And the Horse (Excerpts from a work in progress)

The Beauties of the Animal Body

 Dogs lie–as any one who has fed a dog knows first hand. A dog will tell you he hasn’t eaten in weeks, that he didn’t hear you calling while he chased a car, that he’ll just die if you don’t scratch his ears right now. But look at a horse: that large body nearly ten times the size of ours, the eyes clear as glass at the corners of the head, the ears pointed up if he’s interested, pinned back if the situation’s not to be trusted. That body–all muscle, bone, and hoof–can move in an instant, bolting in fear or softening in trust. A horse doesn’t lie, though we may not know what he’s responding to, and, if you spend enough time around a horse, you begin to value his honesty in a complex and hard-to-predict world.

But if it were just that–cats don’t lie either, though interpreting their truth is another matter–it wouldn’t explain the power of the horse over our imagination. Is it the strength? A horse, after all, concedes to carry us on its back and more, to enter with us into the hopeful endeavor of training: to race other horses, or jump fences, or cut and rope cattle, or meander along a quiet road heading nowhere in particular. We ride other animals, elephants, for instance, but do they participate in our dreams for them?

The shape of the horse shapes our dreams of it. Those who breed horses pay attention to subtle shadings of conformation: the arch of neck, the set of the tail on the rump, the length of bone below the knee. Any horse-crazy child can tell you the difference between a Morgan and a Thoroughbred and a Quarter horse, though to a non-horse person, these are differences that seem insignificant–the subtle widening of the neck into the shoulder, a vertebra’s difference in the length of a back, the proportion of upper to lower leg. No one argues the existence of dog breeds. A poodle and a Corgi are recognizably different, for instance, and mutts come in such a variety that each one seems unique, even to the unattached.

But horses: it’s the body. Over the years, breeders have shaped the horse’s body to do what we need it to do, creating for us the knife-sleek body of the Thoroughbred or the bulked-up body of the Belgian or the flashy curves and gaits of the Morgan and its descendants: the Saddlebred and the Tennessee Walking Horse. To a horse person, these names evoke images of the shape of the horse, but that shape can’t be separated from action, so that breeds of horses are depicted in motion and recognized by that motion.

Then there are the color breeds: the Appaloosa with its white “blanket” and spots, the paint with its flashy white splotches and blue eyes, the palomino’s gold coat and creamy mane, the black, the gray, the “cremora”–in any breed. But breeding for color distracts us from what a true horse person loves about the horse–the way he uses his body and the way that motion fits with what we dream of doing.

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One Response to “And the Horse (Excerpts from a work in progress)”

  1. glow Says:

    I’ll agree with you, MP, that dogs do lie about some things. Whether they have had their dinner, or whether they got the promised treat from the Other Mama. But dogs do not lie about love. The look that dogs give their Ones who they love is Truth with a capital T.

    Love your blog. Give me more, more, more. A cold snap is upon us. I need to read more of your stuff. More poetry challenges. More episodes of The Horse. Post some of the stuff you wrote for MCC–I love to read everything you have written. Fill us up with the good stuff so we can survive the coming cold dark despair.

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