In some respects, Kali was a fairly typical case, but it was nonetheless a
very interesting relationship for me then. Although she has passed on now,
it still is.
The mare was started and shown in halter by a woman in Potomac, Maryland. As
a yearling and two-year old she was conditioned, groomed and trailered to
shows. A couple of ribbons came from that, and she developed a fear of
trailers. For many years she had a resistance to schedules, and anxiously
looked for a way out if anything done had a likeness to drilling.
Kali was four, and it was the spring of '84. She was not yet under saddle,
conversely, it happened that from a few early mishaps she learned to get out
from under both saddle and rider. She deposited the inexperienced owner nice
and hard a couple of times in the parking lot. Those back-to-back events
that triggered the decision to sell. Other than the chain-jerking and the
whipping of her forelegs that was used to achieve her blue-ribbon pose for
the judges, she was well treated.
The mare was simply lovely to see in any light, doing anything. Her
timid-bordering-on-fearful approach to new objects when on the lead was, I
soon realized, a reaction to the anticipation of a spook that her owner
expected. On her own, Kali displayed an insatiable curiosity, a readiness to
think clearly, and an eagerness to please. These qualities were matched by
an unquenchable thirst for space, and the obvious joy she derived from
moving around in that space.
Once in the halter and lead, the mare's emotional scars were immediately
visible. Self-doubt and fear of men topped the list. She was ready to do
right if she had to, but preferred to leave in one huge leap if she thought
she'd done wrong. Her breeding was planned- her sire was a super-fast Arab
race horse. An off-work Argentinean Thoroughbred polo mare was the dam.
By then I had trained and re-started a lot of horses.so it was not the
prospect of riding her that made me reflect and hesitate . . . that caused
me to hold my breath in her presence. It was her presence.
My decision to buy the mare was, like so many other horse equine episodes
that drew me in over the decades, was born of that delicious inner
concoction -- a dash of intuition, a pinch of inspiration, no shortage of
imagination and a healthy dose of impulse. A lot of ayes, eyes and i's in
that one. At any rate, that morning I had no plans to buy another horse. In
fact, quite the opposite.
I had recently relocated to Washington, D.C., for an editor's position at a
magazine. Just a few weeks prior, I discovered a place to board my gelding
in Potomac, Maryland, and it was on a trip out to ride my horse that I
noticed Kali. She attracted my attention when I saw her do something I had
not seen a horse do before. That morning was a turning point that was to
determine many things for me and many other people, for many years
What was it that she did? It was not one thing. It was a series of smaller
component maneuvers that made up one whole dance, a show. It was an event
that she repeatedly performed over the course on a hour, and I have not
witnessed anything just like it since.
Mesmerized, I figured that if she could do that on her own, she could do
that with me on her back. I wanted to ride that move.
What follows is a description of this event, and the circumstances in which
it occurred. Ultimately, it was this experience that lead to my
understanding of how important it can be to "stay close" to a horse when
circumstances call for that.
Kali and her 6-month old foal were to just in from the 300-acre pasture they
had shared with 60 - 80 other horses. The colt was soon to be weaned. She
had raised him in this huge, rolling pasture for half a year. Back then,
before planned communities and subdivisions were popping up every half mile,
it was normal to see this ratio of horses to acreage. So nice.
Rain fell hard that day, hard rain in thick gray sheets - the sort of
weather that doesn't make you think twice about pulling your car onto the
shoulder to wait it out. In that sort of rain you can't see beyond the end
of the hood anyhow. This pounding rain excited the mare. She and her foal
charged around at maximum speed for the conditions, but after watching for a
time I determined that she actually increased her speed the longer she was
at this. They were motivated in part, I assumed, by the deafening impact of
rain battering the tin-roofed shed built at the end of the narrow, 150-foot
run. It was only about 20 feet wide. The pair hauled ass back and forth,
skimming, splashing, post-holing their sharp hooves into the greasy turf
when they were not hydroplaning through shimmering pools of black water. The
mare seemed to fly down the straight-away. At either end of the run, she did
fly. I clearly saw her do this and I, sans rain gear and drenched to the
skin, was riveted to the spot.
She learned in two passes that in order to gallop that hard and carve the
best turn back, she could not stop. She had no room to slow down for the
turns because no matter which direction she wanted to turn, to lay in an
angle at that speed meant that she risked slamming the foal. Perhaps she had
done that before I got there, it was hard to say. But she had a better
maneuver in mind and it actually enabled her, odd as this sounds, to
accelerate into a whole-body pivot. Like a helicopter, she defied gravity
from the gallop up to a height of 4-5 feet, snapped around, and took right
off at the gallop with all four legs churning up the muck as she touched
down again for take-off. A single, graceful, completely mindful
demonstration of her respect for confinement and her commitment to speed and
freedom of expression in spite of it.
She had no need to stop, or brake, or slide around before changing
directions. She gathered herself up and back in a one-stride, leap-lunge
about 10-15 yards before the end of the run, not a lot difference in effect
than when an Olympian pole-vaulter's feet leave the floor. She did this
time after time .. speed up, lift up, hurl skyward and !TUCK! all four legs
tightly, as if she were squatting, or crouching, four feet or so above the
ground. Each time she turned at the end where I stood, she glanced quickly
around for the foal. He was skittering around to the left, or right, or
directly underneath her. But she did not touch him. A nano-second after she
lighted came an explosion of legs, each one reaching, pushing, balancing,
barely touching the top of the water..and she disappeared, leaving a thick
spray of mud in her wake that showered the foal and those of us watching and
waiting for her to reappear, which she did again and again, ever more
wide-eyed, with heaving red nostrils pulling down more and more oxygen to
fortify herself for another charge down the narrow board fenced lane.
The foal's position determined whether she turned left, or right. She was
equally capable in both directions. This was a dazzling spectacle.
She never lost momentum. In fact, she gained it while she gathered and
slowed in mid-air, carving that slick, hair-pin turn, her sureness brimming
over, and each particle of furious elegance leap-lunging, a tightly-tucked
readiness that painted her potential for me in those timeless moments.
In this ballet, her eye lead the poll, the poll lead the neck, which pulled
the shoulders, lead the ribs, and was followed by the most dynamically
coordinated, powerful set of horse hips I'd ever seen explode for take-off.
Over and over she did this. "I need more room!" "Because I am!" She
managed those hairpin leap-to-land 180s in about three seconds. The best
pirouettes I'd seen were immediately dispatched to a spot far back in my
head that I reserve for memories of sacred experience. Anyway, after seeing
this, those images were sometimes just there as a pitiful reminder of the
human's dampening effect on a horse's innate tendency to triumph over
I needed to know if I could ride such a useful maneuver. I wanted to. I
decided on the spot to see if she was for sale. Two weeks later she was my
horse. I was both surprised and hurt that she so clearly saw the situation
in another light. The only person she trusted, sold her to me, but the mare
did not speak my language. At that point, I am sorry to say, I had no idea
it was my duty to learn hers if I wanted her to understand my plans. And
that was a problem. Our troubles began.
I decided to, first, pony her from my gelding for a few days and let them
get acquainted. He was a friendly sort of school horse, and we called him
Pumpkin. He was a Belgian-Morgan-and-something-else mix, and about 14 years
old at the time. Forgiving by nature and full of heart, this horse was no
stranger to human ignorance and the rudeness that customarily goes with it.
He was hard as a rock from a lifetime of self-defense. I was one of many
whose well-intentioned attacks - 11 years worth -- against his sides,
mouth, shoulders and hips made him this way. Mind you, I had seen many good
riders, had excellent coaches, won many jumping events on so-called
"unrideable" horses. But I had not at that point heard about, or considered
a conceptual approach that put the horse's point of view before my own
agenda, however inconsequential or ambitious it was at a given moment.
Crash-landing twice is a crummy way to say goodbye to a horse you love, so I
offered to prepare the mare well enough so the woman could have a couple of
short, safe rides on Kali to get her confidence back a bit. Understandably,
by that time, her baggage included the fear of falling, bolting, getting
stepped on, half-dragged and, finally, rumbled around and pummeled to a
near-pulp underfoot. Poor lady. At a minimum, I wanted her to have a better
memory of riding the mare.. Although theirs was a common story, it was
heartbreaking to think they had to part company on a sour note.
Ponying Kali that fall and winter was also the only way I could imagine to
fulfill such a promise. After she got her courage to step on and be lead
around a few times, I began training the mare in earnest. Since I fancied
everything about her, I was sure she would be the most suitable riding horse
The ponying project that was to have been days, soon turned into weeks and
these soon became months.
I enjoyed having Kali at my side while I rode so I could watch her. I
observed her reactions Pumpkin, to me, to things we passed, heard and sensed
in the places we passed through. Her transitions were glorious, refined,
seamless -- every cell in her body was committed to the job she thought was
hers in that moment.
Part of my plan was to develop my keenest awareness about her next moves,
and to learn what she meant by how she moved as she prepared them. I had
often heard that I had good hands, "better than most" was another compliment
that made me feel better when I felt bad about my riding, or in general,
because I'd often heard that said. But Kali knew they were not light, and I
knew they were not light after she made it clear. My rides were short,
therefore, and very occasional. I rationalized that this impetuous little
powder keg was as exciting to lead beside another horse in the start of it
all, as it was to ride her. Perhaps even moreso. But the truth was, her
lightness intimidated me.
So, the questions I had were.how does she so effortlessly elevate those
shoulders? How do I get her to relax? And, how will she cope with the loss
of her suckling foal? How will she handle the competitions? How long will
it take me to get her in the trailer next time? Will she mind if I pull her
mane? DO other people think she is as lovely as I do? Will someone steal
her? (A lot of that was going on around there in those days.) These
questions were without answers because I did not want the answers, only the
questions. And that was because, at that time, they had enormous value,
sitting there unanswered, they hold a space where real answers to real
questions could have been. I was a lot younger then. In the end, as it
turned out, I needed to have the understanding and support from someone
wiser about the nature of horses than I before I could break into that
The countryside on the outskirts of D.C. at that time, looked a lot like the
landscapes you can see in history books about 16th C. England. It was a fine
sight. Giant expanses of rolling pastures were separated by thorny
hedgerows, creeks and small clusters of hardwoods with other flowering
trees. Fences built into the impenetrable thicket averaged about 3 ft 9" to
5 ft. 3". Depending on where and how you were heading.you found those
hurdles coming and going. There were no gates for miles and miles. For most
avid riders around that hot-to-fox-hunt country it was logical: easy access
and egress set into the natural borders of the (sometimes incredibly steep)
In one river that we often went through and considered part of the path, a
shortcut to another place we went, Kali learned to jump a large fallen tree
on the end of a lead rope.
The tree stretched from bank to bank, and was substantially higher than her
elbows. The top of the trunk came up to the middle of her windpipe. Going
around this tree was out of the questions because barbed wire fencing lined
both banks -- the lowest edges of which were considerably higher than my
head. The footing was typical, Mid-Atlantic States fresh-water river bottom.
She staggered in the fast water, tripping and slipping. Slick rocks, jagged
rocks, unstable rocks surprised the feet as the legs responded too quickly
in fast water, but these are top choice when a swamp is the alternative. In
those river bottoms you can stumble into quick-sand pits as likely as not,
so I did not mind this.
I dismounted on the log, took the gelding's reins over his head and he just
gathered up, raised the withers, leaned back sort of made his way over that
one. We had done things like this for many years. Neither he, nor I thought
in terms of obstacles. He waited on the other side near the bank for Kali to
follow. The more I encouraged her to leap, the harder it was for her to
think about doing it. After all, I was active, standing above her, pulling
impatiently on her halter rope (read that as: pulling her weight forward,
encumbering and obligating the front legs, precisely the ones she needed
released for leaping up and over the giant oak tree.) It took a long time
and was not pretty, but in the end with the "no-help-at-all" sort of help I
offered, she scrambled over. Their reunion was touching. She bit him,
sighed, and drank some water, and then shot me a tough look that, although I
can recall it clearly in this moment, I did not then understand. And then we
We subsequently revisited this place until it was smooth passage and, by
then, almost everything else we encountered was negotiable. She was ready to
take a rider all over that country, and I was ready to rider her. Soon a
day trip was organized, and I rode her out with a couple of other people. I
loaned the gelding to another woman so he'd be there to offer Kali a dose of
familiar support when it was needed. It was her first real trip after all,
and it would be a matter of time before a little reassurance fit her style.
With sandwiches packed in our coat pockets, we trotted down the lane at 8 o'clock.
Not being from those parts, I just followed along and as the hours passed
and the miles added up I thought hard about things I had read and heard... what I... should be able to expect of Kali, at that age. About ten or
eleven hours later, the sun had gone behind the hills and in what little
light was left, we rode back up the lane toward the barns. What happened in
between though, was genuine education.
That day, we were joined by a couple of youth members from the local
hunt club. Their mounts seemed well acquainted with the turf and
handled the potholes, ditches, downed wire, slick spots, uneven
grades and a battery of imposing obstacles with the familiarity one
would expect from a veteran hunter. In retrospect, I should have
mentioned that Kali never had galloped or jumped carrying a rider.
Might have thought to mention that I had not ridden her either.
Staying close to Pumpkin was her only plan.
What wasn't obvious to me at the time was the immense value of
letting her do that, and only that. As a saddle horse, Kali's view
of the world was limited. There was young woman she twice got out
from under, and afterwards the saddling process had more the look of
a rodeo event. Since that disruption in her training, this ride was
to be an inaugural, marathon event compared to the two previous
rides, which lasted only a minute or two. It was also the first time
she had been around the other horses that joined us for the ride. It
was the only time she had experienced a tight cinch against her
sensitive sides for more than about 20 minutes or so. It was the
third time she had a bit in her mouth.
These aspects of her reality were known to me, of course, but the
collective effect on her could not have been further from my
thoughts. Kali was going to learn some things from me that day, that
was my thought. I was the horse trainer, after all. Hindsight is
cool. A few years later, I realized that she didn't learn much of
value that day from me. But to survive the experience, she learned
what she needed to know about me.
To this day, I still cringe a little recalling the big thoughts that
drove big words about big goals to come from my mouth. And these,
driven by my big ego (always a handy solution for deep feelings of
insignificance) were banking on the big bits and big bats (whips,
crops, bats of various kinds) to ensure that these big plans of
mine... and so on, and on. And it was just a lot of big baloney,
by the way. But I did not know it then.
But I did know that something wasn't right. Just not exactly...
what. And to say I relied on big bits, well, that is not exactly
true. I did not. But I sure thought a lot about using them. Just to
try it. I had some, and wondered how, or when and if I ought to use
Then I would open that super sensitive, dainty little half-Arab mouth
of hers and I'd look in there and think, "No, she's really so
delicate, only her sides are dull because her mind is hard. It's
going to hurt me to hurt her mouth that much, when I pull as hard as
I have to get my point across. There has to be more to this." That
little voice kept nagging. I bought those bits anyhow. Had a slew of
them, horrible looking palette-stabbing, lip-slicing, gum-rippers
hanging there in the barn. Just in case. You know.
Six years later, it was an altogether different story. And thanks to
this horse, I set myself adrift. Cut all the moorings. I drove almost
3,800 miles to get away from all that was familiar, secure and
predictable as it concerned my work with horses.
I discovered that there were humble, intelligent people whose quiet
and contemplative approach worked better with horses than the things
I had learned. I found them, one by one, and each in turn showed me
that they waited to offer a horse something to think about, after the
horse taught them something they needed to know. A couple of them
shared their gifts generously, and showed me how.
On the ride through Maryland's bucolic landscape in the spring of
1984, I was at another point along the trail. My focus was keen on
the things I thought were important. My gelding was not as clean as
he should have been. But he was well schooled. He had manners. Could
be counted on. Kali's tack fit her well, but it looked so new. I
had just purchased a new car, but the gray was a bit darker than I
wanted. The weather had not been cooperating (what sort of thought is
this?) and I knew that Kali's beautiful white legs would need to be
hosed and fussed over after the ride. For poopsake, come on. Such was
the depth of my concerns about horses and some aspects of my life at
Now, Tom Dorrance, had we known each other then, would have
classified me right off as a "surface worker". From all outward
appearances he'd have been right. But that statement could not be
further from the truth.
When you don't know what it is that you don't know that you need
to know, the decisions about who to listen to, where to spend limited
money and precious time on more education, become a gamble. For some
it is a crisis. And, for others, just a crap-shoot.
Just look how many do-gooders are out there offering to help people
and their horses today... I think perhaps by now it could be
thousands! But even back in the mid-1980s there was an impressive
smorgasbord from which to select a main course. I was desperate and
starving, so I heaped the plate. Choked down what would go down, and
tossed the rest away.
Berkshire County, Massachusetts, was home-base. On the east coast in
those days anyone with a foreign accent, who charged more than someone
local, had their name dropped when the subject of advanced riding
techniques and horse training came up. Of course, becoming better-
versed in the basics had not occurred to me. I was a long-time
trainer, after all, and must surely have known enough about basic
things, or else how would I have gotten that far? Well, that question
didn't want an answer so the skewed logic that bound together many
disparate elements of the whole catastrophe pulled at my solar plexus
whenever Kali's eyes met mine.
Ordinarily, I might run these next thoughts out as a stream of
consciousness tangent and then rein myself in a bit later with an
apology for the 21-paragraph, apparent non sequitor. Were I to now
omit this part, however, the rest of the story about that ride on
Kali (find this below at: RESUME), and the lessons I took from it, could
strike a reader as far less relevant than they were. So here we go.
Kali knew I did not have the basics in place to be more help to
her, and her behavior revealed that. Better words to describe this
knowledge, to explain this awareness, are lacking. Some years had to
pass before I could admit that, and yet more passed before a solid
foundation in the basics became a cogent concept. The skills
associated with this were still illusive.
What do I mean. I mean that before I could recognize a horse
with a solid foundation in the basics, and distinguish one that had
it from one that did not, I suffered from the delusion that no one
else really understood it, either. Every spare moment, dollar, wish,
plan, prayer and cell was committed to the goal of becoming
proficient at handling and riding horses. If I could not "get it"
then, clearly, this was not teachable or learnable. Right? I didn't
really believe that, either. A look at the cavalry books and etchings
from former times clearly dispel such an excuse.
Another poke at illogic: If I could not get this, then didn't
there have to be something false, weak or insubstantial in the basics
that the pros were teaching? Or?
Was I stupid? Surely, if that were the case, it would be been
made known earlier. I had trophies from the happier times on
horseback, this proved what I could do, what I knew . . . didn't
it? Self-doubt, however it gets there, is not helpful to anyone who
has that much of their identity tied up in the hope of being
"right"ť, in the end. I was the sincere one, after all, and no
longer interested "that much"ť in prizes and recognition. And,
hadn't I been in cahoots with the Humane Society and had a cruel,
take-em-out-back-and-work-'em-over-type Midwestern trainer, busted?
Her horses had done really well in the shows. So what, into the
slammer she went by God. Good one, Desmond. Water, no bread, I
imagined. I was really mad. There was no shortage of confusion
swirling around about all this business of expertise, right and
wrong, good, better, best. Where was the horse in all of this? At
last came that thought, and I started to seriously wonder.
In the meantime, though, immediate relief from the stress
topped my list of concerns. It was not hard to overhaul that flimsy,
cluttered mental network; it was just a matter of reconstructing
definitions and re-arranging my faith in, and about, most things that
I had previously assigned the to the good, better, or best categories
in the horse world. It was a rich stew. I chucked the breeders,
trainers, judges, equipment manufacturers, licensing organizations,
show stewards, trailer designers, 4-H, Pony Club, the racing
commissioners, feed and chemical companies, and you name it, whoever
else, all in the same pot.
I had to create order. To be doubly sure, I went to the
library. After that, the bookstores. Got a decent start on a library
of my own. Read what a dozen or more experts had to say. Then, with
my horses, tried to reconcile massive amounts of conflicting
suggestions and diverse opinions. Experts, all. All but me. I
suffered from the burden of the dream-turned-nightmare. Because if
not a life with and around horses, then what?
In almost no time, the horses began to show signs of wear and
tear from the chaos. Big chaos resulting from repeated attempts
to integrate the confounding glut of details that I'd taken on
board from so many so-called experts, a useless chatter coming
through to the horses whenever I took up a lead rope in my hands. By
the end of 1986, I didn't ride much either. My use of the reins had
even less meaning, or so it seemed. Rock Bottom was the new address.
How far had I really slipped though? Could adult beginners and
children still benefit from a few lessons taught by someone who
wasn't able to tell the difference between a horse with a good
foundation, and one whose foundation was widely touted because it was
simply assumed when considered in light of the impressive trophy
room, framed pedigree, whispered sale price, and the stable's
socially significant address?
By the end, I was half-mad with worry that I might never know
if the foundation I built into the many colts I'd started, and
released into the hands of the unsuspecting public, was all
right . . . or not. In the case of Kali's colt, for example, it was
not. Oh, come on, some had to be all right! For six years this ate me
That the basics meant something different to every person, and
could not ever be the same for every horse because there were so many
small distinctions between each individual horse and person, begged
the questions that finally set me loose: How could there ever be a
way to approach a horse so that a clear and reliable foundation could
mean the same thing to every person, and to all horses, too?
How can someone like me, an absolute nobody, ever get to the
point where I live and work in that ultimate margin between knowing
about horses . . . and knowing them. I didn't have an answer. But
at last, a better question; a new goal distilled.
The struggle depleted my reserves; I was sad and exhausted. My
search for the holy grail lost its momentum rapidly when the
convenient distraction of a management position with a major garbage
corporation presented itself. The position required a two-hour
commute a few times a week. Perfect. One does not need to question
why horses slip from the #1 spot to the bottom rung in the list of
priorities if you land a fancy out-of-town job with all the perks.
And a new car. Waste management, indeed. It left little room for the
panic that had shellacked an abiding deep reverence for horses .
Now, back to the Berkshires, spring 1985.
I dug into my wallet for these accents and tried learning from
a few. There was the Irishman with a bouncy brogue. He wore a tweed
driving cap, and had a nice way with the customers. When it came to
handling the horses I thought he was in a heck of a hurry. And he
was. He was in a particular hurry to get me to agree to sell Kali to
him for $30,000. I thought that was worth the price of admission and
(check out this logic) resolved never to sell her since she was worth
that much. Instead, I invested in shipping boots, a thick felt head
protector and other fear-based accoutrements that were designed to
prop up the distorted notion that she wasn't a herd animal after
all. Thanks, Mr. Dublin.
There was another one, now forgotten, from Germany. I showed up
with Kali to ride. The strange actions this man displayed from the
get-go lead me to conclude that my own shortcomings with horses were
of comparatively little consequence. Driving home that night I
laughed aloud, thinking that I might do as well professionally if I
simply hung out a shingle that assured anyone who stopped for lessons
that they would leave renewed, anointed by a paragon of mental
health. I moved on, made another investment, another stop. At the
Kremlin. Nothing for us there.
The search continued, but I would only watch then, no more
riding. Kali was mine and would remain mine, and learn or not, glory
or not, she would stay at home. We had our many disappointing
exchanges, dark moments, triumphs and our truces. There was also a
clear point past which I would not permit anyone or anything to push
us, or to push me to push her. We both knew that, and I suspect that
that was the basis for the barely discernible bond that existed
I watched a Frenchman with unverified claims to have been
taught "for many years,, at Samurai". I can still hear his
feigned accent and presumably quite continental affectations and
think of him today as I imagined him then: loitering in front of a
proper gentleman's dressing mirror, combing his turn-of-the-
century, down-the-middle part, and straightening his little starched
collar. He would, I was certain, then polish his boots for the third
time while he practiced that meal-ticket accent in front of glass.
For sure nothing for us there, either.
Later, I attended a lecture given by a famous animal
behaviorist from the UK. After observing the difficulty she had
leading an old horse through a new gate, I thought she'd maybe had
her nose in the books far too long. After another 6 months of
checking out the scene, I gave up on the Europeans and researched the
"who-was-supposed-to-be-who"ť in the USA.
Traveled weekends to watch the best I could find in the
business. Dressage, eventing, reining, roping, cutting. Winners, all.
The horses looked unhappy.
In the end, I got the best relief from going back to my roots.
I watched the Canadians hitch their big draft horses at the county
fairs that you can find throughout New England in the summertime.
There, at least, everyone had a good time. OK, the horses got smacked
around a little and sported a few welts across their over-heated
rumps at the end of it all. But they stood contented and steaming,
with streams of sweat running from forelock to fetlock, shaking their
powerful, big necks and giant heads, licking and chewing with
satisfaction. Because? They pulled the fully loaded stone boat where
the driver needed it to go.
Unlike many of the horses I saw at the seminars and public
clinics, these horses understood the job, did it well, and felt good
doing it. It's not difficult to see when a horse feels good. But,
as mentioned, I decided to digress...
I fought with Kali most of the day. If I had interviewed her, she
might have mentioned that she had suffered for hours with a mouthful
of painful contradictions and senseless tugging that, by nightfall
had left her with the idea that a pull on the left side of her mouth
meant go right, and a pull to the right meant go left. The notion
that I might have influenced her mistaken understanding about left
and right, or that her total disregard for stopping or traveling
straight when I needed her to reflected my lack of both knowledge and
skill, did not cross my mind. She was the problem. I would find the
By 2 o'clock, we had burned off the mangled sandwiches and hunger
lured us to a path that the locals said was the shortest distance
between "here and home".
At dozens of junctions between fields and streams we encountered
impassable thickets. Many just barely negotiable crossings left Kali
with eroded confidence and increased anxiety about the whole
endeavor. We pressed on through the craziest mess of vines, boulders
and thorn bushes, some of it grown around and through old junk cars,
and stacked dead timber used as a sort of boundary at the edge of
many farms, generations back. That Kali needed time to think about
these things never occurred to me, either.
To ride a green Arab in a way that calls their best attributes
forward and places them at your service, is as much an honor as it is
high art. What I thought about her that day, cannot be printed
because, to be honest, I was thinking only about her rider. The
simplest way to explain the situation I was in with this horse, is to
admit that I had not yet understood how to ride what I now call, the
Some thoughtful, forward thinking members of the hunt had provided an
easy way around most of these just passable or impossible places.
Weekend foot-traffic, dog walkers, older and less-secure riders made
good use of this amenity.
Using these detours as a way to introduce her to the field was not
part of the plan because I knew she could jump and I was determined
to teach how to obey my leg and rein aids, to accept being told where
and when to go, and at which speed. She had a heaps of try, but
despite that offering, at the end of the day, she did not understand
the meaning of most of my signals. My "training"ť brought her a
fair distance in the opposite direction, actually.
The deep, essential things I would need to know about the inside of a
horse -- things that she was going to teach me a couple of minutes
later that afternoon, were the gift in the grail.
Pumpkin jumped handily, clearing fence after fence with his new
rider. On a few occasions she preferred not to jump downhill. In
those instances, she dismounted and lead the way around the obstacle.
I followed triumphantly on the wide-eyed, sweat soaked mare, notching
my belt with satisfaction at the conclusion of each petty skirmish.
"I am training this horse to do the things I think she should do,
today, on this ride." Period.
Due to a serious misunderstanding about the correct use of an outside
rein on a green colt, these troubles between us occurred at nearly
every turn, and got worse as the ride wore on. In eleven hours, we
fought each other hundreds of time. I won each battle and then loosed
the reins so she could catch up with the others who, usually, waited
a few strides beyond the fence.
After a long uphill gallop that brought us up to the most formidable
hedgerow of the day -- the Berlin Wall of shrubs. At once, riders and
horses all saw a different set-up and the first two riders slowed their
horses for a better look. The footing was so-so. At this fence there was no
other way around and the uphill landing was six to eight feet higher than
the take-off point, which made the jump appear two feet taller than it was.
I was thinking, OK folks, I'm riding a pretty green mare today, let's have a
chat about this one, when local dames powered up and went for it. It was a
big fence, over five feet anyway, and the hill was steep. They made it over
just fine. They shrieked with delight, and sped the rest of the way to the
top to wait for us while their mounts aired up. That left Pumpkin with his
shaking cargo and Kali and me on the downhill side.
The barrier was so formidable, and the incline so steep, that our horses
could only hear and not see the others. We circled in front of the fence,
easing from a gallop down to the trot a couple laps on our heaving, sweaty
horses; Pumpkin was happy for a chance to slow down. But Kali, seeing those
other two soar over the fence and disappear out of sight was ready to fly. I
had, suddenly, more power under me than I had any idea existed in a horse --
a Preakness favorite at the starting gate.
The woman on Pumpkin rode heavily. Her shoulders slouched forward, she
donned the "I give up" expression that turns my stomach. Told me she was
"really tired" . I asked her to get off and hold Kali while I went back
down the hill on Pumpkin for a run at that big one.
Not much hair came off, we made it. On the uphill side I looked around for
a place to tie him so I could climb back over the wall and see how I was
going to manage with Kali. She was fussing and cranky and the by now sobbing
woman was close to letting go of the reins. Kali's head was popping up and
down over the top, she was more giraffe that horse by now, mostly on her
hind legs, leap-lunging up and down on her haunches. Kali reached high in
the air with her forelegs, like a Wesley Dennis sketch of the Black
Stallion, straight reins from an open mouth down to a hand that I hoped
still had a grip.
Bless her heart. No further from the base of the wall than the woman held
her, she thought she was expected to take it from a standstill . . . as she'd
learned how to jump in the river just weeks before.
I was fit enough at the time, but even so, it took long minutes to get back
over. Then I had to shove the lady up to a spot where she could grab the top
board and, with some more heave-ho from the downhill side, scramble over and
drop down. There was a loud thwack when she let go, then volume up for more
sobbing and whining about creosote burns and wood splinters . . . it was an
insufferable din for ears that wanted plugging. I wondered how to ride Kali
over this thing.
This was what I would still classify as a no-joking matter situation. There
was only going to be one way to ride this. Staying close to Pumpkin was her
only thought. Although I had ridden her all day, maybe eight hours by then,
I felt anything but close to her. We had been arguing back and forth the
whole time about speed and left and right and whoa and wait and collection
and head set, and this and that.so..now. What to do?
An arguments about this job would get one or both of us hurt. I knew that
and it seemed she did too. Somehow. I had ridden lots of jumpers. It could
be good to have a short, stout stick for this one, I thought, and snapped
one off from a nearby tree. It was the first time, I imagined, that she had
been unable to see another horse. She trembled, but calmed momentarily when
Pumpkin nickered to her. He called out to her in a louder pitch as we
turned down the hill so I could size up the odds of making it on the first
try. Gallop and go. Nothing to it. The fence was right around 5'3". Leslie,
you've cleared much bigger ones. Chickening out was not part of the formula,
and wasn't I absolutely ready to ride her up and over? Of course I was! She
might not be, but I knew I was ready.
Nagged by the knowledge that, before today, she had not stepped over a pole
with someone on her back, I doubted that she could make it on the first try.
She sensed that. Until she learned how to clear the fallen tree in the
river, and the few logs we cleared earlier in the day, I doubted that she
had jumped anything except about four feet of air I'd seen between her
tightly tucked legs and the slop she galloped through the day I decided to
How, I wondered, without the confinement of the narrow paddock fences, I was
going to get that helicopter effect and still keep her straight. Left and
right were still mixed up, pull meant go and I had no stop unless Pumpkin
stopped. And he was already stopped and waiting for us, hidden from view,
on the other side.
I rode her back down the hill 150 feet, and we roared up the hill in a
straight-reined (not tight rein) gallop towards the barrier. Solid. Thick.
Imposing. Painful to hit. Maybe devastating to hit. Then WHAM my face hit
the top of her head, top tooth through bottom lip, the revolting taste of
blood. I spit and cussed and pushed myself off back her neck, picked up a
lost stirrup. With sides heaving she stood still. Trembling all over. She
waited. She had not been that still since we set out. Those thoughts had
frightened her. Instinctively I knew that. They also frightened me. But this
was no time for psychobabble.
OK, I thought. We are running out of time here. She used up one try right
there. I countered that, stick to hide. There you go! Think about that! Old
reflex. Blame the horse . . . she failed the task, right? Punish the horse
. . . she will remember what she should have done, right? Strike the horse
. . . she doesn't want to feel that again, does she? Make her feel it . . .
she won't forget this, right? Hurt her just enough but not too much . . .
that way she knows she has a choice the next time, right? Sickening echoes
from the past, from the months of indentured servitude where I learned how
to think like the trainers and grooms who liked me, encouraged me. And who
demonstrated unmentionably cruel acts to horses before my younger,
disbelieving eyes. But such was the standard for horse training at most
places. Even at the better places, no one thought anything of it. And today
it still happens all over. Because it works. You bet it works. Pain is
intimidating. Anyhow, we had just this chance. Only one more, and we both
If we didn't make it over this time . . . well, the picture was clear, as
dusk became night, and twilight sounds gave way to the silence of deep
night, maybe, hopefully in the earliest light, out towards dawn somewhere,
perhaps the end of the long, long walk around, somehow, some way around,
those endless miles of hedges and rivers and distant tree lines, a barn
would be in sight but... perish the thought. We had covered twenty miles,
possibly more. I did not want to make that trek.
You have to have been in a place like this to appreciate the gravity of the
situation. When you ride out as a group, people at the barn are not thinking
in terms of "when are they back" or "are they OK" They think in terms of,
"OK, have a great ride! See you tomorrow!" Or, next weekend.
There was no point in expecting Pumpkin to jump back to us on that steep
downhill grade. Not that he could not do it, but his passenger was by now
kaput and home was still a 90-minute hack through the shortest short cut the
others knew. They shouted again for us to hurry up so we would make it back
before dark. They meant, before deep dark.
Kali had to clear on the second try. Did I think she had not done her best
on the first? I pushed that thought away. We trotted down the steep grade
and just before we started the turn back, I felt it. I felt the turbo she
had in there. I went to the stick, once. Out of habit. Hard. Across the
withers at the base of the neck, just in front of the saddle. Straight up in
the air she went, four legs tucked up tightly, just as I remembered seeing.
Now she was ready.
She powered up to the gallop in a stride that snapped my neck back, she
charged upwards, straight up into the air, and leaping out from that, a huge
14-18 foot leap into space, ten strides back from the fence that separated us
from the rest. It was a bit early though, I recall the gut-feel of that
regret. "Almost," I thought... "now, do that again in a couple of strides
without losing altitude, and mission accomplished."
That was far too much thought.
With the seeds of failure planted, my negative expectation that she would
lose altitude became her instantaneously adjusted plan to fail again. Before
that thought had cleared from my inner dialogue with Kali I realized the
devastating contradiction in my instructions. My picture of what I was
afraid might happen had already begun to transform her body and her thoughts
about what she thought I really wanted. This occurred instantly. I had left
the moment and in that, I left her.
I countered with another self-attack: "Only an amateur would think they can
lead the dance and walk off the floor at the same time." At least I saw
what happened. Leslie to Leslie: "Well, I'm not an amateur!" But it was
already too late.
As "instructed" (lose altitude) she sagged down onto heavy shoulders for
the next three strides. We were at full power and progressing quickly
uphill, falling quickly uphill, and as instructed she became heavy in front,
heavy all over . . . in order to .. satisfy the image I held . . . based
in the fear that I had . . . of her . . . losing altitude. Two more strides
would have us at an extremely critical spot and with nano-seconds left I
hurled my inner ferret at the encyclopedic warehouse I had at my disposal.
It was overstuffed with countless "training tips" that I had acquired from
twenty years of study, from "the best in the business", a grand sampling of
methodologies I had tried to soak my soul in, the winning rides how many
times revisited, the drills and patterns that memorized, were packed in
there alongside the hundreds of small "just make her do it" battles that I
had already won that day. None of it was useful then. She was alone in the
moments there. I was slinging around in my head, desperately searching,
aching, for the answers that, so the rumor went, had worked for the others.
And inside the battle raged on, two voices competing for the mic. "Here
comes the bitter taste of defeat and creosote, more blood, and the sting of
wood splinters in my arms and neck and face as I speed into the head-first
reality I fear the most. I am failing! Failing my dream! Failing the test of
trust!" The other voice countered, it was weaker, plaintive, whining.."Kali,
please! Save us . . . please."
Then it happened. In an instant, and for just an instant, I was certain that
I heard her answer. "Leslie, let me jump this my way. I can do it. Stay
close ! Follow me this time. Please, there is still a stride here, I can do
it! Let me!"
Time stopped. The fight was raging full force inside, me fighting me not to
fight her -- sounds crazy but that is what took place. Did I actually hear
her ask me this? I thought I did. With all my might I fought the temptation
to pull her head up, lift her face, drag the shoulders and forelegs up with
In a sudden flash of delight, there was a ray of hope when the image of her
intense purpose came back, it was all there, in her elegant, powerful hips
that snapped her around those impossible turns the day I first saw her. And
hadn't she just performed the same move beautifully not more than four
seconds earlier! I found room again in my mind for the picture of what she'd
Kali surged up from beneath me, glorious in her fully available full-power.
She presented me with a bolt-boom-bang 3-D replay, so visual, visceral,
optimal and created precisely at the moment that I agreed to let her help
me. Freeing her mind freed her heart, which freed her legs and in that
spirit, that day, up and over we went . and with room to spare.
That wasn't riding, or jumping. We were freehorsing!
The instant Kali re-set the turbo, tucked and took off, I had made the big you-turn.
Afterwards, I knew what it meant to be in a state of adult-awe.
Why? Because we were freehorsing on a fantasy flight. Kali did the flying
and together we carried the crown jewel in the tiara-of-triumph … right up and over
the odds. It wasn’t just a fence we jumped. We had also jumped over an even higher
hurdles, the ones called negativity and doubt.
Things between us were never quite the same after the merger of our destinies that day.
We were married in mid-air, you can sort of say. That is, if you can marry a horse.
Now, after an experience like that, with a horse like that, a fella could think
about taking a fresh start. He might have a fresh outlook on an old situation.
Take the time to reflect. Maybe that is something a person could do.
Didn’t I desperately need a break from the “same-old-same-old” way of handling
horses? Why not take time out to contemplate the details, to re-think the lessons,
and re-play the well etched images from things unforgettable . . . the day-long ride,
Kali’s gifts of grace, generosity and forgiveness . . . or? Well, if a fellow could
do this or not, at any rate, he should.
Yes, a fellow should. But didn’t.
For a few days afterwards, I flitted about like a spring sparrow on the wind.
And why not? Didn’t cupid’s un-quivered arrow hit the bulls-eye? I thought
it had, and in this semi-deluded state I knelt at the alter of the shrine of
the horse, genuflecting in rekindled reverence for Kali’s superior judgment.
Her superior-ness. In a state so humble before her I found it easy,
indeed necessary, to bow all the way down. So, I did, and soon found out
that down was a lot further away from where I was, or had ever been, than
I had any way of knowing it could or would be. Light-hearted, I hastened there
anyway. But, was it down, or was it out? Yes, that was it. Out, out onto the
gang plank. No, that would be out and down, or was I headed…down and out.
It is hard to say when it is hard to know. But I kept going. Further Down,
and Out, and Deeper In and Down some more, and then deeper still, into
a tunnel that had less air than light, and there was almost none of that.
Incredibly, I journeyed forward with Kali at my side, still buoyant and
hopeful, and without a single care about where the trail would lead me.
Due to the new, tingly lightness in my being from that glowing event we
shared, I felt special again. And powerful. She was at my side, and I knew
it. I loved it. And I surely felt for the first time, that I was at hers, too;
it was wonderful in every sense of the word. For a short spell.
As it will, my hunger returned as night fell and I held out as long as I
could “down under there” until, eventually, I was forced to gorge on the
mixed blessing this event soon revealed itself to have been. So sick had I
made myself from concentrated arrogance, that I threw up; my body writhed
in a violent effort to cast out for good all things in and about me that
were not good for a horse. At last I was empty. Finally gone, I thought,
were the last traces of my senseless fighting. But it couldn’t go, I discovered,
until I asked for her to forgive my cruel and insensitive behavior:
In the face of her immense spiritual purity, selfless courage and astonishing
physical form, I had intentionally hammered the mare as hard as I could
because she did not understand me.
I was sicker from this than you can possibly imagine. And I remained in that
torn up condition until she released me from it. All I had to do…was ask her.
The chop from that storm lasted for many months, and after it passed,
I followed some very clear signs through the flotsam that pointed me
towards something that I had not felt since 1960. That experience can best
be described as a call to worship.
That was the turning point in my understanding of what it meant to listen
to a horse, and the importance of trusting one a horse with my life.
One second is enough time for a dynamic shift in a relationship between
two beings to occur. For one second, I shelved the annoying habits that kept
Kali and I separated. In retrospect, she was showing me what she could do
and what she was made of from the start. But, until that day, I had not
assessed the gift, or its value, correctly.
Instead, I transformed her glorious energy into a reason to involve myself
in a continuing battle that, if I adjusted it right, would forever have the
hint of the scent of victory. And that was the point. It would never be
winnable. Nor would I lose to her, either. Because that battle was actually
my own. At its core, it was not between the mare and me. The main feature
was the process of the fight itself. If there were a winner or a loser,
the conflict would then be over, wouldn’t it. You don’t stop a fight with
one more fight. Fighting stops when healing starts. Mnay years later,
I heard Tom Dorrance put it this way: "If you don’t want to see a scar,
you better not pick at the scab!"
But in 1985, the ill-conceived, unfitting solutions to many new problems
I created for Kali made it increasingly difficult for me to handle and ride
her well. OK, sure, I could ride her, if staying on and getting from point
A to B was the idea. That’s not the kind of riding I had in mind though,
and if I couldn’t ride her the way I wanted to, then... then I wouldn’t ride.
The notion that I might ride her the way
she wanted or needed to be ridden, did not exist.
At the end of the day, it was enough to just "manage" her. Of course,
there is little joy in that. In this way, her precious gifts had by
then been completely re-packaged until the only vital connection
I had to the mare revolved around the clear burden to my conscience
that she had become. This was my dilemma to resolve. I concealed that
fact from myself as long as I could, and in so doing skirted the obvious
duty I had to address it if I admitted it.
I took the path of least resistance.
Back then, there was also no shortage of printed matter to support the
frustrated horse owner’s tendency to frequently change game plans. It
seems that a widespread lack of patience plays a big role in all of this,
so it was easy to find support for a half-baked agenda with respect to,
first, diagnosing the cause of a particular problem, and then, removing
the cause of the problem. Stepping out of the game altogether was never
mentioned, as I recall. Not a word about mastering chess, or building model
Since the horse-human connection commonly wreaks havoc in the mind and heart,
one can open almost any of the monthly horse journals and find advice about
many varieties of these bankrupt co-dependencies. One popular recommendation,
one I favored anyway, was to simply up-the-ante on love for the glorious
equine spirit. Of course, it’s easy to observe that high octane love must
be countered periodically with "appropriate disciplinary measures", and
that is because smother-love backfires directly. I read accounts of
how others succeeded at this balancing act; the articles were generously
illustrated. It was a tremendous comfort to discover that I had plenty of
company "out there". Disturbed horses, and people bent on keeping them
that way, are everywhere.
Kali, meanwhile, for whom my patience waned as quickly as my heart truly pined,
knew nothing about the why’s and wherefore’s concerning any of it. And I,
at age 30, was content just to follow the instructions.
Daily grooming made her coat glisten. Her well-polished, un-used hooves became
a source of “good maintenance” pride. So was her spotless tack, which was also
un-used because she was not rideable. Frequent rations of hand-fed fruits
and vegetables nourished us both while the pages on four calendars flipped by.
As we both grew longer in the tooth, the worst slow-motion B flick you can
imagine was showing daily ay my little barn. I ran the projector, sold
the popcorn and had the best seat in the house: front row, center.
Let us, please, fast-forward...
Fast-forward through endless love-snuggles-turned-struggles at the stall
door and the paddock gate where she paced alone for countless hours.
Finally, after years of this, she just stood. Might as well mute the boring
soundtrack, too – because my rote love-murmurs at last dulled Kali to the
point where any other stimulus was an obvious source of interest.
For me, curiously, this development marked a stinging signal of defeat.
Not only was it a source of shame and embarrassment, I eventually had to
claim the sadness it triggered. There was little to be done when jealousy
manifests as rage though, and I’m not talking pouting here.
I guarded her, jealously. Already the high-strung type, she became atypically
nervous and soon was difficult to catch. I didn’t want chase her around or
corner her anymore, and I didn’t want anything to happen to her, either.
And it didn’t because I started to isolate her from the others. Look don’t
touch. During this time, something bigger and worse than the things I feared
would happen happened, because horses are not supposed to be kept alone.
Horses are made to be together and small kicks and bites and wounds are meant
to heal, and do heal, because nature takes care of its own. But I did not
realize those things then.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, this nasty phenomenon known as jealousy
is a significant disorder of the mind. Jealousy, and the disappointment
in the self that always underlies it, was the root of the difficulties
she had with me. I didn’t figure all this out overnight by the way.
The light finally went on one day when a woman I detested drove in the yard.
At the sound of her vehicle turning in the gate, I could see Kali
respond with enthusiasm. She parked, got out and greeted the mare cheerfully
from a distance. I hated her when Kali’s body surged to life in a springy,
extended trot that begged for a partner. Two-legged or four-legged,
it would not have mattered. She would have filled in 200 percent that
day for an amputee had such a person paid her a visit.
But, what of my visits? I seethed with jealousy. The woman had a charming
countenance, incredible luck and a marvelous, intuitive way with animals.
Nature, and indeed every living thing in it, adored her. What did the daily
trips to see Kali, to groom and admire her, to tend to "the myriad details"
that her life meant to me, mean to her, after all!? What the Ł*¤% ~^ about me?!
When I looked at Kali I thought about things like "potential", and the "future"
and the "what ifs" of it all. My thoughts took me into dangerous water:
Come on! Make me a winner, Kali, maybe in a jumping competition somewhere.
Hadn’t a dozen scared and ruined horses no one could ride jumped the world
for me? Hadn’t I surfed along on a solid local reputation as a gutsy
kid who could back any horse and get the job done? Kali, I want to feel
that sense of connectedness again. I want you to make me feel like somebody.
Was it really that? Yes, it was.
I wanted her to prop me up forever with that stunning sensation of clean
freedom -- the kind of freedom that is rooted in complete trust and
vulnerability that only the truest of the true partners share. She had
offered it to me perhaps a million times, but I only accepted it once.
We had it and lost it. I saw her offer, felt it actually, and recognized
it for what it was, when the only alternative was disfigurement, at a minimum,
and probable death. All the other times, I had turned down her repeated offers
of allegiance, friendship, availability for play, and work. But, I was desperate
for it now, I had to have it back again. I had to. She was the drug and
I was addicted. In some convoluted way, I thought that by keeping her alone,
protecting her, keeping her hair coat nice and shiny, her stall cleaned
and her tack well maintained, that she would deliver. And I waited for that.
In the years that followed, I justified thousands of fear-based decisions as
"protection of my investment". With that so stated and done, I stood by and
watched as the day-to-day routines I set up for her slowly destroyed her mind.
I felt betrayed by my perception of her weakness. I denied any culpability in
this deterioration. Didn’t she owe me, big-time? I thought so. One day she
kicked me hard, and I whipped her hard for that. I thought it was about her,
not about me. And week later, another horse kicked me. But that was another
matter. I had that horse almost 16 years. He had never kicked anyone.
Not even a dog. Pumpkin was my best friend.
After that, I had to look at Kali’s statement to me from the previous week
in another light. If it wasn’t about her, then…was it about me? And if it
was, then what about me?
Experience has taught me that a question honestly issued never remains
unanswered. Clearly and indelibly, the reply quickly tele-typed itself
on the back of my brain near the scared compartment. The following message
from Kali’s …angel, I presume, had this to say. I slammed nose-first into
the facts that afternoon in late October, 1989:
"Such is she before you, existing for you on your terms. So diminished is
she now in every aspect by your limited skill, compassion, view and capacity
for joy and growth, so constrained is she by your appetite for the presentation
of a false-nature, that she is no longer of use to you. Since consistent
evidence of her properly subjugated will is necessary before you let the
music start. The music never will start. For five years you have been no
use to her, and now, she does not even like you. Leslie, you are guilty as charged."
Who said those things in my head. Where did that news come from. Whose voice
was that, and how did they know. Screwem. In a single crash of the gavel my
heart and world exploded on the spot.
By then I had, I was certain, refined the knack of "staying close" to her.
In a technical sense, in fact I had. I could ask her to do anything, and
without a fuss, she would. She made me look good. But I had no idea, even then,
that there is a world of difference between a willing partner and a horse that
has learned, over the years, not to object. To call it a "world of difference"
doesn’t start to describe the disparity in that. That gap is a galaxy.
Then, one day I happened to notice that she was giving me the same look she
had given me that day in the river. I recognized it, and it started to haunt
me. Soon I could see that my friends, family members, students and even
strangers, got on well with her. She walked away when she heard my truck.
I also began to notice that she turned her head away when I approached her.
I 'fessed up to the powers that be. For days my screams echoed in the woods
and my tears flowed in the meadows. The search for the love in her heart
and attention from her keen mind ended where it started and started before
it ended, and it was all hollow. Over and over, I re-traced the steps I’d
taken since the first day I saw her, hashing though our short history like
the panic and grief-stricken parents do when they suddenly realize their young
child is gone. When my desperations subsided a little bit, I scoured my soul
for a clue to the fastest route back to her. No delays this time. I had to
get back so that I could, finally, let her help me.
I kept it up, and after a while I did find a clue or two, and made my way
back. She was by then a 10-year old school horse. She had no interest in me
anymore. The voice was right. My eyes hadn’t been lying to me. She did
like the neighbors a lot, and she was genuinely interested in attention
from passersby. She did turn and walk the other way when she heard my voice.
I finally caught up with her, and when our eyes met, she simply bid me adieu.
She had nothing for me any longer.
From that moment on, I renounced my life as I knew it. Reduced my little
herd down to just three horses, Kali among them. Sold or gave away most
possessions and drove out the driveway, headed west.
I wanted to get as far away from her as it was possible to get. And there
would have been no harm done, no crime in that, except that for me, at
that point, she was "only a school horse" and I flogged myself steadily over
the fact that I hadn’t "done anything with her" in those six years. I hadn’t
"made anything of her." The words of more than one trainer still beat me
up regularly, with the talk about “wasting all that potential” and power she
had. They, whoever they were that I listened to in those days, told me,
lead me to think, that I had wasted Kali.
"What are you waiting for?" they would ask. I was waiting, yes, I was.
But waiting for what, I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that waiting for the
future to arrive had cost me the friendship she so badly wanted to share
with me in about 4 years worth of "nows". She offered it, her self, her
heart, her intelligence, her playfulness, her serious side, her curiosity,
she had it all there for me, and many time over. And over.
Others could see it and accept it, and they thoroughly enjoyed her.
She also enjoyed them. I watched from the other side of a dream about
loving and getting along with a beautiful horse that also loved and got
along with me. I was staying close to Kali all right, and it drove her
away from me. I had missed the point.
But on the long haul to the west coast, staying close to Kali soon took
on another dimension. I realized that I’d been swallowed up whole by a
sick culture that promotes an interpretation of the horse-human
connection in such deceptive, mythological proportions that I, too,
had succumbed. After six years of dabbling in the Northeast’s so-called
professional horse industry, I had developed a very distorted,
inaccurate assessment of a horse’s real nature.
The filters I put over my ears and eyes and my heart dovetailed well
with structures I built into my days – and these were tailored to fit
the ideas and expectations of the various trainers whose approval mattered
to me the most. I was satisfied with myself if they were satisfied with my
performance. And what about the horse? What was she thinking? What about
my connection to the animal in all of this? That was precisely the point.
As a child I was not the least bit confused about this.
To restore that, I needed to destroy the very thing that kept peace out
of my life. Horses are peaceful. If I wanted to share that with them,
then the obstacles that prevented me from reaching that goal had to be
torn down, right now. All the way down, and fast. I could not worry that
entrenched platitudes about what is and what is not acceptable were
contradictory, and slamming into each other!
I could not trouble myself then to reconcile the din in my head –weeks
I suffered with a huge migraine that set in when I realized how many "top"
trainers speak eloquently, and in plenty of detail, about timing and feel,
and then toss the concepts right into the gear bag with the whips, and
restraining devices, while yammering further about harmony and spurring
for proof that the willing partner a horseman needs is alive and under saddle.
We can do nothing about "them", "out there", but we can do something now
about inner attitude.
We can realign ourselves with what we know is true, or used to know is true,
and stick to it.
The drive took several weeks….and during that time I was thinking, wondering,
hoping, dreading, worrying . . . about the past and about the future.
After coming 3,600 miles with all that thinking time and room to feel and
breathe and be myself, I still hadn't realized that it…the illusive "it"
I was looking for in Kali was there all along. For Heaven’s sake, she served
it up to me on a platter on our first ride, and countless times before and since!
It was not about the future or the past. It is about now. The instant.
The nano-second called now.
I crossed over the bridge on I-580 and drove through a slew of little
villages in Marin, until I found my brother’s place. I unpacked the car,
and then went out to get a paper to see what sort of work I could find.
Because I was starting over.
Two years later (1992), I had enough money pulled together to have
Pumpkin and Kali joined me in California. I did not meet Bill for some
years after that, but I had met others who knew him well before that, and
I had learned a lot from him that they were kind enough to pass long.
With that good help, I got back on track. Finally, after 8 years, Kali and
I were on the same page and learning together for the first time. She was
twelve. I was 38.
Kali’s obvious fondness for children inspired me to work harder than ever to
figure out what kids really need to know about horses to give them the best
possible life. Children, I have observed, have an easier time than grown
people do, letting horses know that they know things….like how offer them
time and space and comfort without expecting more than the horse can offer.
This, it seems, is the most important part of a lasting partnership.
Staying close to your horse is, in the end, evidence of an inner attitude,
more than physical closeness – surely though, there are times that
those things go together, hoof in hand.
(The sequel to this account, can be heard on CD#8, Track 3. But I am getting ahead of myself here.)
When the question of what Bill meant when he talked about "staying close to Beaut"
was discussed, I decided to release this tightly held episode from my guts to you,
via the printed word. I waited to share the chronicle of this pilgrimage with Kali
for seven years.
If you got this far, I want to say I appreciate the time and effort you spent reading
it. Maybe it can do someone some good.