In order to work at the highest degree with a horse, that horse must trust us without reservations. Only then can the horse be free to offer its highest compliments to us as horsemen, and give of itself without fear. — Xenophon
The chirping of birds is all that I hear on this damp, dew-drenched morning. The world seems new and fresh, full of vacancy yet rich with promise.
On such mornings I have the curious sensation of being reborn to myself, of regrouping after a squall at sea. Nothing has changed much in my inherent make-up as the years go on. I’m still that gregarious girl my parents raised, socially at ease in just about every situation. But in my heart of hearts, I’m an introvert who yearns for the heart of stillness, of silence. The peace of God. Gentle, unfettered mornings such as this one remind me of God’s heartbeat, which is my own heartbeat.
The last few weeks have been charged with so much energy, fraught with so much busy-ness. A three-day natural horsemanship clinic has hungrily devoured a week of my energy, and before that, months of my time and resources. For a Buddhist, the rewards of being of service to others is always the primary goal. So I try to keep my eye on the prize. I am reminded of this as I walk the path of the Dharma and cock my ear for its message. Yet somehow or other, despite being an astonishingly adept planner and orchestrator of external events, I never fail to lose myself in the process. The wind drops from my airy sails and I’m left either becalmed or cast adrift. Either way, I am saddened to be left so far from myself. My true nature calls for me, forsaken.
I had an epiphany this past week, as the half of me that is a steed ran bolting into the night. My astrological sign is Sagittarius. So it goes without saying that I’m half horse. But what horse am I, I’ve often wondered? I now realize that there was never any question. I’m an Arabian; gliding over miles of gilded sand. I drink the wind, a proud and willful creature who lives life on my own terms, and of my own free design. I am highly sensitive, highly strung, highly tuned. But gentle in the right hands.
He hits her hard in the neck with a stick as she flies past him on the line. The wounded look in her kind eye is one of shock, disbelief and mistrust. Her head comes up, the nostrils flare. I feel the lightening rise within her. The injustice. He thinks he’s getting her to “come about” as he pulls her across, but instead she jibes. The boom careens wildly, without direction. Without purpose. A thing of violence, suspended in space. She has no anchor to her world nor to the native sand beneath her feet. She feels rudderless, and so do I.
“Do you want the truth?” he asks me bluntly. I really don’t, but he gives me his version of it anyway. “Your horse is spoiled. She’s used to ruling the roost.”
I look at him in disbelief, uncomprehending. I see the fear on her face, her lack of trust in him. I watch how he has driven her demons, how he has judged her without first bothering to earn her respect. Without pausing to peer into her noble heart. She paws the trailer with a foot. She is offended, but he is indifferent. He is asking the wrong question, but persists in his interrogation nevertheless. She pleads the fifth. She snorts and backs up. And sends me a clear message. Because I have always spoken her language.
“He can keep hitting me with that stick and playing this dumb game,” she tells me. “But until he shows me some respect, he’s not getting any from me.”
She gathers courage as she trots past him again and again.
The look of disgust on his face is palpable.
The look of disgust on hers is even more palpable.
I shoot her a look that says, “Come on, just do what he asks.”
Her eyes flash. Her fear has turned to raw, unbridled anger. He may win the battle, but she will always win the war.
“He’s in my country now,” she replies. “So he damned well better learn to speak my language. Otherwise he can stand there with that stick and rope all day long. All year long, if he wants. Go on cowboy, hit me again. One more time. The difference between you and me is that I know how to survive in the desert without water. You don’t.”
He wears an 1930s-style jockey cap. His salt and pepper hair is cropped close, as is his beard. He walks with a stoop and his voice is raspy. The emphysema is deep in his lungs. But his eyes are like bright buttons that light up when he sees her. She is still in his presence.
“Don’t ever sell her,” he tells me quietly. “This is a once in a lifetime thing. She came to find you, and she’s the one. This is perfection right here.”
He lets her run free first, then puts her on the line. It is long and thick and soft. He lets it slide through his hands like butter, never holding it taut. She turns abruptly to the right and he flicks her gently on the rump with the coiled end and she glides left. She follows his lead like a gazelle.
“I’ll tell you which way to turn Sissy,” he tells her softly. “You just move those pretty little feet.”
Later, he stands behind her, clucking softly. His Arabian is already loaded and standing quietly, munching hay. She is bare-faced, without restraint. If she runs away, how will we catch her, I wonder? I look at his clap trap, two-horse straight loader dubiously. I tell him I don’t think she’ll ever go into a trailer again, not after what happened last time. She is only three years old.
But he seems not to hear me. He clucks again and speaks to her in hushed tones that are unintelligible to me. Her ears prick up and she moves forward gracefully next to his horse. He pulls the butt bar across and closes the door.
“How’d you do that?” I ask in awe.
“I asked her respectfully and she decided to say yes,” he tells me curtly. But his eyes are twinkling. “Now are you going to stand there all day or are we going to go riding?
I guesstimate his age to be about 70. He says he’s owned some good Arabians, but none like her. He tells me a horse like mine could win the Tevis Cup. She has the right stuff. But listen. Remember to pause and listen to her, he instructs me sternly. Don’t leave her out there alone. Be her partner. Earn her trust. Then the two of you will be unstoppable.
He tells me about the time he rode 100 miles with a broken leg. How endurance rides have gotten so highfalutin and fancy, but in his day, a simple concoction of salt, water and lemon constituted electrolytes. He’d down it before jumping astride.
“How’d you place in Tevis anyway?” I ask impulsively.
He is looking off at a distant platte, his feet balanced in the stirrups, his leg quiet. I admire the balance that has carried this frail but still great rider so many miles. I conclude either that he doesn’t hear me, or that my question isn’t important enough.
But after some time he answers.
“Well, the best I ever came in was second. I never could win that damned race.”
I watch from the window as the trailer pulls away. Her pretty, high, whinny fills my ears. The same whinny that persistently called until help came when a stablemate was cast in his stall. The same whinny that greeted my truck whenever I’d arrive at the boarding stable. Greeted it from inside the barn where there was no chance of seeing it, but perceived it anyway through highly attuned ears.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” people would tell me. “That horse loves you.”
“It’s true,” I’d acknowledge. “But I love her more.”
There are days when I close my eyes to hear the even, graceful clip-clop of her hooves.
“Easy as you go,” I whisper.
Her lightening-fast trot slows imperceptibly. It is still fast, but no longer frenetic. I hold the reins slack and do not wear spurs. I ask with my voice and the slightest urging of my seat. She is so comfortable, her gaits so perfectly even, that I often forget I am riding an animal separate from myself. When we ride together we are as one. We are one with God.
I go through the trainers, one by one. Some are perplexed, others impatient.
“Well, she nearly rode like a Quarter Horse today,” one hardened cowgirl offers by way of backhanded praise.
I consider this woman’s champion cutting horse and his poky, lifeless walk. I am riding him today as she trains my horse. I stifle yawns as she talks on and on about the greatness of foundation Quarter Horses. I can’t help but notice that my horse keeps up with her QH’s lope at a very slow trot. That he sweats heavily after an hour’s ride, while my horse barely breaks a bead. I wonder why the hell I’m paying this person good money to make rude, dismissive comments about my remarkable horse. A horse who could leave her old plug dead in the dust, and who, moreover, easily demonstrated the point not half an hour before. The cowgirl can’t ride her any better than I can, cutting champion or not. This time I smirk openly, willing her to dismount so I can shake myself loose of her witless camel and ride a real horse.
“Your ‘trainer’ couldn’t teach a dog to bark,” I hear the old man whisper in my ear. “When are you going to quit hiring these fools?”
Xenophon regards me expressionlessly from his ancient sculpture, the only likeness there seems to be of him. His expression is mute, unchanging.
“I’m an ancient Greek, dead for thousands of years,” he informs me laconically. “But let me guess: after 16 years, you’re still looking for the right horse trainer.”
It’s a statement, not a question.
“Yeah. I guess so,” I reply sheepishly.
“How did that guy with the stick work out for you? Raise any good welts?”
“Very funny,” I admonish him. “I come for advice and you mock me.”
“Well, I speak ancient Greek, same as your eccentric old grandfather, so you won’t be able to understand my advice anyway.”
“But we’re communicating now,” I plead.
“My point exactly. Do you speak Arabic?”
“No,” I say.
“That was actually a rhetorical question,” he says glibly. “What I mean is this: you talk to your horse and she talks to you, yes?”
“Yes,” I whisper. The tears fall down my cheeks.
“I’m not even alive anymore. Just a disembodied statue. And here I am, the original horse whisperer, for God’s sake. After a few thousand years, I’d really like to retire. But never mind. Here’s what I’d do if I were you: Take that stick and break it into several tiny pieces. It would make a lousy jousting rod anyway. Not enough torque. Next, take that weird-looking rope thing with the sailing knots off her head. Arabian horses find it insulting to be confined until after they’ve felt the sand under their feet. Next let her run around near you. You modern folk call it ‘at liberty,’ or some such thing. Arabians call it freedom. Ask her to move right and left. And don’t be too concerned with how she moves. Be concerned with the why. Ask with your voice. Artificial aids are useless if you can’t use the ones you were born with first. Just ask Socrates. Listen to her, then give her a chance to listen to you. Then you can start having a conversation. It doesn’t matter what you talk about. She just wants to hear the sound of your voice.”
“What about the old man?” I ask.
“What about him?”
“She listened to him. She loved him.”
“Of course she did. You see, when I see a truly great horse, I occasionally have to reincarnate. Not for the horse, but for the owner. The owners are always the ones who need the help. The horse is perfect as it is. Most horse people think entirely too much of themselves. You, on the other hand, don’t think nearly enough. By the way, you nearly killed me on that ride we went on in California, and I used to be the best rider in all of Greece. So you’re no slouch girl.”
“Thanks. Can I ask you something?”
“What did she tell you when you loaded her for that ride?”
“She asked me why you keep hiring people who don’t speak her language to work with her. She wonders why you’re always translating back and forth when you’re the only one who understands her. Except for me, of course. I told her in time you’ll begin to understand that you were always the one with the right language. I asked her to be patient.”
“Yes, really. And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to take a nap. You mortals are big talkers. Don’t you ever shut up? No wonder I always preferred horses.”
I release a silent, high whinny to my vibrant Arabian mare. It crosses the miles and the planes. And from somewhere deep within my soul, I hear its joyful and spirited reply.
(*Please note imaginative liberties taken with this entry. Ancient Greek equestrians did not joust. )