From Oprah Magazine
Horses were born to social distance.
For a start, they’re simply built for it. The average equine, from fluted muzzle to fly-whisking tail is longer than six feet, that margin of social safety that is repeated like an incantation to ward of evil, especially where I’m from: New York City, the nation’s first epicenter of coronavirus, a disease that stole 22,859 of my neighbors—and counting.
And they carry heavy artillery to ensure their personal bubble: their hooves. They kick.
Of course, a good horse won’t kick you anymore than it would its mother. Nevertheless, the adage to give their rear end a wide berth is gospel to riders, and even when a pandemic is not trouncing the human world outside their pastures, horses give one another space.
But humans? We touch, we hold, we interlace our fingers into one another’s (hooves aren’t great for that), and we melt into each other with a kiss. Out in the herd, though they sometimes groom each other, horses are mostly together apart, wheeling across pastures like flocks of starlings, guiding one another with silent commands of ear and eye and flank that ensure gallops never collide. Yet the human species knows no other way of togetherness than what is now, in the era of Covid-19, unacceptable social nearness. It is a habit that now puts us in range of something far more brutal than a hoof to the chest—infection.
When I found out I was infected with the coronavirus, I couldn’t stop thinking about horses.
I contracted it in March, after dashing headlong into the heart of New York State’s viral outbreak, the city of New Rochelle, where one of the first cases was diagnosed, notebook in hand on assignment for the New York Times, where I am a reporter. The disease had not yet seared through Georgia, burned across Texas or scorched Florida, and we all knew so little then that I hustled through the small city, interviewing those who were unknowingly ill, unmasked, ungloved, undistant.
As soon as I filed my story, I lost my sense of taste and smell, then my ability to do much more than shuffle to the bathroom. For 24 days I did not leave my home so as not to infect others, and I couldn’t if I wanted to: the disease induced a torpor where even lying down felt like exhausting over-exertion.
I wanted to be carried, spooned, stroked, to be told through touch that it was okay that “a petrifyingly unknown virus was manifesting science fiction-like symptoms within me.” For weeks I lost my ability to tell the difference between hot and cold temperatures, and the taste of lasagna became warm, wet paper.
I wanted my mother, but at 72 years old, the virus that undid me could have ended her. My boyfriend of over two years and I had just split, and my vibrant city went as dark as the grave it would soon become for so many. I wanted to see my friends, to cry over my ex on their shoulders and into a beer at a pub. But bars were shut down and my friends were holed up in the bunkers of their homes, in the battle for their lives.
Alone, I thought about horses. They stampeded through my fever dreams, those creatures that had always sustained and inspired me, ever since I began riding at age 2 years old and remained a hidden, unusual passion for a city dweller. I thought of the animals I patrolled through Central Park as a teenaged mounted auxiliary ranger, and the inner-city children I taught to ride at an urban stable in the middle of the Harlem River.
I emerged from my near-month of solitude in my 1-bedroom apartment in the West Village, blinking into a city still locked-down. It was springtime then, and I needed horses more than the sun.
The closest equines were actually in my own city; in Queens, there’s an urban farm run by GallopNYC, a therapeutic riding organization of which I am an advisory board member. There, a herd of 35 humble, gentle horses teach disabled New Yorkers and those with autism or post traumatic stress disorder what it is to feel powerful and belong to the herd.
I was too weak to do more than collapse on the grass beside their pasture in Howard Beach as the city’s freeways grumbled nearby. I stared at them like a shipwrecked woman who touches dry land at last. The five shaggy horses nudged towards the gate to inspect me.
Then one frisky little pony aimed a kick at the horse beside it.
It missed the haunch of the black mare she launched at, but the horse edged away to avoid it, towards a shaggy gelding with a sandy blond mane. The black mare then pointed her hind end at him, and he sidled away from her, towards another pony in the field. That pony was too clever to need the point made with a hoof aimed at his head; he got the message and trotted a few feet away. Everyone went back to cropping grass
Five horses stood before me, happy, together. Each six feet apart.
Then, they bolted. It was dinner time soon, and they frolicked with joy at the sudden sound of sweetfeed pouring into their pails echoing down the hill from the barn. As I sat on the ground they schooled across the field like minnows, turning as one at the command— invisible to me—of a ripple of muscle or stomp of a hoof. All were participants in an inaudible dialogue that nonetheless instructed them just as surely as troops would obey a spoken command.
The horses were connected, in distance, interlinked even without touching; together, apart.
I had thought that togetherness was over, that the coronavirus had robbed me not just of so many of my fellow New Yorkers, and now, months on, 142,000 Americans, but also of our ability to connect with one another. I feared that masked and distant, we would be starved of that intrinsic need: connection.
But as I watched the herd of horses in their graceful dance, there was incredible oneness, even as they skirted one another. I saw that the distance between them impinged not at all on the closeness of their souls.
In our new reality of waving at grandparents through glass porch doors, of masked drinks with friends on separate picnic blankets, I look to horses to remind me that connection is still possible. Even if hooves—or the specter of a cruel virus—means we cannot hold hands.
Sarah Maslin Nir is a staff reporter for the New York Times. She is a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her 2016 investigation into the working conditions and health effects endured by manicurists in New York City’s nail salons. Her debut book, Horse Crazy: The Story of a Woman and a World in Love with an Animal will be published on August 4 by Simon and Schuster.
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