Do you ever forget your first love, the first we experience when our hearts are still innocent? When we fall in love for the first time, we experience a new depth of caring that is more complex and more compelling. Our first love leaves a lasting imprint on who we are.
My first love was a horse. His name was Damascus, and he was an old quarter horse that looked much like this. Quarter horses are compact and heavily muscled. They are renowned for their ability to run short distances faster than any other breed.
Damascus was one of the rental horses at Patty’s Stables in Burke, Virginia, at the beginning of Burke’s transformation from bucolic horse country to a sprawling suburban subdivision. An hour ride cost $2, and babysitting at 35 cents an hour funded my horse riding habit.
When I first saw Damascus, his rider was kicking his ribs furiously to get him to do more than walk. I later learned Damascus had a reputation for doing nothing more than walking regardless of what any rider did. I saw rider after rider kick him hard in his ribs, jerk on his reigns, and even yell in a wasted effort to get Damascus to do more than walk. Despite all the abuse, he never threw, bit, or otherwise retaliated against his abusers. Over time, the combination of the inherent challenge for getting a good ride out of him with a growing compassion for the daily abuse he stoically endured drew me to him.
The first time I rode Damascus, I took him out to the shade of the tree line of one of the riding fields. I let the reins loose, and let him eat grass for almost the entire hour while I talked to him, petted him, and allowed long moments of silence. I didn’t always have enough money saved up to ride him every day. On days I couldn’t afford to rent him, I would ride my bike to the stables and visit him. I always took him an apple or carrot, and would talk to him and pet him through the fence.
A few weeks after I started riding Damascus regularly, I signaled him to trot. And he did. Several weeks later, he was cantering. I never took him to a full gallop because his lumbering canter suggested it would be too much of a strain on his aging body. When I rode him, I frequently just let go of the reins so Damascus could go wherever he wanted. Sometimes he ate grass in the fields, other times he went to the trails in the woods. Over the summer, I grew to love his gentle spirit.
The summer flew by, and when school started I could no longer ride or visit daily. To this day, I clearly remember the last time I rode Damascus. It was on one of those stunning early October mornings when the sky was crystal clear and vivid blue. The air was cool and crisp, lightly accented with a hint of autumn leaves and his earthy horse scent. I made an indelible mental recording as we stood silently, breath visible in the cool air, looking over the gently rolling hills dusted with frost that glittered in the sun, so I would never forget the moment.