My Gelding, Myself

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, November 1995

My Gelding, Myself

How passion crosses the line into not-quite-respectable obsession: The complicated joys of horse ownership
By Jane Smiley

Last weekend, when I went away for a two-night horse trials with my elderly gray Thoroughbred gelding, Tick Tock, there were 68 items on my list of things to take, and then I bought two items there (a portable bridle rack, a pair of white gloves) and forgot one entirely (a four-pound mineral block to put in his feed trough). The bale of hay weighed 60 pounds, as did the sack of feed. I carried them from trailer to barn because I still haven't purchased the 69th item I need, a dolly. I do have a broom, a pitchfork, and a muck bucket, though.

A horse does not necessarily have more things than a person, but he does need to have most of his things with him when he travels, including his own familiar water, in case he does not like the taste of the water on the road. So, as with all livestock, the work is first and foremost heavy--dragging, lifting, pushing, carrying. Also, as with other animals and, of course, children, it is continuous. The day begins when you feed him at 7 A.M. and ends when you check him one last time at 10 P.M.

Keeping the horse clean is work (there's nothing Tick Tock seems to like better than an all-over roll in black, viscous Iowa topsoil), keeping the saddle and bridle clean is work, keeping the stall and the barn clean is work, and disposing of the manure pile is major work.

More than a dog, less than a boat. More than you could possibly imagine (an American Horse Shows Association horse of the year in 1994, a mare named Rox Dene, allegedly commanded a price of $2 million), less than you might think (another topnotch mare, Nirvana II, was purchased by her owner, Jill Henneberg, off the racetrack for $600). An individual horse has no actual value, only market value, is worth only what a prospective buyer is willing to pay.

Two years ago, when I bought Tick Tock and named him for the rhythm of his gaits as well as for my biological clock, I was new to the horse-owning world and impressed by the low-four-figure sum I shelled out. Since then, having read up on the Aga Khan, I've learned to write large checks with a savoir faire that approaches glee.

In this week's Chronicle of the Horse there is a picture of a teenage girl sitting in a wheelchair. She was paralyzed last January when she and her horse crashed a fence at a show and became entangled in the poles. In the same issue is the obituary of a lifelong horseman and foxhunter (foxhunting combines all of the dangers of jumping, galloping, crowding, highly mixed levels of experience, and often alcohol, as in "stirrup cup" and "hunting flask") who died in his bed at 89.

I think about the danger every time I go out on my horse. A horse is a large and unpredictable animal. What I tell myself about the horse is that, unlike a motorcycle, a horse does want to stay upright, but like people, horses have personalities. They also have moods and distractions and failures of judgment. Tick Tock is not a warm, affectionate animal, like some of the other horses who thrust their noses into your arms if you are standing near them, but he is clearly attached, both to his horse buddy (he stations himself right against the side of the stall closest to Ace) and to me (he nickers and whinnies when I show up in the morning and comes at a trot when I call him in from the pasture). He is like one of those boyfriends who is crabby by nature but nonetheless faithful and considerate of your welfare.

Some riders seem to be riding toward an accident. I saw a young woman on a beautiful big horse warming up at a dressage show. She was riding the horse in a strong bit, to hold him back, while simultaneously urging him forward with sharp spurs. Her idea, I am sure, was that she would energize his haunches with spurs and contain that energy with her hands on the reins, thereby producing brilliance. But the horse got frustrated and, unable to go forward because of the painful bit in his mouth, went straight up, rearing high and nearly dumping his rider or flipping over on her. Perhaps she sees riding as a battle of wills in which she must prevail. Some trainers knowingly flip a rearing horse to teach it a lesson, hoping to jump clear at the last moment. To me, this is the Tragic Mode of horsemanship, which must inevitably end in the disaster that everyone, including the rider, is expecting from the beginning.

All riders must pass through a stage, many stages, of incompetence. The simple incompetence of not knowing how to sit on the horse or make it turn evolves into the dynamic incompetence of not being able to maintain one's balance over a jump and later into the exquisite incompetence of interfering with subtly wrong weight-shifts in the horse's transitions from piaffe (an exaggerated trot in place) to passage (an exaggerated trot forward). A horseman's axiom is that poor performance is always the rider's fault. Six months ago, Tick Tock was running at even the lowest fences as if he couldn't possibly get over them otherwise or as if he wanted to get the whole experience over with. He was barely arching over the fences, barely picking up his knees, barely even jumping, and certainly not balancing himself in front of the fence or paying attention to what he was doing. My instructor pointed out that I was making the horse panic by holding him very tightly and not letting him develop a big enough stride to give him some jumping momentum. My job was to develop enough balance and trust so that I could go with a bigger stride, leave his mouth alone, and let the horse do his job. The only way to get better was to ride into the bigger stride as if there were no danger at all.

A horse's hide is warm and silkier than a baby's cheek. A clean horse smells fresh and earthy. Horses acquaint themselves with each other by blowing into each other's nostrils; their breath is sweet and oaty. A clean stable smells of oats and molasses and cured hay and wood shavings and the outdoors, since stables need good ventilation above all things. A horse standing beside you is a bona fide presence, solid enough to rest your forehead against.

Tick Tock watches me when I leave him standing on cross ties and walk away to get another brush or hoof pick. His longish ears prick toward me, and his dark eyes seem to widen in his white face. If he's comfortable and at ease in his stable, his nickers are low and relaxed, but if he's confused, as he was the morning his buddy Ace let himself out of his stall and explored the barn, or unhappy, as he was in one stable where the stalls were small and dark, his neighing is loud and insistent, demanding my attention. I watch him, too. He has a beautiful chiseled head, classically Thoroughbred. My simplest pleasure is just watching him watch something, his ears forward, his eyes quiet but interested, his nostrils relaxed. Tick Tock watches the trains pass, watches the filly romping with her dam, watches the lesson horses jumping in the ring, watches me when I am riding another horse.

His walk is a rhythmic four-beat gait. The outside hind step is followed by the inside fore, the outside fore, and the inside hind. The energetic movement of his hind legs gently sways me in the saddle from side to side. His white ears and all I can see of his head, the bulge of his eye and his gray eyelashes, bob evenly forward and back, and my hands, trying to be firm but soft on the reins, follow it, my elbows opening and closing slightly with each step. The rhythm of the horse walking ticks through my body like sound waves through water. My trainer says, "Listen to his back hooves. Boom boom boom boom. That's good."

The trot is approximately twice as fast as the walk, a square, even two-beat gait in which the horse moves diagonal pairs of legs together. Tick Tock moves straightest at the trot. Between steps is a moment of suspension, when all four feet are off the ground. I would like to be relaxed in spite of the faster gait, but the trot is work. We concentrate on the trot until I wonder why I am here, toiling toward this ideal--forward, even, square, straight, supple, and having the appearance of effortlessness.

The canter is the equine's gift to humankind. First, his outside hind leg reaches under his belly and thrusts us forward. Then the outside front and inside hind strike, picking up and balancing the motion. Finally, the inside front leg reaches even farther forward, catching and arresting what has become a slightly diminishing downward movement. By this time, his outside hind leg is reaching under the belly again, providing another burst of energy. As Eadweard Muybridge showed with trip-wire cameras in the nineteenth century, there is a moment in the canter (and the gallop) when all four of the horse's feet are suspended in the air--not, as old racing prints depict, when the front legs are stretched forward, but when all four legs are gathered underneath the belly for the next thrust. A canter is a series of leaps. The result is a rocking, three-beat gait that is unlike anything human or wheeled. I ask Tick Tock to hold the bit lightly in his mouth, to balance himself using the strength in his haunches and hocks, to round his back and lift his shoulders, to accept the moderate speed of the canter, and not to try to surge into the gallop.

It is the gallop that proposes the question of speed. Like the canter, the gallop is a series of leaps, but the leaps are farther, the power is greater, and the rhythm breaks down from three beats to four, though the beats come so quickly that they can't be distinguished. Many riders experience the gallop only by mistake. Twenty-five miles per hour seems awfully fast on the back of a moving animal, and the only way to ride it comfortably is to crouch on the horse's withers, balancing on the triad created by the ball of the foot in the stirrup, the heel sinking, and the knee against the flap of the saddle. Tick Tock, who was still racing at nine, likes a fast gallop better than anything. Not me.

After I had got Tick Tock to the horse trials, put him in his stall, fed him, watered him, given him his hay, and arranged all of his accoutrements around him, after I had lined up the trailer among the others and unhitched it and cleaned it, after I had eaten my own supper, I opened the official booklet and took a look at the jumps I would be facing on the cross-country course the next afternoon. I'd been afraid all week long, but I'd divvied up the fear--so much to the six-hour trailer ride down here, so much to doing it alone for the first time, so much to performance anxiety. But when I looked at the booklet, the fear I had assigned to riding the cross-country course didn't seem a single percentage point less than the whole fear. There were jumps in there that Tick Tock and I had never faced together and that he had possibly never faced at all--an upturned boat (strange-looking and spooky), two tall brush fences (a horse that has never jumped one doesn't necessarily realize that he can jump through the greenery), and a wagon jump, which looked, in the picture, like a regular farm wagon rolled onto the course. Catch your knees under the lip of that, I thought--and refused to think any further.

Of course, the thrill is the fear turned upside down by success. What a cheap trick that is, and one I had never sunk to in the 20 years of adulthood between 1973, when I stopped riding for lack of funds, and 1993, when I started again. In all those years my thrills were eminently respectable--publishing books, giving birth, buying household appliances. The closest I'd come to a real thrill was hearing I'd won the Pulitzer, when I went into a cold sweat at the breakfast table. Now I had sunk to the level of hang gliders and motorcycle riders: thrill-seeking.

Except that, walking the cross-country, looking at the terrain and the jumps, it didn't feel like I was thrill-seeking. It felt like I was pondering, familiarizing, making a plan--easing and to some extent avoiding my fear by noticing that the wagon jump, for example, was far less intimidating in reality than in the picture, while the solid-log in-and-out, where the horse would have to jump a large fence into what seemed like a small box, then gallop two strides and jump another fence out again, loomed larger and more frightening at a point in the run when I might have less control over the animal than I would need.

I walked along, measuring the height of the back rail of each fence against my thigh, trying to discount the fear by having faith in the promised thrill. It was just that the thrill seemed like such an ephemeral and low-down goal.

Some things I no longer aspire to do: go hiking and camping in Greenland, travel around the world, live in San Francisco or on the island of St. John in the Caribbean, be away from home more than a day or two. My ambition to be published in the New Yorker has given way to a stronger ambition to be interviewed as a winner for the Chronicle of the Horse. When I go to fancy parties, I haven't got much to say to the literary luminaries, but I'll sit all night with the other riders. Part of my writing method used to be idle pondering of my story in the course of a day's nonwriting activities. Now I leave my work at the desk and spend the day pondering the horse. Research for a new novel seems like work, because there are horse books to read for fun. I am like a neighbor we used to have when I was a teenager. You soon learned never to ask, "Well, Mrs. ------, how was your golf game?" because she loved to tell you, hole by hole, shot by shot. When my friends ask, "How was your ride?" I can't help saying, "A really interesting thing happened--" and even though I can see their eyes glaze over, I can't resist telling them, as it were, hole by hole, shot by shot. Because horses are both esoteric and time-consuming, I feel as though I've partly traded in a shared, general life for a largely private or even isolated life.

I suspect I'm a narrower and less interesting person now; I've become like one of those Brits whom Rebecca West deprecates in her book on the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia, who goes abroad only to look at the horses. The fact is, it's not quite respectable to live in the body when you're in your midforties. The horse brings me unrelentingly into the here and now, where the body is, because if I don't pay attention, I could get hurt or hurt him. The enlightened mind is supposed to be expanding with age, seeking a wider and more selfless perspective. Just now, when I'm supposed to have a lot of interesting things to say, I don't have much.

But then, when I think of what I would do with my time if I sold the horse and stopped riding, it all seems like make-work, pointless sublimation, airless abstraction.

"Don't push at him!" shouts my trainer. "Leave his mouth alone! Sit up and wait for the fence!" I know just what he means, just how it feels, to sit deep in the saddle, squeeze my legs, steady and lighten my grip on the reins. The jump approaches, a three-foot brown gate. I feel Tick Tock's strides lengthen slightly. Here we are; I see my hands giving the reins, Tick Tock's white neck arching down and away, the tips of his ears flicking forward. I feel his back curve up under me, a nice bascule. My trainer says, "What did you do? What did you do at the last moment?"

"I pushed at him?"

"You pushed at him! Don't push at him!"

What this is is a failure of faith, a last-minute reminder to the horse to try his hardest, or perhaps a last-minute reminder to myself to find the motion, get out of the saddle, do something. Faith would let me do nothing, because, after all, the jump is accomplished four or five strides ahead of the fence, when the horse has found his rhythm. The jump itself is only an unfurling, and the sign of that is that while you are sailing over the top of one jump, you are already looking at the next one so the horse's track will follow your gaze.

Faith is the hardest thing to find--true faith rather than false faith. The horse between your legs is closer to your body than your own head is, so he feels your loss of faith before you realize it yourself.

"Try it again!"

I ask for a canter and sweep my eyes down the line of jumps. I sit up, urging Tick Tock with my inside leg to keep him balanced around the turn and moving forward out of the turn. When we are straight to the jump, I count his strides--one, two, three, four. He jumps out of his stride effortlessly, lands, gallops three more strides, and jumps the next fence, effortlessly again. I am smiling when my trainer says, "How was that?"

"It felt great!"

"That was just right!"

I've improved. Improvement in most areas of middle age might be an illusion--your methods of child-raising have become habits, you are known for a characteristic way of working or writing. Your life has taken shape, and you are you--who is more recognizable than someone in their midforties? Visible improvement, even visible change, is a subject of remark among your friends and family, a rare product of elephantine effort. But on the horse, something clicks every day. Go from a walk to a halt just by stopping the motion of your hips? Four times it doesn't work, the fifth time it does, and the sixth, and the seventh, and then quiet halts are a habit, for you and for him. Posting without stirrups? An agony for months, until you find the rhythm of his trot and your legs are strong enough to lift you out of the saddle. The lesson is always the same--with balance you need less strength, with strength you can more easily find balance--but the way to it is always different, always surprising, and always postpones life's inevitable devolution by another moment. The secret is that the horse is improving, too. Unlike the golf club or the tennis racket, the horse is using his intelligence, strengthening his muscles, improving his balance, coming to an understanding of you. This is cooperation rather than dominance; this is riding in the Comic Mode.

In his stall, Tick Tock is a little crabby. He stands with his rump to the door, half resting his weight on his feed tub, laying his ears back, and wanging his teeth against the bars between himself and Ace. He does this every day that I am away on my book tour, and he is not very cooperative about having his blankets removed or having his stall cleaned. I, however, have never seen this behavior, because when I come back and he hears me call out, "Mr. T! Mr. T!" he puts his head over the door, eyes alert, ears pricked, all attention. When I tack him up, he reaches for the bit, and then he pulls me toward the door. His attitude, when I ride him, is calm but willing. He responds to my leg, is soft in the body and the jaw, tries to do what I am asking him to. I can only conclude that he likes to work.

On the trail, reins loose, he walks forward briskly, glancing here and there, frightened only when pheasants flush out of their hidden nests. Neither cars nor combines disturb him, nor horses pulling carriages, nor deer leaping away. Some horses hate hacking, but Tick Tock is like a dog on a walk, alert and curious.

At the horse trials, he seems a tad uneasy. His appetite is idle rather than voracious, and when I take him out to eat grass, he looks around rather than settling to grazing, though the turf looks green and delicious to me. He conducts little tiffs with the horses in the stalls around him, and he is especially annoyed about being brushed. But when we go out and warm up for our dressage test, he seems relaxed and businesslike--he doesn't pull me or suck back or buck, as he's done in the past, and when we trot into the dressage arena and down the centerline, he settles down as if he knows his job. Before the cross-country run, I walk him over the show grounds and then pop him over a few warm-up fences. The timer says, "One minute," and we step into the start box. My heart is pounding. And then we go. I make him trot out of the box, for calmness, but when he sees the first fence, a sturdy and inviting log, he moves up into the canter, and we are off.

Does the horse like it? Tick Tock gallops boldly forward, so boldly that I have to talk to him steadily, easy, easy, you're all right, slow down a little. He glances at the overturned boat but jumps it nicely, goes through the brush like a steeplechaser, through the intimidating in-and-out without incident, over the wagon with hardly a look. Into the water and out. He clearly wants to gallop, is ready and even happy to jump. These are things that he was bred to do, knows how to do, can do, that over the years I have learned to do with him. When we've galloped our 1,850 meters and jumped our 16 jumps, he tosses his head, prances, walks around eagerly, as if to say, Let me catch my breath and then let's do it again.

The thrill is not so cheap as I thought, not so rooted in the earlier fear. All the time I was reading the booklet, walking the course, I'd forgotten about Tick Tock, about going forward with him on the wave of his surge and power. Whatever that is, the sense of being with him, that's the thrill at the center of the thrill.

Jane Smiley's most recent novel is Moo. She wrote about foxhunting in the November 1994 issue of Outside.

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