Trickster Horse and Trickster Season
Today Trish and I went on a late afternoon trail ride. It’s late summer—early fall, actually, but who wants to mention that—and the weather is changing. We’re having cooler nights now that it’s getting dark, not just dusky, and the light has a bit more of a slant to it. There’s less heat in the sun, though mid-day can get up to the 70s if it’s a cloudless day. But the light shifts quickly in the sky now. When we began grooming and tacking up, there was sun across the length of the corral. By the time we were on the horses, the sun had slipped behind the crest of the ridge above us and we were in shadow and in cooler air. We could see the sun bright on the valley below, even on the houses and treetops down the road. We decided to follow the sun to see if we could catch up to it.
In other places, the location of the sun is easy to judge if you know the time of day. Noon equals straight overhead. Morning means sun in the east. Evening, sun in the west. But here in the northern interior, the sun is on a circular path. In midsummer, it circles from northeast to northwest—roughly rising and setting in the north with a long swing around to the south. In winter it blips over the horizon from south-southeast to south-southwest. On any day between those two extremes, it can rise on any degree of the circle between those summer and winter rising points, depending on the progress of the seasons. It’s orderly, but constantly shifting along the horizon. It can be confusing to anyone not used to the place, and it makes any temperate zone understanding of the path of the sun useless.
So on our ride, we took a turn up a hill and were in bright sun again. And there Sam decided to turn around.
Trish has been riding Sam most of the summer and they have become good partners. Casey, who rode Sam last summer, has been riding other horses, looking for greater challenges and hoping to get some jumping in. But Trish and Sam have come a long way—or had until she needed to take a break to travel and then move. Now she’s back and Sam is testing her all over again to see if she is a rider he can trust.
When the light hit us face on, Sam stopped. Mattie, the good trail horse, kept walking on, though she cocked an ear back to keep track of what her corral buddy was up to. Sam had been pushing it—walking close to the edge of the ditch by the road or turning about suddenly as if he had decided to head back—the way I do when I suddenly realize, driving to school, that I’ve left my glasses on the kitchen table. Trish had maneuvered him out of it. She had the riding bat, after all, and Sam usually respects its mere presence in her hand.
This time he refused to go up the sunny road, and in their maneuvering back and forth—Trish trying to back him and he refusing to go—they ended up working their way up the road we had turned off of. I turned Mattie to join them and we walked to the end of the road to the ridge road, as if it were our intention all along. Sam walked peacefully along and kept pretty calm as we turned around and headed for the road we had tried to turn up. We turned, he seemed OK, and then he stopped again, and backed precariously close to the edge of a steep hill that sloped sharply down from the side of the road. Finally, I suggested that Trish get off and lead Sam for a ways—she showing him that there’s nothing to be afraid of and he complying by going in the direction he was trying to avoid. It seemed to work. He calmed down and walked along till she got back on again. We did this once or twice more, Trish staying calm with him and not letting him go the way he wanted.
It’s frustrating to work with a horse as smart and as world-weary as Sam. He knows so much and much of it is not productive to a smooth partnership with humans. We have been trail riding many times before, but two rides ago, Trish moved him to the side of the road as a car was passing and his foot slipped a little on the loose gravel under some tall grass and he could feel the edge of the hill behind him. It was scary for both of them and he refused to go where Trish told him immediately after that. That’s when we finally resorted to leading him back past the spot then mounting to ride him back again. It seemed to work, and Trish speculated that Sam had lost confidence in her at the moment his foot slipped.
It seems possible to me. Sam has known a lot of good and bad riders and, while he respects the good and fair riders, he has no time for bad ones. My reading of Sam is that he’s taking our measure all the time—measuring us against some ideal human of his past, and measuring us without much faith that we will live up to that ideal. When he first came to us, his eye was dull, untrusting, doubtful. Now, mostly, it’s humorous, mischievous, and soft. He doesn’t mean us any harm, but he can’t help playing his tricks on us. In my imagined inner world of Sam, he’s testing Trish all over again to see how she’ll deal with him. Can he count on her not to lead him off the cliff? If he decides that he can, she’ll be able to ride him however she wants to. Till then, he’s going to challenge her every step of the way.
When we finally rode back down our road, the sun was gone, but, in the way of light here in the north, we were just at the beginning of a few hours of gradual lingering dusk and twilight. In the birches and aspens, we spotted a few yellow leaves, clearly yellow, not the result of disease or leaf miners. The F word that no one wants to say. Late summer, that is.
We untacked the horses and gave them hay. They were glad to eat, glad to be back in the corral. Sam stood quietly while Trish untacked him, then she stood watching him while he munched his hay. He’s a special horse, and all of us who spend time with him feel his tricksterish magic.