Part the first, because I’m sure there will be SO many more of these.
I take this whole Horse Ownership thing very seriously. Partly because it’s bloody expensive, partly because any time I’m assuming responsibility for another living creature I take it extremely seriously, and partly – again, with every living creature – because I know that at some point this association will come to a devastating yet temporary absence, and that, as with more animals than I care to count, I will at some point find myself looking at him, looking at the vet, knowing what I need to do, and saying “Do it.” And every bit of experience I have with animals tells me that this moment will be perfectly devastating, and that there is no way I will be able to prepare for it, and – once I agree to become involved – there is no way I will be able to protect myself from it, and in fact, that protecting myself from it would ultimately defeat the point of the whole exercise.
I was reflecting on that knowledge that with the beginning comes the end, or, as George Carlin put it, when you buy a pet, you are purchasing a small tragedy. I was thinking of that just yesterday, and considering as well the stories people who have died-and-returned tell about the experience. Inevitably, they say that they have been greeted on the Other Side by [some host of beloved relatives]. What I think is that if this is really how it happens, my passing is going to have a lot more in common with Noah’s Ark than it does with This Is Your Life. Or, rather, This Is Your Life, but in woofs, meows, honks, twitters, and whinnys. One of my favorite kid’s books is “The Littlest Uninvited One” by Charles Tazewell, as great a piece of melodramatic religi-oid schmaltz as you could ever hope to find, but it sums things up nicely: if there is a heaven, it HAS to have animals in it, or for lots of people who would otherwise go, it won’t be heaven. And my heaven, if I can pick it, is going to have skiing and pumpkins and hot apple pie, but it’s also going to have my husband and all of my critters in it. If it’s got more, that’s great, but this is sort of my minimum demand. I ain’t going to no heaven that wouldn’t have Buster, Tibby, Sam, Jenny, Dusty, Chaps, Flanagan, Echo, Teddy, and Huey in it. Or Sadie, Stella, Louise, Mare, Jazz, Oreo, Claudia, Jamie, Sylvester, Lothar, or Spike. That would be a cheap sort of place, a hollow heaven indeed. Would seem more like hell, to me.
So I do take this very seriously. And I want to have my own horse because it will be good for my riding, and it will be very interesting, and I will learn a lot, and – everyone assures me – there is some kind of bond you get with a horse. Largely I want to have my own horse because my instinct – which has proven over the years to be 100% correct and 100% catastrophic when ignored – tells me that I should have a horse. And it tells me I should have THIS horse. Just like 7 years ago, when it saw Buster at the DCHS Mounds shelter and said THIS cat. At this point in my life, I have learned to just Go With It. If my intuition speaks, I am SO much better off if I just listen and act, and ask the questions later. So it nailed Huey and said HIM.
Now, I expected certain things: the weight of responsibility – and we sign the papers in two weeks, so I’m kind of taking it on as we go so it’s not quite such a shock, but it’s not all there yet – I expect some continuity, I expect some affability.
Here are the things I didn’t expect:
1.This degree of familiarity and anticipation. Huey knows me, already. When I came to ride him on Tuesday, he stood right by the gate of the paddock, waiting for me to come in and halter him up. Today, I wasn’t sure which stall he’d be in – the barn is getting reconfigured – but when I saw him, I said “Huey!” and he put his nose up to the grill, gave a good sniff, and bounced right over to the stall door and stood there, nickering. And when I didn’t open it right up, he came back, snorted at me, and bounced right back to the stall door. He knew me, and he was happy to see me. I’m not the only person who is riding him right now, and I didn’t expect this kind of recognition.
2. This degree of…differentiation. I am told that he treats me differently than he treats his other rider. His other rider is a better rider than I am, she’s much more experienced, and, well, just better. And me? The first time I rode Huey back in April, I accidentally asked him for a canter (accidental because I still don’t know what I did to ask, and I sure as hell wasn’t ready to canter – I was learning to trot). And he obliged with his super-huge floaty canter, and I learned, for a short period, what the word “fear” mean. I didn’t have much of an acquaintance with this word before, but rocketing around on an enthusiastic and athletic animal at 15 mph, 8 feet above the ground, and unable to steer or stop, I started to develop an understanding. I actually remember thinking “Why cannot I move and halt this animal? Is this what ‘fear’ is?” while this was going on. To shorten the story, we ripped around the arena twice before my “thinking” brain kicked in and informed me that I had already delivered one inappropriate signal (the canter) and that I was on a retired pro jumper, and there were jumps in the ring, and that if I accidentally cued him to a jump, he could get really hurt, and at that point, I determined to stop him or bail out. I would up bailing out, but something went wrong with Plan A and I came to 10 minutes later on the ground, with paramedics, having evidently failed to fully incorporate information about our forward velocity such that I bailed out and hit my head and knocked myself out cold on the sand of the arena for well over one minute. Lights were not on, no one was home. Then there was another long period where the lights may have been on, but they must have been on automatic timer, because still no one was home. That ride ended with a trip on the meat wagon, and once I regained some basic understanding of where I was and generally what had happened, I was consumed with concern over the horse and whether he was OK. I had some distress over this matter before I was assured, firmly, that he was FINE.
Anyway, it seems that Huey remembers this. My trainer told me the other day that with his other rider, he just leaps right into action, but whenever I give him a speed-up cue, he looks at me (I can’t see this, but she can) like he’s asking “Are you sure?” And because critters will talk to me – and I can understand, about as well as if someone is speaking French to me at a normal conversational pace – I hear that from his perspective, I didn’t fall off (nor from mine, for that matter…I chose my time and manner of dismounting, I just didn’t execute the plan properly, but it was not a “fall”) – I didn’t fall off, he thinks he lost me. And he doesn’t want to do that again.
So this is another bit I didn’t expect: I have been so wrapped up in how responsible I am for him that it never occurred to me that he’d feel responsible for me. I guess, when I think of it, it makes sense: if an adult is piggybacking a kid around, and the kid gets confused and lets go and falls down, the adult feels bad about losing the kid like that. It’s not too different.
3. I knew my feelings would get involved, but I didn’t know his would. And yet, the other day, I had him tied up to groom and took a break to admire another one of the horses who was being ridden in the ring. The other horse had a very beautiful way of carrying his head. I commented on this, and admired it, and my trainer told me that this head carriage is something that the rider communicates to the horse, that it’s not something the horse just does. (For those in the know, what I was admiring was the horse being on the bit and carrying his head in a very nice dressage frame.) Right about then, Huey cut loose with a huge snort and a little blast of indignation, and I turned and found him looking at me with his ears drooping. I gave him a little fountain of appreciation: how smart, how beautiful, how kind he was, how much better to be My Special Horse than the other horse, and he perked up.
In the middle of my lesson today, I was working on leg yields and doing some trotting, and Huey started messing with his head. My trainer stopped and told me that ordinarily she wouldn’t be teaching me this for quite a while. but that Huey was doing this thing and that he kept looking back at me to see if this was what I wanted, and that it looked like all I’d need to do was to give him some positive reinforcement – and she told me how – and then the next thing I know, Huey’s on the bit, carrying his head in the dressage frame, and we’re trotting around looking like a million bucks. Now Huey is a former grand prix show jumper, and horses in that line carry themselves very differently from dressage horses. Especially in their heads. I didn’t expect this. I didn’t ask him to do that, he figured it out on his own and offered it to me, and I found out how to say “Yes, thank you!” I didn’t realize he was going to want to please me.
Later, my trainer offered the observation that he works differently for me than he works for other people. “He really likes you,” she said, and said, generally, that he works harder for me than he does for others. He does whatever I ask him to, and then he volunteers some more. I didn’t expect that. I knew he was going to be a great teacher for me, but I thought it was because he was totally reliable – I didn’t know he was going to invent cool stuff to do, or figure out how to do stuff on his own and then teach me how to do it with him. I had absolutely no idea.
This is too awesome for words, this thing.
I guess I can’t say that I’m completely astonished at all of it, because I have come to understand that critters grasp a lot more of what we tell them than it seems like they ought to, since they don’t exactly speak English. And I have been telling Huey, a lot, that he is going to be My Special Horse, and we will be Together, and I will take care of him. And I tell him constantly how beautiful and smart and sweet he is. If anything in a lesson goes right, I give him total credit for it. He’s not just a cute face, he’s one smart boy! And, I guess, he knows that I know that, and it makes him happy, because he’s working on making me happy.
Now, if we can only reach an understanding about him not getting carried away with slutty glee and putting his teeth on me, we’re really going to be cooking with gas. I’m still working on that with Buster after 7 years, though, so we’ll just have to see.