding together for years and didn't ever intend to stop.
     Martha was the most accomplished rider.  She was tall, lean and supple.  Her face was tanned and her eyes sparked with excitement.  She had the resources to buy the best horses and the athleticism and drive to excel at dressage.  Her horse was Mars, a licorice-black Friesian with a long forelock that draped his face and graceful feathery hair on his fetlocks.  With Martha astride, his muscled body glistened and bunched under her command.
     Kerry was fearless, opinionated and had a will of iron.  Compact and strong, she could lift fifty-pound feed bags onto her shoulder with a smile.  Her whole life had been steeped in horses and she had a solution to any horse-related problem that arose.  She rode Shasta, a big dappled Hanoverian mare with an attitude to match Kerry's.  Shasta was smart, too smart in my opinion, and had a good sense of what she could get away with.
     I was the busy one, working too hard, raising two kids and getting involved in a multitude of community activities.  I had spent my adult life trying to squeeze riding into spare moments.  I didn't own a horse, but was always negotiating and conniving to get a ride.  I was not the best rider of the group, but the most relaxed.  Once I found the time to get on a horse, I was totally in the moment and felt Zen-like in my peace.  I had been riding Cort, a hardworking bay who pretended, not too convincingly, to hate all humans.  He was a sucker for a good neck scratching and gingersnaps.  Like me, he also was middle-aged, but sometimes suffered under the delusion that he was a hot-blooded yearling and acted that way.
     In this early spring season, life had just thrown all three of us some pretty serious curve balls.  Martha's situation was the saddest.  Her husband had just passed away from cancer, and she was now facing the reality of a life alone.  Kerry, who never feared any horse, had recently hopped on a neighbor's pony in an ice-slicked paddock.  The pony reared, twirled and lost his footing, and Kerry was thrown onto her back.  Two broken vertebrae and two millimeters from paralysis, she was told never to ride again.  She didn't listen.  I had just been laid off from a twelve-year office job due to a faltering economy, and couldn't sleep at night, worrying about money and even more, the loss of my professional identity.
     A beach day was prescribed.  We lived thirty minutes from the ocean, where there was a wide beach with an inviting stretch of sandbars at low tide.  So, on that chilly March morning, we loaded the three horses into a spacious trailer and headed out.  In the parking lot at the beach, the sand drifted across the asphalt and the salty smell of the ocean made the horses' nostrils flare.  They were excited, shifting their weight and stamping their feet while we tacked up.  Their mood was infectious and we found ourselves as eager as the horses.
     We started out trotting three abreast across the sand as if we were the Three Musketeers, black, gray and bay in beautiful alignment.  The gulls screeched over our heads and dogs let off their leashes bayed and loped behind us.  We laughed aloud in pleasure and imagined us as a scene in a perfect movie where nothing ever goes wrong.
     But it wasn't to be a movie-perfect day.  Kerry moved Shasta into the shallow water to avoid a rocky patch and the big mare decided the water was just too cold and veered back out.  A war of wills ensued.  Martha and I watched in amusement as horse and rider set a zigzag path: in the water, out of the water, in the water, out.  Forced once more into the water, Shasta was fed up.  She glanced back at Kerry and slowly collapsed onto her side in peaceful, nonviolent protest.  Kerry leaped off at the last moment and stood there, drenched to the thighs in the frigid water, holding the reins of a supremely stubborn horse.  Shasta had made her point and soon stood up, shook and cheerfully nuzzled Kerry for a treat.
     Happy that no one was hurt, we set out again, this time walking straight out into the bay on a narrow spit of rocky sand that was littered with broken shells and terminated almost at the horizon in an abandoned lighthouse.  We walked and talked almost to the end, then turned and headed back toward the beach.  Now it was Cort, my aged mount, who decided he was once again a yearling and it was time to run.  His head lowered and oblivious to the snaffle bit that I was futilely pulling on, he took off at a full gallop.  He could not be stopped.  I flew past the other two and caught a glimpse of their laughing faces.  My Zen-like peace was left a quarter-mile back and I clung to his back in total panic.  Back on the main beach, Cort slowed on his own and waited calmly for the others to catch up.  I could swear I saw that horse wink at the other two.
     It was almost time to go home.  Pools of water barely two inches deep were forming all over the sandbars.  Martha rode Mars into one large puddle, then stopped.  As Kerry and I watched, Martha straightened her back and moved the reins slightly in her hands.  Mars tightened his muscles and started a piaffe, perhaps the most beautiful dressage movement, where the horse trots in place almost in slow motion, his feet rising and falling in the same spot.  Mars was awesome.  He was a black shadow on the sand, moving in a dream-like sequence.  And because of where Martha had placed him, with every step, a sheet of fine water sprayed upward from his hooves.  I looked at Martha's face and her eyes were gazing far away and I could see that her soul was flying free.
     The air had changed from chilly to cold.  The sun was low and the dogs and their owners had all gone home.  We quickly and quietly loaded the horses and eased our tired legs into the truck.  Not much was said, but we knew our problems had been forgotten, for a day at least.  Tomorrow we would have to deal with loneliness, health and money.  But not today.

     "Hey, Kerry?"  It was Martha.
     "What do people without horses do?"
[They pray...a lot.]
Have a great day!

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