The only true voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but rather in seeing with new eyes. - Marcel Proust
Yesterday evening I thought that perhaps it would be nice to go for a trail ride with Little Love, but only if she fully agreed to the ride. When I got to the barn, I haltered her immediately and took her into the indoor arena, a place where we can be in peace together when the weather is good and others ride outside. The indoor arena is not much of a space, but it is as close to freedom that I can offer Little Love in this moment in time. Freedom is a relative concept. For a horse that lives on a 1000 acre farmland an enclosed riding arena would be imprisonment. But for Lilo, who lives in a small stall, the indoor can represent a piece of freedom, however short and small.
I had brought a book to read and I sat on a chair for thirty minutes while Lilo wandered around the arena. Every now and then she stopped by me to push on my book or lick my arm just to turn around and mosey to the other side of the hall. Finally I closed my book and approached her.
“Do you want to go for a ride?” I asked. She turned her head away and walked off. Okay, that was a fairly clear message. She walked a small loop and I thought perhaps she just wanted to hang out tonight, but then she turned and came back to me, putting her head down to the halter. This in her language means: “Yes, why not”.
I walked her to the grooming area, which she entered willingly. She has been known to stop as well, so I took her willingness as another sign that she, too, wanted to go for a ride in the woods. Once I had groomed her, I grabbed the saddle and showed it to her, watching her reaction carefully. She turned her head and looked at me, with her ears forward. This is another “Yes”, something she has just recently started to offer when it comes to the saddle. Before, there was just a whole bunch of “NOs” which she reiterated by biting the saddle, pinning her ears back and moving away from the situation, if she had that option. For this reason I have ridden her less and less, as I want to respect her wishes.
I reached under her belly for the girth, happy that we were going out for a change. Suddenly Little Love moved, trying to pull her rope loose and walk towards her box stall. I stopped what I was doing and, reverting to my old ways, said: “No, stay still, we have to go for the ride.” I didn’t notice the words I had used, the change in my own attitude. Instead, I fixed her stance, turning her head to face away from the stall and tried to grab the girth again. She made another quick move towards her box, pulling on the rope that was loosely thrown over the bar in front of her. I grabbed her halter and moved her back to her original position.
“Stop it, I have to tighten the girth.” I could feel myself tense up. I wanted to ride, I had my mind set on this ride. The forceful dominant rider, someone I used to be, started to lift her ugly head inside me. I tried tightening the girth for the third time, but this time Little Love nearly stepped on me as she moved abruptly towards the stall. Her ears were forward and she stood stock still, staring at her box door.
Then it dawned on me. The barn owner had just delivered her evening hay into her stall. In the wild horses eat almost all day, but in captivity we feed them two or three times a day at set mealtimes. Set mealtimes make horses obsessed with food and Little Love was no different. I suddenly realized what she was trying to tell me. In my tunnel vision world I had not realized what was going on. I was also fairly sure she could not understand why I would want to go on a ride when it was dinner time. In her world that made no sense whatsoever.
“Ok,” I said. “I’ll fix the girth and then you can go eat for a while. Then we’ll see if we go for the ride.” Little Love chewed. She waited patiently for me to get the saddle strapped on properly, content that her person finally had a clue.
I let her into the stall and she started nibbling on the pile of hay on the ground. I thought of what I had said to Lilo earlier; “We have to go for a ride”. Ha. We didn’t have to do anything. This was just human inflexible goal-oriented thinking. Horses must think we humans are nuts. I sat on the bench outside and waited for a good ten minutes. Then I grabbed the bridle and walked back into the barn.
Now she was ready to go. She hadn’t had all her hay, but had been able to eat enough to feel content. We set off for a ride, walking side by side at first. When we got to the top of the hill, I mounted her and she stood still, accepting me on her back. She lifted her head high and peered tensely down the field. I saw a tractor and a hay bailer in the distance.
“That’s okay, we don’t have to go that way, we could try something new today.” I sat on her back and she started walking, not because I had asked her to, but because that was what we were both thinking about; going for a walk. She didn’t take the usual turn to the left because of the tractor, but chose the road up the hill. We came to the edge of the forest.
“Hey, let’s go into the forest path,” I said and gently directed Lilo towards the opening in the trees. She hesitated, but then dove under the branches, ready to give it a try despite the claustrophobia that makes her shy away from trees and branches that come too close. Two fallen logs crossed our path and I could feel her unease. She snorted. Logs meant jumping and jumping meant stress, something she had learned long before our paths met a few years ago.
She stepped over the first log, but couldn’t help the panic that rushed into her limbs. She jumped over the second log and started trotting in alarm down the path. I ducked the tree limbs and leaned over her neck, not touching the reins.
“Hey, it’s okay,” I said, but didn’t try to slow her down. I knew she would calm down in a moment, when she felt the memories had subsided enough.
Soon she slowed down to a walk. We treaded softly over fallen pine needles and browning leaves. Once we were on a wider path, I stroked Little Love’s neck; she was alert, but calm.
“If you want to trot or canter, I’m with you,” I said. I didn’t touch her with my leg, but she picked up the canter. It was slow, tentative. We cantered for a moment, then took a left at the trot to pass the scary cottage in the middle of the forest. Someone was having a party there and children shrieked with delighted surprise when they saw the black horse approaching. Little Love held her breath and her head came up very high, but she didn’t stop or turn to go home like she would have last year.
“Brave horse,” I said to her, focusing on regulating my own breath to help her cope.
It wasn’t easy for her, but she passed the commotion calmly but swiftly. Once it was all behind us, she picked up a nervous trot, trying to shed the experience off the way horses do by running away from it. I didn’t stop her, but instead followed her lead, allowing her to work out the stress from her body.
When we popped out of the forest, the sun was starting to set behind the Jura Mountains and facing this magnificent backdrop, we both caught our breath simultaneously. Although I have lived in Switzerland for over five years, I never stop marveling over the beauty of the mountains, the lush shades of green in the summer and the soft snow peaks in the winter. Little Love, on the other hand, was not admiring the mountains. True to her horse nature, she was content to finally be out of the confines of the forest and back to safety of the wide open spaces where she could see as far as her eye took her.
We approached the barn from the hill above and Lilo slowed down to an ambling walk. She doesn’t like carrying me downhill, so I asked her to stop. She stood patiently waiting for me to climb off, loosen the girt, put up the stirrups and open the noseband. I walked her into a field and she put her head down to graze. I watched her suck in the lush end-of-the-summer grass and thought of nothing in particular.
Suddenly a dog barked at a house by the road and Little Love jumped and snorted in panic. Instead of trying to stop her, I took lead and trotted ten fifteen paces away from the dog before slowing down to a walk again. Little Love, who had followed me, blew air out of her nose and shook her head. And it came to me again, like it often does at small moments like this, that this is what it is like to be “with” the horse, not against the horse. It is like a constant exchange of emotions and reactions, it is a constant effort to understand the messages passed to you in this silent language called horse. To be with the horse is to understand the point of view of the horse and not to forcefully implement that of your own. With force and pressure and control you cannot have togetherness, you can only have separateness.
Long time ago I thought that the horses had to do what we said, or else everything would be lost. Everything. You must be the boss or the horse will take over. I can’t say how many times my trainers told me that. So many, that I believed every word of it and learned to be the boss. But here I am now with this beautiful black mare, and it no longer matters who the boss is, or if there even is one. There is no inequality between friends.
And yes, it is true; everything I ever knew is lost. And I thank the universe for that every day.
One cannot see the light. It is what makes us see. – Henry Corbin