Nowhere to Hide and Alicia
I am a “heady” person. I was blessed to have a magnificent liberal arts education. There’s a wannabe professor in me. A book worm too. I have always admired and practiced Benjamin Franklin’s decision making process: the Pro and Con list. But the older I have gotten, the more I have learned that I should always, always, ALWAYS listen to my gut.
That’s hard to do in this culture. Why? First, because we revere brainiacs—Ivy Leaguers, alphabets trailing a last name (Ph.D, M.D, C.P.A., C.E.O, C.F.O, C.O.O…), smarty pants who invent things, control things, and who, as a result, make tons of money. Second, because we are in always in a hurry, always distracted. We scarcely have time to think straight with the brain that sits upon our shoulders, let alone take stock with our intuition. Third, we tend to belittle the gut—that site of indigestion, flatulence, and lust, that beloved anatomical area of woo-woo queens, psychics, and religious fanatics. C’MON MAN!
I’ll admit, in my youth, I often gave my gut short shrift when compared to my gray matter. The legal cap Pro and Con list was my go-to strategy for decisions. Not that my gut didn’t rumble. It did, but I definitely viewed it as trailer trash talk. Big mistake! The head alone never set a true course. Indeed, my best decisions were the ones where I let my gut influence my brain—like leaving my job at Random House thirty plus years ago borrowing a car, and driving down the east coast, stopping randomly at horse farms in multiple states, until I found a job with horses in Kentucky.
That is why when I interviewed Alicia over Face Time this past spring as a potential summer intern and my gut endorsed her, I had to say “yes.” My head was not pleased. Alicia had submitted a decent application. She had good references, one of whom I knew. But I knew when I started talking to her, that she she was atypical. Her demeanor was bizarrely static yet dramatically intense. I felt her unwavering trenchant stare piercing the computer screen. When I asked her questions, she began by blurting things out, then dove into conversation, rarely coming up for air. It didn’t take a M.D. degree to realize that she was very A.D.H.D. In a matter of minutes, in fact, she told me that of her own accord.
I asked her why she wanted to come to the MMSC. She lived many states away. She would have to find accommodations. Our internships were unpaid.
“I want to come because I love horses. I have a hard time learning. I am a crack baby and was put up for adoption. People have made fun and rejected me all of my life. But I have repeatedly been given second chances, by my adoptive family, by my schools, by my riding teachers. I want to give back to horses like those at your Center who need a second chance, too.”
Right then and there, my gut screamed: “ACCEPT HER!”
“But, but, but….,” my brain whined, “you are not a licensed health professional! OTTBs can be unpredictable! Can you keep Alicia safe? Will she be accepted by the other interns? How much of your precious time will she take?”
“We look forward to having you as one of our interns this summer, Alicia,” I declared.
She broke into the biggest, beaming smile that dazzled me like sunlight on fresh snow! I wasn’t sure how things would turn out, but I knew it would be an intriguing journey.
Starting in June, summer interns from high school to college age, from Kentucky and several other states arrived at the MMSC. They were an eager rambunctious lot, like five week old puppies, full of play, and in need of instruction.
“I am a very fun person,” I told the girls at the onset, “but I am DRACONIAN about certain things.
I was met with blank stares, except for Lydia, a recent high school graduate from Louisiana.
“What does draconian mean, ladies?”
“I know! I know! Strict!!!”
“Excellent, Lydia. Yes, strict, harsh, relentless—a word that comes from the Athenian law scribe Draco, I suggest you google him-I warn you ladies, there will be a word of the day, every day when I see that you have no idea of what I have just said. I expect you to look them up, learn them, and use them correctly. You will be quizzed.”
“Now,” I continued. “Here is what you must know about this summer: Number one, you are a team. Work together, help one another. If you are finished with a chore, assist someone else. I abhor idle hands. Cell phones and texting are not allowed. Negativity and whining are unacceptable. The work is hard, yes, But it is a privilege to work at the MMSC. These horses have given of themselves as they can for the pleasure of human beings. Caring for them is an honor and a service, and a special gift that you give to them. If you have a problem, don’t gripe about it amongst yourself, come to me. I will set it or you straight. Each of you will be assigned or will be drawn to a particular horse. That is the one you will tend to. Together I will explain to you its needs and help you work through its issues. Questions?”
Alicia, of course, chose Noah.
“I love his conformation!,” she told me. “He is the perfect example of what a Thoroughbred should look like! And….OH! what a keen eye! What an amazing demeanor he has. He is so special!”
Oh, dear, yes, Noah was special! He was also my most deeply committed enthusiastically “racetrack-y,” horse in the barn! The one that had extensive physical and mental baggage! For Alicia!? Alicia who has a very hard time staying focused? Alicia who can be utterly oblivious to the world around her when she is on a trajectory of thought or speech?
“YUP!,” said my gut.
So Alicia was assigned to Noah. She oversaw his care, his treatments, and, yes, after I had watched her ride some of our quieter horses, his training.
I spoke to our head rider Carolyn.
“I want you to make time in your day to give riding lessons to Alicia and Noah.”
“You are kidding! Alicia and Noah!!!? But he is such a confirmed racehorse!!!”
“No. I am not kidding. Alicia and Noah. They could be really good for each other. Arena riding only. Walk trot only. Be patient with them both. Teach them to slow down. I am counting on you to keep them safe. And don’t worry, I’ll be keeping an eye on all three of you.”
And watch them I did, from the barn, from the conference room, from the side of the arena. The more I watched, the more I knew my gut was right.
One day, I came into to the small MMSC kitchen whilst several of the interns were having lunch.
“WHAT are you all eating???!!!” I asked, appalled. Their plates were littered with heaps of calorie/carbohydrate/chemical concoctions. I fished the boxes and cans out of the trash, handing them to the respective owners, and said, “please read aloud the ingredients.”
All of the meals had high fructose corn syrup near the top of the list, followed by multiple syllabic unpronounceable words, and a list of numbered additives. I peeked into their lunch boxes. Alicia’s was by far, the worst. She had fodder for herself, and because she is good hearted and generous, enough for all the other interns and then some.
“Ladies,” I said. “Do you see how hard we are all working to make our horses healthy, to cleanse them of all that has beleaguered them during their track days? From stress, to legal and maybe illegal drugs, changing hays and feeds, supplements, different riding styles, and the like.”
“You see the difference we are making? You understand the importance of nutrition for well being. Why, oh why, then would you not treat your body with the same respect?”
“I don’t how to cook.”
“I don’t know what to buy.”
“I don’t have time to eat healthy.”
“Ladies, you will each bring in tomorrow a list of everything you eat at every meal over the course of a week. I will review this with you, and will show how you can still eat what you want but be healthy.”
And they did. And no student was more enthusiastic about my draconian measures than Alicia. She let me throw out her packages of cookies, candies, and sugar laden energy bars. She went to the health food store and bought organic meals and read me the ingredients on a daily basis with pride. She was so grateful for all my suggestions and instructions. She worked ceaselessly. She always was smiling. As the weeks passed, she interrupted less. She listened more. When she first came, she tended to tell “woe-is-me” stories about herself, as if her challenges somehow entitled her to a lesser standard of behavior.
“Alicia, stop giving your challenges prime time. We all have setbacks and problems in life. It’s the attitude and grace in how you deal with them that makes you memorable. Look at Noah. He’s a horse that has known adversity. But has he EVER stopped trying to serve, to please, to give his very best?”
“No,” Alicia answered, in a quiet and thoughtful voice.
When Carolyn wasn’t working with Alicia and Noah, I did. I explained that if she couldn’t maintain focus, if she couldn’t be a worthy leader Noah would take over and do the one thing he knew he did well: RACE.
“Horses are hierarchical, Alicia. That means that the herd is based on a ladder of respect. You must learn to control your thoughts and emotions for the benefit of your horse.” Before long she was cantering and popping Noah over cross rails and he stayed calm. By summer’s end she was walking, troting, and cantering him in an open field. What an amazing accomplishment! She had worked really hard, and done so with ceaseless enthusiasm. She had given her all to Noah and to me, and we both were better for it.
I had one more thing I wanted Alicia to learn from Noah before summer’s end. When she came to the MMSC, it was clear she didn’t think much about her appearance. Her clothes were utilitarian and formless. She wore no jewelry or makeup. She sported a baseball cap worn backwards. She wasn’t alone. All my interns were lackadaisical about their attire.
“Ladies,” I addressed the girls one day. “You all know that RESPECT is one of my five principles of horsemanship. You have all worked very hard on a daily basis to tend to every need of your horses. I commend you for this. But like many, many horse women, myself included, you tend to neglect to care for yourselves. You hair becomes a nest of tangles and hay by day’s end. Your shirts get streaked with mud, sweat, and green horse slobber. Your fingernails get blackened and broken. As the summer has gone on and each of you has gotten progressively more weary, I have noticed that you have spent less and less time on how you look at work.
“Now, in my opinion, our society puts too much emphasis on appearance as well as revolting amount of focus on sexuality. I understand the desire to reject those messages. But the truth is, if you want to take part in the game of life, you have to learn the rules, and play by them. That way, when you chose to participate in the game, whether that means job hunting, or getting a loan, or making a presentation, you have a chance of winning. Think of it like readying your horse for a horse show. You don’t mind bathing and braiding it, cleaning your tack and your boots, right? You do that to get the upper hand on your competition. You do it because it makes you feel proud. Right?
“That is why next week, we are going to have a “class”at the mall. This means lunch, makeup, and pedicures- manicures. Please show up dressed smartly. Last but not least, I will expect a thank you note from each of you afterwards, not an email, but a handwritten one, because a handwritten thank you note is a gesture of respect that will take you far in life.”
|Alicia, second from the right was part of the marvelous group of Summer 2014 interns!|
|Alicia learned the joys of a pedicure!|
It was a great day. And I cherish the thank you notes, Alicia’s in particular. It made me choke up.
I called Alicia recently to see how her fall semester was progressing and to ask her if she minded if I told her story in this blog entry.
“Everything is great! I moved up from the Walk/Trot group to the Walk/Trot/Canter group on my equestrian team! I don’t mind if you tell my story at all. I had a great summer.
“And what did you learn from Noah?”
“I loved Noah,” she said. “I wish I could have adopted him. He taught me a lot.”
“Oh tons! I learned that you can have a wild and crazy side—after all he did- I do too—my A.D.H.D, makes me crazy, but in spite of that you can teach yourself to be calm and focused. Noah taught me to be relaxed on a horse. Noah taught me to push through adversity. Noah taught me to trust. Because I came to trust him, I learned to trust myself.”
“How about respect, Alicia? Did he teach you anything there?”
“Oh yes!”He taught me to respect my emotions. He taught me to respect myself. He taught me to address my needs, “ she laughed her big sunshiny laugh and added,
“You would be so proud of me, Susanna! The other day I was looking at my toe nails and I thought, ‘I would NEVER let Noah’s toe nails look like this!’ So I cleaned them up and painted them!!!”
Oh Noah! You special, special horse! Thank you for all that you taught Alicia. Thank you, Alicia. for all that you taught me. And thank you, gut, for being my ever true inner compass. You always steer me right!