Working with horses is a privilege that I try to live up to. On difficult days, it can be terrifying and frustrating–sometimes both at the same time. Since I was a city kid who was only lucky enough to ride at Campfire camps in the Rockies a few weeks in the summer, I’ve gained quite an education the last five years I’ve had horses.
But ignorance does have significant advantages. I was lucky enough to have friends who knew a lot about what’s called “natural” horsemanship, so it didn’t take long for me to figure out that my job was to develop my own perception, not just make a horse do things. Kyya Grant, a friend of mine who has more expertise and skill than I can ever hope to have, once told me that working with horses was all about ‘feel.’
Who would’ve thought that “feel” means controlling your emotions, controlling body language, controlling intent–all at the same time all your consciousness works overtime observing what the horse is doing so you can anticipate what they’ll do next. You have to come up with different techniques on the spot (and sometimes in outright emergencies) if a horse doesn’t understand what you’re asking.
Like a lot of writers, I have problems shutting off the part of my brain that’s always writing while I’m trying to live my life (it’s actually a lot like having an annoying CNN news crawler running inside your head all the time). I’ve come to depend on my work with horses as a way to turn that off.
It seems kind of silly to suggest that an activity that involves anxiety would be a cure for anxiety, but it is. If you’re loading a frightened three-year-old horse in a trailer–which means standing at close quarters in a metal box with an animal over five times your size and controlling your breathing and your own fear–it’s sure hard to be worried about much else.
And that is, oddly enough, incredibly relaxing. It’s a lot like meditation, and the sense of accomplishment when you can get a horse through something is quite addicting.
My farrier is a young cowboy who has a very hard time understanding what I’m “doing”…in his world, horses are used either for work, breeding, or competition. He’s a quiet kid, but every once in a while he asks me, pointedly, “Soooo…what did you get this horse for…?”
I know what he means, since I used to feel the same way–that horses had to be doing something. Why? Well, these are not creatures you keep around on a whim. They need pasture, shelter, dental care, vaccinations, feed, supplements, regular farrier attention, clean water, worming, brushing, discipline–it’s a lot like having kids, and the expenses are actually pretty comparable.
It’s not that horses don’t have responsibilities. They do, and it’s our job to make sure they know what those are so they can stay safe and be cared for properly. But just by virtue of being horses, they require a huge investment in time and money, and I suppose it’s only human nature to expect something in return. I just get something different from them than I can safely explain to someone who has horses for traditional reasons.
I wrote a story for the newspaper a few months ago about a family that raised horses for competitions. I was really looking forward to meeting with the family, thinking we’d have plenty in common and lots to talk about. We toured their barn first, and one of the first things I saw was a beautiful black year-old filly stalled by herself in a dark corner of the barn with a dirty cribbing strap around her neck.
I felt as if someone had slapped my face when I saw her. When you understand horses, you know how awful it is for them to be kept stalled and without contact with a friend…especially when they’re babies. I realized I had nothing in common with these people, who pampered the horses they took into the show ring and who ignored the foals who weren’t showy enough to earn ribbons. I’ve taken in old horses so gimpy they could hardly walk, horses with heaves, horses who were nearly blind and deaf, horses with teeth rotting out of their heads–all for the privilege of learning all I can about these creatures. And here were people who were destroying a perfectly normal, healthy young filly because she wasn’t the “right” color.
As long as we’re talking about ‘feel’…there is nothing like the feeling of watching your horses gallop in from pasture in the evening, manes and tails streaming in the wind, healthy, shining, filled with the joy of being alive–and happy to see you. I never cease to feel incredibly lucky during those moments out at the farm, and I hope I never lose that feeling.
That’s a lot worth more than any ribbon to me.