When I was young, I had a white pony named Sugar Babe. For reasons I can’t fathom now, I liked this pony. I don’t think I’d allow an animal like this to live on Soul Farm today, but at this time, character-building activities were all the rage in my family, so Sugar Babe was there to stay.
At first, my father needed to help saddle Sugar Babe for me; and not because I was too small. The reason was far more sinister. We would hard tie Sugar Babe to an electrical pole in the center of the yard. My father would get her saddled, and slip a bridle over her halter. Then, he would carefully guide a leg over and get in the saddle. And sit.
Suddenly, this little white pony would become a flash of lightening. She’d pull back, tightening the line between her and the pole, leaning back with so much leverage that her belly would seem to skim the ground. She’d begin to shake. My father would bounce. Sugar Babe pulled and shook; my father bounced and bounced, until she shook him right off the back of the saddle. Sugar Babe would stand back up. My father would remount, and the show would begin again.
This went on four or five times until finally Sugar Babe stood still when mounted. My father, satisfied that the horse was now safe enough for his young daughter to ride, would untie her and hand the reins to me.
Now as a mother, I marvel at this style of parenting. We often desire to insulate our kids from the very experiences that build resiliency. It takes courage to step back, hand the reins to them, and watch them fall.
Sugar Babe had one redeeming quality: she was a fast pony. Since she had so few other redeeming qualities, I felt I had to really capitalize on that one. I’d run her as much as possible; up hill toward the woods, full speed down the drive, or racing down a dirt road with my friends. As we’d gallop, she’d suddenly decide to stop on a dime, just to see me continue airborne over her head. Once she tired of that, she mastered sharp turns at the gallop, just to watch me fly off in the original direction.
Inevitably, Sugar Babe decided to start rearing. And she eventually cured herself of rearing in a very dramatic way. One day, she threw her head up, back arching, and lifted her front feet so high off the ground that her spine balanced perpendicular to the earth. I could not hang on. I dropped and landed on my back like a bug, and as I looked up at this big, white pony balancing above, I thought, “She’s going to come down right on top of me.” I much later heard stories about riders dying as the saddle horn penetrated their chest, but even without those stories in my head, I didn’t see how this was going to work out well. I had enough time to shift a bit to the left, and as she toppled next to me, she landed only on my right leg, so I limped for a few days, but survived.
I was used to our rides finding me flat on my back looking up at the clouds, but this view was new, and I guess unappealing, to Sugar Babe, because she never reared again.
Later I realized that riding a horse like Sugar Babe could only lead to two possible outcomes: I’d learn to hate riding or I’d become a good rider. I’m pleased to say that every time I got knocked off that pony, I got back in the saddle to ride it out.
Spiritual teachers take so many forms. One mistake I feel we make is to presume our spiritual teachers must take human form. It concerns me that we sometimes give so much authority to our spiritual or religious leaders. Humans, by their very design, are flawed beings, and any human that claims all the answers, or to not be struggling in this experience side by side with us, is suspect.
Animals are not operating from a sense of ego, or personal gain. Instead of lecturing from a platform, they are on the ground with us, teaching us patience, tenacity, empathy, and non-attachment, right in the dirt. We barely know that we are learning until we, as adults, reflect on these teachers and realize the influence they truly had.
There did come a day when I decided I learned all I was going to from that relationship. I wish I could say I refined her training so she became the perfect pony, but I did not. I don’t think I was meant to be her teacher. Rather, Sugar Babe was meant to teach a young girl how to get up, wipe the dust from her jeans, and get back in the saddle. In that way, she was perfect for me.