Who You Callin’ Crazy?

“This horse is crazy, be careful!”

“You need the curb bit or she’ll never listen!”

“Yes, and don’t hesitate to correct her! She’s strong but not real bright!”

“Can’t trust this one. She’ll go bonkers without warning! Threw someone just last week, for no reason!”

Do you ever get this weird feeling of disconnect, when part of you realizes people are you oktalking to you, but what they’re saying seems so unrelated to what is happening that the rest of you is convinced they’re speaking to someone behind you? Rather like walking down the street in jeans and a shirt, and someone looks you dead in the eye and says “Nice dress”?

I turned around. There was no one there. I turned back, and there were the gentleman and the two ladies with concerned expressions, and yes, the little pinto mare standing right where I’d left her, loosely tied to the fence post. Eyeing the saddle and bridle I was carrying with mild interest, her ears swiveling lazily.

“This horse?”

Three nods.

I looked down at the saddle – a nice, well maintained all-purpose English saddle. Nothing fancy, no great brand name, just sturdy and functional. Over my shoulder hung the bridle. Equally no-nonsense. Soft black leather, snaffle bit. I rather liked it. Yes, I had seen the bridle with the curb bit hanging next to it – nice quality, with a few playful rhinestones on the headpiece. But I’m no dressage rider to handle a curb bit with ease, nor did I have any ambitions beyond a nice spin across the hills that day. I looked back up.

This little horse.”

A chuckle. “If you want to call 16 hands and then some ‘little’.”

More nods.

Look down. Saddle. Bridle. Look up. Horse. People.

Yes, her owner’s friend had told me she was a former show-jumper and an eager girl who loved trail rides. Yes, I knew she was neither short nor tiny. But how would I explain to these well meaning people that my Icelandic redhead would have this much taller horse for breakfast, and not even break a sweat? That hands and inches and centimeters mean squat in the face of sheer gigantic Viking personality?

Saddle. Horse. People.

“She thinks she’s little,” I offered.

The humans traded bemused glances.

“Well, just be careful!”

“The owner really should have told you about the curb bit!”

“And the unpredictable crazy episodes!”

Saddle. Horse. People.

“Okay.”

How To Feel Stupid

By now, my Viking would have either practiced her Spanish Walk, pawed a hole halfway to Australia, and/or made a fair attempt to gnaw through the rope out of sheer annoyance. One does not tie up a fierce warrior and then abandon her to stand around while humans make silly noises.

Little Bailey for her part had cocked a leg and watched a bumblebee bounce from one dandelion to the next. Boing, boing… I bet that grass over there tastes nice… boing… are the humans done yet… boing… should I tell them the goat got into their food box… boing… 

“Sorry about the wait, darling,” I hoisted the saddle onto the fence and gave the little mare another quick once-over. An hour or so of groundwork had done us both some good, not only to properly introduce myself to her, but to warm up and stretch. Check for soundness. Learn her little quirks, such as her yielding her hindquarters like a champ, but getting befuddled when I asked for her forehand to move. Such as her willingness to please, coupled with bouts of insecurity (Am I doing this right? Human? Did I get it right? I did? Cool!). She was relaxed, but alert. Loose-limbed and warmed up, but not sweaty. Exactly what any rider hopes for.

I saddled up. Still no sign of impatience, only a soft nibble at my shirt (Why do you smell like watermelon? – It’s my favorite gum – Can I have some? – Nope. But I have carrots for later – Awww bummer. Wait, what? Carrots?) and a friendly nicker to greet a pasture buddy coming back from the trail (Haaayy! I’m over heeere! – Haaay girl! I’m baack!)

‘This horse is crazy!’ – the woman’s words echoed in the back of my head. I wish people would stop doing that, even if they probably meant well. Crazy. What does this evengiraffe mean? The horse who experimentally licked my hand when I held out the bit for her seemed the farthest thing from insane, nutty, berserk, bonkers. Compared to my redhead (who by turns loves to play giraffe, Swan Lake without tutu but with hooves, or ‘steal and then eat the reins’ when it comes time to put on the “Stupid leather on my face thingy”), Bailey was a model of decorum. One nibble on the snaffle, one exchange of glances (Yea? – Sure. Watch the ear, please – Will do) – aaand done.

Crazy. This horse is crazy. You can’t trust her. I wanted to kick myself for letting those thoughts run circles in my mind. Could I be that far off? Was I that bad at judging horsey vibes when there was no one I trusted there to give me feedback? Was I missing something important? What if the signs were there, but I just wanted to like this horse and didn’t look for them? What if… a soft nose whuffling the hair at my ear jolted me out of it.

“Yea. Stupid human, right?” – we going now? – “Yes girl. We going.”

I walked off, long legged Bailey ambling companionably beside me. If there is one lesson I never quite managed to unlearn, throughout all my issues, it’s that you don’t get in the saddle when your head’s a mess. It’s unfair to the horse, it’s bound to drive you both batty, and it can be flat out dangerous. So we walked. A human kicking at rocks and scowling at her boots, and a tall mare with deep, dark eyes contemplating the fresh spring grass, the wheeling birds, the soft breeze, the funny human.

Walk it off. Move on. Such a deceptively simple technique if taken literally. Move. Onward. Onward.

‘You can’t trust this horse.’ Wasn’t those people’s fault that they’d unwittingly poked at the trust in myself, in my gut feeling, in my hard won faith that my old abilities weren’t gone, just buried under a heap of bullshit. Wasn’t the little mare’s fault that suddenly my shoulders were bunched, my chest an anvil, my movements jerky and wooden. Crazy. Was I crazy, to not see what was obvious to everyone else? Why was that curb bit there, if not because…

Human? – Yea, sweetheart? – Grass! Look! Fresh, green, juicy, tender, sweet smelling grass! –  Ah. I am kinda walking you through a candy store here, aren’t I?

Her eyes held all the gentle patience of animals throughout the ages, waiting for the daft self-declared Master of the Universe to figure out the obvious. Opposable thumbs and space rockets, but manure for brains. “Right you are. Dig in, boo.” I plopped down, earning myself a ‘you’re sitting in my salad’ look from Bailey who didn’t need to be told twice. It did smell sweet. The first spring grass, bright and fresh, reaching for the sunlight.

Crazy. I’ve been called crazy, too. Many times. Sometimes in awe, more often in the “nuttier than squirrel poo” sense. Sometimes in the “Poor thing, it’s the … well, you know. Air dummyJust let her sit with her back to the wall, and make no loud noises” sense. Bailey didn’t care. What’s one more weird human? Bailey didn’t bother obsessing over “Why did she saddle me and now we don’t ride? Did I do something? Did something bad happen? Will something bad happen? Oh My Horse, will a Terrible Tractor come and eat us?!” Bailey had grass. Bailey had company, even if it was just a friend of a friend of her human, come to help out and look after her for the week. Bailey had … I really can’t have no watermelon? – bugger off, precious – Your hair smells funny, too, you know! Grapefruit? – UNH! Look, darling. I’m trying to brood here! – Why?  … Bailey had fun.

Can’t trust this horse. Well, she trusted me, after knowing me for just about three hours. Unless I was wrong about that, too, and if I was that far gone I might as well check into Hotel Loony right now. She had trusted me enough to let me brush her, pet her, check her hooves; to waltz around the arena while I was asking silly stuff she’d never done before but that she was game to try for the giggles. Trusted me enough to walk out into the big wide world with me, where you never know if there will be sweet grass or mean tractors. No hesitation. Wait, hold on, there had been those few moments when …

“I’m stupid, sweetheart” – Well, you are sitting on perfectly good food and talking out loud when you know I don’t speak human – “Not that. You’re just a bit insecure, aren’t you?” – What’s that mean? Mind moving your boot, there’s a juicy bit under there – “Strong but not real bright my fine ass! You’re smart. You were watching me, looking for confirmation when you were unsure what was happening, or what I wanted. And. I don’t know how long you’ve been at this barn, but my friend said her buddy just got you a little while ago. So. A smart horse is cautious around stuff she doesn’t know. And if you don’t get the ‘all clear’ from your human, you react. I’ll bet that same fine hind end I mentioned! Literally, if I end up in a shrub with torn jeans.” – Humans sure make a lot of noise when they get excited about something – “Yeah, I know. Wanna test a hypothesis with me, boo?” – Is that a fancy carrot? – “Funny little horse. I meant I’m done brooding” – We go? – “Yes. We go.” – Awesome.

The Art of Keeping The Horse Between You And The Ground

If any other humans had been nearby when I swung my much mentioned derriere into the saddle, there would have been little doubt to whom the ‘crazy’ label should havewhat if you fly been affixed. No, not the tall mare with the beautiful brown and white patches watching inexplicable human antics with bewildered patience. The gigglesnorting woman who bounced around on one leg with the other in a stirrup, after remembering that 16 hands is taller than 14, and that a certain other horse would have given her the third degree by now.

What do they know? The longer this sweet little horse stood perfectly still with a stupid human hopping like a deranged one-legged bunny and laughing tears, the more I had to laugh. The more I had to laugh … well, let’s say I made it up there. Eventually.

What do they know? No more anvil, no more doubt. It wasn’t just the hilarity of a spectacularly inept display on my part, though sniggering at myself is enormously therapeutic. Not to mention I’m a bottomless well of folly, so I never run out of reasons to laugh. It was the ‘Crazy Horse’ behaving exactly as my poor battered confidence had predicted, it was the relief of having come full circle and being back in the ‘zone’ when I didn’t need to see her pretty ears swivel to know she’d heard a bird in the trees. That she was paying careful attention to our surroundings until the silly human got done being daft.

I got you. I got us. – Thank you, sweetheart. You’re a good pal, looking out for me like that. But I think I’ll take it from here – You sure? I hear better, you know. See better, too. – Aye. But I’m the big bad predator with claws and an attitude. I’ll be your Simba, you be my Timon. You tell me what scares you, and I’ll eat it. Or give it a mean Look. – I can do that! I can! – I know, boo. I know now. We go? – We gooooo! 

May my fierce little Viking forgive me, but it was magical. There is something about a tall horse stretching her legs that makes you feel like flying. Bailey’s walk was like being rocked in a cradle high upon a tower. Bailey’s trot catapulted me upwards with half startled, half delighted “Mwah!” sounds until I got my bearings and adjusted to the rhythm. Bailey’s canter … barely touched the ground. Imagine being used to a racecar – low center of gravity, hugging the road, able to turn on a dime. Then someone puts you in the seat of a biplane. A Bailey plane.

Indeed there were some wobbles. A massive pile of lumber, stacked haphazardly near the path, caused some sidestepping and anxious breathing. This wasn’t here last time! It’s biiig – Yep, and slow. Want me to tell it off? – Would you mind? – Bad logs! Stay right there and mind your own business or you’re gonna get it! – It worked? It did! Ha! That’s right, how you like them bananas, stupid logs! There was also a Huge Tractor of Death, but we just stared at that one meaningfully and then gave it a respectful berth because Bailey’s predator pal wasn’t in the mood to eat it (all that steel gives me gas). Bailey didn’t mind. She was more interested in showing me how she can jump a creek, and how neatly she can gather her haunches and tuck her hooves. Cool, right? I can do bigger ones, too! – Holy shitballs! I mean, awesome, sweetheart! – Wanna do a fence next? I know a good one! – Erm. Fence. Right. You see, I’ve never actually … oh look, a nice flat stretch for cantering. Flat being the ticket! – That’s going back to the barn. Where the carrots are. – Carrots it is. Giddyup, darling! – Giddying, funny human!

Owning Your Crazy

By the time we rounded the pond where the frogs had started their early evening concert, and Bailey strolled onto the dirt path leading to the carrots, only one of the concerned humans was still around. I couldn’t resist. I gave her a little royal wave. No queen, no empress, no victorious general riding ahead of their troops has ever waved so graciously. Nor returned in such triumph.

It wasn’t just that my jeans were mercifully untorn, and that I was riding a happy little horse with naught but my knees to steer at this point, because she was so relaxed I’d dropped the reins without thinking. It wasn’t just that by that time I was feeling more than a little cocky (keeping your seat while a professional jumper shows off her skill will do that), and that this particular lady had first dubbed the little mare “Crazy”. It was all of the above, and then some.

Damn right we’re crazy. Little Bailey, for trusting a human she barely knew. Trusting so hard, she’d put all her insecurities right into my hands and faced the big wide world. Lethal Logs and Terrible Tractors and Moving Shrubs of Imminent Death and all. For a horse, that goes against all common sense. And me? Well, I’m peculiar on a good day. But the only truly nutty thing I’d done was to let random strangers mess with my head. Let them knock loose my poor battered screws, and almost deprived sweet Bailey of a fun afternoon in the process. Stupid human.

Cowgirl

 


Human? – Yes, darling? – I distinctly remember you mentioning carrots! – So I did. But wouldn’t you prefer I get that saddle off you first? – Ooooh yes, and brush that spot there please! It’s itching! – Yea, we both worked up a nice, pleasant sweat, huh? – Har, but not as much as that stupid tractor. He ran away from us so fast, he must be halfway to Russia now. Human? – Yes? – We were awesome, weren’t we? – We were marvelous, boo. And Bailey? – Yea? – Thank you.

Bailey (3)
Is this a carrot which I see before me, The top toward my nose? Come, let me eat thee.

 

Bailey (1)
What is this human fascination with little flat boxes anyways?

 

Bailey (15)
Cuddle bug? I never met a bug who wanted to cuddle. I’m a cuddle horse, thank you!
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Little Vikings and Wounded Warriors

“Leave the thinking to your horse, he’s got the bigger head!”

This advice, delivered in a merry voice and translated almost 1:1 from an ancient German proverb, floated towards my ears in the middle of yet another standard leg-yield exercise gone awry (for non horse-people: a sideways walk that looks easy and is in fact not too challenging for a decent rider, but can turn into a hilarious turkey-trot performance if said rider overthinks the thing. Drastically overthinks, like an engineer fixing a carburetor trying to apply quantum physics).

And so I had. Again. For the umpteenth time. Adjust speed. OK, his head is at the correct angle. No, just a little more. Now the shoulder isn’t moving right. Too slow. Shoulder

turkey trot
Think how exciting this would be with four legs!

good, now gentle pressure to the … cue the Charleston music, we’re off to the dance! It is a testament to the Icelandic Horse’s renowned amiable and good-humored nature, that my dear friend the “Night-traveler” did not unceremoniously dump me into the sand and waltz off to find somewhat more interesting to do. Possibly a root canal.

But coach’s equally good-natured advice snapped me out of the vicious circle of tension and thinking and planning, of angles and posture and watching every twitch of my horse’s ear, analyzing every change in his gait, every tremor in the reins (I am convinced that his half-sideways nod is nothing other than an equine eye roll, especially when accompanied by a distinct, deep-throated huff).

Leave the thinking to your horse. Coach might have said “Stop treating him like a finicky bit of technology that will blow you halfway to Russia if you get it wrong, and just bloody well GO with it!” but she didn’t. “He’s got the bigger head!” He’s a living being with thoughts of his own, let him do his part. Let him carry you. STOP overthinking every damn thing. Wasn’t that why I had gotten back in the saddle after a long hiatus in the first place?

The long road back

It’s supposed to be like riding a bicycle. Due to muscle memory and “once learned, never forgotten”, you’re supposed to pick up where you left off, and canter into the sunset. Maybe for some people that is true, but my experience was rather along the lines of “once learned, relearning everything”. Some of it certainly had to do with the switch from Western to English Riding, and from steady, eager, happy-go-lucky Quarter Horses and clever, playful Appaloosas to five-gaited “Devil May Care” miniature Vikings with a quirky sense of humor. But there was also, perhaps mostly, the difference in the rider herself.

There were, in essence, two separate riders.

The Force of basic, fundamental trust we develop (or don’t) in infancy was strong with the teenager who considered climbing out of yet another shrub somewhere in the Northern Adirondacks just another adventure (do not blame Binky, I should have known Image result for horse lover stable mindbetter than to ask such a sharp turn of him when he was distracted by the charming chestnut mare). The immortality and invincibility of youth, combined with a deep-rooted sense that it’ll all turn out alright in the end, that the annoying broken leg will heal before long, that the bruises only mean you had fun pushing another limit, and that there were always people who would pull you out of the shrub and slap a band-aid on your arm (but dammit, that was my favorite ratty old shirt), left little enough room to doubt myself. Or the world I lived in, for that matter.

Horses were boon companions, as were dogs and bunnies and chickens and whatever critter dad brought home to nurse back to health any given day (mom drew the line at that baby wolverine though, much to my dismay). Being smarter than most humans, the 1000 pounds of muscle I fed and brushed and saddled on a regular basis picked up on that cheerful confidence with ease, and responded in kind.

Many years, several deployments. and far too many close encounters with the darkest, most hateful and vicious side of humanity later, that cheerful serenity had been replaced with a wary cynicism on a good day, hypervigilance and obsessive situational awareness alternating or concurring with emotional detachment and numbness on a bad one.

It’s not that the US military hasn’t learned some hard lessons from the past. There is help available. Nor is the stigma of seeking said help as prevalent as it once was. Like as not I’d have cowgirl’d up eventually either way, because once your ability to get the job done becomes compromised, all excuses are feeble. I wasn’t raised to make excuses. “I don’t like shrinks” and “I’m tougher than this” doesn’t fly when you’re responsible for other people’s lives.

But it does help if your superiors support you in your decision to fix a mild issue before it becomes a major one, rather than take your admission of being less than 100% as ‘unfit for duty’. And it certainly helps to have other people in similar situations covering your six. Thus the slightly unconventional suggestion to seek out a barn in the beautiful Middle of Nowhere, Bavaria. “You had horses as a kid, right? I know this place where they do amazing physical therapy with veterans – no EAP per se, but…” “Horses?”

Well, my dog has been my reality check and guardian against nightmares more times than I can count. So, why not let horses help me to remember a simpler, more innocent time? Help me reconnect with the teen of days gone by? What could possibly go wrong?

I should have remembered how much smarter they are.

Murphy’s Law of Combat 5.1: If it’s stupid but it works, it ain’t stupid

Contrary to what you may have been told, the Icelandic Horse doesn’t care if you call him a pony. He doesn’t even care if you treat him like one, as long as it involves carrots. He is, Related imagehowever, as tough as his Viking ancestors, and about as easily persuaded to deviate from a chosen course. Unless of course you’ve managed to gain a measure of respect (or have a limitless supply of carrots available).

Fortunately for me, the barn in Nowhere, BY is run by one of those legendary women who can take you for a 20 minute walk across a pasture with 45 horses and then match you to your partner based on how the herd reacts to you. Which, in the beginning, was a gentle, playful bay gelding by the name of Náttfari.

I’ve never been one to subscribe to the notion of signs and omens and secret meanings. It’s quite likely my buddy with the rockstar mane and the smooth gait was named for the legendary first permanent settler of Iceland, rather than the literal “Night-Traveler”. But it felt apt all the same. If the little guy had a knack for navigating dark places, I’d not turn up my nose at the help.

And so he did.

Bit by bit, week after week, rain and sun and wind and snow and ice, the brave little Viking horse shouldered the responsibility of teaching a wounded human how to keep moving forward. How to take the dark and the light as equal parts of life, and that watching your step in the dark doesn’t mean weakness, but translates to common sense. That keeping a vigilant eye out for predators doesn’t mean you can’t graze and flirt and play. That trust doesn’t mean you’ll never fall, because stupid rocks and slippery mud can pop up out of nowhere. That if you just keep moving, there’ll be unexpected carrots along the way.

In the arena and on the trail, he kept murmuring those lessons to me. Kept moving through setbacks and dense fog, always carrying the weird but pleasant enough human along. Remember. Remember. One step after the other. I got you. Remember. Trust. Feel. It’s just a shadow. Trust me. Remember.

The Path Untraveled

The day that my equine pal and expedition guide so kindly refrained from dumping me, aka “this overanalyzing nuisance on my back”, into the dust was not a quantum leap event for my riding. Rather, it was one in a series of events big and small. Some of them inching me along, others gaining 100 yards at a time, but until that moment always trying to move towards the “Rider that Was”. The one who never had nor ever needed formal training, because a horse is a horse, right is right and left is left, slow is slow and fast is YEE-haw. The one who knew in her bones that it’s never the reins he follows, but the human saying “I got this, buddy”.

It was the day I realized there was no going back to the First Rider, much as I wanted to leave the tense, overalert Second one behind. Because life doesn’t work that way.

The lesson my quirky, amiable Viking had tried to get into my stubborn head all the while suddenly seemed so simple. I could have sworn that for a moment the famous light bulb did not so much appear over my head with a cheerful ‘ding!’, but rather hit me with the ‘whoomph’ of a 1032 ergs solar flare. Remember, silly human. Forward is the way to go. You knew this, once. What you were, what you are, has brought you here. You are the First Rider, you are the Second, both of them will be part of the Third. Let’s go see what she’ll be like. And she better bring carrots.

Related image
My work here is done…

 

It’s been a year and a season since.

And even as my little buddy has moved on to help others while I’ve been exploring the New Rider with two other, quite different horses, I often find myself drawn back to him. If only to stand near the pasture gate for a while and watch him play. Or for those moments when he comes strutting up to blow warm air into my face and nuzzle my hair.

“Looking good, funny human. I saw you with that feisty mare yesterday. Not bad. Did I mention I have a bit of a crush on her? That swish of her tail when she tölts … oh, brother! Hey, remember when we ran into that patch of mud and Snöggur fell on his bum? And you got out the saddle to help his rider up, and then you both fell on your bums? Did the four of us ever make a picture. But anyways. Got carrots?”