There are some days I feel like a prehistoric dinosaur, recalling events that happened before people I’m interviewing – or teaching – were even born. More recently I realized that although I write a weekly newspaper column about wildlife and the land and conservation, my eyes had been massively unobservant. Urban populations now comprise a good 87 per cent of the world’s population and a staggering 90 per cent of time will be spent inside. Check out links to my recent articles here, here and here.
Then, listening to one international professor specializing in childhood behavioural and neural development and patterning, I was the one staggering with the information she was throwing into the pot. Obesity issues, health issues, Small People possibly the first generation that may pre-decease their parents came in with statistical rhetoric. I drove into my local town and noticed the car parks by the green spaces and parks were empty; no one was in the parks either. New developments burgeoning up around this Calgary ‘bedroom’ community were all cul-de-sacs, which I mean, who wants a brisk walk around that kind of deal? And, if you wanted to go shopping, well, hop into your motor vehicle – do humans really need legs these days, I started to realize.
The chance of recognizing a prairie falcon, twigs top grazed by moose for very particular reasons, woodpecker flickers coming through two weeks early, two park planners I had coffee with couldn’t tell me which way the moon circled our planet. By the end of the week my brain was reeling, wondering how the hell school teachers were coping with electronic seductions and lifestyle changes.
And, started realizing, big time – duh! – that here was a new generation of people buying a horse who may never have even owned a budgie, rabbit, dog, cat – any animal frankly. Horse-language, horse-thought, well, the darned thing’s just stomped on my foot for no reason at all, so…do I sell it and buy something nicer, or? Huge decisions. No wonder horse whisperers were onto cult status, who could magic up obedience and safety again.
Instead, I grew up with European cavalry officers with fierce moustaches and fiercer eyes who were sticklers for customs set in stone by their grandfathers before them. They understood how horses thought, why wind – a horse’s highest warning sense – would send even sensible plods into tizzies, picked up lamenesses and tweaks before breakfast. We sat on hard saddles, once even a McClellan military saddle guaranteed to saddle sore any human butt simply because it was the only one that fit that high withered horse well, bounced around without stirrups or reins and went down jumping lanes touching our toes like that too.
Watching someone ride the Apache a few weeks ago, who rode completely off the inside rein and inside leg, I could see he was beginning to panic – why, I imagined him thinking, was the human sliding him sideways, not understanding his neck vertebrae just don’t operate that way either. I remembered (oops! dinosaur here again) watching the great classical Spanish and Portuguese masters riding their horses miraculously straight on circle work, reins of double bridles casually and lightly held in one hand, their horses’ ears intently flickering to every mental and physical communication. I saw it in a magical video (below) of a Spanish rider competing in their version of an Extreme Cowboy Challenge on Facebook the other day and thought, oh thank you, thank you, thank you! The rider was a bit easy on the eye too, bless him, and his stallion definitely worth kidnapping.
My horses seem to like me, be it backcountry or trying my hand at long-lining and now sliding into driving, I hope. To me it’s always the partnership that’s the deal competing, schooling, the best possible where the horse was fit, had self-carriage, listened by choice, cooperated because as Alois Podhajsky (Director of the Spanish Riding School) – and interpreted by that marvelous equestrian writer Marguerite Henry in her book ‘White Stallion of Lipizza’ – who’s always been my lodestar. It’s the closing page, after the great stallion Maestoso Borina finishes his airs above the ground, ridden by the former baker’s boy Hans Haupt and finally a Bereiter, that gets me, every time.
After five long years of apprenticeship, Hans looks at a photograph sent by a librarian who has supported his impossible quest from the word go: “He studied the angle of the leap, the position of the haunches, the hocks, the bend of the forelegs, the arch of the neck. Then he looked at the rider. The face did not show…….The rider had somehow extinguished himself in order to glorify the horse, to make him look as if he had performed of his own will – joyously, gaily.”
I read somewhere that master trainer and Olympian George Morris would like another lifetime to get it really right. For me too and, still, those classical methods centuries old, first described by the Greek general Xenophon 2,500 B.C. still rock.