I love horses.
I love that horses are really just big babies. I love the beauty of the horse. I love their tremendous physical power. I love the way their giant, shapely muscles quiver under your hands and brushes as you groom them. I love the way they smell, even the pungent, earthy, grassy scent of their droppings. I love the taste of salty horse sweat when I kiss their necks after a hard run. I love the sounds of their hooves, their snorts, and the way they pump wind through their lungs and noses.
I love horse's sweet, pure, gentle eyes particularly, and I love the way they will take food from your hand and rest their chins so delicately on your shoulders. Horses do not have a reputation for being particularly intelligent, but I disagree. They have an eerie kind of intelligence that extends in directions that are alien to us.
Not a particularly religious person, horses make me believe in... Something, for such a creature could be no accident.
I love to ride horses.
But I have no romance for any style of riding. A good charging quarter horse, Western saddle, cowboy hat and cowboy boots make sense if you are herding cows. A long backed thoroughbred, jodhpurs, jockey boots, long tailed coat and hunting cap are fine for fox hunting, but for riding fast over many, many miles of rough terrain, give me a lean and hot blooded Arab with an English saddle, a baseball cap, and running shoes.
The last vestige of traditional Western gear I still like are the really long reins. I can use these to give my mount a swoosh on the rump, or, when I stop to let him rest, I can tie him up.
They call it "English" in America, but really, the saddle type—more properly, the stirrup position—came out of light cavalry, and the style developed from the need to let your horse move beneath you while you were essentially standing. It's a great way to carry a lance, shoot a bow and arrow, fire a rifle, or swing a sword.
For me, riding style is based on purest functionalism. No romance at all. I was probably an Indian in a previous life; I look askance at all styles.
I first learned to really ride from hanging out with endurance riders. These guys are definitely in the running shoes and baseball caps camp. I may have inherited some of their prejudices. For example, the only time you ever "walk" a horse is getting in and out of the barn or pasture. After that, the horse is kept at a trot. The riders I rode with absolutely scoffed at Western style casual riders who walk everywhere and bang up and down in their seats like rag dolls at any other clip until they gallop.
To then listen to these same people in the bar afterward go on and on expertly about breeds of horses and types of gear (called "tack") is just hilarious. I don't really know about any of that stuff, and I don't care to learn. I can tell a good horse when I see one, and I think the best gear is the least gear.
I'm in a third tribe. I'm a primitive, looking from afar at bizarre incursions in strange costumes. I am outsider who does not even want "in."
Don't get me wrong. Even the worst rodeo riders have probably forgotten more than I'll ever know about riding. I know skill when I see it. It's just that most riders don't know shit; worse, they don't even know that they don't know shit. That's unforgivable. Pathetic, really.
I am really thankful that I have had people in my life who did know how to ride, kept real racing Arabs, and were happy to take me from a complete novice to a trail companion who would not slow them down.
I am thankful for the great horses who were able to at first tolerate my ineptitude and then show what they were capable of once they felt me relax and give them their lead.
I remember nimble footed Talouse who first showed me she could jump a six foot high barrier without hesitation.
She was a bay; that is a brown horse with a black mane and tail. She was one of those alpha-female types. It's a total myth that the males always lead herds. My friend Kim got her for his teenage daughter, but Talouse proved to be too difficult a horse for her to handle. Talouse was quirky in that she generally did not like females. I heard this from several excellent women riders. Horses can have strange eccentricities. Sometimes, one cannot fathom where they learned such things. Talouse was not a big horse, and not young either, I was told to take it easy with her all the time. She would want to go too fast, so I had to keep her calm and collected.
Talouse was what they call a "lead changer." Horses tend to be right-footed or left footed. Talouse was both-footed. She'd be going along at her peculiar dancing-footed clip, and then suddenly feel like she changed gears or slipped from two wheel drive to four wheel drive or back again. You never had to worry about Talouse hurting herself, and she had a knack for finding the best path anywhere.
As a beginner, I tended to be heavy handed and seriously pissed her off a couple times by yanking on the reins. After that, Kim had me ride her with just a bridle and no bit. She was a willful horse. I adored her. Good horses, like people, are always a bit hard to handle. You have to get to know them.
She and I really became friends the first time I hopped off her and ran ahead of her down a hill to give her a rest. After that she was always sniffing my neck and trotting over to greet me whenever I visited. I drew her a lot too. I would sit down in the corral, and the horses would shuffle around me curiously. Talouse had very low body fat, so all her muscles rippled under her skin. This fascinated me.
And then there was big, silly Jack who—once you got him excited—could stretch out into the longest strided trot I've ever seen and regally blow right by cantering quarter horses.
He was a big gray. Endurance riders, by the way, tend to favor grays because they run cooler. I do not know what happened in his early life, but Jack somehow must have gotten the idea he was unloved. He could be really mopey and try to refuse to trot. I was told I had to keep his head up. Once he started to hang his head, he'd get apathetic. They called it "Jackass mode."
I discovered a magic formula though. Jack loved to listen to chanting with a strong beat. He loved martial songs. "Hup, two, three, four..." Like that. Usually when a horse flicks his ears backwards, he's upset. He's in fighting mode, but Jack would spin his ears backwards to listen. He kept his head up then. Only then could you get him to do his thing, and his thing was that long strided trot. Jack was a fast, almost tireless horse. He did not particularly care for rough terrain or close environments though. He would get nervous and confused. Jack liked smooth dirt roads or hard packed open desert. He probably would have enjoyed the beach, but I never rode him there.
One time, we were riding a long at a good clip, and Jack suddenly jumped up into a canter while I was messing with my canteen, surprising me. One of my feet popped out of the stirrup. But it was bouncing around, so I could not catch it with my toe, but in trying, I accidently gave him a kick in the flanks, and that inspired him to rip into that crazy gallop of his. I ended up hanging on to the side of him, totally without any control. I resorted to pleading with him to slow down. He slowed down, stopped, and turned his great neck to stare at me. It was like he was saying, "What the hell are you doing?"
Jack could be trusted in an emergency. He was a good guy. I was so pleased with him that I hugged and kissed his big sweaty neck. He just needed someone to appreciate him.
From Jack I learned that there is this certain way you can swing a sword down that generates such force I can believe what I've heard was true: a good cavalry saber could cut through a guy's neck and come out under the armpit on the other side. I used to practice this move with a heavy stick. Jack loved the game. Every time I'd cry, "Hyah!," He would proudly skip a little bit. He was my cavalry horse, a soldier's horse.
I remember brilliant Rascal who was probably the fastest sprinter of them all.
That guy could charge up a hill so hard and fast, you had to keep your head back or he would knock your forehead with his. I have never seen a horse who could go up a steep hill like him, but he could handle anything. Nothing stopped him; nothing scared him. And he was such a sweet, gentle horse! He was in Talouse' herd. He followed her everywhere... until you got on the trail! And then, he wanted to lead! Only then was he competitive.
In the herd, Rascal was entirely docile. But on the trail, he had two speeds—fast, and faster. Rascal was Kim's horse. I usually rode behind him on Talouse, holding her back to preserve her energy. Once Kim and Rascal were out of sight, Talouse would relax and not try to charge forward or pass them. Kim only let me ride Rascal once I'd learned to use a gentle touch on the reins, but what a joy! Rascal loved to prance around, showing off, tossing his head, skipping sideways, dashing around in zig zags. He was a horse who ran for the pure joy of running. He was beautiful too. He could have been a model for Apollo's horses on the gable of the Parthenon.
But probably the most beautiful of them all was Mary.
We called her "Proud Mary," or "Bloody Mary." She was a dappled gray with dark socks, mane, and tail. In horsey talk, they say "points." An extremely tall horse like Jack, she was big enough to handle a tall, muscular guy like me. We had to keep her away from most of the other horses because she would bite them. She was a bitch.
I loved her. Mary and I got along just fine. She loved to be petted and groomed. She loved having her eyes rubbed. She loved to be washed with cool water on a hot day. With people, Mary was fine, but with other horses, though, she was possibly the fiercest horse I've ever known. Like Talouse, she definitely favored men.
Unlike Talouse, Mary had an extremely predictable gait. She was probably one of the smoothest riding, fastest, rough terrain, horses in the world. Riding her was like riding a cloud. She liked to get into a pace, and keep it up for hours. Mary had a driven, relentless quality. She and I shared similar personality traits, I think.
I very much favor fierce female animals, whether human, horse, cat, dog, or bird. You don't have to worry about them doing sneaky, cowardly stuff. If they have a problem, they'll let you know, and if you rate their loyalty—special bonus feature—they will watch your back in a tough spot. Of all the horses, I'd say Mary was the one who would be most likely to win a hundred mile race.
Despite her total alpha-female character, I did once see her yield to the energetic charms of a big, young stud. It was the cutest thing to see her act like a silly girl for a change, following him about and chasing the other girls away.
I'm too big a guy to ever be a really competitive racer, but my brother and sister horses did not mind carrying me, once we achieved an understanding.
It never ceases to amaze me, for, believe me, if a horse wants you off his back, you will be off his back. The damn things weigh a thousand pounds. They could knock a house down if they wanted. Unlike some of my riding friends, I never liked to just manhandle them. I always liked to get to know them. I always liked to run my hands over their magnificent bodies and sing them songs. In this way, I learned to not only draw and sculpt horses, I learned to capture their beautiful, childlike spirits.
Romance? No. Something better: True Love.
In these quickly done studies for sculptures, I try to show this love.
I always enjoy hearing comments, even though I may have antagonized some Western riders this time. But, well, I got sick of hearing them go on and on about how lovely they were, so I had to have my say.