Monday, August 22, 2016

dream of a common language

 I'm learning to dance with a 1200 lb partner. We're learning to communicate with each other, but we don't speak the same language. She is a prey animal; this dictates how she thinks.  She's been refined for a specific purpose, bloodlines going back over 500 years, made to run fast, to get away, to use those deep hidden strands of DNA to build muscles and a heart that can facilitate a hasty escape from predators, to sense threats, to sprint to safety. This genetic feature largely dictates the way we interact.  She is naturally curious, brave, smart and inquisitive. She doesn't want to please me, but she has learned over the last 6 weeks, as any proper riding horse must learn, that I am the leader of the "herd." Our herd is 2 beings: Nellyda the human, and Abbey the thoroughbred horse. In order for me to communicate with her, I first had to establish that I was the leader of our herd, that I would keep her safe, and that she could trust me.  I feed her, groom her, and show her the world.  In exchange, she carries me on her back, galloping through fields and forests, jumping over logs and ditches, and generally does what I ask.  Frankly, this never ceases to amaze me.
 This mare was a racehorse, and I'm repurposing her as an eventer, as we call these beasts in my chosen branch of equestrianism.  When you ride an ex-racehorse you feel every muscle coil beneath you like a spring. There is a gas pedal, and you can go fast, but this vehicle has a brain, a soul, a mind of its own, and it can certainly make decisions for itself despite your input.  Imagine driving a car, or a motorcycle, that could think for itself.  Terrifying. But thrilling!

Abbey and I have been together for 7 weeks. We have gradually expanded our landscape, the geography of mutual trust is being mapped out, day by day.  She now marches through ponds and forests, jumps immovable objects in the cross country field. She bucks after her more 'successful' jumping efforts, expressing self-satisfaction, or perhaps exuberance, I imagine. I can't dull her excitement:  in a budding cross-country partner I want her to feel confident and excited and willing to tackle more and more intimidating obstacles.  I want her to think for herself.  Someday, if we make it up the levels, she will save me when I screw up.  Now is the time for me to give her a sense of independence and a say in what we do.  This means tolerating her excited bucking as we cruise across rock-hard summer earth.  I haven't fallen off her... yet.
She seems to have decided that she will trust me.  I can see her ears flick back when I ask her something with my seat, my legs, my balance... she's listening to me.  I'm still learning how to say what I mean to say.  We're figuring it out together.

This, of course, is all in the context of an extremely dangerous sport.  Christopher Reeve (Superman!) broke his neck, was paralyzed, and ultimately died as a result of a fall during a jumping effort going cross country on a horse.  A gal in my barn showed up on crutches last week.  "Ridley and I didn't agree on the jump" she said.  Tibial plateau fracture, now with 2 screws in the bone.  She's out for the season.

A few weeks ago when I was washing the sweat off of Abbey's chest on a 95 degree day, she reached around and bit the hell out of my shoulder blade.  I have a fading bruise and a scar where here teeth broke the skin. But on the flip side of that, she answers my Dressage questions by trying. She greets me when I come into the barn, with a whinny. She stops what she is doing and rubs her soft nose down my arm, and we touch noses, taking in each others' scents. Like me, Abbey doesn't like to be fussed over.  She shies away from too much attention or affection.  She's all business.  She doesn't complain about pain, though I'm sure she has the muscle aches and pains of any athlete in serious training. She doesn't like to be over-faced, but she wants to be challenged and see new things every day. She is happiest when she has a job that has consistent expectations, but variation in the day to day routines. She's my partner, and will be for her whole life if I treat her with the respect she deserves. 

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