This time of year in Montana, I feel like the world just needs to crack open like an egg with a chick in it that is fully ready to use its beak and its legs and even its wings. But it seems impossible, like we’ll be encased in this hard shell forever. Here’s a piece I wrote for the Parelli site which reminds me that, yes, sooner than later, I’ll be on a horse again, but for now…it’s about watching.
Watching the Herd
I decided on my 34th birthday that I wanted to get back into horses. I was paying for my children to have riding lessons. Why not me? I’d ridden as a child into my teens. I missed those amazing creatures. But I told myself a bunch of stories about why we couldn’t afford it and weighted my peaking passion with questions: what if I got really hurt? Was it irresponsible to be riding now that I was a mother? We’ll tell ourselves almost anything to keep our dreams from coming true.
I decided to tell myself a different story: I deserved to be happy and horses had been an integral piece of my happiness as a child. I didn’t have a big agenda. I didn’t want to compete. I didn’t need a fancy horse. I just wanted to re-visit the experience of horses again and to dig around for those lessons; that feeling of connection and freedom and abandon.
I asked around until I found what sounded like the right teacher for me and the right barn. I figured I’d be on a horse the very first lesson. We’d go around in circles and she’d tell me when I was posting on the wrong diagonal or cantering on the wrong lead. She’d tell me when my hands were hard and maybe if I behaved myself, we’d even do a little jumping.
The truth was, I’d never really learned about horses in all those childhood English riding lessons and all those Western dude ranch trips with my family. I had no idea what I was in for. And I’ve been in it for ten years now.
Here is something I wrote after one of my first lessons.
I am watching my neighbor’s herd from my bedroom window, surrendered to a late winter head-cold. I have been told to watch the herd if I am to know horses; but I haven’t really watched a herd, until now. I want them to gallop. To fight or nestle into one another. I want them to roll and nicker. Not stand like statues in the snow.
I have gotten back into riding after a fifteen year hiatus. I have a teacher. But I have not ridden yet. If you come to my lesson, you will spend a lot of time on the ground, watching horses. Learning about the herd. About being prey. How the eyes of prey animals are on either side of their head so they can see what lion or bear or coyote or person lurks in the field. About how they need each other—safety in numbers. How their motives are pure: to conserve energy. To survive.
Then my teacher will tell you about that person in the field. You. Me. Us. About how our eyes are close together. About how we stalk our kill, how we pounce and cling, take it to the ground and tear at its flesh. She will tell us that we are not bad for our ways of survival. Then she will ask us to look at the tree straight ahead; she’ll arc around us, and ask us to speak when we can no longer see her.
“Now,” we say.
“Look at me. I am behind you.”
We will be dazzled by the span of our peripheral vision.
Then she’ll do the same on the other side and we will lose patience with this exercise because what we really want to do is ride, but she’ll give us this: “The horses need to know you are looking if they are going to trust you. They want to trust you. They want you to be their proven leader. They let you on their back for a reason.”
But we are not really believers; an animal that big, that unpredictable? How can it not be a match of wills? We say we are in it to ride. But something tells us our teacher is not really a believer. She thinks we want to be afraid. She thinks we want to isolate our fear to this horse: stalk it, pounce and cling, tear at its flesh. She thinks we want to feed on our fear. She thinks this because she is us. She is a predator too. And we love her for knowing our true nature.
She’ll ask us then to look at the tree and at the peripheral her with equal measure. She won’t give us this little speech:
We look a sort, don’t we? Eyes on the prize. Safety in numbers? That’s our lie. We are loners in the forest, with our close-together eyes and opposing thumbs, our fire and feeding frenzies. We will share with our families, yes. And leave what we don’t want. But that is not gift.
Two horses will nicker and rise, head-to-head, slashing tails, and we will jump and look at her and she’ll not jump. She has been watching the herd a long time. She might tell us whether they are fighting or playing because we are paying her by the hour to know the difference. To have watched the herd, even though we didn’t know it.
If we are children still, say, under the age of six, she won’t need to tell us any of this. We’ll see the horses rising on hind legs, entangling hooves, noses to manes and say, “Look.” We are still prey.
Now, alone with my cold, looking out my window, I blow my nose and adjust the pillows, wanting to use my predator’s pocketbook to pay the horses then; the children. For having the patience, the guts, the pureness of motive, to watch. For the soft eyes that see the tree and my teacher with equal measure. For conserving energy; valuing life force. For knowing the difference between fight and play but not needing to name it. For fighting and playing their way to respect and trust. For not just acting like there is safety in numbers, but by living it.
There is a coyote in the field—rare for daytime. Each horse looks up from its hay, straight ahead but straight at the coyote and straight at me. And then they snap into a flurry of ice chunks and hooves, until they are neck-in-neck; a photo-finish in the only race of their lives that matters. Back to the barn. Safe.
No predator would be stupid enough to feed on the test and proof of another predator’s fear? Would it?