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A Few Lessons From Horses


ISSUE:  Spring 1993

For several years, off and on, I have been thinking about what it has meant to my life that the first 20 years of it were dominated by my involvement with horses. In describing that involvement I will run the risk of sounding as if I could turn and live with animals; I do mention here one of my three sisters, and my father, but the emphasis is on associations I was privileged to have with beings who do not speak our language—though some of them can understand much that they hear.

On Sept. 25, 1986, I was sitting on a plane at Dulles International Airport, staring out the window at a crew of men doing some sort of work with a backhoe, and a feeling that I recognized came over me: I wanted to be out there, operating that machine. In my appointment book, I made a brief note: “Poem—Watching a backhoe & not wanting to learn to fly.” That’s pretty cryptic, but I knew that what I meant was this: most of my life, I have had an admiration bordering on envy of any expert workman; I enjoy watching knowledgeable mechanics, carpenters, bricklayers, athletes, and other experts. But some activities, equally difficult and, one would think, equally interesting, fail to arouse this response. Surgery, for example. I once thought I would be a biologist, and was at ease with dissection; but watching surgery, even when I am the patient, does not give me the same charge as watching a man operate a backhoe. Nor does flying a plane.

I think one reason for this tendency to be choosy about the skills I envy is that I have been lucky enough to develop a few skills of my own, some of them rather distantly removed from the business of writing or teaching. It is hard to think of an ingratiating way to put this, but my envy of certain skills does not arise from a general sense of my own ineptitude. I haven’t much doubt that I could invest a few weeks in learning to run a backhoe, and then a few years in getting pretty good at it. So it becomes evident that I don’t really want to do this; I just like thinking about it. My commitment to the crafts I have chosen to bear with seems to have made it impossible for me to be distracted by all the other things that seem momentarily engaging.

A few years later I published a poem called “Master of None.” It is an apologia of sorts for my tendency to become enthusiastically absorbed in the learning of new skills. Not far past the middle of the poem, I make the apparently hyperbolic statement that “horses. . .in their way, taught me most of what I know now.”

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I moved toward a turning point in my life that launched me on the lifelong business of learning this lesson. In those days, horses and equestrian competition were central to my life and seemed likely to stay there. I had worked hard and had been lucky in the horses that came my way; so when, in 1961, I tried out for the Olympic Equestrian Team, I was doing something difficult, but not unrealistically so. I did not make the team on that occasion, but I saw fairly clearly what would be called for over the next year or two if I did want to make it; and that was the beginning of my decision, which took several more years, to concentrate on literature: there were things about education and books that I was going to have to give up if I wanted to make the equestrian team, and I realized that I did not want to give up those things. It took me many years to put aside my daydreams of eventually making the team, and for a long time it was impossible for me to ride at all, because of my frustration at not being in circumstances that would allow me to ride in my usual way, which was based on the idea that every time I got off, the horse knew something significant that it had not known when I got on. This kind of riding requires several hours a day—on horseback, and deep in thought.

But having given up on competitive riding did not mean that I put horses out of my mind; they have come into my other work, providing anecdote or metaphor, and even a way of thinking about what I am doing; so my conviction has deepened that a writer is helped by being good (or at least having been good) at something besides writing. That conviction, and what seems my natural tendency to take up successive enthusiasms, has led me into acting, various kinds of do-it-yourself construction, computer nerdhood, and so on, and I have enjoyed those things immensely, both for themselves and for the large part they play in my life, which is a lot more than a mere matter of writing a poem once in a while.

Still: isn’t it an unconscionable exaggeration to claim that horses taught me most of what I know? That is one form of the question I have been rolling this way and that, while the urgency has drained relentlessly from other ways of putting it, such as “How and when did I become absorbed in technique?”

I have decided, on reflection, that it is not an exaggeration, but a simplification. My work with horses gave me certain habits and ways of knowing, and I believe that some of them would be different if I had spent my youth becoming expert at something else.

Two or three years ago, for example, a couple of other poets and I took our turns before an audience, talking about how our teaching and writing styles had evolved, diverged, coincided, helped, or hindered each other. I had prepared remarks, but right there for the first time, I realized the significance of my earliest teaching experience, which was equestrian. When teaching riding, it is important to be audible, and experience shows that people on the ground have to speak right up if they are to be audible to people on horseback. It has something to do with the wind past the ears, the sounds of hoofs and leather in the more immediate surroundings. Some people, seeing a riding class for the first time, think the teacher is shouting unnecessarily. It is also important that students react as quickly as possible to instructions; you can prevent a fall if your student can stay in touch with what you are saying, even as something is going wrong. So I came to the college classroom having taught in a loud voice, in expectation of immediate obedience. Some people will doubtless opine that this is poor preparation for a writing teacher; I am tempted to suggest that you not knock it till you try it, but honesty requires me to admit that I have tried to soften the drill-sergeant image somewhat. Nevertheless, it remains fundamental to my life that my knowledge of poetry is more tentative than my knowledge of horses, though by now it is probably no less thorough. I have only rarely learned a poem, or something about a poem, with the immediacy and force that characterized many of my equestrian lessons.

Take, for example, the fear of undeserved good luck. A complex emotional and intellectual apprehension with which many writers are familiar, to which I came most memorably one afternoon during a fit of temporary insanity—or hubris. The summer that I was 18, 1 took over from one of my sisters the training of a capable but difficult mare. She was intelligent and physically quick—a fine combination of attributes, you might think, unless you already know that smart horses expend much of their intellectual energy trying not to do what they are being asked to do. Goldart, as she was called, had discovered that she could unload my sister almost at will, particularly in front of a jump, where she could stop with almost supernatural suddenness.

Her background was unusual, so I should fill it in; background is desperately important to most practitioners of Southern autobiography. A friend of ours named Russell Dart had got hold of a palomino stallion of unknown provenance, and spent a few months trying to get along with him. He was large and athletic, a talented jumper, and seemed mostly willing. But located here and there over the portions of his body that a person could reach from the saddle, there were strange—buttons, you might call them, hidden switches that, when pressed, would cause him to kneel, rear up, fall down and play dead, or something equally irrelevant. There was no one to tell Dart where those things were, even after he discovered that the horse had been one of Trigger’s many stand-ins. So he sold the horse to a man who had the time and the inclination to seek out the pressure points and divest them of their significance. Throughout this brain-washing, the horse never lost his quickness; it eventually became possible to show him as a jumper, but when he stopped at a jump, he was so quick and so dirty that I would not have believed it if I had not seen it for myself. One afternoon at the Warrenton Horse Show, I watched him unload three of the best show riders in Virginia, because they could not doubt, from the way he was moving, that he was about to jump—but he wasn’t. Before Dart got rid of him, he sired Goldart, whom we bought when she was about three.

She had her sire’s evasive quickness, but she also seemed to know when it might not work; if either my father or I got on her, she would start looking around for things to jump over. A few weeks of work reinforced her in the conviction that it would be better not to stop with me. At this point, unfortunately, I began to over-ride her; I kept her between my hands and legs, building in her gradually the notion that she did nothing on her own. In a few weeks she had quite thoroughly learned the sequence of sensations in her mouth, back, and sides that I wanted her to associate with jumping; she got so she would jump over three feet of empty air whenever I asked her to. It was fun to do that while galloping across a field, a few lengths ahead of other riders who would immediately pull up, looking for the strand of wire they thought I must have seen. This over-riding is not usually a good idea, but perhaps only those who have done it can appreciate the complexity and interest of conversations between horse and rider, carried out beyond the realm of words, but not beyond the realm of question and answer, doubt and reassurance, disagreement and agreement, even meditation and interjection. Dangerous as the development of this overdependence is, however, things can be worse. One day I was seized by the aforementioned insanity, a late-teenage recklessness with the power I seemed to possess.

I wanted to know whether Goldart would attempt more than she could do.

The cruelty of that question is still painful to me, though I am talking about something that happened more than 30 years ago, to someone so remote from me that I would not dream, for example, of revising his writing, even though the law allows me to, and though I have many times asked myself to do more than I could do. Then, too, there is wishing to undo what happened next. I would even settle for a general belief that I have made this up.

I rode her at the side of a ten-foot straw rick, and asked her to jump over it.

She galloped toward it with the eager steadiness that I had long since learned to recognize as unshakable purpose; she thought we were going over it. The straw was old, and gave deeply, so her legs plunged in, and stuck there for a moment that I have lately recalled as I have read about Velcro jumping. At last, though, she pried herself loose, and we made our way back down the side of the straw rick without mishap. She must have concluded, if she considered it at all, that she had done what she was supposed to do, because the episode appeared to have no effect on her willingness to negotiate reasonable obstacles—and I mean reasonable for her, whose abilities were unusual. From then on, I had to ride her as if I did not remember that I had violated her trust, and kept it anyway.

That was not the reason that our association was somewhat brief, as these things go—a few months, I think—and it ended on a much happier note. I began to let her make her own decisions, and we won our last competition because of mutual trust and understanding.

The competition was a junior jumper class under international rules, such as the Olympians follow, and I had prepared for it assiduously. The course, a dozen jumps or combinations, was hard to remember, but I had it grooved. (Going off-course was something I did more often than I enjoy remembering. ) What I did not know was that the ring was so small, and so closely surrounded by spectators, that Goldart could not believe she could gallop in it. All day, in working hunter classes, I tried to get her out of a trot, greatly to the amusement of the crowd and my competitors. Late in the afternoon, while she was on the van nibbling a little hay, and my father and I were chatting about this and that in the shade nearby, a man we knew from these venues, who showed a number of jumpers under his daughter’s courageous guidance, came by and asked my father if he’d like to come see the horse that was going to win the Junior FEI class. “I don’t need to move,” my father said, glancing into our van; “I can see her just fine from here.” People who think “parent” is a verb might say that he should not thus have increased the pressure on me, but the effect was soothing; it increased my confidence to know that he shared it.

After dark, the lights made the ring seem larger, but not large enough. I let Goldart trot, while my father, as I later learned, sat in the stands shaking his head and saying “He’ll never make it.” I could tell, somehow, that we were going fast enough—FEI rules penalize not only jumping faults, but time faults, incurred for exceeding a posted time allowed. We maintained a good pace, and she jumped clean, and all I had to do was remember the course. It was the only round with no time faults and no jumping faults. A few months later, we sold Goldart, and her new owner claimed to get along with her very well. I have never persuaded myself that I deserved this happy outcome; it reassures me to note that Goldart did.

Here is another illustration of the reasonableness of eutuchephobia, if fear of good fortune may be thus denoted. Among horsemen, there is a belief, or superstition, that the more valuable a horse is, the more likely it is that the horse will be injured. And vice-versa: one night years ago, my father and I were engaged in our summer evening ritual of turning the horses out to pasture; they stayed in the stable in the daytime, and went out at night. Our habit was simply to lead the horses out of the barn, and let them make their own way down the farmyard to the open gate and into the field; we would walk down behind them and close the gate. One night we were a little late; it was dark, and the horses were unusually eager. We had forgotten that a farmhand had parked a disk harrow off to one side of the runway to the pasture; one of the horses, a five- or six-year-old Thoroughbred, trotted through it. There was a terrible clanging of metal. Sparks flew. We jumped in the jeep and drove out into the darkening field, hoping to retrieve the horse before he bled to death. When we caught him, we found that he had two inconsequential abrasions, each about the size of a dime. My father allowed as how we should keep quiet about this and get rid of the horse before people found out he was worthless. That we sold the horse to Mrs. Charles Scribner, who hunted him and raced him overjumps with considerable success, has absolutely nothing to do with the connections I might be making here, though there are sometimes those poems that come so effortlessly that it is tempting to underrate them. It occurs to me at this point that the young woman who bought Goldart is now the distinguished nonfiction writer Lally Weymouth. I ought to ask her someday about the rest of Goldart’s life, which must surely have ended years ago.

The longest and richest of my equestrian associations was with another palomino, oddly; in the English-saddle world, horses of Trigger’s coloring are not eagerly sought. But one day at an auction, when I was about eight, my father saw a half-decent palomino mare with a brand on her hip—an arrow—and a colt by her side. They came together, and he bought them, though it was the colt he wanted most. He grew up on my father’s dairy farm, a couple of miles from where we lived. The families who lived on that farm made something of a pet out of him, chatting with him and feeding him treats over the fence. He was almost white in his youth—a very light beige—and they called him Silver Streak, after a model of Pontiac that was available in the late forties. When he was three, we brought him down to the home place and began to get him under saddle and over jumps. We continued to call him Silver, which made us look as if we had our cowboy stars mixed up; when we started showing him a year or so later, my father decided to enter him as Small Change, and that was his road name for most of the rest of his career. I started riding him when he was three and I was eleven. Fifteen years later, I came home from my first teaching job one summer to see how one of my younger sisters had gotten along with the business of getting him into shape; I was paying her, and she had been proceeding very slowly and carefully, and she had done a fine job. He was still ready to jump, but I found out in about two minutes that landing had become a little painful for him, so he retired to a life of ease. In all that time, he stopped with me at a jump only twice.

He had a natural affinity for jumping. This is a claim that is often made, often erroneously; but a horse that plays over fences and jumps when no one is riding him can safely be said to enjoy it. We trained him very systematically to figure many things out for himself. This is not the place to go deeply into how we did that, but the results were amazing. Silver would jump anything under six feet, if there was room to maneuver. All that was necessary was to make sure he understood where the jump was. Unlike most horses, he would jump a single oil drum or a folding chair, if I could make him understand that it was a jump for the nonce. In the hunting field once, when I was being particularly insufferable about his capabilities, a contemporary of my father’s pointed at a shock of corn and dared me to try it. It was a little skimpy—most corn shocks are seven or eight feet high—and had enough of a lean to bring it below six feet. I headed for it, and over we went. Silver was of course unaware of the pain he was indirectly causing, by giving a loudmouth 14-year-old more to brag about.

A few years later, we got involved in Pony Club activities, and attempted a little dressage along with the cross-country and stadium jumping for which he was so well suited. By this time I was 16 and 17, more thoughtful about what I was doing, more inclined to read about riding as well as to practice it. During a competition in 1959, Silver taught me to pay attention with one of the two refusals he made with me. We were negotiating a difficult combination, which involved turning 90 degrees within one stride of landing, and jumping the second element. Over the first element, I was distracted for as much as half a second by wondering whether my position in the saddle was as “correct” as that depicted in one of the books I’d been reading, and I stopped riding toward the next element just long enough for Silver to dodge it— something he would normally never have done, but it is dangerous for a rider to be thinking about something else while jumping. In the same way, it is dangerous for a poet to be distracted by the question whether this poem will make him seem likeable or not.

I could multiply these few anecdotes a hundredfold, and lean harder or softer on what is Southern about some of them. One theme would continue to recur: the wordlessness of so much of the thinking and signaling between horse and rider has, paradoxically, been one of the most valuable experiences I have had. Another is the depth and breadth of my equestrian experience, which has been more than enough to keep me from using it cozily. The most recent of my poems to contain a horse has in fact nothing to do with any of the notions I have described here; but maybe its natural appearance and behavior were easier for me than they otherwise might have been.

At this point, I cannot help noticing that, though my career as an active horseman is behind me, my ways of thinking about riding must have changed as I have changed. Early last March, in fact, I stood on an amazingly windy hillside in Rappahannock County, Virginia, watching half a dozen point-to-point races being run over the only timber course I ever raced over—and that was in 1957, when I was almost 15. I realized that there were plenty of things I knew, about what this horse or that one ought to do next, that I have learned in the years since I stopped competing. Doubtless these insights have had their effects on my memories of my adventures on horseback. That’s the way autobiography works.

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