I met Crystal before I was of legal drinking age. I had just moved Elvis to my first hunter/jumper barn my freshman year of college, and around the same time Crystal started her first lease on a sensitive little Thoroughbred mare named Cookie. Even though she had almost ten years on me and I was just an ignorant college kid, we became fast friends. We had horses and humor in common, and dived into both subjects fully. If you told us then that we’d both end up being written about in Chronicle of the Horse, I would have laughed at your face. Partially because we were both chicken shit amateurs who probably didn’t have any business jumping outside of lessons, which is practically all we did at the barn. One day we were making up courses in the ring by ourselves and decided to tackle the evil coop.
This thing was hand made by our trainer’s boyfriend, and it was a beast. Probably only 2’3″ high, it was constructed of thick 2 x 4’s and never changed its spot in the ring because it was so damn heavy. When we looked at the coop, all we could picture were horse legs poking through it and battered helmets smashing into it… but we decided to jump it that day anyway. Elvis and I made it over first, probably chipping and leaning our way through per usual. When it came Crystal’s turn, Cookie dramatically balked. Another approach brought another stop. The coop was winning.
Back then, Crystal thought I was a better rider than her and she turned to me once she righted herself in saddle.
“If she stops again, can you hop on and school her for me?”
I tugged at the chin strap of my helmet, and muttered “Sure thing.” I was really thinking, oh dear god I really hope I don’t have to try and get that horse over this fucking death trap. Of course I was not a better rider than Crystal at all, and on the third time she sailed the mare over with her heels dug in and her hands buried in Cookie’s mane.
When it came right down to it, Crystal was brave. She was brave with her horses and brave with her long suffering battle with cancer. She was fearless, and now she is gone.
Back in my days of owning a horse trailer, we took our two little horses all over the place. Every time we went to the Moss Foundation in Southern Pines, we’d walk past a tiny training track and wonder if we could get away with racing our horses.
“I’d like to see how fast she could really go,” Crystal said as the bay mare jigged sideways down the trail. “Just once.”
Crystal had a rare gift of being able to seep humor into any situation. One time we took Elvis and Cookie to a local show series, and due to a series of unfortunate events I ended up in a pile of jump standards with a giant hole torn in the back of my breeches. Of course that day I had chosen to wear red underwear, and my backside quickly became quite the spectacle. I hobbled back to the trailer with a bare ass and bruised ego where Crystal was waiting for me… giggling and holding a single safety pin for me. That was also the day that she got her first blue ribbon with Cookie. I still have a permanent lump on my ass from my fall that morning, but I also still remember her skipping back to the trailer with a giant smile on her face and the tails of her shiny satin ribbon flapping in her hand.
Another time we trailered out to the undeveloped mass of land that is now Pepperwood Farm. Back then it was nothing but rolling hills and natural pasture. We trotted around the property line, let our horses dip their noses in the pond and eventually got brave. Starting from a slow canter, we gradually let the reins float and our horses opened up their stride in the knee length grass. Standing in the stirrups, we galloped on with just the sound of their hooves beating against the ground and their tails flagging behind them. When we ran out pasture and eventually slowed them back to a walk, Crystal turned over her shoulder and looked at me.
“This must be what heaven feels like.”
I owe a lot to Crystal from our twelve years of friendship. She was an early reader of my blogging days. I rambled incoherent posts trying to find my voice and path in life as an introspective college student. To me they were garbage, but if the blog fell silent she would IM me from her desk job.
Why haven’t you blogged anything new??? I’m on the worst conference call EVER… give me something to read!
Often we would go grab dinner together at On the Border in Cary. We split fajitas – no rice & beans but extra condiments, and drank sugary margaritas. Horses flowed through the conversation as they always do when you get two equestrians together, but we talked about life outside the barn just as much. I told her about my first date with Tim.
“I mean, it went really well. He’s super smart and fun to talk to, but I don’t know. He told me that he was married when he was younger and even went to prison for a year. I’m not sure what to do about that.”
“Was it a long time ago?” she asked in-between chips dripping with salsa.
“Yeah, 7-8 years ago he said.”
She shrugged. “I wouldn’t hold the divorce against him. I mean, I’m divorced… it’s not a character flaw. As for the prison thing, that was such a long time ago. People change.”
I nodded and took a sip of my margarita, relaxed. With her calming guidance, I pressed on in a relationship that would become the greatest treasure of my life.
We saw each other a lot in the years of Elvis and Cookie, but as I graduated from college my life started to change. I moved Elvis to a farm down the road, and began the pursuit for a nice horse more suited to rated hunter/jumpers. Crystal was due for a string of changes too, although she didn’t know it yet.
One early morning when I was out of town with family, I got a phone call from her.
“Cook got out. She was hit by a drunk driver, and she died instantly.” Her voice was careful, controlled and soft. We cried together on the phone for the loss of a horse and the loss of something bigger that hadn’t yet been defined. Later I would find out that while I was away and of absolutely no help, Crystal went to the scene of the accident and spent hours scrubbing her beloved horse’s blood and grey matter off of the road so she wouldn’t have to drive over it day after day. She was tough as nails.
In the years that followed, I moved several times and entered a time of my that I didn’t think possible – a time without riding. While horses took a backseat in my life, they became the forefront of Crystal’s. She started learning more about dressage.
“They give you ride times. RIDE TIMES! I’m never going back to hunters!”
And she never did. When Crystal found herself unemployed after her company did massive layoffs in the recession, she became a working student for an FEI rider. Just abandoned the corporate world and its securities to work her ass off for free. At this point in my life I had a 401k, mortgage and recurring Outlook meetings. These things seemed very important to me at the time. You’re damn right I thought she was crazy.
On my visits back to North Carolina, I’d go visit Crystal and her projects. She’d walk me down the barn aisles and point out the stallions (Staccato was my favorite) and spout off all their fanciful titles. The highlight though was always her horse, Ami. I never thought I’d see Crystal love a horse more than Cookie, but she adored that difficult Warmblood more than I’ve ever seen any person love an animal. As she officially solidified her livelihood in horses, becoming the barn manager and moving into the property, she seemed to take all the creatures there under her wing. Oftentimes horses in training don’t know the experience of having “a person” until they’re bought by an amateur or kid who would then dote on them but when I visited Crystal at the farm it seemed like she was a special person to every horse there.
She lived a magical equestrian life that I dreamed of as a kid. Most of us get bogged down in the mortgages and the 401ks and don’t have the courage to go after our passions, but she had no regrets. Maybe we could all use a little bit more of that kind of crazy.
When Tim died last summer, Crystal and I chatted a lot about life and death. She knew her diagnosis by then, and resonated with the words I write here about grief. I felt the juxtaposition of suddenly losing someone you love, and knowing that someone you love will be gone soon. They both hurt. I promised to never tell her I was sorry (even though I was), and to never ask her to console me (even though I was heartbroken that she was going to die).
We talked about what’s next. I told her that I still felt Tim with me at times, and I thought he was wrong about it all being over the moment we die. She thought he was wrong too. She told me she thought a lot about that day years ago when we galloped our horses in the field.
Now they’re both gone, and I wonder where. I hope somewhere there’s a little bay Thoroughbred, and Crystal is cantering circles around my jaded husband yelling, “Ha! I told you so!” with her black hair blowing back in the wind. I hope there are ride times for every class at every horse show, margaritas pour from fountains and concession stands are stocked with chicken fajitas (no beans & rice). I hope there’s a window to watch Ami grow peacefully old, and her foal to grow stunningly strong. I hope, but I don’t know.
What I know is that a person lives on in the people who loved them. Their stories flow out and take shape in a room . You can hear their laugh mixed with the laughter of friends. If you try, you can see their shadow out of the corner of your eye. I know a horse tells the story of someone who rides them long after that person is gone.
In these ways and more, I know that Crystal Lee remains very much alive.