What the horse knows No. 3

12 03 2017

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Life lesson No. 3: Truth

One of the most honourable qualities about horses is their inability to tell lies. So remarkable is this quality that two renowned horsemen authors chose to highlight it in the titles of their books. Interestingly, both titles of these two excellent books expressed the idea in the negative. Horses don’t lie and horses never lie because, obviously, horses tell the truth.

Horses always tell the truth. Perhaps this is because they don’t have to lie. They don’t have to file tax returns, phone in sick or fake ID documents. Horses don’t have to return items to shops or buy tickets or order online. They don’t meet people in secret or make phone calls they shouldn’t. They never put anyone down out of spite, insecurity or envy. They never complain or write snippy emails. In comparison to most egocentric, digitally-distracted, sensation-seeking humans, horses live lives of simple harmony.

Given the vast differences between them and us, it’s extraordinary then that we can learn so much from each other. Yesterday, Sheranni marked his fifteenth birthday, and while I filled the hay-nets in the spring sunshine I reflected on some of the lessons he has taught me along the way to this milestone.

He was born true and good. He was born to run and indeed as a young colt whenever he got up from his straw bed after a long afternoon nap he would canter over to his dam for another feed. One truth he taught me early on was how important physicality is for young male animals. He also taught me that horses need more space than I ever realised. The idea of an acre per horse is ludicrous as is the idea of educating any young male in a confined space for long periods of time.

Looking back over a decade and a half together, it seems that we spent the first two years of Sheranni’s life simply allowing him to let off steam. I’ll never forget those times he enthusiastically charged towards me just missing me by a paper-breadth because I had just walked up the hill to visit the yearlings. I’ll never forget advising one of his early riders to hide in the cowshed because he would become extravagantly exuberant at the sight of her holding the halter. I’ll never forget him running around the lanes with my step-dad and pausing to take a nap on the second lap because he had released all his pent-up energy. I’ll never forget the daily fly-pasts and races with young Dragonfly and the times I stood in churned up clay and decided it was time to move yet again to bigger pastures.

I learned from looking after young Arabian horses that physicality is as essential to them as air. They need to stretch and grow and run at their own pace, which means often that they need to go for the burn. I think the horses were around eight years old when I finally admitted to prospective land-owners that they were full (on) Arabians. Previously, if anyone enquired about their breeding I’d say they had a ‘bit’ of Arab in them, and hoped that the ‘bit’ of them that needed to explore any new territory at top tail-high speed interspersed with impressive rearing play-fighting, dubbed horse-wrestling by one stunned observer, would be miraculously subdued the day we moved in.

In respecting their need for physicality, I looked for homes where they would not be bored and when I saw that they were getting fed up with a place for whatever reason, we moved on. This meant that over the years we moved about twelve times and that in itself was another revelation: horses like variety and change just as we do. Too much down-time dulls their spirits. Too much time, in the words of one of our students, ‘spent staring at the walls is not good.’ All active, intelligent animals need to move because to move is to be true.

dsc_0318Sheranni and Dragonfly on the move.

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Climbing the wrong mountain

25 10 2012
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Picture: travellifeafricasafaris.com

A few years ago I had the opportunity to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain. In preparation I bought a new pair of walking boots, a down sleeping bag and a lightweight inflatable mattress. I also made enquiries about borrowing a rucksack that had been on a trip to Everest base camp. Books on Kilimanjaro were stacked up on my bedside table.

Part of the training for the trip involved a weekend in the Brecon Beacons. We camped out for two nights in tents that we had to carry ourselves and put up and take down in the dark. I was not fast at this. Nor was I fast at trekking up the steep paths across the Welsh valleys. The new hi-tech boots rubbed a weeping blister on both heels and my energy was low due to being unable to sleep in the cold, damp tent. Added to this was the problem of a torn cartilage in my right knee. Each time I climbed a stile (and there are a lot of stiles in the Brecon Beacons) and put my weight on my right leg, it gave way. The rest of the team were nimbly scrambling up through the woods and bracken-covered slopes, but I was tentative and afraid that the weight of the rucksack would topple me.

On the second night, wide awake with the cold and a terrible dry fatigue, I overheard a team member say that I would slow down the expedition. I finished the weekend exercise knowing that I was climbing the wrong mountain.

It was hard to pull out. I had planned the trip and had been looking forward to the adventure. I’d told people I was going. I’d got excited about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and seeing something of the abundant wildlife of Tanzania. Even though I’d spent time in Africa, I’d never seen elephant in the wild or giraffe or lions. I had not been on a proper expedition before. All my previous travelling had been visits to family or friends with the exception of one trip to Australia.

I considered getting the knee fixed, but I didn’t want an operation, and there was no guarantee that it would heal strong enough to climb the mountain. It was, however, strong enough to climb a few Devon hills as long as was careful and I could still ride as long as I didn’t try to mount from the ground. On one long walk when I reflected on how I was not now going to climb Kilimanjaro, I felt neither disappointed nor defeated, but strangely euphoric.

The reason was that I’d been putting off trying something that I was afraid of. Kilimanjaro obscured a bigger mountain. That summer I began training a young Arabian colt. Had I been in Kilimanjaro, I would not have had enough time to do this well, and it turned out that training this young and highly spirited horse would start me on an adventure that has lasted ten years and is still taking me to new places.

Sometimes our failures are new expeditions.