Spending a life with horses means that I also spend a lifetime meeting interesting people who leave indelible impressions on me. They are, in a word, unforgettable. Such a person was Varley.
It's an intriguing name for a woman, I'll grant you. But then, Varley was an intriguing person.
I crossed paths with her about 8 years ago, the first time I judged a hunter show at what was then called Galway Downs, an equestrian center trying to survive in the wine-growing region of Temecula, California, just north of San Diego. Though houses were springing up like sunflowers all around the cross-country course and oval training track, Galway Downs resisted the urbanization and defiantly held its slate of horse shows. It seems fitting that a spitfire like Varley was the leader of the show management group. She also commandeered her state-of-the-art, stainless steel catering truck, a sort of mobile gourmet kitchen that was the size of a small battleship. Varley didn't cook up just any old burrito or chili dog. She offered pita sandwiches, chicken salads and BBQ'd tri-tip.
Over several stints as horse show judge I began to appreciate her free-spirited involvement in the horse world. She wasn't much of a competitor herself, but she loved horses. Her dream was to raise a small herd of pinto sport horses that would be successful in her favorite discipline: three-day eventing. She had a band of nice Thoroughbred broodmares and bred them to a couple of colored Dutch warmbloods. The result? In a few years Varley had a field full of wildly spotted, leggy young athletes.
I think I judged maybe a half dozen shows for Varley and her gang. But it was Varley who always had more nervous, busy-body energy than a ground squirrel. She was always laughing, sometimes raucously, and each show day, when she handed me my clipboard and walkie-talkie, she'd have some silly remark or quirky observation that would crack me up. Such commentary seemed appropriate, given her physical appearance. She was short but strong and cheery, with strawberry-blond hair, light eyes the color of an early morning, and a faint splash of freckles across her cheekbones. She looked much like a "mature" California cowgirl who just could not bring herself to admit that she had grown up. Good for her.
And then, one day when the horse shows at Galway Downs had ceased their run, I got some bad news. Varley had climbed atop her stack of hay-- a task she did many times on her small horse ranch-- and slipped and fallen to the ground. She suffered several fractures of her spinal vertebrae and was paralyzed from the neck down. Permanently.
Over the ensuing months, I heard reports on Varley's condition, and none of them seemed encouraging. She was rebellious, cantankerous, and downright uncooperative. Her closest friends struggled not only with what to do with Varley, but also what to do with her herd of splashy sport horses.
Because I wasn't part of her inner circle of friends, I felt cast in the role of outsider. Who had I been but someone she'd interacted with, and then, only briefly? So I stayed away. And now, I feel guilty about that. Or at least conflicted. On the one hand, I could've offered her nothing but sympathy. I have no magic words, no special Supreme Powers to fix things forever broken. And yet, on the other hand, I admit that facing Varley would also mean facing the fear so many of us have: losing the ability to move amongst our beloved horses. Perhaps that's the main reason I never visited her.
Despite access to the best rehabilitative treatments, Varley did not regain much, if any, use of her body. And all of her pretty horses were sold off, one by one. I'm not sure if any of them made it to the three-day event courses she'd dreamed of.
A couple of weeks ago I was judging another horse show at another venue, and ended up chatting during the lunch break with someone who'd been a close friend of Varley's. She informed me that Varley had died the day after Christmas.
I felt a sense of sadness for the rest of that day. Kids came and went through the gate and into the arena, posting the trot to their ponies and collecting satin ribbons from the ring steward. Adult amateurs, poised upon their trusty steeds, cruised around courses of jumps and then moseyed on out to their cheering coaches. I jotted down scores and relayed them to the announcer. But all that day I couldn't help but think of Varley.
Defiant to the end, she fought against what Fate had dealt her. I guess she was much like one of those thick-skinned mares we've all known, whose heart and spirit just will not allow them to ever fully accept the saddles we cinch upon their backs. They will not, in their minds, ever be broken.
I have such hope that somewhere, Varley is laughing again, perhaps galloping one of those bay and white warmbloods across an open field, down to a cross-country jump so that she feels the wind zing through that blond mane of hers. Perhaps, someday, I'll join her.
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