There was no distance too great to travel if someone would let me get close to a horse. At eleven years old it was all I wanted from life and I would have done anything to make it happen. I passed a small boarding stable on the way home from school (if I took the wrong bus and went the long way) and each day I’d stop and watch the horses.
In true spectrum style, I had read every book ever written about horses. I spent days researching the different breeds, their history, their dietary needs, and different culture’s methods for caring for them. When the nonfiction books ran out, I read every fiction story I could find. And when those ran out, I wrote my own book about them on an old typewriter my mother had given me.
Yes, I had prepared myself for my first horse in true bookie style. I was ready! Whether it was a stray pony that needed a home with a loving girl but needed first aid on the side of the road or a tragic cruise liner accident where everyone drowns but me and the misunderstood horse who then saves my life by swimming to a deserted island so we can bond. Yes, I was ready!
The trouble was, I never came across a wayward pony and we never seemed to travel on cruise liners. It was all in my head and I wanted it to be real. I wanted to test out all of the things I’d read in books; but mainly, I just wanted to be friends with a horse.
I suppose I showed up at the barn consistently enough that they realized that if they wanted to get rid of me they’d have to give me a job or call the police. They chose the former and I was so thrilled when they invited me across the fence. I did everything I was told: mucked the stalls, filled the water buckets, mended fences, and stayed out of the way. I stayed out of the way of the humans, that is, I was good at that; but they couldn’t keep me away from the horses.
I loved the smell of horses. I’d lean against their necks and take deep breaths with eyes closed. I couldn’t get enough of the fur under their manes in the winter- like a silken glove. For the first time in my life I could talk without a stutter and I could really share everything with another living being. It wasn’t a deserted island, but a real bond was made nonetheless.
When I first saw Lynda at the stable, she was talking to her horse and didn’t even notice me. She talked to her horses as if they were talking back to her and nobody else could hear it. I didn’t care if this made her a loon; it was fantastic! I liked talking to horses the way she did. Loon suited me just fine.
To Lynda I was probably a pesky kid with a thousand questions and seemingly no reason to go home, but to me she was a bridge to a world of animals which I’d so long wanted to be a part of but had found no way to get there.
She was rather short, or maybe I was tall for a young girl, but you wouldn’t have known there was fifty years between us if you saw us standing together unless you looked at her face. She had white blonde hair which never stayed put and weathered skin the exact texture of a saddle. She wore large feathered earrings and smelled wholly of an ashtray.
There we were, me a loon in training brushing horses with Lynda instructing me here or there; while she, loon master, smoked cigarettes and told me long stories about life with horses in the Oglala Dakota nation. She told so many stories. Some of them were so vivid it was as if she were an old medicine woman throwing sparks into the night sky and I, the Native American child, would push pestle to mortar while watching her tales dance.
She was most likely of Scandinavian descent and not Native American at all. Her blue eyes mirrored the sky but she squinted so hard that they appeared dark and earthy. And that suited her stories just fine.
She would spin stories she imagined from her own childhood and I became the scribe following her around while learning to read the horses’ body language, respect their space, ask rather than tell, and speak to them by blowing into their nose.
Night sky tucked away in my imagination, the stories were always over promptly at five o’clock when she’d spit on her shirt, roll the cigarette in the spit, and put it in her pocket. She’d talk quietly to each of her horses, say goodbye to me, and then head home.
Every day, in all weather, I would be there ready to learn and ready to listen.
But time moves on and the next summer I found a job at a lesson stable and worked in exchange for lessons. I slowly stopped hanging out at Lynda’s barn and it wasn’t long before the new world of horses engulfed me completely.
It was different but I pushed myself to learn as much as I could. I was proud of my abilities but found myself hiding from the rich girls who shunned me because I cleaned their horse’s shit but beat them in the ring. Fearful of not fitting in, I was careful not to share my loony habits of talking to horses, smelling their necks, and blowing in their noses.
Lynda’s stories were pushed to the back of mind. They seemed childish. They were no more real than the stories of lost ponies and stolen racehorses.
Years later, assuming horses would always be an important part of my path, I attended an agricultural college and studied Equestrian Science. I dissected everything from a horse’s leg to the reason they do what they do. I saw horses tuck tighter to avoid nails sticking out of a top rail, a viable training method for a jumper, I was taught. I was paid to bit pacers at the racetrack before they were a year old to make sure their head carriage was high enough and bent properly at the pole. I was shown how to cut a horse’s nerves to hide feet problems, if only for a little while, to protect the investments made. I injected their sweet-smelling necks with anything the owner wanted me to so that they could win.
Lynda’s stories were right there. I could feel them casting a sad glow on my experiences.
Despite their proclamation of love for their animals, their adoration of horses, and their culture of horsemanship, I didn’t often see them stop and talk to their horses. I didn’t see them blow into the nose of a horse. I never saw them talk as if the horses were talking back.
It’s not as if all of the apples were bad, but horses had always been my friends. My soul just wouldn’t allow me to continue and as I walked away I knew that I would never return. I wanted to talk to my horses and I wanted to listen to what they had to say.
The ability to appreciate the story others have to tell is how I treat every passion. Lynda was the one who shared that gift with me.
I learned a lot about Lynda after that year I spent with her at the barn. She was a psychologist in the child welfare system. She had a PhD in social work. She lived with her ailing mother and was her caregiver. She was a good person with her own story that was never mine to tell.
Lynda is today’s Portrait of Gifted because of all of the things I do know about her and all of those things I will never know. Looking back I remember the long rides and discussions which were really therapy for me; and for her, it was yet another child she would help along her way. She was as selfless as someone can be and she is today’s face of gifted because a gifted child needs someone like Lynda on his or her path. I don’t know if the stories were for me or for her, I don’t know what she said to her horses when she whispered, but I do know that a gifted child needs to know that someone understands their passions on a deeper emotional level than just acceptance.
For me, horses were a spectrum obsession perhaps, but they were also my friends and a big reason I was able to overcome so much of my social anxiety in the years to come. For that I will always be grateful to Lynda. She was my bridge, my confidante, and my storyteller. She gave me the gift of speech… even if it was in the language of Horse with little bit of loon tossed in.