In my online Barnie group, we do performance art around Halloween. My horse, Bhim, along with Edgar Rice Burro, Arthur, the goat, and I started work on our plan. Then, we had an epic wreck. But at least I have it all on video!
We started by assembling the parts. I got some cheap and tawdry hats and a black tarp for Edgar. Next, I needed a plastic skeleton. They cost more than you’d think, but I wanted one that was dimensional. I scrolled until I found what I wanted but in a smaller cheaper version. Probably the right size for my horse, so I ordered it. The one that spends the most doesn’t win where performance art is concerned.
If you follow this blog, you know Bhim is a rescue who came for training ten years ago. It was slow work considering his level of anxiety and fear, but about then Edgar Rice Burro asked if he could have a horse. It would be hypocritical to say no, and truthfully, Bhim was not adoptable. He wasn’t even halter-able. He is simply the most terrified horse I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with. I consider that a plus.
So, Edgar got his horse. Then last fall, after years of hiding behind Edgar, Bhim stepped out and gave his first calming signal. Hallelujah, I thought, he was finally ready to do more. I bought a harness. Now, ten months later, the change in him is nothing short of miraculous. He surprises me daily. He offers to take his halter, and he wears a harness and drags a noisy singletree from his traces. It’s huge for a horse so fearful and reactive that he wouldn’t let me stand behind him.
Back in January, I invited people to follow our journey online. I use a GoPro or camera glasses. I wanted them to see what I saw. You can imagine the sometimes-dizzy quality of the video, but it’s real-time communication, with voiceovers to describe what’s going on. I post a video of every session we have. That’s how I have a record of the Great Halloween Wreck of ’23.
That day Bhim harnessed at liberty. I had the skeleton on the ground tied to a rope. Just for good measure, I duct-taped a short purple jump whip to the skeleton’s hand. Consider it Affirmative Training humor. Bhim barely glanced at the skeleton. After all, he is only afraid of two-legged live things. Last, I put his bitless bridle on and we were off. It started well. Isn’t that the way? Bhim angled himself so he could watch the skeleton mumbling along behind him. We walked through two gates, no problem.
Then, in a flash, Bhim bolted, and I let go of the lines. It would have scared him more if I held on and lines on the ground don’t scare him. As he ran an arc, the skeleton’s head detached and bounced into a water tank, separating the jaw and sending it rolling end over end farther. At the next gate, a foot got caught and the skeleton’s leg sailed high into the air. Finally, the skeleton’s rib cage caught under the muck cart just as Bhim reached Edgar, who was eating brunch.
I was not heartsick with guilt and didn’t feel sorry for him. In hindsight, I don’t think I over-faced him, or that he spooked at something in the environment. Bhim being stuck in a panic mode isn’t new. He has a tendency, as some horses do, to explode sometimes. It’s a release, no different from a yawn. Just louder. Ever noticed that horses are better after spooking? It kickstarts deeper breathing, it relaxes tense muscles. So, I told Bhim he was good, untangled the skeleton, and asked if he could walk on, the remains of the remains still dragging behind. We picked up the plastic leg on the way. Edgar, who was curious about what the big deal about the pond pen was, came along. When we got to the scene of the crime, I untied the skeleton and took Bhim’s harness off. Then I rounded up the skull and jaw, trying to reassemble things, expecting Edgar to quote Shakespeare, as he does from time to time. “Alas, poor Yorick…”
Bhim quietly stood near the debacle, slack lead, soothing himself by licking and chewing. His eyes were soft. This is how I know he can do this. He is learning to manage his emotions. This is what good work looks like. All horses come apart; the question is, can we help them find a way to come back together?
Two days later, I left for a three-week clinic trip while Bhim grew his wooly mammoth coat. When I got home, the Dude Rancher asked if I knew there was a child’s skeleton hanging in the barn. Well. When you put it that way, it probably reflects poorly on me.
The finished goal of good work is to make it look effortless for the horse and human. You know they edit the videos we see online to look perfect, right? People rarely post the “before” attempts or the messy middle parts. Only brilliant success. The next part of it is our fault. We gasp at those videos with awe and envy. As if it’s magic when we should recognize what long hours of patient training look like. Not a false reality that excellence comes without challenge. As if we don’t make more progress on hard days.
We should brag, but instead, we’re hard on ourselves when training takes time or when accidents happen. Watching perfect videos seems to compound our frustration, and poke us in the eye. Then add the compilation videos of people (who deserve to get bucked off horses) flying through the air. All the wreck videos horrify us, but we can’t look away. We remember them too well and scare ourselves.
Why do we take moments out of context as fact? Only seeing hard days is just as deceptive as only posting the wins. The goal should be to watch it all, with optimism. One instant in time, good or bad, is never the ultimate truth. Neither kind of video illuminates the best, most important part; the creative process of finding ways to cut the task into small pieces to work on one at a time. It’s when the actual relationship happens. Training horses is an art, not a reality show. Each horse requires something different from us each day. Dwelling in nebulousness is real perfection.
Our goal should be the long game, even as we know the destination never changes. One day, the animal dies. Too ghoulish? Or is it the best reason to not hurry our time? Let’s make an art of enjoying the journey. Then, let’s keep reminding ourselves of it every grateful day.
And don’t feel bad for the Infinity Farm Performance Art Troup. Soon, the internet will brim with photos of horses dragging fir trees through the snow with Christmas carols oozing in the background. The red and green holiday. With a little luck, a horse with tinseled bats flying around his ears will drag some percentage of a child’s skeleton through a snowbank with a vampire donkey, a devil goat, and a witch floundering along. We are many things, but never a moment late.
Available Now! Undomesticated Women, Anectdotal Evidence from the Road, is my new travel memoir. Ride along with us on a clinic tour through 30 states, 2 oceans, and 14k miles with me and my dog, Mister. It is an unapologetic celebration of sunsets, horses, RV parks, roadkill, diverse landscapes, and undomesticated women. Available now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and signed copies from me.
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