Jane’s (first) valentine:
I could write a valentine to every horse I owned and many I didn’t. I have a huge one for Hudson. Today though, I feel like I need to start at the source, my first horse: Spitz ‘Em Out.
I fell in love with her while she was drugged, had been tied to a post in the hot sun for hours, and I was lifted by the horse dealer on to her bare back. She could have been any horse and I would have been in love. She was a big blank projection screen for all my 12-year-old dreams. I didn’t see her at all. I saw myself and our shining, bonded, glorious future.
That bubble popped the next morning, once she was safely trailered out of the used horse lot, and installed in a nice horse parking garage: a row of stalls with outdoor runs. The drugs wore off. Gone was the “quiet, rock-solid, completely reliable, babysitter” that my parents purchased. She was crazed, throwing herself against the fence of her paddock. She paced, she screamed, she hurled her body at the fencing, kicking and mowing down the boards like a linebacker until she was free. Not a scratch on her.
Luckily, my parents dropped me off at the barn entrance. I was far too smart to tell them she was now psycho. Spitz was my only chance into the world of horses. There would be no returning her to find a more suitable horse. I was either suited to horses or I wasn’t. Which horse was irrelevant.
While she was the roaned-out, no-spots, Appaloosa, I was smeared with colored spots: black, blue, green, yellow and purple. For the better part of a year.
Here’s the thing. She didn’t hate my guts. Hating me would have meant she cared. To hate, you have to be invested. She was not invested in people. I was simply another human pest to be endured or eradicated: an extremely large and annoying fly. She could flick me off just as quickly. She did not care in the least about me.
She couldn’t have had the remotest idea of my tenacity: I was going to be suited to horses. I had the fearsome beauty of a child’s black & white vision: I would love her, and she would come to love me. I no longer believe love can fix every damaged creature. But I did then. The combination of her youth and my unwavering confidence in love, did a lot to repair what was blown apart in her, and began to build trust.
Never step between a fool and her angels (whoever you are, thank you). Spitz never had a chance against my single-mindedness. I literally loved her into compliance, along with out-stubborning her on the “being ridden” thing.
I didn’t fall off daily.
I fell off 5 or 6 times daily. If we were trail riding when I fell off, she’d take off galloping toward home. Photographic proof of Jane (who fell off) and Amy (who forgot to tie Fatso) jogging horseless back to the barn.
I got used to falling off. As I began to ride better (not falling off), I got used to being thrown. As a kid, I was always stunned when some kid cried during recess: they tripped. Skinned knees? You have GOT to be kidding. Too minor to register on my That Hurt radar.
Time passed. A year? Two years?
One long Saturday during the summer, I gave her a bath, and rubbed her out until she gleamed. I climbed on her bare back, in the shadowy, shifting shade of an oak tree. She had on her halter and lead. She was not tied. I lay down on her back, my head on her rump, and listened to her breath. She was sleepy, and quiet. She liked being clean, or at least she liked being done becoming clean.
Amy climbed on Fatso and we both rolled over on our stomachs, like you would at the beach, with your head turned on your arms. But our heads and arms were on the broad rumps of our horses. We talked. And yawned, and wiggled to get more comfortable. I crossed my ankles on her withers, and rubbed her neck with my stockinged toes.
Spitz didn’t move.
I didn’t notice.
Fatso started snoring lightly. Amy rolled back over on her back, her head on Fatso’s rump, staring up at dark and light spots, green, yellow, black, through the tree branches.
An older cowboy rode up. Spitz opened an eye. Fatso pretended not to hear the hooves clopping near us.
“I’ll give you five thousand dollars for that mare”, he said to me.
She cost five hundred dollars, a shotgun, and a square bottle of amber-colored liquid.
I glanced around nervously, to make sure my parents were still not there. Safe.
“She’s not for sale.” I said.
“I can see that”, he replied. “Didn’t think you’d stay alive long enough to do it, but you did. That’s one nice mare.”
I’d waited so long and focused so much on the future, that I failed to notice the incremental moments of her transformation. I missed how she turned from a fence-splintering, charging, linebacker, into a mare I could lay down upon, and stare up at the sky for hours.
Oh. My. God.
She’d stopped trying to unload me. She’d begun whuffling when I arrived. Her eyes had begun to close in pleasure during grooming. I was still arriving every day, expecting a demon who would do her best to knock me off with tree branches, scrape me off along the rail, buck and twist until she was light and free.
When the cowboy left, I got off Spitz, sat on the ground and looked her in the eye. I rarely looked her in the eye. My distorted fun house image reflected back in the convex curve. There was a certain softness, a recognition, a willingness to trust.
In that moment, the remaining strands of our separate histories fell away: we connected into Now. To me, it felt new and untried. She reached down with her muzzle and bumped me on the forehead. I scratched the itchy spot under her forelock. Her eyes closed and her lower lip did goofy little contortions.
We’d found each other.
6 years later, if you compare photos, the difference in her demeanor is remarkable:
A few things I learned from Spitz:
- A positive vision is a powerful thing
- While we have to respond to the horse that shows up, our responsibility is to consistently, positively, respond to the horse that didn’t show up, the one in which we believe.
- It’s better to stay on the horse.
- Listen and watch every human/human and human/horse interaction around you. It’s amazing what is there to see and learn, both good and bad.
- Pain is just pain. It’s not the end of all known existence.
- Joy wakes up powerful emotions in horses, and is a deal changer for the horse.
- Consistency is not better than formal horse skills, but it helps.
- When in doubt, just show up.
- Tell the truth. If I arrive at the barn in a negative place (mad, anxious, sad or confused): I own it. Goofy, but I say it out loud: Hudson, I’m having a bad day. It’s not you. You’re a great horse. He has no idea what I said. But inevitably, it changes how I feel, and keeps our interaction clean.
- Encourage curiosity.
- Do whatever it takes to keep your horse downwind from the mountain lion. Seriously. Long walk. With a mountain lion behind you somewhere. Not good.
Spitz was my finest (and most brutal) teacher.
Thank you Spitz, for chewing me up, spitting me out, rolling your eyes when I got on again, and finally, becoming curious about this pest who would not go away.