Friday, November 21, 2008


Nothing that is forced or misunderstood can ever be beautiful.

So wrote the Greek horseman Xenophon, author of the first known text on the horse and how to ride--On the Art of Horsemanship--23 centuries ago. It is a profound spiritual principle.

The fact is, there is beauty in the freedom of choice. Unfortunately, human beings by nature gravitate towards force. The horse, a natural follower, can generally be forced to perform the same maneuvers he would willingly execute on his own if approached in a thoughtful manner. An athletic and artistically beautiful creature, the horse that freely chooses to partner with a human being can move a spectator to tears.

I have used both force and invitation when training horses. My often clumsy attempts to teach the creatures I admire most is similar at times to my experience homeschooling my two children. I begin in a state of expectation, devouring books and magazines that show me how to be creative and inspiring. I have images of my children following my lead with rapturous curiosity, soaking in the knowledge I share in bursts of brilliance and a spirit of mutual respect. This lasts for a day or so. When all does not go as planned, I quickly move to plan B--"Do it because I said so."

Of my three horses, Tango most despises this approach. A clever, inquisitive pupil who quickly tires of a task, Tango is always a step ahead of me, mocking my goals of horse training genius. Pat Parelli I am not.

Since Tango is so clever--he can open and shut all the barn doors--I thought he might make a good trick horse. I spent hours with the clicker (also used to train dogs and dolphins) teaching him useful things like how to retrieve. It was hilarious at first. The problem came when Tango discovered that the language of the clicker--initially fascinating to him--was simply a tool to get him to perform silly parlor games. Disgusted, he eventually refused to participate even for his favorite treat--carrots.

The next maneuver I thought would be ever so cool for Tango to learn was the Spanish Walk. Training for the Spanish Walk is a slow process beginning on the ground with a whip to cue and progressing to under saddle cueing once the horse can move forward and understands what is expected. Tango quickly figured out the whip cue but often resented the tedious practice even though I took pains not to tax his very finite attention span. Never one to hide his feelings, Tango often tried to grab the whip or hold the edge of my sleeve in his teeth. He now does a pretty good Spanish Walk but saves his most spectacular performances for the times I don't ask for it. This is a horse who likes to think and choose for himself.

Perhaps because of this, the times Tango does choose to relate to me--his rather dim witted caretaker--are burned into memory and give me a deep committment to this sensitive and intelligent creature.

One such occasion was a perfect June day, two years ago. Tango had a summer job--lawn mower for the neighbor--and was not at my home. Though there were horses within sight of his lush field buffet, he was alone in his own piece of Horse Heaven. When a friend came over for a visit, we decided to take a walk and visit Tango.

Tango nickered a greeting and walked to the gate when we arrived on the property. I entered the field and looked him over, taking note of the ample layer of flesh now covering his ribs. He was the picture of contentment. Instantly he began rubbing on my shoulder and lipping my shirt, a big brother happy his sister has come home so he can pick on her.

"Get off me you oaf." I pushed his head away, trying to sound stern, but ended up pressing my face into his warm mahogany neck and breathing deep. Eau du Summer Horse. I bet I could market this scent. It ranks right up there with freshly mown hay and sheets dried in the sun. A minute later it was time to go.

"See ya Pal."

Instead of returning to his smorgasbord, Tango followed the fenceline after me. When I turned onto the road he began to trot, then canter the perimeter, whinnying urgently.

"How cute, he doesn't want you to leave," my friend remarked.

"Yeah, funny horse." I looked after him, feeling stupid when tears prick at my eyes. We heard his pounding hooves long after he was out of sight.

I'm no genius horse trainer but I know how beautiful it is for a horse to choose to be a partner.

You don't have to be a horse owner or rider to appreciate the following video links. Do yourself a favor and check them out. The first is Stacy Westfalls unforgetable bridleless performance: The second is the beautiful mare, Matinee, performing her freestyle dressage performance at the 2006 World Equestrian Games with rider Andreas Helgstrand: Incredible.

May we all strive after beauty and neglect the use of force.


Jan said...

Good morning!

I enjoyed reading your entries this morning..and although I can not relate to your love of horses (try dogs? cats?) I am learning to appreciate the two that mow my field each summer..and I do speak to them every so often, and gingerly hand them a carrot or an apple! Most of all I have enjoyed the lessons you bring out of your horse experiences. Thanks so much for sharing your great gift. I love seeing the beauty of words in a sentence. Words that give mind picture are your specialty!

Have a great day.

Aunt Jan

Catherine said...


How nice of you to read and comment; thank you so much. God says he shows himself through his creation and I have found that to be true. Horses, and all animals, are a gift through which he can speak to our hearts. Happy Thanksgiving.:)