I grew up riding horses.
I started off, as most kiddos do, in the big ole heavy Western saddles —“the ones with the horns” and the broad-butt seats like a Harley; the wide, mud-flap stirrups and yards of cinch that have to be looped over and over to tighten em up.
And then, like so many young girls, I graduated into an English one — “the ones without the horns,” so light a child can reasonably carry one under their arm and heavy it up themselves. Because English meant jumping. And there is nothing like the feeling of jumping a horse.
(I, of course, asked for a horse (we always rented or leased them) and when I was about to turn 16, I tried to negotiate for one instead of a car. (I didn’t get one.) For years afterwards, when people asked “what’s your dream car?”, I’d tell them: “a horse.”)
I learned how to tie a man’s tie by learning how to do up a Western cinch (it’s the same set of maneuvers), and I learned how to French braid on a horse’s tail. And above all else, I learned to appreciate the unique, visceral joy of being on a horse — the feel of their movement; their muscles; their bone structure; their moods.
And this isn’t so much about about me or my love of horses, however, as it was supposed to be about horses — and people.
Horses, like any sentient being (ourselves included), respond and react to their environment, and this can include a range of emotive expressions, such as excitement, contentment, fear, anger, withdrawal.
There are all kinds of “problem horses” along these spectrums. Lazy horses, rebellious horses, nervous horses, horses that are just plain mean. But almost always, with enough patience, any horse can be “fixed.”
But not always.
A fellow rider, who trained horses, told me about one who was broken in a different way entirely. The horse would comply to anything you asked of him, quietly subservient, but the minute he’d done so and discerned there was nothing more being asked, he’d drop his head, slowly walk to the nearest corner or wall, and stand facing it, heavy hearted. No amount of patience could resolve this, because the issue was in him.
It was the saddest thing I’d ever heard of a horse doing.
They say animals don’t have a sense of “self” and, lacking any proof otherwise, I guess that must be true.
But if that’s the case, then there’s something besides our own sense of “self” that shuts down when we do, too.
That’s how it feels when we’ve broken our own spirit. When we do just enough to comply — just enough to get by, to do what’s asked — and the minute it’s done, we drop our heads and slowly walk to the nearest quiet spot and stand there inside of ourselves.
We push just enough to get the job done, trudging and broken-spirited and half-hearted, and the minute it’s satisfactory, we drop off, fall back, retreat to the corner.
The problem, when we get here, isn’t in anything external. We think it’s about quitting our job or traveling or picking up a hobby, but it’s not. The hurt is inside of us.
And if it’s not about our “self,” it most certainly is about our sense of spirit. When we get here, we have to put ourselves out to pasture and remember how to live in our skin, move our own feet, feel the feel of our muscles and bones. And most of all, feel the myriad of emotions that make us real.