One day, a magnificent and very exciting dressage prospect plucked from a lush field in Europe somewhere arrived at a small humble farm in New England. He was five years old, ‘uncut’, surly, energetic, light on his feet and very proud.
It seemed he’d been left too long without human discipline and so, had become rather sure of himself. He didn’t like the things people were trying to adorn him with; things like halters, bridles, saddles and a certain behavioral protocol that would make him valuable, but this frail, partially deaf woman had a knack for recognizing brilliance. She’d make a phone call or two, and before you knew it, a new, absolutely gorgeous horse from overseas appeared.
At the time, I had no idea how she made her connections – literally and figuratively. All I knew, was that I used to ride her horses for her.
She had tiny, dysfunctional abode; scarred, scattered and barely livable. The water was the purest element her property could offer. Everything else was in disarray. The buildings either reflected her, or she reflected the buildings. Old, peeling, wrinkled, dry, and, as I said; frail.
How in the world would this fantastic horse ever thrive in conditions such as this?
He lived outside in her woodsy back yard. He could see and interact with the other horses that inhabited the place. It didn’t seem proper or safe. This ‘guy’ would get very excited about the mare that was there, and she was able to say, ‘not in a million years ‘bucko’…at pretty close quarters…and buck he did to vent his frustrations.
There were two geldings that consoled the ‘new guy’ and kept him company. He clearly dominated the entire herd within minutes…or, more likely, equine micro-moments.
It was only two weeks – two weeks!!! – before she announced she wanted me to ride her new ‘youngster’ at a prestigious Classical Dressage clinic.
In ONE MONTH…
I thought it was insane, but didn’t have the courage to voice my opinion. I was young, ambitious, and wanted her to be happy. Plus, the temptation was too much! He was a really nice horse! I can’t believe I agreed to participate.
He didn’t like the feel of this foreign stuff; saddle pad, saddle, girth, bridle and bit, let alone halter and a leadline, but she insisted he’d be ready.
All I could do was drive three hours one way – on one occasion – to get to her place and lead him around a little. She had a special routine she wanted me to learn. I didn’t ride the horse, I lead him around a little. That’s it. It seemed too simple and too inconsequential.
Whether it was wisdom or folly, I’d soon find out.
Weeks went by, and the arrangements were sketchy. I was to meet this frail woman and her young stallion at the ‘host’ farm the same day I was supposed to ride. It was a six hour drive for me, at least five hours for her with a trailer.
I would have preferred that we both arrive a day or two early, to acclimate at the very least. This was like being blindfolded, turned around three times and asked to hit the piñata cleanly on the first try. I had more than one doubt.
I arrived early and ‘checked in’.
I introduced myself to all the necessary people, and began my nervous wait. Maybe it was a blessing, but, misfortune had struck. Someone came running to let me know the woman was delayed. Her truck had broken down on the Interstate. Shit. Well, maybe things turn out for the best. By this relay system, I heard that she said not to worry. She had made arrangements. I didn’t have any hope, but still, I had a ‘good’ feeling.
She asked for a lot of faith, and some distant part of me granted it!
All I could do was pace and busy myself, while half an hour away, the horse was being unloaded, one step at a time, into the breakdown lane of a major highway. Hopefully, he would walk right onto an unfamiliar trailer while eighteen wheelers, trucks, motorcycles and a multitude of cars whizzed by. I thought it unlikely, but didn’t wish any harm would come to anyone.
Apparently, the horse never questioned the strange events that befell him, or the strange people that had arrived to take him. He took things in stride without protest or incident. He seemed to have that enviable faith that the little lady seemed to rely on.
A little while later he arrived at the farm; a stunning location with remarkable salt water views. People had accumulated within and around a spectacular indoor arena, a minor focal point among the hundreds of rolling acres divided here and there by white vinyl fencing and occasional hedgerows. It momentarily cast a spell on anyone who cast a glance, calling upon them to withdraw from their tasks, and to embark on a glorious journey along the impeccably designed gravel roadways weaving through gently hemmed Nature. I could picture Stubbs himself sitting right next to me, with his oils and a canvas, depicting his interpretation of this marvelous backdrop. I could also picture Hobbits frolicking about and enjoying their luscious, green Paradise. It was an inspiration. A breath of gorgeousness.
I couldn’t see the house from any vantage point, but it must have been the stuff of legend. The little woman arrived fifteen minutes after ‘her boy’, towing her rickety, rusty, two-horse trailer stuck together by some kind of miracle, behind her truck that seemed to be running on two noisy and deficient cylinders. I was expecting it to backfire loudly when she turned off the ignition, just like my old riding lawnmower used to. I’m glad it didn’t. It would have spooked a lot of horses!
I can’t imagine what caused the breakdown and what the remarkably quick solution was – other than bubble gum and duct tape – I never thought to ask, and much later, I didn’t want to ask. All I do know, is that it wasn’t out of gasoline or oil for the engine, or water for the radiator.
In the mean time, I wasn’t allowed to get the horse off the trailer. She had asked that he remain on the trailer until she arrived to get his land legs back. Once she parked, she made her way over to us, with this confident ‘Mona Lisa’ smile. It seemed appropriate given the thin, straight, black hair outlining her face.
Who would ever know what was behind those sparkly eyes and knowing smile?
She unloaded her boy from an impressive, six-horse, shiny gooseneck as if she’d done this every day for an eternity. She handed him to me and said, ‘Don’t worry. He’ll be fine.’
I found myself staring at her. Speechless. Was she nuts? Maybe she had the nerves of a parachutist, combined with the ability of a great athlete to forget the previous moment, whether it was something excellent, or something terrible. I couldn’t process it all. This was crazy!
But still, the clock was ticking and I had a job to do. I walked with him and practiced the techniques/routine I had learned a couple weeks earlier. Remarkably, it seemed to succeed in getting us to focus on a task. I was surprised to find it soothing and familiar, and I almost forgot why I was there.
I also remember thinking how grateful I was, that this young, vital stallion hadn’t been determined to make a statement in front of all the other horses being moved here and there, all around us…
It wasn’t five minutes before we were called in by this little lady, where she gently took her boy from me, and tied his head to the side of her trailer. She hung a bag of hay in front of him, and gave him the opportunity to drink water (which he gladly accepted). He unabashedly relieved himself, and got to the business of munching. She told me to go ahead and watch the clinic, and I reluctantly separated myself from them. I was thinking that we should get him groomed, tacked up and loosened up – or something. But maybe that was my nervous energy prompting and goading me to keep busy…
I watched ‘little lady and her boy’. They seemed perfectly content.
I almost felt like she should have been eating hay from the same hay net – as if she was also a horse. If she had been, it’s obvious that these two would be inseparable. They were two peas in a pod – for lack of another cliché.
I left them and made my way to the the indoor arena, where I saw a friend of mine. We smiled and nodded at each other, waiting until there was an appropriate time to talk out loud.
Karl Milkolka was teaching a Grand Prix Dressage lesson – in German – I think. At least it sounded like german to me. He seemed to be the director of a grand dance that was taking place in front of everyone’s eyes. Instead of a baton or some such tool, he used his perception and then his words; guiding the horse and rider as if they were both a part his one pieced marionette.
High level movements that had been awkward at the beginning, were fluid and brilliant toward the end. Specialized and targeted exercises, timing of instruction and skillful execution resulted in a grand finale appreciated by all of us.
I didn’t understand a word, but I could see from the broad smile and vigorous and appreciative pats the rider supplied to her horse’s neck, that she was absolutely elated. As an audience, we applauded and acknowledged to each other, what a marvelous transformation the horse and rider had made.
For some reason, I looked at one of the side doors. There she was – the little lady – looking at me and giving me a slight nod.
It was time.
I joined her while we groomed vigorously, and tacked the boy up. Thank goodness all the equipment was there! I changed quickly and checked my makeup and upper appearance in a tiny mirror. I put my foot in the iron and hoisted myself up. While I sat in the saddle and the boy stood, the little lady spit shined my boots and buffed every bit that needed to be sparkling, with a soft, dry cloth.
We walked toward the arena to meet our fate.
I entered through the large double doors, riding a horse that had just endured four and a half hours of a rickety trailer, a highway breakdown, a new trailer, a new place; plus, he had never cantered under the weight of a rider [granted I don’t weigh much], and would be scrutinized by a man who had relocated to the US, having spent a decade at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.
‘Don’t worry. It’ll be fine.’…mantra, or fantasy?
Mr. Milkolka arrived and assessed the pair now before him. I had never ridden with him. He knew that. I knew that.
My first assignment was to report the number of lights in the ceiling, without looking. I failed.
The second assignment was to report the exact time shown by an old clock hanging on the wall. Although I knew where the clock was, I was not able to convey the time, even in an approximation. I failed again.
I felt shaky, nauseated and weak…my emotions were gaining traction; insecurity, fear of humiliation, the realization that my visualizations of how this would all go, crushed under the weight of reality. I wanted to cry, my face must have been redder than a beet. It was like being called to answer a simple question in a classroom of very smart people. I felt so, incredibly stupid.
All I could do was keep walking around the arena. I couldn’t make a galloping exit all the way home! I wanted to though!! What a horror show, especially after that brilliant lesson in ‘german’ fresh in everyone’s mind.
This was a lesson in the vital importance of connection – and humility.
Too often, we tend to depend upon a physical connection, while simultaneously avoiding the creation of an environment where keen intuitive moments can begin to flourish.
This was a lesson in how to use my brain differently; how to relate to my horse and my surroundings, before any requests were issued. This was a lesson about releasing ‘ego’, and allowing true cooperation. Understanding ‘input’, from the horse I am riding.
It was like shaking hands first, with a formal introduction and greeting, taking a moment to share space — before the conversation. I did connect with the horse. I felt things with him, and in this way, we learned our lesson together. Maybe he didn’t feel ‘alone’. Maybe that’s the magic that this little, frail deaf woman had mastered long ago.
This horse was not concerned about time the way I was, not concerned about appearance the way I was, not concerned about anything except wanting things to make sense. He wanted to know he was safe, first and foremost. Maybe he was connected to his ‘little lady’, knowing she was standing in the crowd, and was able to let me go through my emotional cascades, until I felt ‘safe’, too.
It turned out to be a profound lesson for all who had attended, because it incorporated an element of riding that is rarely discussed; sensing your surroundings, and in that way, connect to your horse. It’s almost like ‘experiencing’ a TV show together.
This is one of the finest pearls you can cultivate in your mind, your heart, and in your Life. When the day was over, that one lesson was discussed more than all the other lessons of the day.
My hour whizzed by. My horse was totally responsive — cantering on both leads when asked, and literally connecting to me in a way that was so intense, I feel it to this day.