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June 27, 2018

Getting Back on the Horse --- Guest Post by Kristen Chandler, Author of THIEF OF HAPPY ENDINGS


What could be more romantic than stories set in the Wild West? Horses, check. Wranglers, check. Falling in love despite the risks, BIG check. In Kristen Chandler's THIEF OF HAPPY ENDINGS, we get all of this and more when teenage Cassidy is shipped off to a Wyoming ranch, where she meets a broken cowboy and confronts her fears about getting back in the saddle. This book is deeply personal for Chandler, who works with at-risk youth as an equine instructor. In this post, Chandler explains how horses can heal and inspire us, and why she chose to write this story now.

A reporter recently asked me why it took me so long to write a book about horses, since I was raised around them. The short answer is, riding horses doesn’t mean you have a good story to tell about them. The longer answer is that I didn’t discover the story I wanted to tell until I started helping at-risk teens learn to ride. Seeing kids that have been injured by life find themselves on the back of horse, is what ultimately inspired THIEF OF HAPPY ENDINGS. 

The first time I remember getting bucked off I was five. I was on a runty Shelton pony visiting our barn. Out of nowhere, this little guy decided to jump over our arena’s five-foot fence. Miraculously I stayed on, but once we got on the other side the fence he bucked again and threw me off me like a sack of bad potatoes. The pony was sent home, but I was back on another horse the next day. My parents felt that if I could quickly face the fear of getting back on, it would be easier than if I let the fear grow with time to think about everything that might go wrong.

Getting thrown from a horse can be serious, but it usually just results in a few bruises and a good story. On the other hand, I have worked with kids that have been seriously wounded by life’s challenges. Teens have to navigate pressure at school, relationship issues, family problems, health and financial concerns, and this can result in feeling powerless or overwhelmed. One in six children in the United States have anxiety or depression. That’s a conservative estimate. Having anxiety or depression can rob young adults of their innate confidence and joy for life at a critical time. Fearless, life-loving kids become paralyzed teens.

So how does a teen who is already anxious get help from climbing on top of a 1,200 pound animal? The crazy thing is, part of the reason being with horses helps kids feel more confident is because it is a risk. But it’s a good one. The potential for a positive outcome is high. Horses give us a way to do something hard and while we’re figuring that out, we naturally learn things that helps us figure out other hard stuff in our lives. Plus, it’s just kind of awesome to bond with a big beautiful animal.

Let me give you an example, one that I have permission to share. I worked with a student who was so anxious she made me anxious. She would come into the barn and instantly start worrying about things like which horse she was going to ride, whether the other girls in the barn were being nice enough to her and what if the wind was blowing in the arena. She wasn’t being deliberately difficult, she was genuinely anxious. Then one night she didn’t get to ride the horse she felt most comfortable with, and her anxiety sky rocketed.

The horse I asked her to work with instead had a slightly arthritic back leg. He needed to be ridden by someone light to stretch out his sore muscles. I asked her if she would help the horse by doing this, and she reluctantly agreed, but got more and more upset as we walked toward the paddock. As we stood at horse’s gate this frightened young woman told me that horses never liked her. Not ever. So I asked her for one night to make everything about this hurting horse, from the way she walked up to him, to the way she brushed him. She agreed. Things started a little rough, but as she brushed him, she got quieter and the horse stopped fidgeting. By the time she walked him into to the arena he was nuzzling her and following her every step. And she was practically swooning with the attentiveness of her new friend. Not everything went perfectly after that, but she smiled through the lesson, and left the barn that night as happy as I had ever seen her.
Seeing young people give unconditional care to a horse and having it reciprocated with a transformative effect is what made me want to tell this story. Horses aren’t all that different from us. We all want to be connected, but sometimes we don’t know how. And I wanted to tell that story as a love story, not just between two people, but also between a horse and her rider, and between a rider and her life.