31 March 2012


I love to ride horses, yet I've done very little ~ some bareback riding when I was very young, and a few times with a saddle as an adult.  Even though I grew up in the West, everyone's idea of cowboy country, I never learned how to saddle and bridle a horse ~ though I can figure it out.  

Once when I was visiting cousins in Nebraska, they took me to a farm where we were to go horseback riding.  I was assigned to ride a black gelding named Charlie.  Little did I know that I was being set up ~ Charlie had a habit of bucking off strangers.  But unwittingly I fooled the pranksters.  Before mounting, I stood by Charlie's head and spoke quietly with him, stroking his neck and letting him sniff my hand.  After perhaps a minute of getting acquainted, I swung aboard with no problem at all.  Disappointment and surprise appeared on the faces of my expectant fellow riders who'd been anticipating a show.  I still smile to think about that.

Later, though, Charlie's irrepressible spirits rose during the ride homeward.  He took the bit in his teeth and burst into a flat-out gallop.  My "whoa"s and attempts to turn or slow him were in vain.  As we approached the barn, I realized that rather than passing through the larger vehicle-sized doors, Charlie was aiming straight for a narrow human-sized door that was open ~ he seemed to want to knock me off as effectively as any low-slung tree limb would.  I gripped tightly with my legs and crouched forward to meld into the flesh of his neck, and we swept through that tiny space with millimeters to spare on all sides.  Once inside, he came to a sedate halt, breathing heavily and with some satisfaction.  Charlie had the last laugh.

I've always been in love with horses' eyes.  Large and soulfully brown with oversized black pupils, they express a life and a history humans can never know.  To paraphrase A.V. Flox, riding a horse is becoming one with another creature ~ a massive creature ~ in a language only it can understand, a language of pressure and shift of weight and murmured sounds.  Not everyone shares that high opinion.  The writer Ian Fleming reputedly once said that "horses are uncomfortable in the middle and dangerous at both ends."  I think the truth lies somewhere in between.  Someone else once said "A horse doesn't care what you know until it knows that you care."  

I love tall and graceful horse breeds ~ Thoroughbreds, Arabians.  I also favor compact and athletic breeds like quarter horses.  Come to think of it, I can't think of many horse breeds I don't like.  The wild horses of the American West have a special place in my heart ~ mustangs (see image above, click to enlarge) descended from Spanish horses which escaped from their conquistador masters in the 1500s.  They turned wild, bred and spread, and were later re-domesticated by Native Americans.  

In the 1970s during a three-day solo hike into the Tortolita Mountains northwest of Tucson, a landscape populated by more rattlesnakes than I've ever encountered in my life, I was exploring one of the canyons radiating from a central basin.  There came a moment when I felt I was being watched.  Slowly I turned my head, and beheld the resident herd of mustangs, alertly regarding me from a ledge halfway up a cactus-strewn hill.  I made no movement to disturb them ~ just drank in the sight so few had seen, and went on my way.  To this day I feel privileged, all the more so knowing that Tucson's human population has overrun so much former desert that those hardy wild horses probably have been driven to another habitat, or to extinction.

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