When I think about the last twenty plus years I have ridden horses regularly, I realize I know the same amount I knew when I was three years old and looked at a big horse turned out in an arena who came to the gate to say hello to me, and I felt for the first time the thing that now I am seeking every day: that horses are a life just trying to get us to be real with them.
At three, I didn’t know how to form this sentence. But one of my few and most vivid memories of that age is staring up at that big horse at the gate. He was looking at me and when my parents said it was time to go and I walked away up the driveway, I remember he was still looking at me when I looked back. I remember feeling like he was seeing me and didn’t want me to go.
I am not a person that says things like this lightly. I don’t believe that he was speaking English or that there was any level of whispering happening. I do believe that at a young age I felt something important that so many of us lose track of as we age and it had nothing to do with horses. This feeling was a sense of presence, of knowing exactly where I should stand to be truly in the company of another piece of life.
I’ve held onto that feeling since, though it goes back and forth between being a memory and being my reality. When I began riding I was quickly taken on a journey away from the horse and into a sport. The list of things I thought I knew about horses got very long. I lost track of that memory of the big horse and the draw I felt because I was learning a skill. But I never forgot it and I know that because it kept pulling me back, even now.
When I was the deepest into riding as a sport I thought I knew quite a bit about horses, and yet I felt such a sense of discomfort, which I could hardly identify beyond the expression of anxiety. As the years have gone by I have realized that this dissidence between my practice and that feeling with the big horse was something trying to come out. The one thing I know for sure about horses was trying to come through and I was trying not to let it by hiding behind knowledge and practices that are performative, able to be memorized and standardized, and utterly forget that riding involves a horse.
I don’t mean to say that horses are the only thing that can call to us, or that they are better in their being than any other for of life. I think that the world is full of opportunities to search for an honesty and truth that is easy to avoid. Horses have just always been this beacon for me. I do think that horses are exceptional in their ability to force this upon us quickly, the second we are ready. They have a vulnerability to them that is incomparable, perhaps because they are prey animals, or because they are so sensitive and expressive, or maybe because they are always already prisoners when we interact with them because they are never in the element of their choosing but always in ours, no matter how far apart the fences. So this combined with the nature of what we ask of them, to sacrifice their autonomy of thought and body, provides insight into ourselves and our world that is truly exceptional.
What I know about horses is a short list. I know that horses are able to be with us only if we are able to be with them. I know that the thing that appealed to me when looking up at the big horse was that I felt real and safe and like I wanted to stay there forever. That memory has stayed so clear with me for so long that I know even if the order and the shapes of the moment have changed in my mind with age, that the feeling must be true. Especially since I now feel moments of discomfort and know to go a different way in search of that feeling with every horse I touch, as well as without the horses, as I work towards an authentic experience of life. It’s not always there, but I know now what I knew when I was three and maybe forgot for a while, which is that it can be there so I better try something else if I don’t have it right now.
I have realized that the reason my three-year old self could feel that so strongly was because there was less in the way. I lost track of that feeling because other parts of me developed that took away from my ability to simply be with a horse. I haven’t gotten it all back, but this is why I work so hard not only at my horsemanship, but on myself. I don’t believe that we should shut out our feelings when we work horses. I think if we have feelings that are interrupting our connection with a horse it is an opportunity to sort out that feeling separate from the horse, so that we can be more accessible for the true presence and connection when we ask for the partnership the next time.