A BRIDGE BACK TO LIFE (Crossed on Horseback) Originally published in Horse Directory, Jan/Feb 2016
By Tom Gumbrecht
Have you ever experienced a phenomenon where a number of seemingly unrelated chunks of time and events conspire to fall together in place, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle? Sort of like standing too close to a heavily pixilated image and then all at once becoming aware of an awesome image upon viewing it from the correct distance and perspective. So it was with the story of how horses entered my life and how important a role they ended up playing in it.
|Buddy was one of the first horses who helped me to put the pieces of|
the puzzle that were my life, back together.
My life and career had been seemingly progressing pretty well when I was in my thirties. I was married to Mary, who was pretty, hardworking, fun and supportive. We bought a house in a neat, beachy community on the north shore of western Suffolk County, had good jobs, travelled and had a lot of cool stuff. As a self-employed trade contractor, I liked to work hard and I liked to play hard and the play time usually included alcohol.
It started out innocuously enough. Drinking was a way to put the worries of business and the responsibilities of being an adult on hold for periods of time in order to let go, have fun and not be consumed by the worries of life. And it worked. For some people, that’s as far as it goes; perhaps an occasional overindulgence at a social event, but nothing to elicit concern. But some of us are wired differently. For some of us, drinking progresses to the point where it no longer facilitates and enhances fun activities… it becomes the activity. When that happens, we might surround ourselves with like-minded people, and in so doing create a new normal- one where frequent overindulgence is not frowned upon nor regaled, it is just accepted.
That is exactly where I found myself at around age forty. The lifestyle was beginning to take its toll, and some incidents shined a light on the problem which I had no choice but to come face-to-face with. I had spent many years trying different methods to drink like a normal person, to no avail. It was confusing, because I was quite successful in dealing with other of life’s problems. The solution to this one, though, remained elusive. The problem was my insistence on finding a way to manage something that to my body, was unmanageable. The answer was a simple one, but not easy: avoid it entirely, a day at a time. That proved much easier said than done of course, because at a point the addiction to alcohol affects us on a physical, mental and spiritual level. When something that had become such a big part of life is removed, something has to take its place. It can be a bad thing or a good thing, but that void will be filled. For me, that something ended up being horses.
On a day like any other, a few years into my newly sober lifestyle, my phone rang. On the other end was a well known LI Hunter/ Jumper trainer (a fact completely lost on me at the time) who needed a barn rewired. I took the job and found myself utterly fascinated with the horses, horse sports and horse people. Interestingly, during my drinking years I never really found out what made me tick, what I liked, what I was drawn to, where my passions lied. I engaged in hobbies and pursuits that I perceived were cool, or made me look cool, whether or not I was well suited to them. If that ever made me uncomfortable, the alcohol was there to smooth over the feelings.
In my world, horses were perhaps aesthetically pleasing and had a formidable presence and required some skill and courage to master, but they were not cool so I never had given them a second thought. In fact, I didn’t even know anyone who had taken up the pursuit seriously. But an interesting thing happened: In being around them over a period of time, I found a strong emotional attachment to horses, I loved being around them and I could not wait to learn how to ride. I brought my eight year old niece Sam with me and we set out to learn to ride as two green newbies at a barn full of mostly very experienced riders.
Very clumsily at first, I pursued my new riding career with a passion that quickly earned me some credibility in the ring, not due to accomplishments, aptitude or ability but by sheer dedication alone. In the process of learning the technical aspects of riding, I found myself the recipient of a totally unexpected gift: The physical manifestations of my drinking had not caused any permanent damage and were pretty much addressed by the act of stopping alone. The mental aspects required a little more work, which was addressed by learning as much as I could about alcoholism and allowing myself to be put into a position to be supported and to support others. It was the third component, the spiritual one, to which a solution seemed elusive. This was a soul sickness borne of the realization of the extent of the damage that had been done and the denial which had clouded my judgment for so long. It was toward that third, spiritual facet that horses began to fill the hole in my soul that alcohol never could. They held for me the keys to what I now think of as a new freedom and a new happiness.
So, stepping back once again from that fragmented mosaic, I could now see that an awesome plan had been laid out for me, and I had been in the right place at the right time with the willingness to follow it. Spiritual healing was important because as ex-problem drinkers, we find that people, especially those whose lives or the lives of those close to them have not been touched by alcoholism, can view us with suspicion, condescension, judgment and pity, none of which are how anyone wants to be treated. Horses, however, do not care about our past, nor do they care about our worries about the future. They live in the now, and we learn, if we are motivated enough, to live in their world and on their terms. It is from the “now” that we commence to heal, not from any point in the past or future, and a horse can be an ideal partner in the healing process. We learn to be honest because horses respond only to who we truly are and not to the person we pretend to be or think they need us to be. To be accepted simply for who we are creates a feeling of belonging and of having a place in the universe. It is an experience not to be missed.
That picture and the plan represented by it gained a more crystal clarity in the life events that followed in ensuing years. We became parents to our young niece Sam who I had brought to riding lessons with me, after her mother died at a young age. By that time our involvement with horses had increased to the point where we had our own small farm, and our horses were the catalyst which helped the relationship between middle-aged, first-time parents and a young girl who had her life turned upside down, to work. A regular program of lessons and training led to competitions with Sam enjoying many successes in the jumper ring with her Arabian mare, Bella. Sam and Bella attended a horsey college in the Midwest and returned home with both having grown in their knowledge and abilities. As an empty nester, I entered the show ring with my APHA gelding DannyBoy, having reasonably successful seasons in the eventing field and the jumper ring. Sam has now presented us with a beautiful grandson named Daniel who is a new source of joy and is being raised on our farm with dogs, horses and love.
It was, and is, a beautiful plan which was invisible until my eyes had become clear enough to see and follow it. And it’s not finished yet. The key to happiness, I’ve found, is not creating a constant flow of stimulation and excitement that I once thought it was. The key, for me, is having something to do, something to love, and something to hope for. Horses have provided, and led me to, all three.
Alcohol can surely be used by many as it was intended to be. When we find that we are having trouble with control, my experience has shown me that by the time that level of awareness is reached, a problem usually exists. If you find that you or someone close to you wants to put some controls on their drinking and can’t, I’m telling you that you are not alone. If help is sought and accepted, no one has to drink who doesn’t want to. The thing is, most of us play with the illusion of control far too long, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Good luck and God bless.