from Malva: In our post, “Talks and Tears,” Benjamin shared his reactions to the death of my closest friend, Gretchen; his thoughts on how autism colors emotions are poignant indeed. Here is my own perspective on the past decade of knowing Gretchen:
We were the closest of friends; indeed, I often thought that we might as well have been sisters. We had a mutual passion for horses and dressage riding, and my big bay gelding lived at Gretchen’s place for 11 years. Throughout all this time, I spent hours each day at the barn, learning from Gretchen, training, riding, chatting. Only when the weather was really foul did I stay home, but even then, we’d be on the phone, talking about dressage, or sharing the latest happening of the day. Gretchen often made me laugh with the colorful phrases, analogies, or invented words she’d come up with—her so-called “Gretchenisms.”
Sometimes, when I’d show up to train, Gretchen would send me home with a generous helping of a hearty soup she’d cooked or with slices of freshly baked bread. We both loved gardening and harvesting, and we’d often exchange fresh crops. She’d give me okras, eggplants, and dill weed—which didn’t flourish in my garden—while I’d bring her bouquets of Swiss Chard, sprigs of tarragon, and various flowers to plant around the barn. We’d give each other canning tips and baking ideas. We’d talk about our sons—both of us being proud mamas—and we’d blow off steam to each other when something in life was going cross-ways. Particularly during the past few years, Gretchen got many an ear-full as I vented about the challenges of writing and publishing a book, and Gretchen was my biggest cheerleader when I struggled with marketing, even after the book won an international award. For both of us, the answer to regaining inner balance during times of turmoil was to get on a horse and to ride.
Dressage, in my mind, is probably the most elegant and beautiful of horse disciplines. Through gymnastic exercises and dance-like figures, the horse and rider develop a harmonious relationship that can feel akin to being a centaur. On the best days, there’s an almost magical melding of horse and rider—the slightest nuance of communication is felt by both, and the riding becomes a beautiful dance. In fact, over the years, Gretchen and I created numerous musical freestyles that I rode in competition, and Orion became an equine ballet star, his trot and canter figures lining up perfectly with the musical beat.
But things weren’t always so harmonious. Indeed, when I first started training with Gretchen, my horse was not safe for me to ride, and Gretchen spent the first year rehabilitating him from the traumas he’d clearly experienced with previous owners. Then she focused on making Orion and me into a unit, and she taught me how to train him, never holding back on advice and guidance. In this way, over the years, Orion and I moved steadily through the levels of dressage, winning countless blue ribbons and trophies, achieving the United States Dressage Federations silver medal and silver freestyle bar, and garnering Horse of the Year awards as the region’s musical freestyle champions for two years running. Thanks to Gretchen, I’ve enjoyed over a decade of pleasurable rides with Orion, not only in the dressage arena, but also on trails and paths throughout the neighborhood and elsewhere. And because of Gretchen’s excellent teaching, I now have the necessary skills to keep training Orion on my own, working at the highest levels of dressage, carrying out the challenging Grand Prix movements.
But now, Gretchen is gone, and although I hear her voice in my head as I school Orion, I acutely feel the loss of this strong woman, this most generous of persons. That’s one of the things that has struck me repeatedly over the years: the big-hearted, warm generosity that was at the core of Gretchen’s nature. She was always ready and willing to help, no matter how big or small a need might be. She was definitely a team player, and the three of us—Gretchen, Orion, and I—formed a remarkably cohesive unit. I especially enjoyed the teamwork that came into play at shows, where we had an easy rhythm that required very little verbal communication as we went about creating a successful competition day.
While it is stunning and hard to accept that Gretchen is no longer here in person, she lives on in spirit, and she remains with me in many cherished memories…
Gretchen coaching me at my first horse show
1st and 2nd place ribbons at that first show
Gretchen and Benjamin with baby chicks
Gretchen, getting ready for a trail-ride on Boulder County Open Space
Orion and I, trail-riding with Gretchen
Gretchen helping me with my too-tight show boots!
Orion and me, at our last show with Gretchen
Thank you, Gretchen – I owe you everything I know about horses…