Melissa Iozzo shares the story of Salt, “the filly that made it OK to be me,” and a summer spent on a Montana ranch that would change the course of her life.
I still think of her all the time — all the time. I still think of the flight home from Montana to Boston, when I pretended to be asleep, even when my neighbor nudged me for meal time, because I knew if I opened my eyes I’d start crying again. I still think about the morning I had to leave her, how her and her sister escaped at 4 a.m. causing complete havoc throughout the ranch, which was a welcome distraction having a job to do (coral the young fillies and colts), before I had to leave for the airport at 4:30. Did she know? Was it on purpose?
I met Salt my junior year of college. I somehow convinced my professor to allow me to do an internship on a ranch learning how to gentle colts with John Ensign for college credits. Mind you, even though I was in college, liking horses was still far from “cool.” I was tortured and made fun of, nickered at in the hallways, and bullied up and down my entire high school career for being that horse crazy girl. I cared, of course; in high school being popular is pretty much number one priority no matter what anyone says — but my love for the sport couldn’t keep me away. It was better in college for sure, but I was still different.
Salt was a barely touched 4 year old Percheron/paint filly. It was ironic, I thought, that I had picked this mare to work with. I was on this ranch with about eight other girls from overseas. They were all really nice, and really beautiful, and tanned, and fit. I was not tanned, and not beautiful, and quite husky. They chose from assorted sleek and slender quarter horses and walking horses. One of the girls even made a comment how we all “looked like” our chosen mounts. Basically, she’s exactly right, I thought.
My first real “session” with Salt I remember spending four hours after our day of groundwork in her pen determined to get the burrs out of her tail with a can of WD-40 (this is a feat, a FEAT for a halter broke filly… just saying), and even more determined to convince her to let me put sunblock on her nose, which was raw and blistered from the Montana sun. I stayed out there with her while everyone else went inside and socialized.
I remember thinking, this is it. This is where I need to decide — do I keep hating myself for what I am, “be cool” and go inside to watch MTV and drink diet soda with the other girls, or do I stay out here, in my ill-fitting, sweat-soaked clothes with this animal and actually DO something. After about an hour I could see everyone on the porch in their bikinis getting some rays. I could really use a tan — my flabby stomach and legs hadn’t seen the light of day in well, years. But I chose to stay — and no one bothered me. It’s a decision that I am so thankful I made still to this day, because really, those initial four hours with that mare changed my life forever.
It’s a bit too poetic and cliché for me to say that Salt “understood me,” but I’m not sure what else to call it. The other girls on the ranch were great — we still talk to this day — but none of them helped me like Salt did. She made me realize it was OK to be me, to be comfortable in my skin, to not always choose the “cool” option — to go with your heart. She taught me what love was, and she taught me how hard it can be to have to let go. Looking back I’m amazed at how much I thought I knew going out there, and how wrong I was about so many of life’s lessons.
The journeys Salt and I shared together through that month are too many too mention, and quite honestly a lot of them I’d like to just keep for myself — long, hot, dusty days in the Montana heat learning how to trust each other, learning what it meant to have a partner. At the end of it all I came away stronger, physically and mentally – and I like to think I did the same for Salt, from that first day where she was nervous and so was I, to my last trail ride on her, loping on the buckle through some of the most beautiful country I have ever dreamt of. I see her even in my mare Shy today, and I have her to thanks for every relationship between then and now that I have been able to build with confidence and love for myself.
And yeah, by the time I left her nose was healed, soft, and slathered in SPF 50 each morning 😉
Go Back on Track, and Go Riding!