• 59°

Best side of a Horse

How long have you been taking riding lessons?” The tone of her question told me that the boss’s wife was exercising her employee relations skills at the company Christmas party.

“About ten months,” I answered courteously.

“You think you’d know how to do it by now.”

That was about 35 years ago. If I knew what I know now, I could have countered that it takes 100 years to learn how to ride and every contact with a horse is a new lesson.

A lesson can be a weekly hunt seat session with the instructor’s broken-record reminder to keep your heels down. It’s 45 minutes with a former circus horse trainer who wonders if you can take the next line of jumps without holding the reins. It’s an hour on a cross-country course in a sheep pasture with an English Olympic Gold Medalist who concludes that you’ve got guts. It’s the dislocated shoulder slammed back into place against an arena wall. It’s racing in a herd of wild zebra or trotting into a grizzly on a wilderness mountain. It’s the gut wrench when a horse dips, spins, and runs as if the devil’s fork is under its tail. It’s the horse smell on your hands and the leather stains on your breeches. It’s every time you place a bit, curry a back, and brush a mane. It’s every time you notice that a horse is thinking about you.

English, Western, gaited, trails, or rings…makes no difference. Every horse has much to teach. As the perpetual student I’m not going to risk my ego in this article by revealing how little I remember about horsemanship after so many lessons with so many professionals and so many horses – warm bloods, cold bloods, and some bloody beasts. I just want to opine about what I think is the best side of a horse.

To say one side is better than another requires a consideration of all sides. I once heard that “as go the feet, so goes the horse.” So, let’s start on the groundside.

My wife Gloria and I shared our first horse, a veteran hunt seat Canadian Hunter whose 17 hands and proportionate mass had exacted a price from his feet. I say with a wistful and bittersweet smile that I spent more time treating the old guy’s hoof abscesses than riding him. As it was, I learned about coaxing a powerful animal to hold his foot in a bucket of warm Epsom-salted water, preparing poultices to draw out infection, and holding the wet mess in place with duct tape.  Most importantly, I came to believe that a horse could love you.

Moving up a leg to the underside, you’ll pass over 40 bones depending on exactly where you start or finish.  In comparison to yourself, if you start with your toes you’ll find 30 bones by the time you get to your femur. When you combine the horse’s 40 bones with the muscles, ligaments, and tendons, you can understand why a vet goes to school for so many years.

The underside expanse can be divided into foregut and hindgut. The foregut starts in the mouth and continues through approximately 72 feet of small intestine. The hindgut twists onward through 10-13 feet of large intestine. How the digestive tract works for a domesticated horse is miraculous. Dollars by the bale go into the mouth and exit as fertilizer under the typical 18 bones of the tail. It’s a one-way trip through an anatomy incapable of belching or vomiting. Mucking manure, I learned, is therefore comforting since you know that probably nothing is getting trapped at any one of several U-turns, dead ends, or constrictions. How reassuring it was when my gelding fertilized and stained the shoulder of a stooping farrier.

While still under the horse, find the sternum between the front legs. Behind this composite of 6-8 bony segments is the heart, typically a 10-pound muscle necessary for the horse to take you where you want to go. This is not the heart extolled in the “horse has heart” cliché. To find that mystic heart of a Secretariat, look under the forelock of mane. Peer through an eye. Back there beyond optic biology, you may find the “heart” that will take you to places unimagined. Such as a first place finish after a last place start in a full gallop race on an Irish beach where the adrenaline rush plays with your mind, and passing each horse becomes a slow motion effect of rolling muscle and tidal pool splashes.

From the horse’s mind, move down through the mane. Compared to a human, the horse’s back is relatively inflexible with mobility restricted mostly to the neck and the lumbar region just in front of the hips. When taken to the limits of flexibility by a jarring stumble or a more impactful fall, muscles around the spine tighten to maintain joint alignment. As with ourselves, sometimes we can work out of it, other times, not. We get achy, twingey, and prone to grumpy behavior. Humans typically never buck, but I can remember a few times when I would have tried if I thought it would have eased the discomfort. Such was the case, years ago, in the days after my ill-fitting saddle slipped while mounting, the horse skittered in painful reaction, and I flipped down a hill, detaching my buttock muscle and tenderizing everything north of the coccyx. So, I learned that poor saddle fit can lead to back problems. Part of the cure was a new saddle fitted by a professional who not only knew the features and advantages of the many saddles on the market, but also knew what saddle would best fit our combined rider/horse conformation.

There you have it, like touring Europe in seven days, bottom to top, east to west. Now for that opinion. Having seen decades and commensurate miles from horseback, I think the world looks better from the topside rather than the underside. While there are lessons of prudence and fortitude to be learned looking up at a horse from flat on the ground, what you see from the top is decidedly more pleasant. Look to the horizon at sunset from the height of a horse and the last rays will be with you longer. Mounted on a horse, you are a few feet closer to heaven. •

A photo waits in all things, all places, and everyone with a passion has a story to be told. That’s the perspective Vince Verrecchio, lightly retired ad agency creative director, brings as a writer and photographer contributing to Life in Our Foothills. He can be reached at vincent.verrecchio@gmail.com.