The Right Horse

By DANIELLE LATTUGA

On a hot bright day, I relish the creeeeek of the main gate as I shut it behind me. Simultaneously, my heart quickens in anticipation of preparing Smokey for the impending trail ride.

I’m nervous. My neophyte mind runs through the details and order of saddling properly: Tying at the rail, brushing, placing the saddle, tightening the cinch, bridling . . .

Smokey greets me with his grand chestnut arse, head facing the corner of his stall. As I step inside, my insides vibrate. He’s a big horse. He’s gentle, but he’s still a big horse. I approach him, halter in hand. He begins a circular dance, his eyes avoiding mine. He responds to my tension like any horse would: by keeping his distance.

After following his lead around the stall, I stop myself. Be calm. Lead him. Don’t let him lead you.

Forget the details of saddling. Focus on the very first detail: We barely know each other. Interacting with a stranger who smells like anxiety and moves like a predator is not comfortable. Never mind the qualities and experiences that embody the individual horse and potentially complicate the interaction.

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People who know horses tend to follow a formula for choosing one, which includes assessing the horse’s history, health and temperament, as well as aspirations for the horse—important aspects to consider before investing a lot of money and time.

I don’t own a horse. So, choosing my horse has been slightly different from the aforementioned process. Being a Dunrovin Partner is not only about working to enrich the ranch, but also about connecting with a horse and becoming a primary person in their life. You don’t saddle the finances of owning that horse. You know that your horse is well cared for. This has allowed me the luxury of learning more about horses before making a commitment to owning one (although I would argue that horses actually own their people).

One of the inherent benefits of this process is that I’ve been given time to discover what I value deeply about life with horses: I am learning to communicate on a physical and instinctual level.

I consider myself articulate, and pride myself in communicating effectively with others. I am also a woman who thrives on hugs, burying my face in soft fur and smelling the snow, animal-ness, and fire that we carry around on our skin as we move in theworld.

Words don’t hold much salt with horses. How you approach them, stand near them, how you move from one task to the next—this is how they gauge whether you are friend or foe. And that’s just on the ground. Get in the saddle, and they learn more by how you root your bones.  Your legs become your voice and the rest of your body must follow consistently or they will not understand your question. If you are feeling fearful or stressed don’t even try to pretend that you are otherwise. Remember all the uproar over full body scans at the airport? So what if they can see through your skivvies. If they had a few horses around, they’d be seeing through your soul.

I chose Smokey because my body felt right on his. He is a quiet horse, not too easy. He has a reputation for taking care of his rider. He knows more than I do about horsemanship, but he won’t play too many jokes on me. Yet, these are obvious things.

The irony of Smokey and me is that he is mister “Don’t touch me! Brushing is annoying. Really, don’t touch me!” –while I simply want to press my palms into his flank, and feel the heat of the sun.

I am learning that my hands move too quickly and my feet should move before Smokey’s. I am learning that placing my fingers against the velvet base of his ears so that his wild eyes come down to meet mine is a privilege afforded by few. I am learning that he prefers to be called, “Smoke.”  I am learning that every little agreement we make is a victory. I am learning that maybe I am not the one who made the choice.

Please  leave comments below, or check out Danielle’s other posts at the  Horse Around, Missoula blog home page.

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Danielle Lattuga is a novice horsewoman, frequently found guilty of confusing hoof beats with heartbeats. She believes that riding and writing are not so different: both part poetry, part sweat.  Follow her into Montana’s horse country, and find out if she’sright.