Essay

Mustang Memories

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I’d say I’ve seen a lot of beautiful places in my life. I’ve met incredible souls and been on adventures that made me reaffirm my belief in one God. 

But out of all of the things I’ve seen and done, there’s been nothing more affirming to my soul than being around horses near the Rocky Mountains. 

I, like many young girls, had a horse girl phase. Unfortunately, being a child of immigrants in survival mode meant that the phase was limited to movies and stationary with horses on them. I never got to take riding lessons or go to horse camps. My childhood passed me by, and eventually I grew out of that phase to move onto other mature things, like becoming a wife, getting a real job, and running a household. I was happy on some days, but on most, I felt a deep void. Was this all I was meant to be? Where was the connection, the spiritual pull on this earth that made me feel alive and aware of God’s presence? 

Just when I was losing faith in my greater purpose, Allah had other plans for me. In December of 2020, my husband was planning a winter get-away for us. 2020 was a death for all of us, in a way. We grieved collectively and had to pick up the pieces of our broken selves and eventually find ways to move on. I’ve had my fair share of death during that time. I lost my grandfather to cancer and my best friend’s dad, who was like a dear uncle to me, to COVID. I had never experienced true grief until that fateful year, and it hit me hard. When I reached my lowest point, I made a prayer every day: “Allahumma inni as’aluka al Afiyah”. Oh Allah, I ask you for Afiyah. 

And God answered that prayer in ways I could not have fathomed.  After searching for a long time for a cabin stay in Georgia, we stumbled on a guest ranch in the area. On a whim, we booked it and drove 9 hours from Florida into rural Georgia. 

That trip clicked something for me. For the first time in years, I felt like I was awake. Like this was the missing piece that I had been searching for my entire life. Like all of a sudden, I felt like God was there and He was blowing wind at my face as I cantered for the first time on horseback, and filling my sight with colors as the trees blurred past under the bright blue sky, and my ears with the sounds of the earth. I looked at my husband and vowed that when we returned home, things would be different. Some way or another, I was going to bring horses into our lives. And that’s what I set out to do. 

We returned to Tampa, and I found a trail riding stables near us. I was also working as an English teacher during that time, and in between virtual teaching on Zoom on the weekdays, I started volunteering at the stables on the weekend. I could barely crawl out of bed to teach class at 10AM, but I was practically jittering with excitement every Friday night despite knowing that I had to be up before fajr came on the next day. Starting my mornings at 5:30 AM so that I could be at the barn at 7AM to tack up horses, riding through fields and forests, and being outside to witness all of the small changes in nature did more wonders for me than any other form of self-care I could have attempted. 

A few months later, I was uprooted from my home state Florida with my husband and we moved across the country to Colorado. Starting over wasn’t easy, but we were determined to make a life for ourselves here. And I was determined to find some people and horses to meet. After all, what better place to enter the world of horses than the state that was considered to be the gateway to the Wild West? 

That’s when I discovered the Horse Protection League, a rescue ranch in Arvada. I loved the community I found there, the way that they were so accepting of me despite how different I looked as a Muslim-American hijabi. I met kind folks who helped me find corners of the ranch to pray in, and even reminded me of prayer times. They asked thoughtful questions and created equal access to opportunity for new volunteers, judging each person’s worth by their character and work ethic. I started volunteering there twice a week and eventually tested to become a wrangler there.

I didn’t ride a single horse there for over a year. I earned that right by working hard. I mucked pens and cleaned water troughs and loaded hay and pulled weeds and moved horses from pastures and managed other volunteers. It didn’t hurt that I was scooping poop while admiring a backdrop view of the Rocky Mountain foothills. In between those dirty jobs, I got to spend some time with horses that taught me more about myself than anyone has in a long while. Like me, they were uprooted from their homes and seeking trust. They were all surrendered by previous owners to the rescue. Some of them were surrendered because their owners died, whereas some were seized by animal control because their owners abused them. Some of them were born in the wild and were rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to control herd populations in the wild. Regardless of where they came from, each of these souls had a story to tell- if only we were willing to listen. 

Less than a year after becoming a wrangler, I met Captain Jack – a 15 hand, all-black mustang with one white sock. Captain Jack was one of the first wild mustangs I’ve ever met. An unbranded mustang, CJ was abandoned at a nearby barn and brought to the rescue after I became a wrangler. We each took turns working with him to build trust. I was told that he had been ridden before, and I was determined to ride him at some point. But first, there was a lot of work to be done. One doesn’t just approach CJ and throw a saddle on him. I struggled with just getting a halter on his head, much less a saddle. He flinched anytime someone touched his ears, and ran away at any sudden noises. The rescue ranch manager suspected that whoever trained him probably twisted his ears to make him obey, and that’s why he was sensitive about anyone touching them. Whatever his story was, there was clearly some trauma. 

They say that horses are deeply perceptive animals. They can hear heartbeats from several feet away. In the wild, a herd could be alerted to danger by the increased heart rates of the horses on the edge of the herd, closest to the predators. In the same way, they’re attuned to a person’s energy. The energy you bring to them will be reflected back at you. Mindfulness— that’s the essential lesson that every person who seeks a relationship with horses must learn well. 

More than anything, I wanted CJ to trust me. I spent more time with him than any other horse there. I worked on keeping my energy calm anytime I worked with him. We practiced getting the halter over his ears without him flinching. We worked in the arena desensitizing him to new objects and sudden sounds. I brought him crinkly blue tarps and flags and hula hoops. I looked for signs of distress in his ears, the way he lifted his head, the swish of his tail, the flare of his nostrils. 

I think one of the things I love most about horses is that they are awful liars. They’ll tell you exactly how they feel, but it’s up to us to understand what they’re telling us. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or how you look, but how you connect your soul to theirs. Such simple emotions a single interaction can convey, and it all comes down to fear and trust. 

Eventually, I worked on getting a saddle on him. I remember taking him into the round pen and working on walking, trotting, and loping in both directions with the saddle on his back. Despite the fear he always carried, the way he moved was absolutely graceful. He just needed a fighting chance from someone who could trust him. 

At some point, the rescue ranch received a grant to take some of their horses to a professional trainer. Captain Jack was one of the first candidates. He was sent off for a couple of months and brought back with some refined skills, including riding. That’s when I finally got to swing a leg over him and ride in the arena. As a rider, this was a lesson for me in managing my own emotions and surrendering control. Despite getting trained, CJ was still a “green” horse, and needed an understanding rider to help him build confidence. I carried a lot of anxiety of sending the wrong signal or falling off if CJ got spooked. I had been riding for a couple of years at that point, and being on horses like CJ reminded me that I am never actually in control. I find horseback riding to be when I am most mindful of God. It’s a metaphor for the Muslim’s way of life. We may have the tools to perform and know which direction we want to go in, but there are always forces outside of our power. In this case, it’s a twelve-hundred pound animal with instincts that rival our own.  

But I learned to breathe. To recite my prayers with every leg swing I put over the saddle. To trust that I will be protected. And I did that when I rode CJ around the arena. Once I tried to let the fear subside and let trust and compassion come through my hands and legs in communicating with him, I felt his body relax. And I knew then that he would be a fine riding companion to a rider who understood this. 

It didn’t take long for him to get adopted after that. I don’t know where he is now, but I still often think about him almost a year later. He taught me to be patient and a damn good listener, and for that I’m simply grateful. 

I came to Colorado carrying the burden of grief and uncertainty. I spent the last few years searching for a sense of belonging and home, but little did I know that home was inside of me all along. It was in the energy I carried and the interactions I had with the earth. I found home in the horses who reminded me to come back to myself, for we can only meet each other as deeply as we’ve met ourselves. 

It has been through my experiences with these mustangs that made me understand how it is no wonder that our Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) told us to teach our children how to ride horses. There is a soul-fulfilling connection and mindfulness that emerges through these creations of Allah. The horse demands that you show up as your best self and to be grateful for their trust. I now spend a lot of time nowadays trying to build accessibility for more Muslims to experience the medicine of horsemanship. It is a lost art, and one that needs to be revived— starting with sharing these mustang memories. 

Sara Filali is a Moroccan-American artist and writer. She is set to self-publish her debut book, "Hajeetek Majeetek: My Grandmother's North African Folktales" in October 2023. This enchanting book delves into the rich tapestry of North African folklore, offering readers a unique perspective on her cultural heritage as well as a captivating journey through stories passed down through generations. Outside of her creative pursuits, Sara enjoys Colorado's natural beauty with her husband, Rayan, indulges in fantasy novels, and engages in community-building activities. She firmly believes in the transformative potential of storytelling across various mediums, be it art, films, or meaningful conversations. Sara is convinced that storytelling and art hold the power to reshape the world. Discover more at www.filalistudios.com or follow her journey on Instagram @sara_filali.

2 Comments

  1. Animals are truly such blessings to humans. Their empathy helps us through situations that we can’t imagine. This piece was good—neigh, it was fantastic. 🐴

  2. This was such a well-crafted narrative, and it was so great to see the progression of your “horse-girl” story to finally end up at home, both in your faith and the horses!

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