Thursday, September 3, 2015


Sometimes, our horse Hado pretends there is a bear in the woods, and he looks into the bushes with one eye and tosses his head and bounces around but doesn’t really spook. Mars, on the other hand, is six, and he does spook.

At our last show, there was a sizable pile of jumps and artificial flowers stacked in the corner of the ring where we were showing. I had Mars address it as we trotted around, after the horse before us finished and just ahead of the judge ringing the bell for us to begin. But walking past the very scary pile of artificial flowers and turning near it to get a good look was not enough to make it ok, or maybe it was just enough to fuel Mars’ imagination, so after the initial halt and salute, Mars trotted a few steps, snorted, threw his head up, went extravagantly sideways, and, then, tucked his butt under him, spun around, and tried to run out of the ring. I stopped him, put him back on the centerline, and made him do the whole test. The pictures tell the story. I look like I didn’t exhale for the full 6 minutes. My shoulders are elevated, my face getting pinker and pinker as the photos progress, and I’m sort of astonished we didn’t get a terrible score. With an entrance like that you’re in the judge’s hands. It could have been marked as an error. As it was, we were penalized for the movement, but not much else.

Mars, spooking in the show ring

I have seen different horses spook at lots of different things, like a particular pole on the ground (when there are lots of poles on the ground), or the depression in the dirt where a pole had been. Or a sunbeam. Or, a bird that appeared suddenly, or, a bird that had been sitting nearby for a while. Or, a sleeping dog that stood up. Or, a cat that leapt into the ring. Or, a jacket draped over a fence, or, an empty pallet in an unexpected place, or, a broken tree limb, or, some turkeys, or, no turkeys, or, another horse where he didn't expect to see one. Or, a horse where he sees one all the time. Or, a flapping tarp, or, a motionless tarp, or, the jump pile, or, the bushes, or, and perhaps, most especially, that special end of the riding arena known as “the spooky end of the ring.”

Mars, moments later, with his mind on his work again

My first horse was named Della. She was a liver-chestnut, with a big, long head, big, long ears, white diamond on her forehead (called a star in horse parlance), and a short white stripe on the end of her nose (called a snip). She had sturdy, powerful legs with short white socks behind and extra-big feet. She was a warmblood, with the Dutch seal of the prancing lion in silhouette branded on her left hip; you could really only see it in the brightest sunlight. She liked sour apple flavored lollipops and orange rinds and sometimes would have a self-indulgent roll in her poo on a Saturday night.

Mares are different from geldings. Mares have their hormones, for one thing, and they have far more opinions about the world for another. Good mares can be exceptional, opinions or no. When I think about the imaginary dream horse, the one that I buy next year or the year after, that has secret talent and takes me to the highest level of competition, it’s always a mare.

One of the many joys of owning your own horse is being able to get out on trails. Lessons are important, of course, even if you have no goal to compete. You need to work on the basics, and you need regular feedback from experienced eyes on the ground. But there is nothing like time out on the trails. You see things differently from horseback. Turkeys don’t run away as fast from a person on a horse as they will from a person on foot. Deer sometimes look a horse straight in the eye. Yes, sometimes, if you are the first person on a trail in the morning you can end up with a spider web wrapped around your helmet and face like a veil. Or you can take a low hanging branch to the face if you don’t watch where you’re going.

Like many mares, my first horse, Della, had a good spook in her. The word I think of is “vigilant.” She’d not miss a new banner or suspicious traffic cone, giving it a thorough examination with one eye, head cocked, body tense, ready to run. They call this the “parrot eye.” I now know that horses are more confident with a confident rider sitting on them; but beginning riders have to start somewhere, and time in the saddle is the only way to learn to ride a spooking, bucking, or shying horse. 

I liked to take her in the woods alone. Though it never seemed like I was alone, even though this was before everyone carried mobile phones all the time. Anyway, when you’re on a horse you’re not alone. But still. We used to go try to get lost in Bridle Trails State Park, wandering the square mile of densely wooded trails. We learned to ride in the early 2000s, at a barn adjacent to the park, and being about 15 minutes from Seattle it was a real equestrian treasure: miles of groomed trails, set aside for riding. If Della felt like snorting on a particular day, I would sing her the songs my kids sang at pre-school:

Where’s Della? Where, where? 
Where’s Della? Where, where? 
Is she up on the mountain? No, no.
Is she down at the fountain? No, no!
Has she gone out to play? No, no.
I see that Della is here today.

I have a young horse now, Mars, another chestnut, and sometimes when he’s spooky I sing him this song. I sing it with Della’s name because it sounds better.

There were folks who’d walk their dogs or run in Bridle Trails Park, certainly, and because Della was a little spooky I’d always try to engage the person in conversation. A talking person is not nearly as scary as a silent one, to a horse. Some runners had so little horse sense that they’d duck behind a bush to let my giant horse pass. Della would snort and prance the whole way. Do you blame her?

Cutting through the middle of the park is a set of giant, towering power lines, strung taught between the massive mech robot monsters we’ve covered our planet with, still and silent guardians of the electricity, their fighting stances broad, their shoulders connected by drooping cables, one to the next. With a broad gravel trail beneath, I always felt the power line trail hummed with electricity. Certainly the light was different through this clear-cut swath, and it smelled dry and industrial, exactly like the smell of dormant guardian fighting robots. The footing was large chunks of sharp gravel, so it felt different underfoot and sounded quite different from the worn, quiet earth of the forest trails. Della always entered the power line cut with a slow gasp of alarm, holding her breath for the wolf she always seemed to feel was lurking just behind the corner.

This being the east side suburbs of Seattle, there were coyotes in these woods, and sometimes we would see one trotting ahead of us, up the trail. They were small, pale and scrawny, with poor coats and visible ribs. The coyotes were known stealers of pet rabbits, barn cat killers and even said to be eaters of small fluffy dogs, though the ones I always saw didn’t seem to have eaten much ever. 

One day, on a trail ride alone, Della stepped from the dark, cool, quiet woods onto the power line trail, peering nervously around the corner and there, just past the great tangle of blackberry bushes stood a man and a young German Shepherd. There it was! Della’s wolf, just as she’d always feared. The man and I both gave out a quick exclamation of surprise, but we never spoke, because Della sat back, spun on her haunches and took off at a gallop for home.

I had been taught an emergency maneuver, called a pulley rein, where you set one rein in the horse’s neck, knuckles down and holding mane if possible. With the other hand, you yank as hard as you can, and then let go. It’s not nice, and it’s only for emergencies. If you’ve got a wall or a fence to stop them in front of, it will bring them to a stop. Or it should anyway. I had only the bushes of the wild woods to stop her, and it turned out that a single spindly holly bush, with only a half dozen leaves was enough to bring Della to a halt.

And, then, we walked quietly home.

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