Christy Cashman’s debut novel, The Truth About Horses, is due out on shelves later this month. Here’s her personal essay about her childhood horses and how they helped to inspire her novel. As equestrians, this is something to which many of us can relate.
By Christy Cashman
When the idea for my debut novel, The Truth About Horses, first popped into my head, I was sitting in the audience at Cavalia. Cavalia is a fabricated word, inspired by the Italian, Spanish and French words for horse (cavallo, caballo and cheval), and the French and English word cavalier. Cirque du Soleil founder, Normand Latourelle, created a show that is a celebration of the bond between man and horse. The way the horses moved and responded to the person with them reminded me of my childhood experience with horses and the magic I felt being near them.
I was the ninth of 10 kids growing up in rural Ohio. We had four backyard ponies and not a piece of tack other than the ill-fitting bridles my dad probably picked up at the feed store. The horses had about a five-acre paddock and a run-in, and they were not easy to catch. My sister, Martha, was the one who walked out into the field holding the halter and lead rope behind her back. No matter how well-hidden the halter was, as soon as one of the horses raised his head from grazing and saw her coming, he’d take off, and the rest would follow like they thought it was a game.
Standing on the middle rail of the fence, I’d lean into the top rail and watch. Just thinking of gripping the mane of the pony and heading down a trail made the butterflies in my stomach feel like they could burst through my skin.
Eventually, my sister would catch one of them and the rest would give in; one by one, they let her slip their halters over their ears. Four or five of my brothers and sisters would wait while Martha put the bridles on and hoisted us onto the ponies. I was only five or six at the time, so I rode with my sister, Sue, on the little paint named Shirley. Shirley’s back was always warm from the sun. My favorite thing about her was her smell. A close second was the sound her hooves made when she walked on a hard surface. I can feel it now—how Shirley’s walk felt as I sat across her back, her horse smell mixed with the sweet smell of grass. I regularly checked behind me to see how her black and white markings joined across her haunches, creating a silver outline.
The horses would fall in line, and we’d ride through a small stand of pine trees, the needles on the ground muffling the horses’ hoofbeats. We’d wind through the trees out to a meadow that rolled down to a river where we’d ease the horses down a muddy bank to cross. Inevitably, one or two of the ponies would stomp and splash and attempt to go down.
I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that a book with horses was forming in my system. It’s possible that I have never experienced anything that captured my feelings in quite the same way. I was the age when my mind didn’t get in the way yet. I was governed by feelings. And sitting on a horse as it ambled through a field or splashed through a river felt like the best thing I could ever dream of feeling. What could be better? It felt magical. The horses in Cavalia stirred something in me that brought that magic back.
Ever since those days of riding with my brothers and sisters, I’ve continued riding. But, after five years-old, I think that must be when our brains kick in and start to explain things and think they must be kill-joys or something. Because that feeling is fleeting. And even though I’ve had some of the best days of my life riding through the countryside, I’m always searching for that feeling when I was five years old, riding Shirley.
The truth about horses is that they opened the door to a world of magic for me. I believe that feeling is out there. There were some days while I was writing my novel, The Truth About Horses, that I felt the butterflies in my stomach. That feeling of all my senses bursting with the simple joy and excitement of the miracle of life. I just have to stop letting my mind get in my way. I have to trust myself and feel my way there.