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.


Of time and the river

Time tends to pass me by. I’m late to things. I respond to an email and am surprised to see I received it weeks before, when it feels like days. I put off picking up the phone to call friends because I don’t particularly like talking on the phone and then somehow it’s been five years.

And yet this past month, during a roadtrip through the Ohio Valley, I was astonished all over again at the way time eddies around me. It had been four, fifteen, twenty-two years since I had seen some of the folks my husband and I visited–some of them close family. I’d like to think this was a big enough shock that it would initiate a system reboot, or something, and suddenly I’ll be the sort of person who just calls you when she’s thinking about you. But people aren’t computers. (If we were, I would totally go for a memory upgrade. Mine is super slow and frequently returns errors.)

The paradox of connection is that it might take years for me to reach out to someone, but it’s largely because the moments that make them meaningful to me feel ever present. Here are some of the ones from this trip, as a somewhat impressionist chronological recap.

  • Being handed a brimming mugful of hot toddy, iconic of the care and gentleness with which these friends treat even a sickly house guest;
  • Eating dinner around a family table that at one point felt like home to me, and finding that it still did–and that there was really no adjustment necessary for new faces, it just happened, it just was;
  • Everyone being tired, or sick, or distracted by spur of the moment real estate decisions, and it being totally fine and comfortable and somehow perfect to get takeout Thai and talk about nothing;
  • Hugging family for the first time in two decades and tearing up;
  • My five year old cousin hiding jingle bells inside my much-beloved late grandmother’s treasure box, so that when I picked it up to take it home the box rang out and instead of being sad in that moment we all laughed;
  • The tour of the chocolate factory and the tour of the house, everywhere present the work of hands lovingly crafting;
  • Nibbling on spicy arugula while picking kale and beets in the sun and drinking the coldest beer;
  • Toasting marshmallows while the sun set over the lake and the full moon rose orange over the marina;
  • Making total singing fools out of ourselves, for love;
  • That steely-eyed, coldly-reasoned, absolutely cutthroat game of Jenga;
  • Proving that yes, Steve, this family can eat that much Chinese food;
  • And a brilliant double rainbow after the storm.

During this trip we saw Genius, the sort-of biopic of Thomas Wolfe. While the book of his that I love is Look Homeward, Angel and not his second epic volume Of Time and the River, they share themes of the circularity of time and of the insatiable human need for connection. Though I didn’t like much about the movie I was impressed at the extent to which both themes were folded into the narrative itself. It resonated particularly because this trip, for me, was like stepping back into the river at a point I thought I’d left behind and finding it unchanged. You’ve heard this analogy before, of course, and I know as well as you do that it’s never truly the same river twice. Often I think I write as a way to try to dam it. That never works. Time is slack sometimes and then it floods; all I can do is sketch a moment to remember the feel of it.