That One Horse: Nancy Shulins’ “Falling for Eli”

I used to dream of being the star of a reality show called FLIP THAT HORSE. No, it wasn’t going to be about my many mis-adventures with horses that neither cross-tied nor tied to trailers; after one or two viewings, the finales of each episode would become rather anti-climactic, with viewers shrieking “Don’t tie him to the trailer!” or “Don’t leave him in the washrack for three minutes while you go find a sweat scraper!” until they all gave up in disgust and turned the channel back to another rerun of The Big Bang Theory. 

No, FLIP THAT HORSE was going to be the adventures of ME, Natalie Keller Reinert, retired racehorse retrainer, as I scooped up OTTBs left and right, here from a training center, there from a kill-pen, here from a stock-yard, there from a backyard, and turned them into amateur-owner eventers, 4-H hunters, dressage/trail/pony party pets, all the things that the average off-track Thoroughbred excels in: the very basics of being a Nice Horse.

Falling for Eli cover image, Thoroughbred horse

Falling for Eli, by Nancy Shulins. Best cover of the year award goes to...

I can’t help it; I love a new horse, a fresh start, quirks to explore and head-carriages to sort out. Why do you carry your hind end like that? Is something going on in that right knee? No? Then please stop pointing your toe! Let’s work on that bucking at every lead change, shall we? Hurry up, move along, my fingers are twitching to get back on Craigslist and find my next diamond in the rough!

I’m a natural-born horse flipper. (And that probably won’t Google well.)

That’s earned me some derision amongst friends and acquaintances. Why can’t I settle down with one horse? How can I stand to let them go? Don’t I get attached? 

Of course I get attached. But let’s be honest: we don’t get a lifetime, one-in-a-million, soul-mate story with every single horse that walks in the farm gate. That’s why they’re one-in-a-million. And sometimes you come across him, and you stay together for years, and more often you don’t. And you keep looking for years, and years, hoping to find that One horse again.

I’ve had one of those soul-mate stories, and a couple false starts, a couple might-have-beens, and quite a few really nice horses who just weren’t the One. My first horse was lovely, but he wasn’t the One. I stumbled through a few perfectly-nice-just-for-someone-else horses before I met the One. I suspect this experience had already planted an idea of the fleeting nature of owning horses before I met him, and it stayed with me.

He was my horse. He was My Horse. I knew all his quirks, and he knew all of mine. He did ridiculous things like cut off his eyelid, and I held up his sagging head while the vet stitched it back on. He was My Horse. It didn’t matter if he was accident-prone, or foot-sore, or too long in the back, or had a really awful habit of spooking hard at strange horses when we were out on trail rides. He was My Horse, with all of his limitations and strange reactions and inexplicable melt-downs, and there wasn’t enough money in the world for me to sell him on.

Falling for Eli is a story of the One, of author Nancy Shulins‘ My Horse. It is a love story. It is a memoir. It is a tribute, to one accident-prone Thoroughbred, with terrible luck and a hell of a spook, for whom there isn’t enough money in the world to sell him on.

Nancy Shulins is a re-rider who gave up horses in her teens. At the urging of her husband, in the midst of a deep depression, she shows up at an acquaintance’s boarding stable midway through a demanding career as a writer with the Associated Press,  and immediately wonders how she ever could have left the magic city at all:

Like Dorothy in reverse, I step out of the Technicolor sunshine and into the dim, russet barn.

For the moment it takes my eyes to adjust, I inhale the heady aroma of horses, manure, wood shavings, and hay, with top notes of worn saddle leather, and realize how much I have missed it.

And so it begins. For the horse-obsessed, the magic never loses its potency, whether we are five or forty-five or, I assume, one hundred and five. And when you meet your soul-mate horse without any stumbling through a paddock-full of bad matches and perfectly-nice-for-someone-else horses, perhaps the magic is that much stronger.

Shulins was looking for magic, although she might not have recognized that at first. Feeling lost, a childless woman on a stroller-and-playset-littered street in suburban Connecticut, the Land of Babies, she lavished attention on her nieces and nephews. And then they moved across the country.

And it became harder to ignore that something was missing from her life.

Horses fill holes in lives.

No, horses are not children. Most people will point out the most obvious difference: you get to leave the horse at the barn every night. But you also get to lie awake worrying about your horse, all alone at the barn. Will he be warm enough? Did I put enough rugs on him? What if something happens in the night? Something… anything! And maybe the barn manager’s alarm won’t go off! And they won’t get breakfast on time! And he’ll colic! And no one will know!

Anyone who has ever felt a flutter of panic as they drive up their barn driveway, just hoping, just praying that everything will be just fine with their horse, knows what I am talking about. It’s not so different from parenthood. It’s almost more frightening. You can’t bring them into the house and keep an eye on them; you pay others to watch them, or you leave them home alone. And when they’re as accident-prone as Eli…

Well…

This is no spoiler, but the God’s honest truth: Eli racks up the vet bills. To the point, in fact, where I was sorely tempted to flip to the back of the book to make sure there’s a happy ending.

There is.

Read Falling for Eli. Hug your horse. Feel lucky. Whether he is the One or not, there’s something there, something magical.

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4 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Sport Horses, Success Stories

4 responses to “That One Horse: Nancy Shulins’ “Falling for Eli”

  1. As Always, Natalie, what a great Story! Love it, and I can relate, I have “the ONE” just like Eli but an accident prone mare, one whom I even gave up a husband for, and will gladly have her stuffed and put in my home when she is gone, one whom I want to try to clone…

    Keep up the great work Natalie!

    Melinda Rice
    Rice Saddlery
    JM Saddler
    and
    Monhill Farm

  2. I have heard so many good things about this book – I’m really looking forward to reading it! Thanks for the review and for sharing your own “One” story!

  3. Great review, Natalie!! You are a master!! I’m reading “Falling for Eli” now and really enjoying it!

  4. Lovely review, Natalie. As usual, you’ve totally captured the essence of the book. I’m so glad I networked you and Nancy together. FALLING FOR ELI is a treasure of a book and belongs on every horselover’s bookshelf.