Jump In or Get Out

In Stories

Horses are a lifestyle, marriage is a commitment.

In my case, being chosen by a horsewoman to be her spouse was a commitment that I was happy to fall into. My wife’s kind and caring way brought out a side of me that I hardly knew. I was blissfully content being a guy: fixing things, learning new skills, and generally watching myself as part of a romantic western horse movie. My wife was in her glory, enjoying her growing stable of exotic Andalusian horses while surrounded by the natural beauty of the farm with its fragrant grass hayfields and sweeping views. As any married person can attest, there is always an adjustment period. Horses, too, have a way of introducing their own kind of changes, many of which I never knew about until I had a ring on my finger. As time went on, trying to find my place in the herd was a bit foreign, and while the language of horses was a song to my wife, it was confusing to my untrained ear.

Like many things when exposed to close scrutiny, life as a horse husband wasn’t all romantic rides into the sunset. In fact, romance and horses often seem worlds apart. The big picture showed that my wife was involved with something special. But from my limited perspective the bloom was off the rose and the only smell I was experiencing from being around horses was work. Lots of it. A relentless daily grind that seemed to have little reward. Chores that were fun and novel when new became unpaid labor. Money was flying out of the bank account for purchases I had no connection to. Machines, tools, and a farming effort that I was beginning to question demand every minute of my time. And not just my time. My bride had filled every minute of her days with horse! A quiet evening was rare and weekends away were impossible. Even my clothes had become scratchy.

The farm that seemed to hold so much promise showed its ugly side the next spring. From starthistle to spring rains, the farming effort was brutal. I did my best to learn farming. The hay standard was high and I was inexperienced. With relief I filled the barn by hand stacking the second year’s crop, but any satisfaction I felt vanished when Dianne found it did not meet horse hay quality that she usually purchased. There was no malice in her observation; she was just stating the obvious. It was dusty and couldn’t be fed. I reacted with predictable hurt. Fatigue, frustration, ignorance and overwork all came to the surface. It seemed inconceivable to me that a year’s worth of effort was wasted. Was she that indifferent to my effort? Was hay going to be that impossible to produce? What the heck were we going to DO with a thousand bad bales! I was angry and getting so worked up! I just couldn’t do this anymore. Home was supposed to be a sanctuary to enjoy together not a place of endless toil.

Fearing further conflict, I ran away to a hotel. It was the first time Dianne and I had been apart since we were married.

I sat in the empty room and tried to think through where things had gone wrong. She had given up her friends and her career, then moved to Oregon to be with me. She was right that the care of her horses was a priority, but somehow it wasn’t turning into a shared experience.
Some new marriages need to deal with hidden problems like control issues or substance abuse. For me it was… hay. When it came to growing horse hay I was apparently clueless. Green bales are bad, too moist. Brown is bad, too dry. Weeds are bad, stemmy is bad, bugs are bad, tight is bad, loose is bad, yikes! How did I ever supposed to grow this? After two unrewarding years of hay turmoil I concluded I was a failure as a farmer-husband and that something needed to change.

You know that feeling that you get before you need to make a big decision? Not the left or right kind of feeling, but the voice inside that say that if you screw it up it will really hurt? As a fully committed husband I was getting that feeling and I felt like I needed to throw up. I was unhappy, the jerk was back and something had to give. It was clear that I was the second choice with regard to a horse wife’s priorities. I knew if push came to shove, the horses would win out because they already took precedence in most decisions. There appeared to be no way I would ever catch up with my wife’s knowledge or even her love for horses. I just couldn’t imagine following blindly for the rest of my life and it appeared to me that since horses dominated our marriage, I had reached that singular moment of deciding whether I was going to be the follower or find a new path. It took several years for me to understand this, and although the knot was tied and my heart was captured, the urge to change was overpowering.

I remember the moment of truth well. After the hay barn fiasco, i thought for weeks about what to do next. Sell the ranch and get away from farming? My wife loved the place. Sell the herd? A risky conversation that I didn’t have the knowledge or heart to propose. Run away from home and accept an offer as a helicopter pilot on an overseas contract? A part-time husband wasn’t my idea of marriage. So I made the decision. It was time to get-in or get-out. There was no middle ground.

I approached my wife while she was reading in bed. I calmly explained the anxiety that I was feeling, the overwhelming detachment to the lifestyle she was leading. The total lack of understanding of her passion for horses and my resentment of the time, farming effort and money it was consuming. I then asked the question that would determine our future and the direction of the rest of my life.

The wedding band signifies a connected relationship that requires giving and receiving from both spouses. For some time it seemed as though I was doing all the giving, my wife was about to show me that she understood the circle of love better than me.

One month prior we had gone back to New York where I purchased her a dream horse as a gift. A beautiful newborn Andalusian colt from the awe inspiring black stallion, Maestro. He had arrived on the ranch with dusky black hair as soft as velvet, a mischievous sparkle in his eye, and a look-at-me attitude that just radiated. From the moment I saw him I fell in love that little colt. I can’t explain what exactly the attraction was. A thought formed in my mind, a way to Jump-in eyes wide open. So I asked my wife the question I was afraid to hear the answer to. I asked if she would give the colt BACK… to me. She hesitated for just a moment, started to say something, thought for just a second more, and then she said yes. No questions, just yes. And for the second time in my life, a yes from her changed the course of my life. I felt re-assured that I had married exactly the right person, that in fact, the horses and I shared an equal place in her heart. I had no idea what the future would bring, but I hoped that this special black colt would lead me in a new direction and out of the confusion I had felt.

This is the second part of a multi-part series chronicling Joseph Berto’s early experience as a horse husband. Read part one and part two, and watch for the next installment in a few weeks.

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