Joell Dunlap writes, “People ask me all the time what connects girls to horses. After 25 years of searching, I think I finally know the simple answer: trust.”
Top photo by Michael Winokur.
What makes a little girl to wrap her tiny hand around a cotton rope, tug and walk away assuming that 1,000 pounds of muscle, hooves and bone will follow? Is it delusion? Arrogance? Clearly, this is hubris?
Our answer doesn’t matter because the half ton at the end of the rope drops her head and follows that girl. She leaves the security of her food and her barn mates and simply follows the child. No matter how many times I put girls and horses together, this amazes me. It’s one of those little miracles that happens every day of my career and sometimes, just sometimes, I make the time to honor it by watching in wonder.
Every horse story is a story about trust in spite of the evidence. Every horse understands that hope inevitably leads to disappointment, but that trust leads to new possibilities.
That theory melts away when I send out our 22-year-old one-eyed Thoroughbred to teach a student to jump her first fences. He canters lightly to the fence, ears pricked, head slightly tilted to see the jump properly. He knows he could go around. He knows he could stop. But he never, ever does. He slows himself down after that fence and basks in the hugs and pats bestowed on him by the child on his back. She’s got pink cheeks from the excitement and she’s just now taking her first deep breath since the beginning of the lesson. Call this lack of intelligence if you will, I call it generosity. Some people will tell you that a horse is dumb. He’s beast of burden that has been bred and broken until he accepts bit and saddle, spur and yoke with a resignation unique to prey animals.
There are people will offer to teach you to teach your horse to trust. They will sell you a book, a brightly colored whip (?) and a weekend seminar. They try to unlock the secrets of the horse/girl bond. But it’s not until a girl’s heart has been broken, until her best friend has moved away or until she’s have been shunned by those she thought were supposed to love her that she realizes the depth of effort that it takes for a horse to trust. Only then can she appreciate the fragile beauty of the horse and their power to let us “in.”
People ask me all the time what connects girls to horses. After 25 years of searching, I think I finally know the simple answer: trust.
As girls, we recognize the ability to throw ourselves to the fates without resigning ourselves to defeat. We know how to keep certain parts of ourselves sacred while allowing the rest of us to be controlled, to be led, to be vanquished. Somehow we know in our hearts that the prancing horse in the show ring doing tricks manages to retain her own haughtiness, her own boundaries even while she dances for the crowd. We are forever awed by the fact that our own horse allows us to climb upon his back and urge him with impatient knees into places where predators lurk.
We ask him to carry us over fences, down paved streets and through the scary corner of the arena. He will allow us to do it again and again. Each ride is an exercise in forgiveness.
The simple task of learning to trust is taught by the horse in the most important way; not by lectures, not by assignments and tests, our horse teaches by example. He trusts not with the resignation of the defeated, but with the acceptance of the wise. And he is there to teach us again and again each day, each moment we spend with him.
Some of my least proud moments have come when I have rejected this lesson. I remember riding a young and flighty thoroughbred filly who one day would not go around a corner of the arena we had ridden in every day for the last month. I was hot, I was tired, I was grumpy and she was adamant. I pulled, I tugged, I kicked, I half halted, I FULL halted, I backed her into the corner to show her who was boss. She bolted forward no matter what. Finally, I hopped off her back, enraged and tired. I marched her into that corner to make her stand. And she stood, and she trembled. With my jaw set, growled at her “see, there’s nothing here!” I was triumphant as I looked into her panting face. I was sure to win this battle of wills. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement. An angry mother bobcat and her babies crept out from behind a tree not eight feet away. The filly was right all along.
Each of us has met the un-trusting horse. We know right away from his eye, from his posture, from his distended nostrils. Maybe he’s been abused, maybe, just maybe, he knows he does not need humans. We are fascinated. We need him to trust us. We want him to look at us and see something worthy of his trust — something good. Our favorite stories are the stories where this same horse chooses a human, sees something special that we can’t see and he crosses the chasm and simply trusts. This is the stuff of daydreams and fantasy. These are the stories that move us.
This trust is so profound that the same horse, on the day when you decide that her legs can no longer carry you, that her back will no longer support you, when her belly can no longer tolerate the dried, processed food that you feed her, lays her beautiful head in your lap as the doctor injects the poison that will stop her heart. She takes one last trusting look at you before she inhales one last time.
Many thanks to Joell Dunlap and The Square Peg Foundation for sharing. Go Riding.
Here at Horse Nation, we believe that the best therapists are our own horses. We love sharing the stories of special equines — email yours to [email protected] to be featured in an upcoming edition of Back on Track “Horse Therapy.” Go Back on Track, and Go Riding!