Posts Tagged ‘courage’

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 23, 2009

More on dogs.

I’m listening to a report on the Yukon Quest. The teams went over Eagle Summit last night and the leader, Bill Kleedehn, who seemed to have an unbeatable lead coming out of Dawson City, stalled when his team refused go continue on up the steep trail. Now Hugh Neff is in the lead and heading for the Twin Bears checkpoint 80 miles away from the finish in Fairbanks. By tomorrow morning the teams will be heading through North Pole and down the frozen Chena River to the finish line beneath the Cushman Street Bridge in downtown Fairbanks.

This is our Groundhog Day. This is spring in the Interior. The dogs, tired but eager, strung out along the gang line, trotting down the smooth white expanse of river. The mushers, their world focused on the narrow world of the teams strung out ahead, the texture of the ice and snow, the effects of the sun on ice, the heat or lack of heat–too much, and the dogs will stop pulling and want to roll in snow to cool down.

When the first teams come in, they will be met with cheers, flashing cameras and cell phones, newspaper, TV, and radio reporters. A flurry of activity, no matter what time they come in, then a long rest for musher and dogs till everyone’s across the line-this can take up to two weeks for the last team, the red lantern–then a feast and celebration.

We may go down to the river to see the teams come in. Even those of us who wouldn’t think of following our dogs for two weeks on a dog sled know that these mushers carry the spirit of the old Alaska with them. They are our heroes in the old sense–the ones who defeat the enemy, winter, for us. For Interior Alaskans, a musher who had attempted, much less completed the Yukon Quest, enters a different realm of Alaskan credibility, a ritual transformation that few of us have attempted.

The dogs will retire after a few seasons to become recreational mushing dogs or ski-joring dogs or the core of a racing dog breeding program. Once they have pulled a thousand mile race, they want nothing more than to be in harness again with their pack, tongues out to the wind, feeling the snow beneath their feet, breathing the smells of the other dogs around them.

Once all the teams are safely in, we all breathe a sigh of relief. It’s nearly March. The Ice Carving championships begin, the last sprint team championships will speed through 2nd Avenue soon, then the roads will start to melt and freeze, the temperatures will tease above freezing on some days, then dip back down at night.

But now, we hold our breath and wait. Will Kleedehn’s dogs, tired of being passed by other teams on the mountainside, suddenly give a great heave and reach the summit? Will Neff or Little or someone else get lost in the maze of mushing trails near town and miss the chance to win? It’s happened more than once. Will a moose, munching on a stand of willows with its new calves, step out in the trail, stopping everyone in the tangle of a standoff?

And this is how we pass the last week of February, ready for the promise of March.

(For Yukon Quest updates go to

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.

%d bloggers like this: