My beloved horse, Joy, recently passed away. A beautiful gray thoroughbred mare, she was the first horse I owned and the first one I lost. I was in the city when it happened, far away from anyone who could really understand. It was hard for even me to understand. It felt so different from losing a dog or a cat, not better or worse, but different.

Every pet has a unique personality. My cat is different from my dog, my dog Pip is different from my mom's dog Tony. But my relationship to each of them is the same: just love. I ask nothing of Pip except to be vaguely cooperative and to accept my near-constant affection.

I asked my horse to carry me on her back. We were partners. Joy and I worked together, trained together, and learned from each other. You have to respect a horse - after all, they are large, powerful animals and they can be dangerous, intentionally or inadvertently. And yet, they mostly take care of us.

Joy certainly did.

Which is not to say she was a saint. Joy could be a difficult horse, but she was never a mean one. She was a challenge and a babysitter at the same time. Everything about riding her was outside my comfort zone, but not outside my ability. It's in that space between where growth happens, and grow I did.

Joy raised me.

When we met, we were almost the same age - she was 11 and I was 12. I remember when the horse dealer, a weathered ex-jockey, Rumpelstiltskin in cowboy boots, delivered her. He unceremoniously yanked on her snowy white tail to pull her out of the trailer, and out she came, her swan neck held sky-high, her big brown eyes rimmed in white.

We both looked wide-eyed at each other, spooked. I was afraid because I had lived too little, Joy was afraid because she had lived too much. By then, the mare had been bought and sold several times, loved and unloved; she came to us neglected and underweight. She was a nervous horse and I was a timid rider, not usually an ideal combination.

But we were.

Joy was the antidote to all my preteen insecurities, because she mirrored them. If I was afraid, she was afraid. If I second-guessed myself, she second-guessed me. If I became frustrated, she became ornery.

Crossing water was one of our major challenges. The smallest creek on a trail ride was terrifying to Joy. As soon as the water touched her hoof, she'd fly back and upward. If she sensed we were heading near the creek, or if she sensed my own anxious anticipation, she'd crow-hop, threatening to rear.

When I felt Joy's back tense, my instinct was to tighten up, curl into a ball, anything to steady her and my pounding heart. But that never got me over the stream. A few times, it almost landed me on the ground.

Joy needed me to lead by example. I learned that I had to relax, or at least pretend to relax, and push forward. A horse can't throw you if you keep moving forward.

And it has worked for every obstacle in my life since. Through breakups, disappointments, down days and down months, I think of the riding command: Leg on.

Nothing can throw you if you keep moving forward.

But even as I move forward through this loss, I will never forget the wonderful friend and teacher I had in Joy. I didn't get to be with her when she passed, but more than getting to say goodbye, I wish I had had the chance to thank her for all her many lessons:

That a strong hand can still be a gentle one. That you must be patient, with others and with yourself. Self-doubt is natural, but not insurmountable. You may step into water not knowing how deep it is. You may face a jump higher than before. And sometimes, as hard as it is, you need to point yourself at that obstacle and go forward. Courage is a choice.

If you live outside your comfort zone, you might have the ride of your life.

Leg on.