The great adventure began long before I ever hit the trail.  For our eighth wedding anniversary, my husband surprised me with a two-hour trail ride at a little horse farm about an hour north of our home.  By this time, I was well into my thirties with all the usual mounting anxieties of middle age.  I have no idea why he thought this was a good idea, considering I am generally risk averse and afraid of almost every living creature, but I agreed to go mainly because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

We went to the barn on a sunny Sunday afternoon and just being near an animal of that size put me into a mild panic.  Getting on the horse proved to be another challenge to my wilting nerves. I stood on a stool and hyperventilated for a quarter of an hour while the trail guide patiently stood holding the horse’s halter and reminding me to breathe.  She assured me that Cloud was the oldest, most mild-mannered horse on the property.  I really wanted to believe her but was finding it impossible.  Finally, with the encouragement of three workers and the assistance of two more, I got onto the horse and clung to the saddle horn for dear life before the poor thing ever even took a step.  Once he did start moving, about three steps forward to nibble on a patch of grass, I completely panicked, screeching “help!” to anyone around who could hear me.  A worker, I’m sure stifling a laugh, sauntered over and told me that Cloud wouldn’t run or buck and that there was nothing to worry about.  While that assurance may have abated the fears of a normal person, I remained frozen and white-knuckled on the saddle horn.

Finally, an old man in Dickie overalls with a cigarette hanging from his lips walked over and without a word, began to lead the horse around the barnyard – I was a child on a pony ride.  Eventually, I unclenched enough to go on the two-hour ride, still clinging to the saddle horn and terrified of falling, but I realized then, even through my terror, that something deep inside me was unraveling.  We went through patches of wild blackberry bushes, deer darting out ahead of us and bees swarming.

Fast forward two years later, and that experience was still speaking to me.  Unable to shake the calling, I got in touch with a horse farm I happened to drive past one afternoon about thirty minutes from our home.  Before I knew it, I was enrolled in riding lessons and learning some basics about riding and horse care.  Another year and I’d talked myself into buying a horse.  I looked at a few but ended up with a little white spotted horse from a rescue.  He had an unusually long mane and tail, white but stained orange from the Georgia clay, and black spots and speckling around his eyes and nose.  His name was Don Julio, after the tequila, and he wasn’t much to look at – underweight, filthy, and standing in a small fenced-in mud patch.  The first time I got on him for a test-drive he refused to move out of the corner and I was too afraid to make him.  So we stood there at an impasse, with him reaching his head back to bite the end of my boot in the stirrup at his side, and I told the owner I’d take him.  I’m not sure what possessed me to buy him other than how pitiful both he and the mud patch looked.  The owner took the cash and then promptly told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to continue supervised lessons.

A week later, I arranged a transport and Don Julio came to live at the barn where I was taking lessons and our journey began.  I renamed him Atticus – a new name seemed fitting for a fresh start.  We spent that first year getting to know each other, and the learning curve was steep.  Atticus worked on gaining weight and getting healthy, and I worked on staying in the saddle and learning his quirks.  I found out very quickly that Atti has strong opinions – and he’s quick to let you know about them.  When feeling generous, I referred to him as “spirited.”  One of the things he was particularly opinionated about initially was being brought inside a barn.  He’d been left to fend for himself in the mud patch at his former home and was unaccustomed to the confines of a stall.

For months, when I would arrive at the barn and head out into the pasture to find Atticus, quickly nicknamed Atti, he would see me coming and run the other way.  I would tromp through the mud and spend long intervals trying to corral him into a halter.  We eventually progressed to the point where he stopped running away.  Instead, he would just stand and stare as I approached.

One Wednesday afternoon, almost a year in, I arrived at the barn and everything changed.  I started my usual routine of putting on muddy boots, gathering a halter and lead rope, and stuffing some treats in my pockets in case Atticus was in the mood to negotiate.  I headed out into the pasture and started calling “Atti!”  Up over the green hill in the back corner, Atti appeared.  He looked so majestic standing on the top of that hill, long white main blowing in the breeze and the yellow buttercups all in bloom at his feet.  I called his name again, knowing my attempts were futile and preparing to be, at best, ignored.  But Atticus looked down to me, ears forward.  He broke into a trot and jogged all the way up to me while I stood there, halter in hand and mouth hanging open.  He arched his thick neck down and offered me his speckled nose.  That was the turning point for us, for me.  I finally understood why horse people willingly fork over obscene amounts of money for their animals and why it’s worth all the time, work and even physical risk.  Each successful lesson, ride, and even our walks together taught me that Atticus was trustworthy.

Our trail riding adventures began the first autumn that I had Atti.  Just a few months into our relationship and new to horse ownership, I was still working on the basics of riding.  All of our riding up to that point was inside a fenced sand arena, where I felt at least semi-secure because after all, if The Great Negotiator decided to bolt or buck, he couldn’t go further than the sixty meters of the arena and surely I could hold on at least that long, right?

One sunny afternoon, an older woman at the barn who had befriended both me and Atti invited me to go trail riding with her and her horse, an older palomino named Nemo.  She assured me that Atticus was fit enough to do the miles she’d planned and promised to keep the pace at a walk for my benefit.  I’d never taken Atti off the barn property and didn’t know enough to be scared of everything that could go wrong when you take a giant and, in this case, “spirited” animal up into the mountains where wildlife and steep drop-offs are abundant.  But once again, Atti showed me he was trustworthy.

My new friend broke me in easy, taking me first to Pine Log Mountain and Garland Mountain, local places that have some challenging hills but nothing too steep or scary.  I learned to lean back going downhill and forward on the uphill.  I also learned that my obstinate horse wasn’t so defiant when he was out of the arena.  When Atti was beyond the fences and rules of a dressage arena, he lit up.  His ears were perpetually forward, curious.  He charged ahead, on a mission.  He is little, but he was brave.  Nothing spooked him – mountain bikers, a stray dog, deer darting across the path – he took it all in stride.