It has been professed by others before that human beings find soul on the back of a horse and solace in wide open spaces. Riding out, out into the plains, the desert, the mountains, the woodlands, allows one to get lost…and then find oneself. And the very rhythms of riding—the thud of the horse’s hooves, his breathing, the swish of his tail, the squeak of the tack—form an integral interface between human and earth.
In RIDING BARRANCA, a remarkable new book from Trafalgar Square Books, author Laura Chester has explored and described her experiences riding and searching—for resolution, for the ability to forgive and be forgiven—in the most lucid of prose. A year’s journey on horseback in such diverse settings as Arizona, Massachusetts, Mexico, India, and Australia, spurs the release of memories both bitter and joyous as she struggles to deal with her mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s Disease.
“The counterpoint of horses and family makes this book unusually satisfying,” writes Thomas Moore, bestselling author of Care of the Soul, in his foreword to the book. “This intrigue, the unanswered questions, the mysterious juxtapositions, are what makes this book, to me, a work of art.”
We caught up with Laura, currently in Arizona, and asked her to share a little about her writing, her horses, and the personal journey that makes her newest book poignant, painful, and yet ultimately, liberating.
TSB: Horses, and obviously, one particular horse (Barranca) figure prominently in your new book. What is your history with riding and horses, and what is it about both that support human growth, or recovery from loss or trauma?
LCC: Riding has always been a big part of my life. My family kept a stable of varied horses, and growing up in the country with an extended family, we often took rides together. For the most part, we had little training, but we all managed to have good seats. I grew up riding in a relaxed manner, rather than entering into the pressures of the show ring. While I am a competitive person, I’m grateful that I took the trail ride route, exploring nature on horseback. I know that a ride will almost always put me in a good mood (especially when I’m on Barranca)—for me it is a way to find my center. I don’t know how or why riding and writing can help one “work it out.” Perhaps if one is quiet and connected, then you find yourself in the moment, in a kind of reverie where thoughts come and go—it is a healing process because of the balance between presence and absence.
TSB: You have had many books published, fiction and nonfiction. How is RIDING BARRANCA, your newest work, different from your previous titles?
LCC: I began writing and publishing as a poet when I was a teenager, but I’ve had various books of fiction and non-fiction. I find that the different forms are like walk, trot and canter—why not try them all? My first non-fiction book was Primagravida, an account of my first pregnancy and birth. One of my favorites is Lupus Novice, which describes my encounter with the auto-immune disease of the same name. When I have an idea for a non-fiction book, like Holy Personal, the trick is to just begin, not knowing where the story will go. When I began RIDING BARRANCA, I didn’t anticipate that it would include personal family dynamics, but life itself leads the writing.
TSB: “Place” and setting play an important part in RIDING BARRANCA. Can you share a little about your home in the Berkshires and your home in Arizona, and how the two parts of the country with their very different atmospheres invite self-exploration?
LCC: You couldn’t ask for two more different environments than the Berkshires of Massachusetts and the desert of southern Arizona, but both of our homes are rather remote, set in tranquil locations. Arizona is very expansive, and tends to allow the mind to soar and empty out, while the close comforts of the East, make one go more inward—this book has elements of both—memory and release.
TSB author Laura Chester and her horse Barranca.
TSB: Barranca is a Missouri Fox Trotter, one of four gaited horses you own. In your writing you often reference the soothing nature of your horse’s gaits. How is physical sensation an important part of emotional release?
LCC: I feel very lucky to have discovered gaited horses in my fifties. After having two unpredictable Thoroughbred-Warmbloods, who were prone to bolt if a wild turkey flew across the trail, I was ready for something more bomb-proof. I have had a bit of trouble with my back, and I didn’t want to struggle with a horse. I simply wanted to relax and enjoy my new geldings with their gliding gaits. Each of my horses moves differently, but I rarely have the feeling that any of them would hurt me. Perhaps that feeling of confidence and relaxation allows me to have more emotional release. If one is tense and worried the opposite seems to occur. I probably experience the most enjoyment while riding Barranca, because of our heart connection and the ease he makes me feel while in the saddle. How lucky I was to find him!
TSB: RIDING BARRANCA is really a kind of travel memoir, as you bring readers along on an emotional and personal journey, while also dealing with your mother’s failing health and your relationship with her. What is it that you think readers will most identify with in this journey?
LCC: Various non-riders have already read this book and responded to my descriptions of the natural world, to my relationship with animals and family. I hope that I can bring any reader into my realm. Certainly many women have struggled with their mothers—perhaps this relationship can be one of the most difficult—but what a joy it is to be able to let go of old grievances and find compassion. I think most people want family harmony, but what a rare thing it is! When you are telling the truth, you are bound to offend somebody, but that’s the risk a writer takes. Everyone has problems, flaws and conflicts—so there is a lot to identify with here. Certainly people who already love horses will be right at home in this book, and may recognize some of my own failings and mishaps, and will join me in the many delights.
TSB: You grew up loving and riding horses, as well as writing from an early age. What was your favorite horse book as a little girl?
LCC: I was not much of a reader as a child—I liked it best when my grandmother read out loud to me, and I could get all cozy and comfortable. I remember my grandmother reading me Black Beauty and how she was so upset over the mistreatment of this poor creature that she stopped mid-sentence and could not go on for a while. I think I realized the power of the written word through her reaction. I not only sympathized with the beaten horse, but felt for my grandmother as well.
TSB: Tell us about the first time you remember sitting on a horse.
LCC: My very first memory was of the shadow of my rocking horse against the bedroom wall while I was lying in my crib. As I grew a bit older, I madly rode this red wooden rocking horse that propelled me back and forth on its four springs. As for “real” horses—I don’t know if I truly remember being strapped into the saddle as a two-year-old, or if I just remember the photograph. In any case, I was introduced to ponies at a very early age. Our Shetland pony, Texas, was brown and white, and I remember that he had the markings of the Lone Star State on his side. He was so small I had no fear of falling.
TSB: Tell us about the first time you remember falling off a horse.
LCC: I was told repeatedly that I could not consider myself “a real rider” until I’d fallen off three times. I achieved this status early on. We were also supposed to—“get back on your horse”—after a fall, and I think I always did, because who would want to walk back to the barn? My favorite pony, Bunko, (shared with numerous cousins), was very naughty, and he would often canter along, and stop abruptly, putting his head down, and I would catapult over his head, but I never hurt myself falling, until I was an adult, and tried to jump my Swedish Warmblood over a stack of hay bales at dusk on a slanted hillside. He stopped and did a leap-frog jump veering off to the right and I fell and broke my arm. Arnica does help.
TSB: What is the quality you most like in a friend?
LCC: I think I like the freedom of intimacy with a friend, knowing that I can say almost anything and my confidence will be held. Sharing humor is also a quality I enjoy, for I love to laugh and am very lucky to have wonderful women friends. What would life be without them?
TSB: What is the quality you most like in a horse?
LCC: I like the feeling of silent communion and trust. Any horse can do the unexpected, but having that basic trusting understanding with a horse, (who is also affectionate and reasonable as well as athletic and willing), is important to me.
Laura rides whenever and wherever she can!
TSB: If you could ride one place on horseback that you haven’t yet, where would it be?
LCC: Maybe on the beaches of Bali? Is that possible? I hope someday to meet up with my sons and grandsons in Bali, and ride with them there. I would also love to ride in South America—I’ve never been there, but I have to improve my Spanish first! HOLA Pinacates.
TSB: What is your idea of the perfect meal?
LCC: Mario Batali once cooked a birthday dinner for my writer friend, Jim Harrison, and it was as close to a perfect meal as I can imagine. In the company of several friends, we ate one splendid course after another, and drank great wine for hours. The pasta dish in particular, with a generous portion of shaved white truffles, was one of the best things I’ve ever tasted.
TSB: What is your idea of the perfect vacation?
LCC: I especially enjoy family vacations, when my son Clovis brings my grandsons from Australia and we meet up in some exotic place. A year ago, we rented a house for a week in Maui, and it was splendid. My niece, Daphne, joined us from Hong Kong, and we also had other family members living on the island, so we had that additional personal connection. No vacation is truly perfect without a ride or two, and I was able to join my sister-in-law on her horses, riding on cliffs above the ocean, and later, Daphne and I rode on some of the most gorgeous ranch terrain—it was blissful, though our guide didn’t want us to canter—thus, returning home to one’s own good horses can be almost as sweet as escaping daily chores.
TSB: If you could have a conversation with one famous person, alive or dead, who would it be?
LCC: I think I would like to have a chat, and some tea, perhaps, with Virginia Woolf. I admire her writing tremendously, and I can imagine sitting in her cozy English cottage and being inspired by her mere presence, not to mention her words.
TSB: What are you working on now? Is there a new book in the works to follow RIDING BARRANCA?
LCC: It’s a little soon to begin a new book. My first copy of RIDING BARRANCA just arrived yesterday—I’m thrilled with it, but now it is time to try and do what I can to get it out into the world. I believe in allowing for some fallow time, and will not rush myself into a new project, but I do have one idea percolating—”Becoming Emily Rose”—(I often begin with a title). In this case it came from my mother-in-law, who passed away at 102. She was a great inspiration to me. My sons encouraged me to buy her house next-door to ours on Rose Hill and keep it in the family. It is a charming rabbit-warren of a place, with fabulous gardens. I am excited to begin renovation, as decorating is another one of my passions. I love color and beauty and casualness in a home, inspired comfort. I’m not quite sure what kind of book this would be, but it might begin as non-fiction and segue into fiction—so perhaps we’ll call it—“friction!”
RIDING BARRANCA is available from the TSB online bookstore. CLICK HERE to read more about the book and download a FREE EXCERPT.
Books ship May 1, 2013, but PREORDER YOUR COPY today!