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If Heartaches Were Horses

The Relationship Between Animal and Human Takes on a New Dimension When a Lifelong Equestrian Dons a Different Pair of Boots.

Leighona Bernstein

I WAS FOUR YEARS old the first time. I don’t remember it exactly, but my mom kept a photo—the first of hundreds taken through-out the years. I was always in the same outfit: black boots, tan pants, dark jacket, helmet, gloves, and a three-digit number tied around my waist. That first time, I wore a red T-shirt, and my helmet was too big, but sitting up on that dusky lesson horse, I smiled. His name was Rolex.

As the years wore on, the photos showed a chubby little girl with braids on a white pony. Then, a ten-year-old with too-long legs standing next to a chocolate-colored horse with a perfect marking down his face. The pictures shifted again to show a teenager flying over flower-decked jumps on a handsome gelding whose coat felt like velvet and whose ears were always perked forward.

For me, it was always the jumps—the higher, the better—and the competition that made life worth living. Few things beat hearing my name called first over the loudspeaker and collecting the blue ribbon. I chased that high to competitions in California, finals in Maryland, and nationals in Pennsylvania. Finally, I chased it to Stillwater, where I rode for Oklahoma State University’s women’s equestrian team. Here, it was no longer about the blue ribbon or how high the jumps were. My concentration shifted to my team and my schoolwork. But I also learned more about reining horses.

The reining discipline got its start in the days of the early working cowboy, when expansive cattle operations needed their horses to be athletic, responsive, and eager to please. Eventually, ranchers began to pit their horses against each other in informal competitions, and the sport was born.

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