The Horse, Explained
You may or may not be familiar with The Horse. Perhaps as a child, you had many Marguerite Henry books, or you watched National Velvet every day after school for four months, or you pretended to be taking jumps over fences during long car rides. Perhaps you held fake weddings for your model horses (in retrospect, your pink My Little Pony was ill-suited for a life with your foot-high faux-Shadowfax).
Some of us, apparently, actually got to take riding lessons as children, which allowed said children to get all of this out of their system at an early age, while others did not gain access to actual horses until moving to the sticks in their mid-twenties and discovering that full-board was cheaper than their city parking space had been.
In your mid-twenties and beyond, the equine learning curve is steeper. You are further from the ground. You do not bounce upon making contact with the ground, so much as splat. You are closer to being aware of your own mortality. (You are mortal, in case you didn’t know.)
If you haven’t spent a lot of time around horses, you may have the idea that they are like dogs and cats (really big, dangerous dogs and cats). This is untrue. YOU are like dogs and cats, in that you are a predator. Let’s not get sucked into the canines/intestines/primates-eating-fruit aspect of our disputed status as omnivores. The fact is, if someone says to you “hey, let’s try this new brunch place that has amazing cocktails,” there’s a decent chance you’ll say “great, meet you there.” Your dog feels similarly. New things are fun! That is because you are a predator.
Prey animals do not think new things are fun. New things, if you are a prey animal, usually mean a swift death. Horses are like deer. They see something unexpected, they freeze for a second, and then they book it on out of there. They don’t like to leave the herd. They have no interest in breakfast cocktails. If you try to take your horse to a new brunch place, you need to convince them that a) you’ve been there before, b) there are no cave trolls at the brunch place, c) there will be other horses at the brunch place, and d) you will be a royal pain in their ass until they quit dicking around and agree to go to the brunch place.
There’s a decent wash-out rate when people begin riding horses, for just this reason. It’s also why you should begin your equine journey on a five-thousand-year-old Quarter Horse gelding. They’ve been to a lot of brunch places, and if you give them something resembling the correct cue, they’ll do what you say.
Or, you can be kind of a fool, and buy (see picture) a stunningly beautiful three-year-old half-Thoroughbred mare who, if asked to come up with a list of her fears, would instead come up with a (brief) list of not-fears (her own stall, dressage arenas, baths, treats, boy horses). This is not…necessarily…a disaster, if you have a good trainer (thanks, Aurora!) and are not in a rush. But it’s not what you would call a good idea.
What happens, though, when you fall in love with an ill-advised horse, is you become kind of a wonderful bitch, in a good way. You have to be braver than you really are, or you’ll get hurt. You have to fake it. You have to convince this beautiful, dumb, flighty creature that you are a strong and bossy person who knows what’s best. You need to pretend you’re a horse, as a rider, in a way you never really have to empathize with your dog or cat. “Oh, there’s a plastic bag drifting across the arena. That’s terrifying.” “That other mare is in heat, and if I get too close to her, she’s going to kick me in the face.” “Everyone’s getting fed right now, so we kind of want to duck out at the gate.”
Horses are sublime. They’re gorgeous mythical beasts that emerge from antiquity to destroy your bank account and break your collarbone. They’re fragile. They’re dangerous. They need new shoes every six to eight weeks. They eat your heart. They fall in love with your vet, and deliberately colic themselves in order to spend more time with him.
You are not vitally important to your horse, not really, not like you are to your dog, ever. They never figure out who you are, and why you do the silly things you do. You have to forge a relationship with your horse while knowing that, given the chance, they’d probably rather hang out with their buddies than spend time with you. But then, one day you pull up to the barn, and you realize that your horse has memorized the sound of your car, as opposed to other people’s cars, and has wandered over to the gate to greet you.
It makes you feel lucky. Not just “oh, God, I can afford to do this idiotic sport” lucky, which you should feel every day, but some kind of stupid semi-spiritual lucky, because you’ve managed to connect with an animal ten times your size, and convinced them to ignore every instinct they possess in order to let you clamber onto their back and stick a metal bar in their mouth. It’s crazy. It doesn’t make any sense.
You’re a horse-person now. Maybe it’ll pay off when the zombies come, and the gas pumps stop working.