The first thing I learned about horses was to hold my hand flat when I offered one a treat. Horses will bite into a curved hand, just as every living thing instinctively explores a curve, looking for more. When the hand is flat, the horse sees what it holds. When there is nothing left, it walks away. In this, horses are smarter than people. They leave when they have nothing left to gain.
Even stretched flat, the hand I held out was not taut like a sheet stretched from either end. No one else’s hands anchored my own, so I held them loose. My shirt was un-tucked, blowing in and out from my child’s soft belly, stuck out proudly. Later, my hands were covered in calluses from holding the leather reins of a horse’s bridle between my fingers. I tucked in my shirts, so the breeze would not obscure the lines of my body, and I held my hands flat when I offered something.
At school, everyone was surprised by the roughness of my hands. So often strength shows itself in the way of someone forcing himself to the front of the line. Riding does not teach that sort of strength.
The colors of horses have such lovely names: roans, bayes, sorrels, paints, palominos, dapple-grays… My horse was a chestnut, a rich orange-red color that deserved a nicer name and got one. The first time I rode him, we approached a jump at lulling canter—-the gait that inspired rocking horses, because it rocks you forward over ground, in a way that feels more natural and effortless than breath. He halted abruptly before the jump and I was thrown over his head. I “had the wind knocked out of me” which is just what they say when you fall so hard it hurts to breathe.
Dust yourself off, take the reins, get back in the saddle. All the phrases of riding are phrases of repetition. So, I took him over the course of jumps twice more. It has to be twice. The first repetition convinces the horse you are not afraid of its strength. The second proves you know your own.
However long you own a horse, you should not sit while it grazes on wispy blades of grass or walk behind it to get something, or ever turn your back… You can’t blame a horse that kicks or bites or throws you. And you cannot blame yourself. It’s not personal. Accidents happen when you ask an animal to act contrary to its nature. And it is against a horse’s nature to bend to a will other than its own.
People want more malleable boundaries. We want to love each other without fear, without caution. And often we lose so much more than someone else when we lose—we lose who we are without them. Horses never let me forget that as soon as I lost myself in something else, I had nothing left to offer.