And the Horse (excerpts from a work in progress)

Fear and the Horse

To learn about horses is to learn about what we fear and how much fear we can embrace. Think of it–a half-ton of muscle and bone, in personality more like a deer than a dog–and we propose to walk beside it or sit on its back. In the wild, a horse, by all rights, should fear us and we should fear it, too.

And many do. When strangers approach Mattie, I can see the level of their fear. They step back when she reaches her large head forward to sniff their scent. They are awed by her sixteen-hand size, her black coat, her noises. The image of the horse is one of compliance, grace, speed. The reality is an animal only partly tame–like a cat in some ways–whose psychology somehow allows us to work with it to form a braver more powerful team than either would be alone.

Because horses have such good memories, they remember things they fear for life. Horse people tell stories of the horse afraid of men in cowboy hats or of lawn chairs or of anything blowing along the ground. One of the puzzles of working with a new horse, especially one that has an unknown past, is to discover what it fears and to find a way to comfort it with the presence of the rider or handler. This is more easily written than done. A dog trainer once told me that it takes twenty-five repetitions for a dog to develop a learned habit–for that’s what training is–and fifty to seventy-five for a horse. A horse who is truly fearful can be in retraining for years. And all it takes is one bad experience to set it back into fear again, for the memory of fear is stronger than all that training.

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