A horse is an animal that weighs half a ton, has a brain the size of a tomato, and is instinctively alarmed at the approach of any predator, including man. Horses can be trained and they can become affectionate toward humans, but they never develop the slavish trust and devotion of dogs. Horses are prey and their trust in us is always provisional, maintained shakily on top of their fear, which can rise up as panic in an instant. We fear their size, their speed, and the strength behind their kick; they mistrust our intentions. It’s this mutual wariness that can make riding even the gentlest horse just a little tricky.
I didn’t know any of this until eight years ago. I had never been on a horse except for pony rides as a child. But my daughter turned out to have a young girl’s typical fixation on horses. Over the years of picking her up at the stables after lessons, I was drawn into the world of the horse. I had always been a sucker for the romance of horses and horsemen. Movies about cowboys and traildrivers, tales of brave cavalry officers and knights in armor on horseback, the equestrian statues of kings and heroes, and most especially, the riderless horse in President Kennedy’s funeral procession — they all made emotional sense to me without my having any actual experience with horses at all. In fact, at the stables with my daughter, I was surprised to find that I was wary at first, hesitant even to touch them. I remember asking her, “Do they like to be petted?”
My storybook notions might have vanished except for a sensuality I hadn’t expected. I liked the way horses smelled. I liked the heat from their bodies. I liked the thudding sound of hoofbeats and even liked the clanging of the blacksmith’s hammer when he was shoeing. I liked the way horses nodded their heads when they saw a carrot and I liked the velvety skin below their lower jaw. I liked putting salves on their hooves and on their scrapes and sores. All these sights and sensations turned out to have an emotional power of their own that made them compatible with my notions of the majestic aura horses possessed. They were not mundane but part of a grand endeavor.
Won over, I eventually enrolled in a beginner’s class at my daughter’s stable and found myself where I never thought I would be — sitting on a postage-stamp English saddle on a horse trotting around a ring in the company of four other neophytes, all women. A diminutive instructor, standing in the center of the ring, insisted on the basics of modern riding. We had to sit up straight, sink our weight down into the saddle, and get our heels down. She was rather formal. “You may trot now,” she would say. “Now, will you canter, please.”
This technical, formal, feminine world might have seemed a long way from my riders of legend. But the connection was definitely there and quite close at hand after all. Time changes most things; anything that doesn’t change, or doesn’t change much, is valuable. And that, without looking for it or expecting it, was what I found in horses. People have been riding horses for at least six thousand years. Horses have changed in that time and so have people, but less than you would think. I have a postcard of a classical Greek frieze with an adolescent riding bareback. His erect posture, the position of his leg on the side of the horse, his firm but gentle hold on the bridle, and his overall sense of perfect balance are exactly what my riding instructor was insisting we achieve. The way that horse felt under that boy thousands of years ago is exactly the way my horse feels under me today. There is the link between our little group of beginners trotting around a ring and the grand horsemen of the past.
In our time, when the horse has little practical value, this strong connection with eons of human experience, and often with the most heroic human experiences, makes riding more than a pleasant anachronism. So does the athleticism riding requires, something seldom understood by people who have never ridden. Any athletic feat — sinking a free throw, hitting a long drive in the fairway, throwing a left hook — looks easy enough when you see an expert do it but is maddeningly difficult when you try it yourself. Riding show hunters, the kind of riding I’ve chosen, is as difficult as any other sport. In the early lessons I found I couldn’t make the transition from a trot to a walk without losing my stirrups. And even early successes are illusory. When the class was feeling cocky one afternoon, the instructor shook her finger at us. “You’re a long way from being riders,” she said. “Right now you’re just” — she spat out the word — “ passengers.”
She said it would be at least two years before we could begin to call ourselves riders. I didn’t believe her at the time. How could it take that long? Now, eight years later I guess I could call myself a rider much of the time I’m on a horse, but other times, particularly if my concentration lags, I can sink back into passengerdom without even knowing it. Every sport is fundamentally a contest of wills among opponents. But in riding there is a team of two athletes — the rider and the horse — whose wills must be focused on a single purpose. Creating that focus in the horse requires a variety of physical skills that take time and dedication and athletic ability to learn. Riders have those skills; passengers do not.
And to employ these skills well is to be subtle. Someone who knows nothing of riding can watch an expert take his horse over a course of fences and never see that there is any skill at all