(© Kip Mistral 2018. “Water Sprite” by Theodor Kittelsen)
Almost all of us riders met the horse first in our childhood imaginations. We took our seats on the gleaming black stallions, or the feisty red mares, or even the luminous winged white horse, and they carried us to…wherever we wanted to go. And we flew together with them in a gallop so fast that we conquered space and time.
Some of us children were so lucky to find our way to the horse in the real flesh. We learned to love that wonderful smell of their coats and their sweet hay-scented breath. We groomed them until they shone. We sat on their patient backs for hours while we talked to our friends in the barn aisle. We rode freely out in the country, perhaps, with no rules except to be home by dark. We were unconscious of anything except the moment, the freedom and its joy. We—and I am one of these fortunate ones—know now how extremely lucky we were to have this gift of innocent time with the horse. We could be Wild Things together.
Some of us met horses later, as adults, seeking a way to recall those distant childhood fantasies…still longing to taste that envisioned magic but, for many good reasons, it was almost too late. We were trying to recapture something elusive in ourselves, a tasting of something wild and free…but most riders who begin as adults find themselves being confronted by the many rules of instruction and looking down to see how far it is to the ground. Where as children we don’t care about such things, as adults we do. Many adult riders are overwhelmed with a lack of confidence they never expected to feel.
Recapturing something Wild that has escaped is always a real challenge. Ask any zookeeper.
Where Did the Wild Things Go?
I have a theory. The Wild Things are forced underground.
Our horses—equine foals rise on four velvet-shod hooves and can stand on trembling legs, gain warm strength from their mare mother, walk within an hour of birth and explode with joyous “boing-ities” soon thereafter. Domesticated, they are instantly corralled, fenced, penned, stabled, stalled, longed in circles, ridden in circles…kept, literally, under wraps. Almost virtually immobilized, in fact. Routinely moved and separated from their family, their friends, the environments they are familiar with. If they do their best for their humans and are successful or champions, or are born extremely beautiful or finely bred, they will be even more likely to be bought and sold like chattel, and sent far away to strange lands where they know no one and nothing. Not even the language. Lost in black space, alone. Constricted, restricted. Frustrated. Depressed.
Our human children—infants are not functional in an hour, they are helpless for the better part of a couple of years—but once on their two feet they explore their world with a relentless courage that is truly awesome. They toddle, they stagger and waver, they tumble on their face—frightened they cry—then they get up and do it all over again anyway. And again and again and again, until after the most grueling effort they master the law of gravity. Every butterfly, every red ball, every piece of filth in the gutter is a new jewel to contemplate. They exist in a kaleidoscope of mystical wonderments. And they, the Wild Thing, are the center of this universe.
But not for long, because then the teaching starts. No, that’s not right. Do it this way, not that way. No, do it this way, my way, not that way, your way. No, no, no. No, no, no. That is hot. Don’t know what hot is? I’ll show you. There, that’s hot. Now, when I tell you something is hot, don’t touch it. Don’t cry. Color only between the lines, not outside the lines. Be neat. Clean your plate, even if you don’t like it. Come inside now, you can play later. You’ve had enough. You don’t need any. I’ll do it, you’re not doing it right.
That world that you, as a Wild Thing, were so on fire to explore and make your own, conspires to suck your own soul out and replace it with…something that is no longer you.
When school starts, now you are expected to sit still on hard, bare chairs, not wiggle, stay still, don’t doodle, pay attention, keep your feet under your own desk, here’s detention for passing notes. Four hours, six hours becomes eight hours at school. Stay in line. Be on time. Have your work ready. Make A’s to make your family proud, make your school proud, make your community proud, be a good citizen, be a good member of your city, your state, your country.
Eight years of sitting in grade school, four years of sitting in high school, four years of sitting in college, two-to-four more years of sitting in graduate school–more if you attend medical school or law school–then your reward is a desk in your cubicle where you sit eight-ten hours a day. We don’t count the work commute…two hours, four hours, five-six hours a day you might be sitting in your vehicle, always late to everywhere because of traffic and accidents. You have no hope of being on time anywhere. You miss all kinds of important things because of work and commute. Two weeks of vacation per year, with a couple of four-day holiday weekends that you long for but also dread because they’ll be over and you have to go back to that grey grind. Constricted, restricted. Frustrated. Depressed.
That’s where the Wild Things Go. Into dark stalls and grey cubicles, where we are left alone with ancestral visions of freedom, color and light.
But Wait, There’s More
And now you “have” a horse.
After years in your stalls and cubicles, you and your horse are out of shape from confinement. Your horse gets hurt easily for any one of a hundred reasons, necessitating vet, farrier and rehabilitation expenses, but so do you, because you no longer bounce when you hit the ground. You are overweight, so your balance is impaired, and you become more afraid of falling. You hang on tighter to your tight, stiff horse. You ask him to do things neither of you should be doing. He can’t do a lot of it and neither can you.
You blame him for being a bad horsie who won’t take his right lead in canter. You don’t understand that he is crooked as hell and he can’t tell you that he can’t take his right lead in canter because he is so weak/hurt in the other side that he can’t support himself, especially with you hanging on his head, pulling his chin to his chest with the pressure of a bit that he can’t escape because you have his mouth strapped shut with a tight noseband. Or maybe, taking into account the discipline, he is at the mercy of a big curb bit.
Either way, overbent, he can’t breathe because his trachea is compressed, and he gets a little or a lot claustrophobic. He tries very hard but sometimes he “acts out” from desperation. That makes him even more of a bad horsie. Across the disciplines, the next step is to employ more devices and bigger bits to control his uncontrollability. At some point, tests are done and it is found he has kissing spines and cervical arthritis now. He puts back his ears when you brush and saddle him and swishes his tail the entire time you ride in annoyance and resentment. Clearly, if he ever liked you, he no longer does.
Your trainer (“kick harder” “pull harder” “drive more”) thinks you should put him up for sale and start looking for another horse. So you do. Rinse and repeat.
While this may not be your scenario, it is a very common scenario across all the disciplines. No one is having any joy…neither the horse, nor you.
Even if this is not your scenario, are you and your horse having any joy? I mean, really?
So…why the horse, anyway?
Why the Horse, Anyway, Indeed?
Gone are the days when horses pulled our wagons, plowed our fields and carried us across the land and to war. You would think their real usefulness has passed in this age of the machine.
But for some reason it has not, and here is what I think. On a very high level I believe that the horse is even more important today than he was in those past days as an agent of locomotion…the horse has never been more valuable to mankind than he is now as an agent of transformation.
For this reason; horses were made to be generous beyond belief, and they are almost unfailingly just that. It is very easy to take advantage of generosity, and humans also often confuse the generosity of horses with being stupid. It is a real test of human nature to be aware of the point at which they take the ever-patient, ever-giving horse for granted.
But we have a solution for this human flaw; we must really work at being present with ourselves and everyone around us. Checking back “in” to the present makes us better family members, better friends, better lovers, better partners, better parents, all of whom find more to enjoy in others. Becoming present can truly help us re-Wild ourselves.
I have seen many “horse people” screech into the barn parking lot after work—on their way home or to their next important thing to do—fling a saddle on the horse without first saying hello, grind him around the arena for ½ hour, douche him with cold water instead of taking the time to walk him dry and clean him by grooming him by hand in a way enjoyable to him—an almost lost art from what I see these days—and carelessly sling him shivering back into his stall. All of this they have done talking or texting on their phone the whole time. And zoom off in their car having been there for exactly 50 minutes, doing nothing that shows any kinship toward the animal, never having even looked at him.
Appallingly, I even saw one young woman galloping her horse around the small track at an equestrian facility, on her phone on Facetime the entire time. I watched for many laps and she never looked at the track ahead. There could have been dragons waiting in the trees around the bend…she was completely oblivious to the whole experience. That good little horse ran, for her, taking her place, which was on autopilot. It was due to his tremendous honesty that, knowing of course that she was not actually riding and directing him, that he did not take advantage and dump her narcissistic ass as a tough love lesson. This is a great example of the generosity of the horse.
Wonder why she is even bothering to “ride”.
Who Is Your Horse, Really?
Many people really have no idea who their horses are. Not you, other people. 🙂
With some variability due to individual and certain breed characteristics, my experience is that as a specie, the horse is extremely intelligent. Some individuals are downright brilliant. Some are problem solvers, strategists, tacticians and statesmen. Some are world-class artists. Some are extreme athletes who can’t turn a dare down. Some are zen masters. Some are stargazers and dreamers. Some are little mothers who just want to stay home and have babies.
Are you sure you know who your horse is? Even if you are, take a little break and try an experiment for a couple of weeks. Find out who your Wild Things are together.
If you are on autopilot with your horse, take yourself off. Be a human being, not a human doing.
Leave your ego and your phone in the car when you get to the barn. Spend as much time as you can without marking the time. Start making eye contact with your horse. No, the myth is NOT true that eye contact offends horses…at least the right kind of eye contact doesn’t! Some horses insist on eye contact, in fact, and I have one that does.
If you don’t already practice this eye contact, once you do over time you will be amazed at what you learn about him and what he tells you. Just hang out. Take him on long walks and see what he looks at. See what concerns him. Let him hand graze on the trail and see what he picks out. Do some things that he likes, not just things that you think he should like and would be convenient for you. Most horses have such limited, proscribed lives that being able to make even small choices gives them fulfillment. They ask for so little in return for giving so much.
True horsemanship asks us to combine the arts of being diplomatic and making community by showing respect, appreciation, compassion and grace toward our horse every single time we open his gate. Given this, almost any horse will give you anything you ask that they are capable to give.
For if we humans can learn to see horses as the generous beings that they are, if we can learn to cultivate them, their strength, their intelligence, and skills over time instead of “train” them to perform an action, we will find that we can take a journey together to a far higher level than a mere performance. You will find that if you give your horse the freedom, space and choice to give to you, instead of take from him, he will gladly give up the glory for the both of you.
Because, I am convinced, only together can we horses and humans learn to be Wild Things once again.