Because it is the weekend of the Kentucky Derby, and because I live about ten minutes from Churchill Downs, I will share my vast expertise on horses.
First, my résumé:
My family had ponies as pets like other families had cats and dogs. Unlike a tall guy named Shorty, there was nothing ironic about the name of Mischief, our Shetland pony. She was Satan minus the cloven hooves. When I was six or seven, Mischief decided one afternoon to plop down without warning for a rest. Normally, I would not have denied her that privilege, except I was riding her at the time. Still in the saddle, my left leg was pinned beneath her. As I began to lose the feeling in that part of my body, I smacked Mischief’s neck and kicked her with my free leg. The beast would not budge. Buzzards had begun to circle by the time my brother came to rescue me.
After that, I decided I could find better ways to spend my time, and I was largely successful for several years in avoiding saddles and bridles. Then my grandfather, a horse nut, invited the family to join a saddle club. My dad and older brother loved horses and readily agreed. I wanted no part of it, preferring to spend my time in ways other than repeatedly riding a large malodorous animal in a figure eight formation. Plus, everyone had to wear matching turquoise shirts. Fat kids like me did not look good in that color. I didn’t look good in a cowboy hat either. Come to think of it, I didn’t look good in much of anything in those days. But my mother enticed me to give the saddle club a shot by promising to take me to our area’s only public swimming pool at the end of the summer. I did not like swimming any more than I liked horses. But the pool’s snack bar had frozen MilkShake candy bars, which were impossible for a chubby kid to resist. Riding in the saddle club that summer had a coolness factor roughly on par with a crocheted toaster cover, but I survived. I have ridden horses several more times since, each time swearing it would be the last. I have kept my word now for more than ten years.
A few things I have learned:
- Horses are smart.
- They know they’re smarter than humans.
- But their willpower is weak.
- Even though they know you’re luring them with oats so you can halter them, they can’t resist.
- But they will hold a grudge (see galloping too close to a tree below).
- Horses know you don’t know what you’re doing.
- They know even before you get on them.
- Like when you improperly cinch the saddle.
- Or examine the bit and ask, “Where does this thing go?”
- When you grab the saddle horn, they say “Rookie! This will be fun.”
- They don’t actually say that, but they think it.
- Horses can’t talk, after all.
- They can smell fear.
- When they smell fear, they develop an urge to gallop.
- It’s much easier to take off in a full gallop if they rid themselves of you.
- If it seems they’re running dangerously close to a large tree, you are not mistaken.
- Their intent is to scrape you off their back.
- It’s best to jump/fall off before you reach the tree.
- It’s going to hurt either way.
- There’s no cool way to fall off a horse.
- Forget what you’ve seen in cowboy movies.
- If you ride in a group, horses will talk about you with the other horses.
- They will not say nice things.
- Horses will hold their manure, waiting until the most embarrassing moment to release it.
- For example, when you trot by that cute girl you have a crush on in eighth grade.
- Or in the yard where you’ll have to mow later that day.
- If you want your horse to gallop, it will not.
- It will go as slowly as possible.
- Until you’re ready to turn back toward home, that is.
- Then the horse will run so fast it could out run a Derby champion.
P.S., If you have a penchant for Norwegian literature that’s a little bit about horses and a lot about human relationships, read Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. It’s an aged man’s unsentimental look back at a turning point in his childhood.