Archive for the ‘And the Horse’ Category

And the Horse

April 23, 2009

This is not an excerpt from the book of essays, but rather a note of sorrow for all those involved in the loss of the polo ponies in Florida.  It’s hard to imagine what it was like to watch horse after horse collapse.  It’s harder still to imagine what life in the barn is like now while all are awaiting the toxicity report.  There’s speculation that the horses were given a tainted vitamin injection–something routinely done, minus the taint, to help horses maintain muscle recovery after the stress of athletic competition.

No one would have wanted this to happen.   We can only wait to find out how it did and how those involved will respond.

Mattie and Sam send their condolences.  As do I.

And the Horse

February 13, 2009

Excerpts from a work in progress:

from  Fear

So, does the horse somehow offer us courage? Is our attraction to the horse more than the size, the muscles, the flow of mane and tail? Children’s literature is full of stories of children, broken in some way: orphaned, injured, ignored–who find their strength through a horse. Take Walter Farley’s novels of Alec and the Black Stallion, a story that blends the most romantic images of the horse–the half-tamed stallion ridden by a small fatherless boy–with accurate details of the racing world in the 1950s. Alec loses his father in a shipwreck but gains the trust of the Black when they are marooned on desert island (OK. Romantic). When they arrive in New York, they partner up with a neighbor, a washed-up horse trainer, who retrains the Black for a career on the track. From there, except for the part were the Black wins every time, the details are accurate. Most of all, the details of how Alec learns courage, patience, determination, gentleness, and ingenuity from his life with the horse have moved children in the years since the books were published. And this lesson–when Alec was afraid, the Black lost trust in him; when he overcame his fear, the horse performed spectacularly–allowed children to contemplate their own relationship to fear.

Most riders don’t ride a horse like the Black, though most dream of it. Our fears are compounded by our history and by the life we live that doesn’t involve horses. Unless we raise a horse from a foal, we have no way of knowing what others have done or what accidents have torn the fabric of trust we hope will be woven between us and our horses. Those who work with horses are testing the limits of fear. We approach a new horse watchfully but not timidly. Will it kick? Bite? Shove us with head or hindquarters? We don’t want to be hurt, so we go slowly, watching for the first sign of anxiety in the horse, backing off, then trying again, until we have moved the boundaries of trust between us. The handler and the new horse need to prove to each other that each is trustworthy. The horse may see if we will back off, if it can call our bluff. The handler will test to see what’s bluff, what’s fear. Sam, my elderly horse, tries this on everyone he meets, though it’s clear to me that he means no harm by it–he’s even insulted if we give up and walk away. The goal is moving together like fish or birds do–one moves; the other moves with it in complementary motion, whether from the ground or as rider and horse

When a rider overcomes fear, that confidence may seem like folly to the non-horse person. Who would do the things a rider does? Lifting a horse’s feet, for example, or stopping it in its tracks with a raised hand, or longeing it at the end of a flimsy line while it bucks and crow hops after a long lay-off. Working with horses changes the measure of fear. We read our horses as minutely as they read us; if this holds to the rest of our lives, we are reading situations for their subtleties, knowing when to worry and when to keep grazing, when to trust the herd and when to be the one who sounds the alarm.

People want to visit my horses and I welcome them. Often, however, they are surprised at what they find. I try to teach them the simplest thing–hold a treat in an open palm and let the horse take it between its lips–a velvet kiss. This flies in the face of all the non-horse person’s fears. The large head of the horse lowers toward the hand, the breath of the horse warms the skin, the horse’s lips begin to flap in anticipation–and the person freezes, draws back, closes the hand. We try again. Mattie and Sam are patient, ritualistic about this. Then I can tell who has the courage of the horse in them. The horse’s lips on the palm are delicate, precise. They close on the treat and lift away like a large butterfly resting then rising from the palm. It’s a delicious feeling, and those who push aside their fears enough to experience it will want to offer the horse another treat.

And with horses and humans, that’s what defeats fear–the deliciousness of the whole enterprise. “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man (or woman)”, says (who? Washington?). We overcome our fears because what we gain is not just lack of fear, but an expanded sense of our selves, of possibility-the dream of the horse, and of shared enterprise, communication with another species whose history is linked with ours. Riding feels ancient and present at the same time. Standing next to a horse in a moment of stillness transcends time. Smelling a horse, lifting the mane and putting my nose in the shallow valley between neck and shoulder and inhaling, gives me courage to face whatever human catastrophes the day holds.

And the Horse (Excerpts from a work in progress)

January 28, 2009

The Beauties of the Animal Body

 Dogs lie–as any one who has fed a dog knows first hand. A dog will tell you he hasn’t eaten in weeks, that he didn’t hear you calling while he chased a car, that he’ll just die if you don’t scratch his ears right now. But look at a horse: that large body nearly ten times the size of ours, the eyes clear as glass at the corners of the head, the ears pointed up if he’s interested, pinned back if the situation’s not to be trusted. That body–all muscle, bone, and hoof–can move in an instant, bolting in fear or softening in trust. A horse doesn’t lie, though we may not know what he’s responding to, and, if you spend enough time around a horse, you begin to value his honesty in a complex and hard-to-predict world.

But if it were just that–cats don’t lie either, though interpreting their truth is another matter–it wouldn’t explain the power of the horse over our imagination. Is it the strength? A horse, after all, concedes to carry us on its back and more, to enter with us into the hopeful endeavor of training: to race other horses, or jump fences, or cut and rope cattle, or meander along a quiet road heading nowhere in particular. We ride other animals, elephants, for instance, but do they participate in our dreams for them?

The shape of the horse shapes our dreams of it. Those who breed horses pay attention to subtle shadings of conformation: the arch of neck, the set of the tail on the rump, the length of bone below the knee. Any horse-crazy child can tell you the difference between a Morgan and a Thoroughbred and a Quarter horse, though to a non-horse person, these are differences that seem insignificant–the subtle widening of the neck into the shoulder, a vertebra’s difference in the length of a back, the proportion of upper to lower leg. No one argues the existence of dog breeds. A poodle and a Corgi are recognizably different, for instance, and mutts come in such a variety that each one seems unique, even to the unattached.

But horses: it’s the body. Over the years, breeders have shaped the horse’s body to do what we need it to do, creating for us the knife-sleek body of the Thoroughbred or the bulked-up body of the Belgian or the flashy curves and gaits of the Morgan and its descendants: the Saddlebred and the Tennessee Walking Horse. To a horse person, these names evoke images of the shape of the horse, but that shape can’t be separated from action, so that breeds of horses are depicted in motion and recognized by that motion.

Then there are the color breeds: the Appaloosa with its white “blanket” and spots, the paint with its flashy white splotches and blue eyes, the palomino’s gold coat and creamy mane, the black, the gray, the “cremora”–in any breed. But breeding for color distracts us from what a true horse person loves about the horse–the way he uses his body and the way that motion fits with what we dream of doing.

And the Horse (excerpts from a work in progress)

January 23, 2009

Fear and the Horse

To learn about horses is to learn about what we fear and how much fear we can embrace. Think of it–a half-ton of muscle and bone, in personality more like a deer than a dog–and we propose to walk beside it or sit on its back. In the wild, a horse, by all rights, should fear us and we should fear it, too.

And many do. When strangers approach Mattie, I can see the level of their fear. They step back when she reaches her large head forward to sniff their scent. They are awed by her sixteen-hand size, her black coat, her noises. The image of the horse is one of compliance, grace, speed. The reality is an animal only partly tame–like a cat in some ways–whose psychology somehow allows us to work with it to form a braver more powerful team than either would be alone.

Because horses have such good memories, they remember things they fear for life. Horse people tell stories of the horse afraid of men in cowboy hats or of lawn chairs or of anything blowing along the ground. One of the puzzles of working with a new horse, especially one that has an unknown past, is to discover what it fears and to find a way to comfort it with the presence of the rider or handler. This is more easily written than done. A dog trainer once told me that it takes twenty-five repetitions for a dog to develop a learned habit–for that’s what training is–and fifty to seventy-five for a horse. A horse who is truly fearful can be in retraining for years. And all it takes is one bad experience to set it back into fear again, for the memory of fear is stronger than all that training.

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