What is it about horses? I think I might have drawn them on cave walls at the beginning of time, already a legend to deserve the honor. Horses have been with us ever since, our lives depending on them much more than they needed us. Nothing about that has changed. We are hooked and we can’t imagine another way.
Each horse story begins the same. They are born, sired by a famous stallion or one owned by a neighbor. Every dam spent eleven months giving them life and on the first day, he could run. Babies are bright and curious and a promise of every good thing. Foals have near-infinite potential, our dreams in plain sight. They have not done the hard work worthy of a legend yet, but we can’t look away. We act with serious gravity or we smile so wide we show our molars, but we’re theirs. We love his eyes, we think his coat is the richest color, his canter takes our breath away. If he sniffs our hand, we think he’s formed a bond with us, we are that special. In the beginning, our love is all about how we feel, all romantic and pretty.
Some of the stories we tell about horses make us the hero because our ego lets us think we’re rescuing them. Other times we get frustrated and think horses owe us something as if they know what a feed bill looks like. We ask for a simple thing like a trail ride without understanding nothing is simple for a horse with a lion on his back, especially one who doesn’t know she’s a lion. Or we micromanage them, smothering their voice in favor of our own. We train by repeating things until we bore them into a stupor. We decide they have a wonderful life because of our effort for them. We stifle their wildness with affection, teasing them when it flatters us. They tell us in the only language they have that they are in pain, but we discipline them or even worse, we think they are being funny or sweet when their calming signals get extreme. We do it in the name of love, even when we can’t see around our big feelings.
A few thousand dollars into it, we might start to wonder if our horse is living up to his end of the bargain. If you think that horse should be beholden in some way, or even domesticated, you’re wrong about that. Horses are horses. Nothing more. And this is the first sign of things improving.
It can be hard for a horse to get a word in edgewise. Some wait as long as they can and some find a way to be undeniable, but it will happen. In the beginning, we call the incident bad. A nebulous lameness appears, or we find out that his “smile” is ulcer pain. We come off and get hurt or he scares us. It’s only common sense to think twice when each of his twelve-hundred pounds lets you know things aren’t okay.
Does it feel like a betrayal? That kind of deception lives in human brains, not theirs. It isn’t obvious then, but the best day ever is when the Valentine’s heart with paper lace gets torn up. It’s the day we get called out and our horse-crazy girl notions face reality.
Horses have a real chance to shine when things go wrong. The best lessons from horses start when we realize that it’s always been them. For all our ignorance, good intentions, and misunderstandings, we haven’t ruined anything. Through the pain and fear, we didn’t quit. At some point, we find courage and compassion for him that dwarfs our puny emotions. We grow to fit our horses, but we don’t notice because finally, miraculously, it’s not about us.
Life happens. Injuries, loss, change, and rebirth. Crisp air on spring mornings; you learned to love that from him. The color of the sunset on his flank, the precious quality of each day marked by his reflection. Some days you risk everything you have for his welfare and he answers with a breath, leaving you feeling lucky beyond all reason. He gets the care you don’t give yourself because it’s only fair. He has become the best part of you.
Somewhere along the way, we remember horses are mortal. Our eyes deny it before our brain adds the sum of the truth. The old lameness returns. His diet gets complicated. Muscles become small and soft. He is ten or he is thirty, but it feels unfair. However long we have together is not enough because boundaries have blurred. There is no way to tell his heartbeat from your own. For all that we have given, we have one more gift and it will be the victory of love over fear. We’ll give him the best farewell we can muster. Surviving will take all the courage learned from him, and maybe that’s a fair trade.
There will be a horrible instant of doubt. A moment when his breath stops, and you think that you will never rest your cheek against his warm neck again. It feels so final. Some of us will fall silent not having enough air to cry and some of us will howl until our lungs are raw. Maybe you’ll feel devastated and relieved for his pain and then guilty for that. You may judge yourself harshly, begrudging how long it took to get it right, but that isn’t how a horse thinks. He isn’t burdened with judgment, just memory. For him, nothing erases the ground you covered together. See it through his eyes.
What is it about horses? May we always be in awe. It must be their heart that minimizes pain and holds so much resilience and so much try. How many times have we started over together? A horse’s heart is not located in his chest at all; his bold beautiful body is a small thing encompassed within his heart. If we do our job well, we come to understand that when we’ve sitting on his back or standing at his shoulder, the bubble we think we’ve constructed, the training success that we’ve had, is really nothing we’ve done at all. It’s when he’s gone that we learn the true space he has taken in our lives; when we understand in hindsight all that we gained along the way. It’s always been about this horse.
Then a day comes, soon I hope, that he will be lighter to carry. He’ll perch on your small shoulder as you used to perch on his broad one. He’ll whisper in your ear, “I am your legend.”
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
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