"When I read a memoir, I’m looking for answers,” says Susan Richards. “How do you do life? I get a piece of the puzzle from each one I read.”
The Bearsville resident’s third memoir, Saddled: How a Spirited Horse Reined Me in and Set Me Free (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), has some big horseshoes to fill: Richards’s 2006 debut Chosen By a Horse spent six months on the New York Times bestseller list. The story of her poignant relationship with a rescued racehorse named Lay Me Down, it was followed in 2008 by Chosen Forever. All this from a woman who didn’t give herself permission to write until age 45, when she took a workshop with Maureen Brady (“a saint”). Sitting in her sun-drenched study, surrounded by bookshelves, paintings, and pets—four mismatched dogs and a Siamese cat—Richards reflects that her father’s death offered “the freedom to do what I’d always wanted to do without fear of being ridiculed.”
It was a hard-won independence. When Richards was five years old, her mother died of leukemia. Her alcoholic father literally fled, leaving his two shell-shocked children to fend for themselves until they were scooped up and sent to live with a series of wealthy but uncaring relatives. When Richards’s older brother was packed off to boarding school, her sole emotional anchor was a cantankerous pony she loved without measure.
More than two decades later, Richards forged a healing bond with an equally unruly Morgan mare named Georgia; readers of Chosen By a Horse will remember her as the willful diva of Lay Me Down’s backyard herd. In Saddled, Richards circles back to tell Georgia’s story—and more of her own.
“I have a visual image whenever I write a book,” she explains. “For Chosen By a Horse, the image was a cracked heart. That’s what I was writing about—how it got cracked, how it became whole again. Anything that didn’t pertain to that, I discarded.”
For Saddled, the image was a horse walking down a path. “I spent the years between 30 and 40 getting sober,” Richards says. “Those were my biggest riding years. How I got and stayed sober was by doing that every day. When you have a passion for something outside yourself, it can save your ass.”
Richards started drinking in college, to alleviate social anxiety. “Nobody was happier at happy hour than I. By my third glass of white wine the hangover was gone, the shyness was gone, and I was brilliant,” she writes in Chosen By a Horse. “I was pretty and guys liked me. It didn’t hurt that I was as hard to pick up as a beer nut. I drank and laughed, gave expert advice on subjects I knew nothing about, danced in my underwear, and hoped everyone noticed how smart I was.”
This is vintage Richards: dry, self-effacing, and utterly frank. She brings the same clear-eyed honesty to the darker terrain of Saddled, which takes fearless inventory of a violent marriage that revolved around drinking, until the love of a horse prompted her to leave her husband and break the cycle.
“One day my life was one thing, the next it was something else,” she says. “I felt like it was the first time I was really alive and aware. It was like being born. That sounds dramatic and hyperbolic, but I suspect a lot of alcoholics would describe it the same way—it’s like being reborn into a new person. And that came about because of Georgia. I knew I had to change, or I wouldn’t be able to keep her.”
Richards initially resisted writing about alcoholism. But her editor tempted her with an advance, and she reluctantly swung herself into the saddle. “What I began to realize was that I could break it down into one ride at a time. I remembered that I used to get up every morning and ride, through having no job, then working as the editor of a local newspaper, then going back to school and becoming a social worker. I was becoming clearer as a human being, because I was sober, and I was becoming closer and closer to this animal. So, I thought, I’ll write about that.” She does, with an emotional candor she learned from her peers. “There are probably few places on earth where uncensored thoughts and feelings flow more freely than at an AA meeting,” she writes in Saddled. For someone who once “would have smiled through a stroke,” telling the unvarnished truth was both frightening and liberating.