Why We RideNumber One Son

(From the foreword to Why We Ride)
by Jane Smiley

Jackie was orphaned at a month old—the mare had colicked in the night and died by morning. After that, he was put in with a miniature horse and then with a weanling filly who was a month older than he was. But I encouraged him to attach to me, by visiting him and brushing him and rubbing him down with a chamois. He did attach to me in a way that my non-orphaned foals never did, and his attachment to me is a constant pleasure. But it also means that because he is attentive to me, I have to do the right thing. If I abdicate my responsibility, he gets nervous. According to Ray, my responsibility with regard to spooking is the most important one—if he spooks, I am to keep steady contact and not let him run away. He can’t help spooking, but it is not having the spook controlled that really scares him. My job is to control the spook. Does this seem utterly simple? Yes and no. No other horse I’ve had has been so quick. If the spook happens in adagio or even allegro time, I can sit it and contain it. If the spook is presto, that’s a challenge. My responsibility with regard to jumping is to sit up, sit still, and be resolute. Flowers? Still got to go. Jump a little higher than last time? Go anyway. The black box is on the right this time when it was on the left last time? Don’t look at it, and jump anyway. That’s the key—he is as apt as any other perfectionist to stare at the horror, whether it is flowers or boxes. If I sit up and raise my hands, he looks over the jump rather than at it.

Why I bother to do this is certainly a good question. I don’t know many other women my age who still jump. We are never going to go to the World Cup or win a championship. We are never even going to realize his talents. He was good at dressage, but my back was killing me. I wanted to keep riding. But I have Essie—Essie is as safe and reliable and steady a jumper as you could ask for; why am I not obsessed with her?

In part, I am sure that it’s because he’s the complicated, beautiful one, the “character.” Horses, like people, have charisma. People notice him and compliment him. Mares notice him and attend to him—I’ve never seen a mare reject his advances. Other geldings recognize him as a rival, and the more self-confident they are, the more they can’t stand him. In part my obsession follows the law of intermittent rewards—since Essie is always rewarding, I don’t think about her as much. I ride her, I show her, I’m grateful and adoring, but I don’t have to worry about her. Jackie has me trained to pay attention and to work hard on doing the right thing. The reward may be a blue ribbon (he got two blues at the last show). But the real reward is something I feel in my body, though not often. Today, in our lesson, I get several rewards: The first is relief—no spooking, getting the job done, galloping down to the fence and over, getting the changes, riding a well-behaved boy. The second is pleasure in the movement and in my own sense of being balanced and in sync with the horse. The third is the teacher’s knowledge (mine) that the student is improving, getting consistent. The fourth is the student’s knowledge (myself as student) that I am putting my riding together more consistently. The fifth is riding through adversity—no, he doesn’t get every change, yet he gallops down to the fence and jumps it anyway; yes, we come into a couple of the fences a little slowly, but he opens his stride and does fine. The sixth is that old temptation to love the horse I created, the temptation I’ve been feeling since I first laid eyes on his twelve-hour-old grace and beauty. But today we don’t get the real reward, and I’ve only gotten it two or three times. This is the real reward: The course is set, six or eight jumps, and I know it. We’ve been around it once already and it is fixed in my mind. Jackie seems to know it, too, because after the first jump, he is already attending to the second one. He makes tight but steady turns, in perfect rhythm, jumps every fence in stride, is alert and on his hocks the whole time. He’s happy; I’m happy. When we finish this course, it has been a single thought with different aspects that are all connected and a single feeling from beginning to end, counted out by the rhythm of his strides. It is like a piece of music or any other art object that presents itself as a whole rather than a bunch of separate parts—it has a defined beginning, a defined end, and a sustained dynamic in which every good stride builds on the last good stride and all the strides are good. Unlike other works of art, though, it cannot be re-experienced. In a few seconds, it has come and gone.

Maybe professional horsemen get this feeling all the time. I once heard Chris McCarron describe a horse race he had just been in, which to me seemed chaotic and hard to understand. For him, that minute unfolded systematically and understandably—it took him longer to describe it than it had for him to take part in it, and his description was cogent and eloquent. For me, though,this experience is rare and unlike any other human experience. In fact, it makes most other human experiences seem abstract, reliant on one sense or the other, but not all senses (surely including smell, if not taste), as well as that sixth sense, rhythm, that seventh sense, body orientation, and that eighth sense, the feeling of being in unity with another living being. That is the upside of the downside of his relying on me—he is better able than any other horse I’ve known to be with me.

I have spent twelve years asking of this horse, “Who is he?” Theories abound, most of them fairly simple—he’s a horse, which means he’s not very intelligent, not very complicated, pretty much an opportunist (a carrot and a stick kind of guy), someone with simple emotions (fight, flight) and no ideas. Someone whose perspective is easily ignored. In the course of those twelve years, crows, whales, non-human primates, rats, bluejays, squirrels, elephants,and many other animals have been reconceived as having intentions, ideas,projects, and points of view, but no one (as far as I know) has studied the horses that are all around us, being required all the time to engage in a multitude of tasks that we present to them in our necessarily flawed and inconsistent fashion (“Here, take care of my ten-year-old daughter and do it at the gallop”). Primacy in this research seems to be given to wild animals, uninfluenced to human culture. But let’s say for once that there is an intermediate category of animals, those whose culture interacts with ours, who have been found by us to be similar enough to us that they can be put to use by us millennium after millennium. If they are similar enough to do every job we ask of them, then they are similar enough to have a psychology and intelligence that mirror ours. It’s time to give them some credit for having an inner life, and past time to study it.

About Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley is the author of many books, including Horse Heaven, A Year at the Races, Barn Blind, The Georges and the Jewels, and the forthcoming A Good Horse. Her novel A Thousand Acres won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. She lives in California, where she has six horses and five trainers and shows as often as she dares at the Pebble Beach Horse Show.

Why We Ride Contributors

Dee Ambrose-Stahl

Jane Ayres

Linda Ballou

Chansonette Buck

Verna Dreisbach

Lynda Fenneman

Kara Gall

Kathryn Hohmann

Dobie Houson

Jacklyn Lee Lindstrom

Diane Mapes

Janice Newton

Penny Porter

Andrea Richards

Valerie Riggs

Lisa Romeo

Sonia Saruba

Michele Scott

Beth Sears

Jane Smiley

Kate St. Vincent Vogl

Emily Alexander Strong

Samantha Ducloux Waltz

Jill Widner

Jacqueline Winspear

Vanessa Wright

Therese Zink

Site © 2010 by Seal Press
A Member of the Perseus Books Group