On Thanksgiving weekend I sat atop Shadow, the lesson pony I ride, just outside the indoor, wallowing in the delight of being at the barn as I chatted with my riding teacher and a couple of other riders.
Getting married was on my mind. My fiancé and I had been engaged a year and chose January 10th as our wedding date but remained undecided on a venue for the eight-minute-and-seven-second private ceremony.
Our Justice of the Peace had offered to officiate at her home. But I had no attachment to her home. Or to the insides of a church. My attachment, naturally, is was here in the saddle, with my horsey peeps, surrounded by nature and everything-equine. The question came out of my mouth before I even knew what I was asking.
“Linda,” I said to my riding teacher. “Could Dennis and I get married here?”
She didn’t even know we were engaged—I wore riding gloves. Her jaw gaped in surprise. The other riders smiled on.
I said, “You know, here?”
Linda recovered her good-natured demeanor in no time. But not before I asked, “With our J.P. and Shadow and Nacho as our two witnesses?”
Linda’s smile was a mile wide. “Let me check with the powers that be,” she replied.
The farm’s owners not only agreed to allowing the ceremony on the property but were thrilled at the prospect.
On a subsequent ride with my two friends, Courtney and Candace, we picked out a spot for the wedding, near the outdoor dressage arena, on the grass before a long sweeping row of cattails that tapered well over ten feet high. It was perfect.
On our wedding day, fourteen years to the day we met, Dennis and I stood before Gayle, our J.P. with Linda and Nacho to Dennis’s side, and Shadow by my own. A video camera was propped on a table, recording.
Gayle began reciting the gathering words of the horsey-themed script:
“Lisa and Dennis, after many years as a committed and loving couple, we gather at Course Brook Farm, in Sherborn, Massachusetts, a very special place where Lisa enjoys riding Shadow and Nacho, guided by her kind, patient and encouraging teacher, Linda Smith. We are grateful to Linda and the Mayo family, owners of Course Brook Farm, for their kindness and generosity.
Our purpose for gathering today is to give a new official status to the life that you share. Your lives already are tied together by a deep personal commitment; your marriage is an affirmation and acknowledgement of all that you are to each other. Marriage gives structure and security to a couple’s love. Marriage is a commitment to life, the best that two persons can find and bring out in each other.”
At this juncture in the speech, Shadow and Nacho began ferociously feeding on the frozen grass. Linda had Nacho by the reins, he was well off to the side and not particularly disruptive. Shadow, on the other hand, kept turning his hindquarters to the camera.
What was that thing that W.C. Fields said? Never work with animals or children on live TV?
No matter. I turned Shadow 180 degrees for the second time and announced, “This is going to be a very fluid and dynamic ceremony.”
There was laughter, a whinny from one of the horses in the paddocks. Gayle resumed her task and asked for our consent to one another and instructed Dennis and I to recite our vows:
“Lisa, before you, life was a chore. With you, life is a joy. I want to share in that joy with you for the rest of my life.”
“Dennis, me without you is like sky without blue. As long as there is sky, I shall be with you.”
Shadow was stepping squarely on my foot. Good thing I was wearing cowboy boots, not high heels. I nudged him off my foot as he continued to power through the grass like a fairway mower.
Linda began the reading, the foreword to Dr. Allan J. Hamilton’s book Lead with Your Heart… Lessons from a Life with Horses.
[As humans, we] insist that space represents a “final frontier.” We look out into the depths of the universe with the same naivete that the conquistadors and The Pioneers demonstrated when they faced unexplored territories. Our first instinct is to try to possess it and tame it, not to truly, simply dwell in it. We want to be “out there” rather than “in here.” We see the challenge and the struggle as existing outside ourselves rather than within.
Horses see things differently. They are large and powerful animals and can at times be intimidating up close, but they are the prototypical prey species. They offer us a practical method to see meaningful alternatives to our own voracious way of life. When we spend the time to see the world through their eyes, we can visualize a path to transform our predatory appetites. They challenge us to undertake the journey of mastering ourselves, rather than everything around us.
Teaching without preaching, horses lead by example and employ the lessons of experience. They epitomize immersive learning at its best. And they challenge us with their formidable size and strength to bring results through collaboration rather than by force. Horses have developed their own compelling models of fairness, forgiveness, and leadership. They have acquired a group identity, a consciousness not as singular beings but as members of a family, a herd. They see themselves not as individuals in the isolated context of “me” but as relatives in a family in the broader framework of “we.” And they derive a powerful and gratifying sense of inclusion from it.
Horses share resources for the benefit of the herd. They are a wise, gentle species that eschews the notion that might defines right. While stallions with their reproductive imperative come and go, the alpha mare endures as herd leader. Because they understand what it means to be hunted, horses have the most profound appreciation for the benefits of peace. They yearn for harmony, kindness, and tranquility; they crave freedom from anxiety, abuse and predation. With their nonviolent attitude, horses are a testament that a partnership based on trust is far more productive than one that relies on dominance.
I thanked Linda for her heartfelt reading. Shadow was eating the grass at my feet in such a way that his body made my own disappear; the camera was only capturing my head, a centaur in the midst of getting hitched. Nacho had stopped eating grass and was pawing the ground with his left foreleg. Was this his sign of consent?
Gayle was moving to the ring exchange. Dennis and I didn’t want wedding bands, this wasn’t our first rodeo, and I neglected to give him my engagement ring before the ceremony. I placed Shadow’s reins between my legs, a gesture that would make any true equestrian cringe, and pulled at the glove on my left hand. Shadow, sensing the loosening of the reins, moseyed after more grass.
My glove fell to the ground. I picked it up, took off my ring and handed it to Dennis. Linda was giggling. Nacho was nodding his head up and down in great big gestures. Gayle was maneuvering away from Shadow’s roving hindquarters.
Time skipped and stymied until I realized Dennis was holding the ring before my finger “Lisa, each time you put on this ring, may it remind us both of the love and joy and commitment we share.”
I regained presence of mind. I smiled to Dennis and thought, yes, this is very nice, thank you.
“Dennis and Lisa, you have chosen each other from among all others to journey through life together. Today, you shared with one another words of trust and loving commitment, and you consented to marriage. Now it is my privilege to say, by the power vested in me by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but most especially by the power of your own love, I pronounce you husband and wife. You may seal your marriage with a kiss or a neigh!”
After Dennis and I engaged in quick smooch, Linda made the suggestion of a lifetime. “Let’s move the horses to the frozen footing of the dressage arena for picture taking!”
“Good thinking,” I said, laughing and leading Shadow a mere ten feet away to solid ground, where the horses behaved picture-perfect, calm and sweet and even, comical, and we stole away with beautiful snapshots that will forever seal my desire to get married in the presence of horses.
Lisa is in the final stages of working with her editor on her memoir manuscript “Calamity Becomes Me,” a story in part about proving herself capable of taking care of horses on a Wyoming dude ranch. She will be pitching it to literary agents in early spring 2021. She’s also written essays about the horsewomen who inspire her, lessons she’s gleaned from horses, and her “love of horse, which have been featured in Horse Network. She lives near Boston, where she writes, bikes, hikes, and rides horses. You can contact her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.