Trail Moments | Equestrian Finds Emotional Freedom on the Trail
Warning: This article will discuss a person’s experiences with domestic abuse. This may be triggering to readers with similar experiences.
“In the quiet, there was strength."
In fall 2021, I undertook a 187-mile trek, mostly on rail-trails, crossing the state of Illinois from Chicago to Burlington, Iowa—by horse. The trip was the realization of a lifelong dream. As an equestrian explorer, I am also the founder of Buffalo Moon Expedition, an organization that promotes equestrian travel by bringing hope and healing to those on the trail whom we meet. These expeditions have been an integral part of my life since 2008.
The woman I am today is a tough cowgirl with a warm heart that will do no harm and take no bull—but it wasn’t always that way. I know what is abusive and what isn’t from my experience in a relationship with a man whose M.O. was name calling, gaslighting, verbal abuse, manipulation and sometimes physical abuse. Trail riding helped me find my footing for a new life.
Related: 10 Wining Rail-Trail Courses for Horses (Rails to Trails, Spring/Summer 2017)
Hope for a Better Life
Last year was not the first time I had tried to accomplish my goal of crossing the state by horse. I had attempted to do the ride in 2017, but it was an utter disaster. Its purpose was to help me leave my abusive relationship for good, but sadly, after 50 miles, I stopped the ride. With increased pressure from him to come home, I caved to keep the peace and went back into the despair and clutches of abuse. I had failed on my getaway attempt.
Afterwards, life went from bad to worse. I lost my job and experienced the deaths of 45 people I knew in 24 months … 45! I had varying degrees of closeness with the people I lost, but it left me with absolutely no strength to leave my abuser. The final blow was the loss of my mom to cancer; she was the last at number 45. I lost utterly everything, myself included.
I remember the day that gave me courage to leave forever. He cursed me out for leaving a few hairs on the floor. It was Jan. 22, 2019, at 10:30 in the morning. I left the next day, and it didn’t matter that I had nowhere to go. I would have rather died in the cold than endure one more day of his abuse. It was freezing out. I drove to my barn, got my horse and started walking down the Great Western Trail. Just her and me until dark, wondering what we were going to do next.
I walked back and decided to bunk down. Crying myself to sleep in the tool shed in layers of clothing in the 26-degree weather felt like the beginning of the end. I was finally proud of myself that I had left an abusive relationship where I was frequently called slurs and assaulted in his drunken rages.
This turnaround was like walking through wet cement up to my hips. Those beginning days in the aftermath with my horse Hope on my local rail-trail were a lifesaver. Little by little, I picked myself up by my bootstraps, got myself working in my own horse rescue transport business, and started to thrive again. I was standing on my own two feet.
“My motto has always been 'emotional freedom starts on the trail.'"
In pitch blackness on that January night on the Great Western Trail with Hope, I knew what was next. It was time to try the ride again, but this time, it was going to be my way. Two years of extreme hardship and toil helped me emerge as my authentic self again. I flew under the radar this time, quietly making my way on rail-trails with Hope; she was everything to me. No one but a few knew of my trek at all. No fanfare, no drama—just Hope, me and the trails that took us across the state of Illinois.
We arrived to open arms at the chamber of commerce in Burlington, Iowa, on Nov. 7, 2021. My journey took 30 days to go 187 miles. With each hoofbeat, I left behind the names he would call me, the times where he would physically assault me after getting drunk. Mile after mile, I was emerging from the wounds and trauma that had been a part of my life for too long and healing from the grief of losing my mom. Before I knew it, we were 100 miles away from the life I had left behind. I could hear my heartbeat slowing and savoring it all.
Storytelling can help connect one another. Since I was no longer in that abusive relationship, I felt no pressure to be anywhere, so I would stop at leisure and talk to people. Hope opened up so many doors with her horse magic and invited others to share their stories as we traveled those rail-trails. People cheered, cried, laughed and sang with us, and walked alongside us. We even hugged a few folks who were struggling. All solo travelers on these rail-trails were connected for a moment, saying to each other, “you are not alone.”
There were no huge bells, whistles or fireworks when we made it to the end. The folks there had been expecting us since the 2017 expedition. In the quiet, there was strength.
From the beautiful prairies of the Great Western Trail and on to the Illinois & Michigan Canal State Trail, I saw nature’s beauty between Hope’s ears as we traveled west from the Chicago suburbs. Getting on the Illinois' Rock Island Trail and crossing the Rock River, we were following the old railways all the way over, just like they did in the old days as they took cattle from Chicago to Burlington. We enjoyed the fall colors as we ventured on the Hennepin Canal Parkway, and before I knew it, Hope and I were on the Burlington bridge crossing the Mississippi River into Iowa. The feeling of completion is something that I will never forget.
My motto has always been “emotional freedom starts on the trail,” and it’s something I’ve trademarked for my business, as I truly believe in it. In the process of being out there on the trail—if you have lost yourself somewhere along the way—I promise you that trails will help you find yourself again. Hope is always there, and you are never, ever alone.
Related: Trail of the Month: Illinois’ Rock Island Trail (July 2013)
Related: Trail of the Month: Illinois’ Hennepin Canal Parkway (March 2019)
Megan Gray’s journey traversing northern Illinois partially took her along the Great American Rail-Trail®, a 3,700-mile developing route between Washington State and Washington, D.C. Learn more about Illinois’ section of the Great American Rail-Trail.
This article is part of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Trail Moments initiative—to elevate new and tried-and-true trail voices around the country, and how trails impact the lives of Americans. Learn more at trailmoments.org and #TrailMoments on social media. Share your story, or view a collection of trail moments stories.