I’ve been avoiding one of my horses.
If you look at how much I work with my horses (or don’t), you’d think I’m avoiding them all, but I’m not. It’s true that I can’t remember the last time I rode. It’s also true that somewhere along the line, riding stopped being the point of having horses for me. Maybe it never was.
One of my favorite horse books when I was a kid was called The Secret Horse. It was about two girls who stole a horse who was about to be euthanised from an animal shelter in the middle of Washington DC. They hid him away on a not quite abandoned property, without knowledge of or permission from either their families or the caretakers of the property. I grew up in DC, and in my mind I still know the exact houses in my neighborhood I pictured them living in, and I know the property, a whole city block square in my memory, where they kept the horse. They groomed the horse a lot, and fed him loads of cut grass they carried to the barn on sheets after it dried to hay in the sun, and at one point they took turns getting on him bareback with a halter and walking slowly around the barnyard. Despite the many, many books I read about girls winning unexpected ribbons at horse shows, The Secret Horse always stood out as my kind of horse story.
I had my own secret horse eventually, though I bought her instead of stealing her, and I kept her at barns where the barn owners knew she was there. She was, however, a secret from my parents. I bought her from a farm where I was working before I left for college, and then had her transported several states away to join me in Vermont. I kept her for three of the years I was there, working odd jobs to pay her board, and borrowing cars and bicycles so I could get to the barn to see her. I eventually sold her, all without ever telling my parents I had owned a horse.
As things often turn out in my family, the real secret was that my mother knew about my secret horse almost the whole time. The barn I bought her from had called my parents’ house at some point after I left for college and before I had her trailered up to join me, and my mother had answered the phone. I don’t know what conversation took place, because it was one more thing we never discussed. The horse’s name, it may be relevant to note, was Stretch the Truth.
The horse I have been avoiding has a name, but we often refer to him as the Truth Serum Horse. He earned this nickname when I had him for sale once, for five or ten minutes. It was one of those times I didn’t feel like I was doing enough with him, and that maybe he should be in a barn where someone would ride him more. I ran an ad that more or less said “I have a big brown horse that I don’t want to sell. Call me if you have to.” One person must have been intrigued enough by the ambiguity of the ad to call. She came to see him, her best friend and husband in tow.
I rode him first, and he started out really rough and feeling like he was about to blow – a not insignificant event in a horse as big and athletic as he is. I was up there feeling like here I am calling myself a horse trainer and he looks like he doesn’t know the very basic basics and I look like I can’t ride a carousel horse. I stopped and looked at these three strangers and said “I just quit one of my jobs today and it’s a job I thought I always wanted but it turned out to be terrible and now I’ve quit it and I’m relieved and sad at the same time and my brain is really distracted.” Then I took a breath, picked up the reins, and the horse moved off like an old schoolmaster and went beautifully through his paces.
The woman who was interested in buying him got on next and started off similarly, the horse looking awkward and the rider looking grim and miserable. Suddenly she said “I hate riding in front of people, even people I know – I’m so nervous that they think I’m incompetent and doing everything wrong that I don’t even remember to breathe.” Just as suddenly she and the horse clicked into a smooth, soft jog trot and the rest of her ride she was grinning from ear to ear.
Her friend and her husband rode the horse with almost identical patterns, the rough rides smoothing out as soon as they blurted out what was bothering them. I have no doubt that the horse made that happen – he needed everyone to get over how they were trying to look and to just be how they actually were.
Horses have varied tolerance for people whose insides and outsides don’t match. Some horses just tune it out. One horse I had would see me coming when I was in a certain mood and turn and walk away. “Nope. You are not getting on me today. Not with that attitude.” The Truth Serum Horse doesn’t have a low tolerance, he has zero tolerance for being around people who are out of integrity. I could insist, but only by shutting him down entirely, and I got out of the forcing-horses-into-a-mental-shutdown business years ago.
The Truth Serum Horse came to me with numerous issues from how he was trained in his first few years. While I have helped him to feel better physically, and about life in general, I have not really helped him to get past his problem areas. I mostly just avoid them, and if I don’t feel like that is working, I avoid him. It has only very recently come to my attention that this is pretty close to my own path of making some progress toward the way I say I want to be, but then avoiding meaningful, lasting change. No wonder I want to avoid the horse who insists that I not only look at the underlying thing, but admit it. Out loud.
Because I think of myself as a horse trainer with a specialty in “fixing” troubled horses, I tend to look at horses in terms of how I can help them be more comfortable with the things I want them to do. The Truth Serum Horse has made it clear he won’t be comfortable unless I become more comfortable with the things he wants me to do. It’s taken me a lot of years, and a horse who won’t accept anything less than the truth as good enough, to realize that the one I need to fix is me.