“The best thing for the inside of the man is the outside of a horse…”
Attributed variously to R.F. Delderfeld, Will Rogers, Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, Benjamin Disraeli, and others
“…but only if you keep the horse between you and the ground.”
Attributed to Jameson Parker
It began, as so many disasters do, with everything going right. I had had a good morning at my desk, putting the final glossy touches on a magazine article, simonizing and buffing, flicking motes of dust off chrome words. I did some work on a book. I took care of a multitude of correspondence. I wrote a blog that has still to be posted at some future date: its subject matter, peripherally, is death, and it doesn’t seem to interest me now in quite the same abstract way.
After lunch I did a little therapy. I had had extensive rotator cuff surgery four months earlier and things went somehow awry with the result that I lost some of the use of my right arm. It’s not nerve damage. The surgery center sent me to a neurologist who performed a series of tests (apparently perfected by the Argentine military during their “dirty war” to extract information from their victims) that proved there was nothing wrong with the nerves. I can vouch for that. My surgeon finally concluded that it was a phenomenon, uncommon but not unknown, he described as, “…the muscles going to sleep. It happens most often with knee and shoulder surgery. The muscles just say, ‘Hey, if you’re going to do that to us, fuck you, we quit.’ Keep doing your therapy, and it will all come back.” So far, he seemed to be right. I still couldn’t raise the arm above my head, or even above my waist at most angles, but I was making progress, and I did at least some of the practically infinite number of exercises every day. Then I went down to the barn.
Barn? I know, I know. The world and his wife and the little dog behind the stove all told me I was a jackass for getting on a horse before my arm was completely healed. My doctor told me. The physical therapist told me. My bride, the never shy or diffident Darleen, in particular, told me so in emphatic terms that combined questions about my sanity, conjectures about my IQ, and numerous references to the long over-delayed development of my pre-fontal cortex. But…
I don’t want to go all Maxwell Anderson (September Song) or A. E. Houseman (A Shropshire Lad) on you, but a man isn’t granted that many days of perfection in his life, and there are few things more perfect than an early summer day in the southern Sierras. The temperature is just about what you would expect to find in paradise, the air is as clean and clear as a soap bubble, and something whispers in the wind that makes your heart hungry and fills you with a divine discontent, a longing to take your foot in your hand—or tie a bedroll behind your saddle—and ramble on toward an ever fading horizon. And it’s not as if I hadn’t already been riding (my physical therapist looks at me blankly, as he might at a teenaged boy trying too soon to resume training for the football team; my doctor sighs and laughs briefly, contemplating more extensive renovations on his new house; my wife says things I shan’t repeat here) in the arena and even out around some of the dirt roads near our home, in conjunction with said wife, I might add, who justified her going with me as supervision of a mentally negligible adolescent. But this time she had driven into town to pick up some groceries, and I thought I might sneak in a quick ride up the mountain.
There are some people—and I am one of them—who are constitutionally incapable of living their lives inside. Apart from any question of physical activity—and I have always been restlessly active—there is something about being outside that makes me feel more alive. Of course there are times when it’s fun to curl up by the fireplace with a cup of hot tea and a book, but all my life my first inclination has been to whistle up a dog and go for an explore regardless of rain or snow. It was one of the great joys of bird hunting. I never gave a damn about how many birds I brought home (a good thing, because I wasn’t any great shakes as a wing-shot) as long as my dogs and I had a good time, a good working relationship, a good stretch of the legs. When I was still just a boy, long before I was introduced to hunting, I used to think I was somehow different from other people precisely because of this constant pressing desire to be outside. Teachers in the various schools I went to seemed to think there was something wrong with me for wanting so much to be outside (it was regarded as running away, and I was punished for it), and it wasn’t until I was a junior in high school and read Death of a Salesman that I realized there were others like me. In a speech in the first act, Biff says: “Well, I spent six or seven years after high school trying to work myself up. Shipping clerk, salesman, business of one kind of another. And it’s a measly manner of existence. To get on that subway on the hot mornings in summer. To devote your whole life to keeping stock, or making phone calls, or selling or buying. To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation, when all you want is to be outdoors with your shirt off.” I read that and an electric current ran through me: Yes! Yes, that’s how it is! It was partly why my first career choice was to be a large animal veterinarian; it would have entailed a life outside with animals. What could be better? Of course after I flunked chemistry I decided to rethink that choice. But now, in my sixties, with artificial joints and arthritis and aches and pains, hiking is not as easy as it once was. That is one of the joys of a horse. Together, horse and man become greater than the sum of their parts, and I can go further and to more places than I ever could on foot. So on a glorious, God-given spring day, I went down to the barn.
Snoopy (that was his name when I got him; if I had been given a choice, I might have named him Pumpkin, that being his color) is, by breeding, the last thing in the wide world I need. He is a running Quarter horse, which is to say he is bred for speed, a Katrina rescue from a stable in Mississippi that specializes in breeding horses for timed events. His lineage goes back to some legendary Quarter horses, horses whose names are synonymous with blistering speed. (For those interested in such things, think Joe Reed and Three Bars.) All that breeding means Snoopy is, by definition, a reactive animal. When confronted by the unknown and unexpected he doesn’t buck or rear, but he also doesn’t react with a desirable and sensible hunkering down and waiting for instructions from the front office either. What he does is grab his ass and run, flat out. He has done this ever since I got him eight years ago, and those eight years have been spent with me trying to convince him that everything can be done slowly and easily. Someone started him well, but then someone else tried to turn him into a roping horse with crude and heavy-handed techniques, so when he and I got together, Snoopy had some issues. You couldn’t touch his head. We got over that. At the other end, literally, he is the only horse I have ever known who was afraid of having his butt touched. If you did it while in the saddle, you had better be hanging on to the saddle horn or he’d bolt so fast you’d go right out the back door. If you touched his butt while standing next to him, he’d hunker down like a wormy dog, about the most bizarre reaction I’ve ever seen in a horse. We got over that. The worst was his fear of a rope, another legacy of the same ham-fisted fool who created his other problems. I’m not a roper, but I entered him in a roping clinic, and while the other students happily chased steers around, I spent three days repeatedly throwing a lariat left and right, fore and aft, around his feet, walking him over the line, dragging a log, and at the end of those three days he was pretty well desensitized. I worked with tarps and flags; I tossed things over his back and under his belly and around his legs, always waiting for that instant of acceptance, until I got him to the point where I could shake out a plastic grocery bag near him without his going ballistic. I gathered cattle on him. I rode him in the branding pen. I even roped a calf with him once or twice, an event made more momentous, and of greater historical importance, by my catching the calf than by his tolerating the rope. Every time I took him out I made a point of trying to take him to new places, expose him to new things, until one day, riding back from a nearby community, I had to ride past a house where a teenaged boy was practicing the drums in the garage. The kid—no Gene Krupa, trust me—was making such a racket that it rattled me, and while Snoopy bunched beneath me like a keg of dynamite, we made it past, and I pronounced him more or less trail safe. The only thing I never could get him over was ostriches, but since they scare me too, and since the nearest ostrich farm is way down at the far end of the valley where I rarely ride, and since the likelihood of my encountering ostriches in the normal run of events is relatively small, I let it go. None of this is to say that he ever became that most desirable of equines (bomb-proof); he would still spin and bolt when frightened, but fewer and fewer things frightened him.