The Story Behind IF WISHES WERE HORSES by Robert Barclay
As I began gathering ideas for If Wishes Were Horses, I was unaware
that so many of my personal memories would find their way into the
I knew that I wanted to tell a story about learning to love again after
suffering grievous loss. Moreover, I wanted the main character to
believe that the tragedy affecting his life was at least partly his own
fault, and to describe his difficult search for self-forgiveness. But as
is oftentimes the case when creating a new story, many of the pieces
I had only two firm ideas: I knew that Wyatt Blaine, the novel’s
protagonist, would be a widower and Florida horse rancher. I also knew
that Wyatt’s late wife Krista would share the same occupation as my wife
Joyce, and be a well-known psychologist. Part of Joyce’s practice is in
Boca Raton, where some of the novel takes place
Some years ago, Joyce endured a tragic loss. Three days before her
youngest son’s fourteenth birthday, he was hit and killed by a drunk
driver. The startling proximity of those two events always seemed
especially poignant, leading me to incorporate a version of the accident
into the book. I decided that a similar car crash would take the lives
of Wyatt’s wife Krista and young son Danny, deeply scarring Wyatt’s
heart and causing him to believe that he would never love again.
After the cathartic experience of confronting her son’s killer in court,
Joyce eventually learned to forgive him. But unlike Joyce, Wyatt could
achieve no such closure, because the man who destroyed his family died
in the crash with them.
Without being able to emotionally engage the man who had killed his wife
and son, how could Wyatt achieve the same kind of forgiveness that Joyce
had found, I wondered? And more importantly, by what process could he
ever come to forgive himself? Like so many things in life, the answers
After Joyce and I were married, I began attending her church. She is a
practicing Episcopalian, and her faith has been a constant source of
strength for her. I was raised Methodist, and although at first I found
the Episcopalian service unfamiliar, I soon became fond of it. A
particularly touching part of the service is “The Blessings”, during
which the priest asks that those celebrating a birthday, anniversary, or
other special day to please come forward and be recognized.
One Sunday during the Blessings I watched a man stand from his pew, just
as some other parishioners were doing. Rather than approach the
sanctuary with them, he turned and trudged the opposite way, toward the
exit. With his head bowed sorrowfully, he handed some cash to one of the
ushers then he exited the church.
Who was he, I wondered, and why had he chosen to leave at that exact
moment? Had he perhaps suffered some great personal misfortune on this
date, one that caused him too much pain to remain for the Blessings?
The mystery would remain unsolved, for I never saw him again. But his
somber departure from the church intrigued me, and would become another
part of my book. Wyatt Blaine would lose his wife and child on what
would have been an otherwise joyous and significant day in his life, I
decided. And like that unknown man, the tragedy would affect Wyatt so
grievously that he too would become emotionally unable to endure the
I now had the beginnings of a story, but I also wanted a subplot that
was interesting and unique. Along with some bits from my own past, the
ideas that Wyatt was a rancher and that his wife had been a psychologist
soon conspired to provide another answer.
While growing up, I owned several horses. One was an American Quarter
Horse named Duchess. I loved that horse more than any other and she
oftentimes invades my thoughts even now, long after our time together
has passed. My father and I also owned racehorses for a time, and many
were the nights when we would drive to the track, eager to watch our
I learned much about horses during those days, and some of that
knowledge would find its way into my novel. Caring for horses of my own
surely taught me greater patience and responsibility, but those weren’t
the only benefits. It was the unconditional love I received from horses
that helped me through many of the trying and confusing times that all
I had also heard of equine therapy, or “horse therapy”, as it is more
commonly known. On doing research and interviewing people who conduct
such programs, I learned that horse therapy is a process of helping
people cope with various physical and/or emotional problems by
introducing them to the joys of equestrianism. I also discovered that
these programs sometimes include psychotherapy, and are often designed
specifically for troubled teenagers. It seemed that another piece of the
puzzle had arrived.
I decided that before her death, Wyatt’s wife ran a specialized horse
therapy program for troubled teens at the Flying B, the Blaine family
ranch. Called New Beginnings, the program was one of her own invention
that melded psychological counseling with equestrianism, but was shut
down after her sudden death. In hopes of finding closure by helping
others, Wyatt would resurrect Krista’s New Beginnings Program. And this
time the program would be free of charge.
But would Wyatt’s touching gesture be enough to grant him the
self-forgiveness he searched for, and to learn to love again? No, I
decided. Wyatt still needed to be confronted by something far more
personal if he was to ever fully heal; something that was cathartic,
totally unexpected, and would force him to examine his pain and guilt in
a truly profound and personal way.
And so to Wyatt’s great surprise, the widow of the man responsible for
the deaths of his family would ask his permission to enroll her troubled
son in his revived program. When Wyatt reluctantly agrees, his
well-ordered world would become disrupted in ways that he could have
never imagined. But as their lives intertwined, these three people who
were both united and divided by a mutual tragedy would hopefully find
the closure for which they had long been searching.
Once I began putting the story into words, yet more bits and pieces from
my past filtered in, such as growing up in a large country house with
stables, and learning from my father how to shoot, hunt, and play poker.
And like the novel’s mother and son, my mother taught at my high school
while I too prowled those same halls. As these various elements arrived
on the scene, the story assumed its final form.
There is far more contained in the novel than I have revealed in this
brief essay. But in the end, If Wishes Were Horses is not about
equestrianism, ranching, or even horse therapy. It is about the power of
self-forgiveness and learning to love again after horrific loss;
obstacles that any of us might be forced to face one day, just as Wyatt
did. And more importantly, it offers the hope that should such a tragedy
happen, perhaps someone caring will enter our lives—no matter how
unwelcome they might at first seem—and unexpectedly help us through it.
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