Like any mom, Nancy Shulins felt lighthearted as she watched her 22-year-old Eli fall in love recently.
"He is as capable of acting like he's going on 10, and it does my heart good to see it," she said.
But like any mom, she also felt a tiny pang of jealousy.
"He was so into her...I was a tiny bit jealous, because it was like, `Whatever mom, now where is she?' He even shared his food with her," she adds with a laugh.
Shulins, who lives with her husband Mark in Norwalk, is not surprised when Eli is the object of affection. After all he is dark and handsome, and tall--he stands at 16.2 hands when he's got all four hooves are on the ground--certainly a catch for any mare.
Shulins became the gelding's mom 16 years ago, when she let go of her dream of having a child following years of miscarriages and unsuccessful infertility treatments.
In her recently published book, "Falling for Eli," Shulins shares her story about how she slowly heals through an unexpected route--the love of a horse.
She will also share her story at the Westport Library on July 30.
During a recent conversation with Shulins at Cedar Point Yacht Club on Saugatuck Island, where her husband keeps his sailboat, Shulins said she decided to write the book because she "really wanted a record of my time with Eli," who lives at a barn in Southbury, Conn.
"I really wanted to remember everything. And I wanted to write it down," Shulins said.
"I am not a painter or sculptor so the only portrait I can really make of him is going to be with words," added Shulins, who was the first woman special correspondent in the Associated Press. Her AP features earned two Pulitzer Prize nominations and a Clarion Award.
"I thought of the infertility piece and I thought that certainly is a big part of the story, and that I needed to write about that too," Shulins added.
Shulins said the book started as one of many book ideas on a piece of paper.
"I was talking to an agent and I was figuring out what to do next. She told me to write about Eli because that's where my passion is," she said.
Shulins' passion for Eli is written all over her face as she chats about how he filled a void in her life when nothing else could.
It was her husband who convinced her to consider riding again, something she did sporadically throughout her life since she was a kid.
"He knew I loved horses," Shulins said. "I was in such a state over my infertility that my husband was really worried about how he was going to get me out of the house."
Mark convinced her to visit the barn where his co-worker kept her horses.
"I felt a pang at the mention of them [horses], some plucked string that still vibrated after all these years," Shulins writes in "Falling for Eli."
"I willed it to stop. I was too big a mess to meet anyone. I didn't think I was in any shape to meet anyone. I was almost panicking."
But Shulins did go to the barn and she eventually starting taking riding lessons. And then eventually she met Eli, although it was not exactly love at first site.
Eli was brought to the barn as a prospect for another rider who did three-day eventing, a term in riding used to describe the combined competition of dressage, endurance and show jumping.
"The day Eli arrived he dragged the men who brought him across the indoor ring on their stomachs," Shulins said. "My trainer said, I've seen enough, he's going home, but she couldn't take him that day."
As the days went by, Shulins pointed out to her trainer that Eli looked lonely, unhappy and lost. So her trainer decided to get someone to ride him until she could take him back to where he came from.
Then a buzz started around the barn about how good of a horse Eli was.
Then came the suggestion for Shulins to take a lesson on Eli, because perhaps he might be the right horse for her.
"I was so stiff. Talk about not breathing," Shulins recalled. "I was scared to death. I didn't know what he was going to do to me. My trainer kept reminding to be breath. But he was good as gold.
"Mostly I was nervous because I didn't want anything to go wrong. So much was riding on it. Truthfully, there was just something in him that spoke to something in me. And over time it just got louder."
Peace of mind
When she officially bought Eli after a trial period, she finally began to find the peace that eluded her after watching friends get pregnant and dutifully bringing gifts to every baby shower, while she waited for her own miracle.
Instead of a baby shower, her friends threw her a "bridle" shower when they found out she had bought Eli.
"After the bridle shower, I got over it a little bit," Shulins said. "Hiding myself in my house was not the answer. Kids started coming over to see pictures of Eli and asking when is he going to come live here."
Shulins said the most difficult time she went through was when her sister and her niece Zoe and nephew Ben moved to California. In the book, she talks about how they were her "substitute children," which made it easier to live in Fairfield County, "which was like living in a fertility theme park. I was surrounded by pregnant women and women with babies."
Shulins writes: "I'd often borrowed Ben and Zoe to take the curse off my childlessness. I could shop for groceries, walk the dog or run errands without worrying what people thought: that I was some child-hater or--more to the point--a woman too defective to reproduce."
Shulins pointed out that no one really knows how to treat you when you have a miscarriage.
"All you have to say is, `That sucks that that happened to you. Or `Hey I know someone who that happened to if you ever want to meet them,'" Shulins said. "Because the only thing that saved my sanity was talking to other woman who had been through it. You are just one exposed nerve and everything that happens to you just causes you pain."
That was until she became Eli's mom.
"Once I had Eli...I had been so fixated on everything that I was missing, I started to realize that I wasn't really missing it," Shulins said. "We went through the picky eating, and the brattiness and testing, all the same stuff as other mothers. I started to relate to all the women who were constantly in the ER when their little boys got hurt. So to a large extent I did get to have a lot of those experiences in a slightly different way."
Shulins still gets emotional when she talks about some of the times Eli has been sick or hurt--
like the time he was diagnosed with EPM, a neurological disease that horses can get from the feces of opossums, or the time he fractured his scapula.
Shulins said she thinks "Falling for Eli's" audience goes beyond horse lovers and women faced with the struggles of infertility.
She also recommends it for people who may have discovered sports later in life.
"The book is also about finding your inner athlete in life when a lot of people are hanging up their cleats..." Shulins said. "I'm convinced now that I can't become old as long as I have Eli. Animals play such a huge role in everything that is healthy in your life, from walking the dogs to riding the horses. Just getting you out of bed in the morning. There are a lot of mornings when it's not so nice out,t but Eli is not a pair of skis so you get up, and you go."
Shulins will be at the Westport Library July 30, 20 Jesup Road, from 7:30 to 9 p.m.