Make Halloween Weird Again

What is Halloween, anyway? It’s long been one of my favorite holidays, and it exercises a stronger hold on the American cultural imagination than any other. Yet it bears little resemblance to what it once was. It’s been sexed up and tamed down until it feels almost entirely divorced from its roots. A Frankenstein’s monster, if you will, that instead of barging off into the wilderness has gone for a well-lit stroll down cultivated garden lanes.

Deer skull on Icelandic house
Iceland, where they keep it weird.

Dia de los Muertos celebrations are closer in many ways to the original European All Hallows Eve than our current trick or treating. Halloween is rooted in Samhain (“sah-win”, meaning “summer’s end”), which marked the end of the pagan year. The Celts of the British Isles believed it was the day spirits were closest to our world–just as the people of Mexico have long believed that this is when spirits not only come close to our world, but come back specifically to be reunited with their loved ones. There remains a pervasive sense of otherworldliness about Day of the Dead celebrations, whereas Halloween has become all too worldly.

Dia de los Muertos decoration
flickr/Bart Heird

It didn’t start that way. Catholics, back in the 800s A.D., tried to turn the pagan Samhain into All Saints Day and held a vigil the night before. Called All Hallows Eve, this is what became our Halloween. It got a bit smushed up with another Christian holiday (All Souls Day) as well as old Roman days of the dead, and the roots of the modern holiday–costumes, trick or treating, bobbing for apples–grew out of a variety of traditions that immigrants brought to the New World.

Halloween proceeded to spend much of the 20th century evolving into a secular holiday, and the 21st devolving into commercial-dom. And yet there’s still some kernel of the original intent: using treats to placate mischievous children is not far off from using them to placate spirits, and Halloween still serves as a marker between the season of plenty and the season of wither. Half-bare branches and the scuttle of dry leaves in the gutter are as much a part of the holiday as jack o’lanterns and candy bars.

Gorilla, bat, and farmer Halloween costumesCostumes today may not be intended to confuse demons, but the trend towards satire does convey a sense of cultural exorcism. And then we have aspirational costumes–superheroes, royalty, pop stars–which seem uniquely and almost touchingly American. They suggest a world where everyone is encouraged to dream big and rewarded when they do.

Our Halloween may not be spooky. It’s no solemn reminder, as it once was, of the thin veil that separates us from eternity. It is a glittering daylight heartthrob vampire, not the monster you run from in darkness. Still, it’s a time to celebrate strangeness, to get a peek at what scares or amuses those around you, and to look at lots of extremely adorable small children.

I would like to see a return to honoring this liminal time. This Halloween, take a moment to think about our year sliding towards darkness. Watch a scary movie and feel how close you are to panic at any moment. Wear a mask to the grocery store to understand the mask you wear every day. Wear a “vote for Trump” button. Make Halloween weird* again.

*Suggesting something supernatural; unearthly.

‘Sounds emitted from the bushes: weird uncanny sounds made by unknown animals, for all sorts of things lived in forests.’

Synonyms: uncanny, eerie, unnatural, supernatural, unearthly, otherworldly, ghostly, mysterious, strange, abnormal, unusual

Vintage Halloween costumes
Halloween costumes: they don’t make ’em like they used to.

Friday Fave: Vampire Films

The Hunger (1983), starring Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon, and David Bowie

Vampires actually aren’t my favourite paranormal theme: I much prefer ghost stories. The trouble is that ghost stories made into films are usually rubbish, in my experience; there are a few notable exceptions, such as The Others, but on the whole they’re a disappointment unless done tongue-in-cheek. I’ve never found werewolves a particularly appealing theme either, again with the occasional exception such as An American Werewolf in London. Vampires are the reverse–often (although not invariably) dull in fiction, but frequently excellent as subjects for film stories. As supernatural/paranormal type films go. When I was a teenager, The Lost Boys (1987), (Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992), Interview with the Vampire (1994), and From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) were the best recent offerings of the genre; after that the focus seemed to shift to ghosts and all the horror films inspired by The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Saw (2004). There were the Underworld and Blade franchises, and the occasional silly or incredibly dark vampire film (Van Helsing, 2004; 30 Days of Night, 2007), but while Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were going strong on television, there was a bit of a dip in production of films about vampires.

Then came Twilight. Love the series or hate it–I’m closer to the ‘hate it’ end of the spectrum, although I did read all of the books in a single binge during a fit of depression–Stephenie Meyer did bring vampires back to the forefront of pop culture. The first book in the series came out in 2005; in 2006 there was a sudden burst of vampire films, and the vogue has remained in effect since then, dominated, of course, by the film adaptations of the books. Lots of these films are dross, of course, but there have been a few gems in the flood.

Let The Right One In
Let The Right One In

Let the Right One In (2008) was in theatres at the same time as Twilight. Everyone I knew went to see Twilight; few people I spoke to had even heard of Let the Right One In, which I felt to be a crying shame, because it’s an excellent film regardless of genre, and so much more interesting than its more famous rival. Most vampire films incorporate some element of sexual attraction in their vampires, or else make them horrific, repellent creatures (Coppola’s Dracula manages to do both); Let the Right One In takes a different approach, telling the story of a lonely boy who befriends what he thinks at first another similarly lonely child; the sweetness of relationship between the two makes the child-vampire Eli’s predatory nature all the more eerie. The two kids in the lead roles, Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson, are brilliant–Leandersson is currently studying theatre and seems intent on pursuing acting as a career, but Hedebrant seems to have abandoned acting for music, which is the film world’s loss but, I presume, music’s gain.


Byzantium (2012) flew even further under the radar than most of the artier vampire films. I remember reading a review of it and thinking I wanted to see it, but somehow I got it into my head that it was a tongue-in-cheek vampire story about a girl’s boarding school. (I have no clue where I got this idea. All I can think is that I was reading a preview or review of American Horror Story: Coven, which started at about the time Byzantium would have been released on dvd, and I conflated the two in my memory. It wouldn’t be the first time my mind has played such a trick on me.) I forgot about it until I noticed it playing on one of the film channels and recorded it; even then it took me a couple of weeks to get around to watching it. I particularly regret this–it’s one of those films that would look particularly good on a big screen.
Byzantium isn’t tongue-in-cheek in the slightest, but neither is it a blood-and-guts horror film. It’s a little like Twilight in being at its core a romance between a vampire and a human, but it’s also an engaging, if flawed, thriller. This time the tension isn’t between vampires and their human prey; it’s between the race of vampires, here a sort of eternal Victorian men’s club a la Boodles or The Athanaeum, and the only two female vampires in existence, who are being hunted down for violating the rule of the order (i.e. that only men should be vampires). It’s a feminist vampire story, something that, to my knowledge, is entirely new in the genre, unless you count Buffy. It isn’t perfect; Gemma Arterton’s and Sam Riley’s characters are well-acted but inconsistent in their aims, and their respective about-faces at the end of the story, though necessary for the conclusion, make little sense psychologically. Saoirse Ronan and Caleb Landry-Jones, on the other hand, are pretty much perfect. (Landry Jones, unprepossessing as Banshee in the X-Men franchise, is absolutely magnetic as the terminally ill Frank, and would be worth watching even if the rest of the film were terrible.) The film also features Thure Lindhardt and Jonny Lee Miller being evil and Tom Hollander and Maria Doyle Kennedy being cluelessly human. Its greatest weakness is its title–Byzantium is ostensibly the name of a bed-and-breakfast in a small coastal resort town in Britain, which presumably opened some time in the sixties or seventies. I can’t imagine an English family opening a B&B called Byzantium in any decade, even the swinging sixties. A bar, maybe, but not a B&B. Interesting and evocative as a title for a vampire film; completely at odds with the tone and locale of the story that the film unfolds.

Image result for The Only Lovers Left Alive
The Only Lovers Left Alive

The best and most recent of my favourites of the genre is Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), which features Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as the eponymous lovers (Adam and Eve), Mia Wasikowska as Swinton’s wayward (well, possibly psychotic) younger sister, and John Hurt as Christopher Marlowe. (The Christopher Marlowe.) There is some existential angst and fear of a mysterious plague that is killing vampires, but mostly the story is a snapshot of what Adam and Eve experience during the course of one of their rare reunions, on this occasion interrupted by Eve’s younger sister Ava. There really isn’t much in the way of gore or terror in this one; it is instead littered with a wealth of cultural references and gorgeous cinematography. It is the most accessible of Jarmusch’s films, and the most elegant of Tom Hiddleston’s–well, except perhaps for his turn as Henry V in the BBC’s The Hollow Crown (swoon). I’d like to add a superlative for Tilda Swinton, but when is she not unheimlich and beautiful in a performance?

There are certainly other excellent vampire films, but if I covered them all we’d be here all day. (If you haven’t seen The Hunger, do, because–well, David Bowie is in it, do you need another reason?) Also, if you’re looking for a novel dealing with vampires that is not modeled on either Anne Rice or Stephenie Meyer, I strongly recommend Lauren Owen’s The Quick–a bit steampunk, a bit literary, all kinds of awesome. And of course there is the original, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Happy Halloween!

Now Playing: Brandi Carlile, ‘Before It Breaks’

Margaret got me hooked on Brandi Carlile. During one of my visits to Boston she played songs from Carlile’s first couple of albums over and over again; all I could think was how much she sounded like a female version of Ryan Adams, and while I wasn’t hooked, I was definitely piqued; when I got home I started looking up music videos, and realized that I’d seen “The Story” before. To be entirely honest I was hooked when I read that she had a tattoo of the Auryn from The Neverending Story on each arm; I figured that no matter what she sounds like, she’s a girl after my own heart.

I really fell in love with the music when she released her third album, Give Up the Ghost, which remains my favourite of hers. “Before It Breaks” is the loveliest of the songs therewith; there’s no music video for it, but this is an excellent performance, imperfect audio notwithstanding.


Friday Fave: Ben Whishaw

Image result for ben whishaw

I have a hard time narrowing down lists of favourites. I love questions such as “what are your desert island discs” or “name your seven favourite books” but I find them challenging to answer, because in my mind I have to run through a list of a dozen or two and then weigh them against one another–which ones do I think are qualitatively the best, and which do I find most appealing for personal reasons, some emotional significance or love of a particular character? Chopin is in every way a superior musician to Jeff Buckley (well, we don’t know what kind of voice Chopin had), but I would be just as grieved by not being able to listen to the latter as I would if all of Chopin’s music were suddenly taken from us.

I have lots of favourite actors, to the point that the appellation ‘favourite’ usually feels pointless–there are those I feel capable of excellent performances, who likely number a couple hundred or so, I haven’t counted, and then there’s everyone else. Awards for best acting nearly always go to deserving recipients, in my opinion; it’s just that there are so many fine performances in each year’s crop of films and television shows that which ones get noticed seems to be more like a lottery and less like a process of elimination, usually based on who’s prettiest. 2009 was a good year for film, and the nominees for the 2010 Oscars and Baftas were all worthy. The problem to me was that Jane Campion’s Bright Star, and its stars Abbie Cornish, Paul Schneider, and most particularly Ben Whishaw, weren’t among them.

There are good actors, and then there are the likes of Paul Newman, Michael K. Williams, Tilda Swinton, for whom every performance is compelling, even in poorly directed films, and flawless when paired with a good director. Ben Whishaw is this caliber of good, which seems to be widely agreed among film and theatre critics whose opinions make it into print, and yet he’s received a paltry number of nominations, let alone awards, considering his body of work. The man is living, breathing art; there were performances as good as his turn as John Keats (and I don’t feel that any of the awards won by The Hurt Locker), but Bright Star was every bit as good as An Education.

Image result for ben whishaw

He is not your average box-office draw–he lacks the matinee idol looks of George Clooney or Tom Hiddleston–but he’s beautiful to watch. There is a grace and vulnerability to him that informs every character I’ve seen him play. Even in roles such as Grenouille in Perfume and Shakespeare’s Richard II, rather than undercutting the darkness of such characters, his slight frame and gentleness serve to make those characters more insidious. When he’s playing a character such as John Keats, Ben Coulter in Criminal Justice, or Freddie Lyon in The Hour, it can be devastatingly charming–or just devastating. He’s one of those actors for whom I will automatically buy everything he’s in just because it’s him and I know he’ll be worth watching, but I haven’t been able to watch Lilting yet, because it came out at about the time my mother died and until recently I’ve been quite sure I wasn’t able to handle revisiting that magnitude of grief. I’m almost there.

His stage performances are apparently almost legendary. I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before–probably about Hamilton–but why isn’t releasing performances of plays and musicals on dvd/blu-ray/streaming a thing like it is for opera and ballet? I’m entirely sure people would be as happy to buy a recording of a stage play as they would a film or tv show featuring a favourite actor, and there are so very many film stars to who do stage performances on the side. (There is a series of very good recordings of Shakespeare and Marlowe plays staged at the Globe Theatre, but this series is a rarity.) Whishaw’s performance of Hamlet opposite Imogen Stubbs is recorded on film, but it’s locked away in a vault in somewhere in London and only available to view if you sign up for an appointed time. Surprisingly enough there aren’t many people who can hop on a plane to come visit.

His voice by itself is almost as compelling as his performances. Here is a rendition of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, which plays during the closing credits of Bright Star. The background music is arranged by Mark Bradshaw, now Whishaw’s husband. It is the perfect end to a perfect film.


Oktoberfest may be loads of fun in Munich, but in the States it’s usually a bust. Giant crowds of drunk people, expensive beer, sad lederhosen. So when close friends began hosting their own, I thought I couldn’t be more thrilled. But then they made pretzels. REAL pretzels.

Oktoberfest pretzel textureIf ever you have loved a street pretzel, I am sure it’s because of the peculiar snap when you bite into it. The contrast of savory crust against chewy, yeasty dough is pretty good too. If ever you have been disappointed by a street pretzel–all of us?–it’s because the skin is dull or soft, and the interior a bready flavorless mass.

So what’s the secret? Other than requiring a good basic yeasted dough recipe, what sets apart a real pretzel from the impostors is a dip in a food-grade lye solution. Home cooks don’t usually mess with lye, which is highly caustic and needs to be handled carefully, but it’s the critical component in both pretzels and bagels.

The high-alkaline lye breaks down proteins in the surface of the dough. These freed-up amino acids interact with sugars when exposed to heat, creating complex flavor compounds along with darkening color. This process happens on some level with all cooked food–it’s called the Maillard reaction and is responsible for much deliciousness, like the crust of creme brulee–but the lye amplifies it. Often, home cooks try substituting baking soda to skip messing with lye; this works, but doesn’t get you quite the richness, complexity, or deep brown color possible with lye. Baking soda’s pH is 7. Pure lye’s is double that at 14.

Red Devil Lye for pretzelsFortunately, our host and my intrepid spouse are best friends and perfectly willing to support each other through the drama that is the lye dip. While they are, to date, the only ones who dip their gloved hands into the chemical that constitutes drain cleaner, the rest of us do what we can: mixing dough, shaping loaves, setting timers, rolling and shaping the pretzels. And then more friends arrive and somehow, dozens and dozens of pretzels just disappear. It’s an Oktoberfest miracle.

The dough is simply yeast, flour, water, salt, and a sugar; malt syrup is traditional, we used molasses as it’s easier to find. You mix it well, and like a bread dough knead it until it’s stretchy and smooth (signs the proteins are starting to break down and re-form into nice long chains that will hold their shape as the dough rises). Then it rests. Afterwards, punching down and a few gentle kneads, then portioning it, rolling long ropes of dough, and forming pretzels. After they adjust to their new form, they get dipped in the lye bath and immediately baked in a hot oven.

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Our pretzels for Oktoberfest 2016 were made according to a NYT recipe that we hadn’t used in past years. Calling for quite a lot of instant yeast per batch (2 T per 6 c flour!), they were much more active than our previous doughs. In order to stagger our time and be able to actually party and stuff, we made the dough the night before and let it rest overnight. With some doughs this would have been fine. With this one, even their 40-F degree resting environment was not cool enough to retard their growth sufficiently. So these were a mite less “pretzely” looking than previous years on account of their puffiness, but the taste was fabulous. All that yeast (and rising time) gave them really deep flavor.

This year, we made 84 pretzels for ~30 guests. We had 5 leftover because clearly a couple of people weren’t pulling their weight. I think I had 8 but it might have been 9 because once we started toasting them by the firepit while drinking whiskey I sort of stopped counting.

Photo from Oktoberfest 2015, I was too stuffed with pretzels for fire-pretzel photos this year.
Photo from Oktoberfest 2015, I was too stuffed with pretzels for fire-pretzel photos this year.


Now Playing: The National, “Conversation 16”

The National is one of those bands that I love desperately but once in a while can’t listen to for long stretches of time because their explorations of the experience of anxiety, grief, and depression strike too close to home for me. Some of their songs are pretty dark, and Conversation 16 is one of their darkest. One of the (many) things I love about the band, however, is that they usually don’t attempt to create straightforward illustrative music videos for their singles; while their songs are earnest and sometimes heartbreaking, they use their videos to poke fun at themselves, deflating any traces of pretentiousness. This is one of their best: it has Kristen Schaal (The Daily Show, The Last Man on Earth) as POTUS and John Slattery (Mad Men) as her lovesick bodyguard, and it’s brilliant.

Apples: A Seasonal Love Affair

I wonder if I would love apples as much if I had grown up somewhere other than New England. For instance, if my family had remained in eastern Kentucky where I was born—more tomato than apple country. But I grew up just outside of Boston and they were a staple of my diet. I used to eat literally everything but the seeds, core and all—at least for those fleeting early fall months when the apple exhibits its most, best, intense, appleness.

Our food system allows us to access most foods at most times of the year: strawberries in February, oranges in May, spring lamb all year round. All natural foods are best when freshest, and out of season produce can be truly dismal by the time it travels from its native clime to your table. But no other food makes the importance of seasonality so brazenly clear to me as apples.

29566098944_1fc0a6289d_oI’ve rarely met the tree-ripe, just-picked apple I didn’t love. The satisfying bite, the rush of juice, the almost cleansing acidity. If you live in an apple mecca—Boston counts—then during the season you can choose from dozens of varietals to exactly match your preference. I prefer apples with a very crisp bite, firm fine-grained flesh, and a flavor profile that’s at least as tart as it is sweet. Northern Spy, Macoun, Jonamac, Empire, Cortland are reliable picks.

This year I found a new heirloom apple favorite, the fantastically named Ashmead’s Kernal. Similar in appearance to the oldest cultivated apple, the tamer Roxbury Russet, it has a mottled matte green skin (almost like an Asian pear), bright white dense flesh with a fabulous snap, and an intoxicatingly lively palate. It can be intensely tart. If I ever have a batch long enough that their bite softens, making them less ideal for eating out of hand, I would try them in a tarte tatin where that tartness could play against a sweet rich buttery pastry.

heirloom apple tastingAt dinner the other night, friends prepared an heirloom apple tasting as our first course. It was a brilliant idea. I laughed at the coincidence when I saw the plate—we shop at the same farmer’s market and they had picked out exactly the same varietals as I had done, from a wide array of choices, that morning.

They served the apples with a Pecorino-like local cheese, nuts and seeds they had roasted with a spiced glaze, and homemade rye crackers. The accompaniments provided a nice range of contrasts—earthy, spicy, crunchy, unctuous, sweet—against which we could judge the apples’ qualities. Ashmead’s Kernal turned out to be the overall favorite.

Esopus Spitzenberg—really—had an almost airy bite and citrus-scented, light flesh. A reputed favorite of Thomas Jefferson, it tied for second with the incongruously named Blue Pearmain, which I can only describe as a fairy tale apple: cherry-red skin, snow-white flesh. It was not my favorite because its bite was more firm than crisp and its acidity was not quite pronounced enough to offset its distinctly floral sweetness. We all agreed it would make a killer cider or applesauce; its scent was positively heady. In last place was the aforementioned Roxbury Russet. Though this cultivar plays an important role in American apple history and is local to Boston to boot, its overall flavor profile was muted in comparison to the others and its bite, as well as its skin, more closely resembled an Asian pear than its peers.

20151010-dsc_0577It’s about 10 in the morning right now and I’ve already had my first apple of the day (I think it was a Black Gilliflower, crisp sweet firm). An Ashmead’s Kernal is next, and then tomorrow morning, back to the farmer’s market for another round of treasure hunting.

Friday Fave: Possession, by A. S. Byatt


“Vocabularies are crossing circles and loops. We are defined by the lines we choose to cross or to be confined by.”

A.S. Byatt’s Possession is a perfect treasure-box of a novel. I keep a shelf of books in my room of those works that have changed my life, changed how I look at the world: Possession is one that I take with me when I travel, like a literary comfort blanket. Dark Hour of Noon was the first of those; unless I count Jane Yolen’s Sister Light, Sister Dark and Sheila Finch’s The Garden of the Shaped for introducing me to fantasy and sci-fi, Possession was second, and possibly the most significant. I had always known I wanted to study English at university–what else does a person do when reading is as important a part of her life as eating and breathing?–but when I finished Possession I knew I wanted to make a career in the literary world beyond being a writer, be it as an academic, in publishing, book-binding, something. It also instilled in me a life-long habit of hunting through second-hand bookshops looking for lost treasures.

I discovered the novel via one of the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror yearbooks with the gorgeous Thomas Canty covers, among the list of novels worth reading at the back. I’ve always found this a bit odd, even at my first reading; it is not a fantasy novel, although it does incorporate a few short fable-like stories and a lot of discussion of mythology on the part of the main characters. I looked for it at my local bookshop because I liked the title, and because it had won the Booker Prize; I didn’t know what the Booker Prize was (I was fourteen, and had only a hazy idea of what the Internet was at that point), but it sounded interesting. When I found it, I fell in love with the cover alone, and it remains one of the most perfect choices in terms of using a preexisting painting to illustrate a book, in my estimation.

I had been reading adult novels for years at this point and by no means did this end my love of sci-fi and fantasy (or comic books, which I had also discovered a few months before), but this changed my taste; I stopped reading the small, cheaply bound paperbacks, quickly coming to the conclusion that most literary fiction worth reading came in the larger-sized paperbacks with better quality paper and fancier covers. I discovered The English Patient and E. M. Forster shortly afterwards, and remained convinced well into my twenties that being published by Vintage was almost a guarantee that a novel was good. I continue to hope that someone will make a mini-series out of it–the film version with Gwyneth Paltrow was a good film, but was pretty loose in its telling of the story, and a great deal had to be cut out. A version starring Ben Whishaw and Romola Garai and directed by Suzanne Bier would probably be close to perfect, although I know this will never happen.

The intersections of the two parallel stories told in Possession have so many layers to them that in over twenty years of re-reading this novel it’s never become “predictable”–I know the story, but can’t memorize the intricate turns of the narrative because each reading highlights some different aspect, or in the months since my previous reading I’ll have learned something new that reveals a different significance to some scene or reference which I never noticed before. It is an investigation of all the different meanings the concept of possession can have, from the physical to the legal to the paranormal. It is a mildly satirical portrait of academia, and the impact of feminist theory on traditional literary criticism; it is an explication of what feminism and feminist theory represents, and why it is necessary; it is a literary detective story; it is an homage to the mythology and its influence on culture and the imagination; it is an exploration of the different ways sexuality shapes our lives and the consequences of denying it–personally and culturally. It is two (literally and figuratively) related love stories, one Victorian and one contemporary, one doomed and one founded on hope. At its core, it is itself a love letter to art and literature, to how a work of art is born as an expression of one’s own identity and goes on to shape the identities of others. It is one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, and if you haven’t read it already, you’re missing out.

“An odd phrase, ‘by heart,’…as though poems were stored in the bloodstream.”


Now Playing: The Cure, “Lovecats”

The Cure have done plenty of grim and dark songs, to be sure, but I’ve always found that they’re at their best when they’re performing really quite sweet love songs in their signature bizarre way. Plus this one has kittens in the video. I tried to find a better-quality upload of the video, but most of it’s there, and kittens. Lots of kittens.

Talking to Horses

About a year ago I started taking horseback riding lessons. Yet it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that I could clarify what I really want out of my time with my horses: how to talk to them.

margskip8_29167657915_oThe moment of clarity came during a trick clinic. That is, an all-day affair where each participant worked with her horse on fundamental training principles with fun payouts–the tricks. Getting the horse to “smile,” or step up on a small block, or hug you. I was having the time of my life and we didn’t spend a single moment on horseback. It was the engagement with the horse, his interest in what was happening, the painstaking process of figuring out how to elicit the correct behavior that I loved. The conversation.

When I returned to horses as an adult, remembering only my confidence with them when I was younger, I was shocked to find how much I had changed. Sense of my own mortality, etc. I thought confidence would return as I spent more time with them both on the ground and in the saddle. Some has, for sure. But I realized at that trick clinic that I needed a tool set. Techniques for dogs don’t necessarily translate to horses; body language has different meaning; predator and prey cannot be equated.

Quarterhorse standing with two front feet on a block
Skippy is a bit clumsy and it took him ages to figure out this particular “simple” trick, but we got there eventually!

I feel like I heard a new language for the first time at that clinic and have been trying to practice ever since. My teacher always says that she doesn’t whisper to horses, she listens to them, and while I have intellectually understood the difference I feel like I’m just starting to understand what that actually means now. And although I’ve got a long way to go, it’s astonishing how much more confident I have felt simply having that insight and a new tool set.

Last week, I had the opportunity to take another “language lesson” with the same trainer. This clinic was divided into trick training for the first half and versatility for the second–that is, intentionally pushing your horse’s limits in order to build up their confidence and deepen the trust which is the focus of all training.

Skippy on a seesaw
The seesaw! Please ignore my posture, which is awful. Also he tried to eat the giant inflatable monster in the corner.

I got off easy for the second part. My partner for the event–as for the first one–was a hunky AQHA named Skippy who could be the dictionary definition of “bombproof.” At one point, I was riding him while holding a veil over his head, asking him to walk over a mattress and through a fence of pool noodles (at one point, while two hula hoops hung around his neck), and he acted like we were taking a Sunday stroll through the park. We had to work through a few tough moments, like walking onto and over a horse-sized seesaw or finding a giant plush iguana on the ground where there hadn’t been one a moment before, but on the whole our conversation was more like easy bantering than a debate.

If only you could see his “yeah, whatever” face. Image c/o Kasandra Olson.

My second trick training clinic left me grinning like an idiot and reinforced how right this system felt to me. Of course, not all horses are the same, and just as with humans, you can’t have the same conversation with two of them. I was riding one of the most reliable horses at the barn the other day, an expert lesson horse who could do what I’m asking her with her eyes closed. But she spooked.

All of a sudden I couldn’t even remember how to have any conversation, let alone what language it ought to be in. So I panicked and dumped myself off onto the sand. She looked at me, I looked at her, we both felt a bit ashamed of ourselves. A few moments later the source of the spook ran by, and let me tell you, it was the most terrifying chipmunk I have ever seen. So yeah. The confidence recipe includes a hefty proportion of practice and I’m far from that magical threshold.

This spring, I wrote about being an adult beginner. I was out for 6 weeks as a result of the fall that prompted that post; then I traveled for a month during the summer; and lately, I haven’t been riding much as we’ve been busy moving the barn to new facilities. Honestly, I don’t feel a lot closer to answering the questions I posed to myself back in May. However, through my first few falls and scary moments, through a sticky hot summer and a hell of a lot of hard work, I can now say (with a certain amount of pride) that I have been sticking to it. Talking to horses will take a long time to do well and I don’t know if I’ll ever be fluent. Fortunately, though–time I’ve got.