The author of She Who Rides Horses offers a rare insight into the moment the story of Naya, the first person to ride a horse, emerged as well as an excerpt from her gorgeously written epic novel.
How the Story Began
I did not intend to start writing a novel. Maybe work on a blog. Maybe just enjoy the excuse to attend another magical retreat at Linda Kohanov’s Eponaquest Ranch, located at the base of the Santa Rita mountains, just south of Tucson, AZ. The setting alone is inspiring, especially if you love the desert southwest as I do. Something about the clarity of the blue sky, the dry air, and the combination of rock, sand, sage brush and mesquite.
“I’ve been waiting for someone to tell this story. It needs to be told.”
I’ve attended several workshops at Linda’s ranch, all featuring the equine-facilitated personal growth experiences she pioneered in the wake of publishing her international best-selling memoir, The Tao of Equus. Although each workshop has a different theme, all of them incorporate activities designed to expand self-knowledge, develop social and emotional intelligence, and hone leadership skills. Linda is a gifted facilitator, but the real teachers are the horses.
This workshop focused on writing. Like myself, all of the participants had been to Linda’s at least once before. As a result, none of us arrived expecting to receive nuts-and-bolts advice about crafting the perfect essay, constructing character arcs or getting published. We knew better. What Linda and her equine partners offered was something much more elusive – access to another realm, a passageway leading to a mythic landscape between the worlds. Guided by the wisdom of the herd, we would be invited to discover the place where stories dwell, awaiting the power of a storyteller to summon them to life.
“Just write whatever comes to you,” Linda instructed.
The third day of the four-day workshop had been spent in various activities designed to help us tap into our intuition and creativity. In the round pen with the horses, we awakened our body’s wisdom and our heart’s desire. Stretched out on Linda’s living room floor, eyes closed, we listened as Linda’s mellifluous voice guided us on an imagined journey, accompanied by ethereal music composed by Linda’s Grammy-nominated husband, Steve Roach. Now, with November’s afternoon shadows beginning to lengthen and the desert air starting to cool, we had an hour or so left before disbanding for the day.
“Find a place outside,” Linda told us. “Make yourself comfortable, stay as long as the light lasts. No need to check in before you leave. We’ll reconvene in the morning and share whatever you come up with.”
Pulling up a chair at one of the tables where we’d eaten lunch earlier in the day, I open my laptop, clicked on a new Word document, poised my fingers over the keyboard, and with no idea of what was going to come out, started to write.
The words flowed. A girl, dressed in animal hides, uncommon blue eyes scanning a distant horizon. A filly, her unusual chestnut coat as red as the girl’s own hair, lit like a flame by the rays of the setting sun. The boundless grasslands of ancient Eurasia. The first person ever to ride a horse.
The temperature dropped, darkness fell, a huge orange moon rose behind the mountains east of the ranch. Eventually, I forced myself to stop writing long enough to drive my rental car back to the bed and breakfast where I was staying. Ensconced in my room, sitting up in bed absent-mindedly eating a power bar, I reviewed what had appeared on the page so far – and then I kept writing, long past my usual bedtime.
By morning, I had the first chapter of She Who Rides Horses: A Tale of the Ancient Steppe. As I read it aloud to Linda and my fellow workshop participants, Linda shed tears – always a good sign. “You have to keep writing,” she urged, emphatic. “I’ve been waiting for someone to tell this story. It needs to be told.”
And that is how the story began…
Excerpt from Chapter One of She Who Rides Horses: A Tale of the Ancient Steppe
It was long after noon the next day before Naya was at last able to slip away. This time she was better prepared. In a deer skin bag slung over one shoulder she carried flint tools and kindling for making fire, a flint knife and enough food to last a day, as well as a full water skin. Over the other shoulder was coiled a long length of braided rawhide, strong enough, she hoped, to restrain the filly…
She found the little band at dusk, when the sun’s afterglow cast blackening shadows across the landscape. She had just gained the top of a small rise and could see for some distance, despite the gathering darkness. There they were – blurred shapes silhouetted against the next range of hills. Succeeding ridges gained in height, verdant meadows giving way to forested slopes, behind which the sun had disappeared. The horses had led her to the edge of the grasslands…
Naya shivered in the rapidly cooling air. The horses appeared to have stopped for the evening. The mares’ heads hung low, muzzles almost touching the ground in deep relaxation and she could make out several darker shapes that must be the foals, lying in the grass at their feet. Only the stallion stood alert, scenting the air for danger before dropping his head to grab a few mouthfuls of grass. Moments later, his head lifted again, keen eyes scanning the landscape.
Naya settled herself in the deep grass and rested her folded arms atop her knees. From her vantage on the rise downwind from the small band, she could sit and keep watch without arousing suspicion… Eventually, cheek resting on her forearms, she closed her eyes, and slept…
At some point later in the night, she thought she awoke. Lifting her head from her folded arms, she checked the herd. They were as they’d been before, dozing in the lee of the hillside across from the rise where she sat. Even the stallion had relaxed his vigilance and stood with his head lowered. The full moon now rode high in the sky, bright enough to cast faint shadows. As Naya’s eyes adjusted to the night, the moon’s light illuminated a faint track leading down the rise at an angle from where the horses rested. She hadn’t noticed it before.
Rising, Naya moved as silently as she could, following the path in the moonlight. Soon, she found herself ascending another small rise, then descending, then rising again, until at last she stood at the edge of a ravine. Below, she could see a stream, shining in the moonlight, gurgling quietly as it flowed over its stony bed… Slipping and sliding, Naya made her way down the steep slope, scratching her skin against sharp rocks and thorny underbrush. At last she reached the bottom and looked around her. Along the ravine’s floor, smooth white stones marked the water course… Drawn onward, Naya followed the path upstream into a grove of trees.
There, a wondrous sight met her eyes. Oaks and birches encircled a small pool of water, fed by an underground spring. Reflected in the pool’s clear, still surface was the round orb of the moon, casting its light from high above the rocky cliffs which formed the pool’s backdrop. Beside the pool stood the red filly, burnished coat softly aglow. Naya froze, rooted as if she were one of the trees, and stared. The filly, startled by the girl’s approach, stared back. Neither moved. Eventually, Naya remembered to breathe. In the next moment, she realized that she had left her rope, along with everything else she’d brought with her, back on the rise. Still, she and the filly stood motionless, looking at one another.
In that moment, Naya’s senses underwent an almost imperceptible shift; the moonlight became just a little brighter, the stream’s murmur became just a little louder, the slight breeze rustling the leaves in the trees became just a little fresher against her skin. In the next moment, she seemed to feel the filly’s thoughts.
I will grant your heart’s desire, but only if you are able to grant mine. The musical voice resonated within the core of Naya’s being, even though no sound other than the splash of flowing water and whisper of the wind in the trees disturbed the silence of the grove. What is your heart’s desire?
Awestruck, Naya could only gaze back at the young horse, who now regarded her with luminous dark eyes in which fear had given way to curiosity. Finally, she found her own voice. “I wish to be with you,” she said simply. “I wish to touch your coat.” Then, from deep inside, another longing welled up, a yearning so audacious she almost couldn’t bring herself to speak. Hesitatingly, she uttered the words. “I wish,” she said, “to ride upon your back.”
Ah, the red filly seemed to reply, if this is indeed your deepest desire, then you must see with the eyes of your heart and create ties without the use of a rope. And when you have succeeded in granting my heart’s desire, then shall yours be granted also.
Before Naya could begin to ponder the meaning of the words, the filly brushed past her in a chestnut blur and was gone, disappearing through the trees toward the mouth of the ravine. Gazing after her, Naya shook her head, as if to clear her senses. Water still flowed in the creek and a breeze still rustled among the leaves. The moon still cast its dim glow – but the moment of utter clarity had vanished, just as suddenly as the young horse. Shaking herself again, as if awakening from a dream, Naya retraced her steps to the mouth of the ravine. There was no sign of the red filly…
For more information about author Sarah V. Barnes and a chance to win a copy of her latest book, visit Book Review + Giveaway: She Who Rides Horses.