Today, as I sat in knee deep grass in the middle of the horse pasture watching Little Love graze nearby, I was filled with a sense of peace. A butterfly fluttered past and an ant trailed up my leg; Lilo shook her head to get the flies off and then lowered her nose back into the flowers. Ah, the stillness of the moment.
What a day it had been so far. We spent a good half an hour playing in the indoor arena, trotting and snorting and then trotting again until we both broke into a canter, me laughing, her bucking. Lilo rolled, too, and then we watched the birds as we always do. Do you want to go for a walk? Touch my hand if you do. I thought the words, and she responded by touching my hand with her nose. I put on the rope halter and off we went, walking through the fields and stopping to graze here and there. When we got back home, we played with the hose for a while; water is a new element Little Love has recently discovered – she likes to poke her nose in the stream and spray it all over. Then, by mutual consent, we ended up in the pasture.
I lay in the grass and lazily watched a German lady ride her large warm blood in the outdoor arena in the afternoon heat and I couldn’t but wonder what had happened to me in such a relatively short time. Had I not been like that woman, riding horses day after day after day in the arena, schooling movements for dressage tests, asking for more trot, rounder canter? Had I not sometimes ridden several horses a day, training and schooling, making them light to the hand and leg so their owners could get on and have it easier? What was I doing in the pasture doing nothing, when I could have been working in the arena?
The German lady circled around for the umpteenth time, her horse obediently following her cues. She had an expensive and admittedly gorgeous saddle, it was the finest leather, and the boots on the horse had sheep skin on the insides. She was a beautiful rider, lean and tall, with her custom made leather boots and shining spurs. She had a long whip, too, and when she went round and round, she tapped her horse on his flanks repeatedly. Tap tap tap. More trot. Tap tap tap. More canter. Tap tap tap. More, give more, because this is not enough, this is not acceptable.
And, at 18 hands, her horse was equally stunning, what we people call a “good mover”. They made a handsome couple. People admired them, and I know the German lady was proud of her horse, and herself, of course. She was a brilliant rider, hadn’t she won all those ribbons to prove it?
The horse’s life on the other hand was reduced to 22 hours in a stall, 1 hour in the paddock alone if the weather was good and exactly 1 hour dressage work in the arena – every day. Nothing less, nothing more. Occasionally, when his owner felt adventurous, he was longed and once I had seen her walk down the road and back, a whole ten minute trail ride.
Someone could argue that the horse enjoyed his work. He was compliant, obedient and submissive. His ears were at all times attentively on his rider and never ever had he expressed a feeling of discomfort or resistance. He lived and breathed dressage, he had to be happy. Because if he weren’t, we would all know - right?
There is an ethical conflict brewing inside me. And it is no small conflict, I can tell you. Sometimes I watch the dressage riders at our barn and a very small part of me wishes I could still do that. Because, I think I was good at it. In fact, I could ride pretty much any horse and get it to do dressage. Especially the difficult ones, the resisting nervous horses or the ones that didn’t want to move, those were my specialty. Oh, isn’t she good, she is amazing. Who wouldn’t love to hear those words, over and over again, I’m only human. And I honestly thought I had a connection with every horse I sat on, and I suppose I did have some kind of a connection. I had no idea, though, no idea at all.
Who ever gave us humans the right to ride a horse? We all know it certainly wasn’t the horse, but rather we ourselves took the right to climb on these beautiful animals, and we still do on a daily basis, often with oppressive methods. People don’t ask their horse if they want to go, they damn well tell them they better go, or else. And I can no longer be part of that.
I still ride, I haven’t stopped completely. Sometimes I even ride with the saddle and the dressage boots. Occasionally I carry the whip, now that I know I can control myself and not use it against the horse. Usually I tell Lilo that we will ride for just a little while, and then do something else, something more fun. I ask her to give me this time in the arena, because I enjoy it. I know she doesn’t share my excitement, but every once and a while it is alright for me to ask, as other times I don’t. And she lets me have my ride in the arena, because she is that way – generous.
Thirty minutes of dressage work and she might tell me she is done. It is not so much a physical resistance than a thought: Stop, I don’t want to anymore, it’s enough.
So I stop.
I ride her on trails and sometimes I hear her plain and clear: Come off, can you come off? And off I come and walk the rest of the way.
I’m still not sure if this is okay, or if I should stop altogether, that is something I still need to figure out. I try my best to listen to her, and negotiate with her and when I do, she pays me back in gold. She gives me some time in the arena, because she knows I won’t force her; she lets me on for the trails because she knows I can also walk when time comes. I am starting to learn more about connection: it is having a two way friendship where both parties listen to each other. Connection is all about giving and zero about taking.
Little Love still spends most of her days in a stall, she goes outside alone instead of with horse friends and she has shoes. All that I cannot change, even if I wanted to. But I can change what I do with my time with her and I have chosen to build a relationship rather than build my own ego as a dressage rider.