Suburban Soliloquy

128. What Do I Know About Horses?

Were horses really born to carry something on their backs? Observe the rider. He looks incongruous. This placing of vertical weight, one hundred or two hundred pounds, or even more, across the horse’s narrow spine held horizontally does not look natural. Maybe it’s just me, but when I look at the perpendicular rider intersecting the flowing line of a horse, I think animal cruelty.

I am sure the argument will be made that the relationship between rider and horse is symbiotic. In exchange for carrying the rider, the horse is provided shelter, easy access to food, and protection from predators. To me riders looked like discouraging parasites, intent on satisfying their own priorities by overriding the horse’s desires. Cats and dogs are volunteers to pet-hood, but what horse ever dismissed the plains to walk up to the fire of a human encampment for companionship?

While it is difficult for me to see beauty in most horses, especially the Arabian, I know others see it. I’ve seen the hand-colored etchings among the trophies showing a horse and rider leaping a stone wall in pursuit of a fox and the large oil painting above the hearth displaying a famous racehorse. These are tributes to an animal different from what I see. What I see is the long ghoulish face, a medieval mask that hangs off the end of the neck. It is a bony distortion that might stare at me from nightmares. I see spindly legs with a body too heavy for them to support, skeletal legs, which ought to break.

I make exceptions of draft horses, the Clydesdales, Belgians, Shires; they don’t offend my aesthetics as much. Their proportions are correct, and they have a friendlier appearance, without that haggard look. I can admire them as one might a locomotive. On one of these horses, a rider would be marginalized, an insignificant wart, and I wouldn’t worry that the horse is burdened, but I’ve never seen anyone ride such a horse.

It frightens me to get close to horses. That’s not to say I haven’t been close to a horse, pulling my toes away from their hard hooves, keeping my fingers distant from their chomping teeth. When Levittown, Pennsylvania was young, there were yet farms and dairies and stables about. We could walk, or ride our bikes, or get our mothers to drive us to where we could rent a horse to go horseback riding along country trails, through woods and over fields. I hated the idea, but when, in my early teens, my friend Richard badgered me with critical evaluations of my courage, I relented and accompanied him. First the horse would not move. Then the horse tried to rub me off against a tree trunk, and then to knock me off with a low branch. When we reached the field, the horse galloped off despite my pulling the reins, until I pulled so hard that the horse reared and complained. It was obvious the horse wanted to lose me, yet I clung with a fearful grip and made it all the harder to be dislodged. Had the horse simply tried to roll over, I would have gotten off as the ground neared. Heading back to the stable, the horse tried no further tricks, but wouldn’t be rerouted. “I want to go home and get this thing off of me.”

A motorcycle responds more exactingly. Proprioception seems to extend through the mechanical parts of the bike. It’s like teeth, where you sense the top of the enamel and how hard the thing it touches is, you know just how much pressure to apply, even though the nerve never nears the surface. So it was that I knew where the wheels of my BMW R80 touched the ground, had only to think through a turn or desire to stop and it happened. It’s not that way with a horse. Your commands are diverted through a sentient creature who might not concur with your choice of direction or speed.

In Levittown, where like houses are plopped down onto like plots, our neighbor's property was one of the few exceptions. They had worked for the Levitts, the developers who built our community. Our neighbors had been subcontracted to pour the meandering miles of asphalt streets. By virtue of this connection with Levitt, they were able to acquire the corner house with an exceptional expanse of lawn. It had room enough for a second house. Forty-five years ago those neighbors were keeping a pony on their lot. That pony hated me.

I never did anything cruel to my neighbor’s pony, never even called it names. They told me the pony didn’t hate me, it merely didn’t respect me because it could sense my fear. What’s the difference? On a sunny afternoon, I happened to be crossing my neighbor’s lawn while their pony was on a long rope munching grass. I knew never to walk behind a horse. This pony was watching me as he ate. I became fixed by the one eye that observed me, failing to consider the reason the pony was shifting his backside in my direction. I began to make a wide berth of his stern, but he moved with unexpected speed and subtlety. Then he backed up! I don’t think I was expecting a horse to voluntarily move in reverse. I realized, as he lifted his head from his lunch of lawn to take a measure of the distance that I was in a bad place. Simultaneously, I threw myself backwards even as the pony launched both back legs. I felt the air passing across my face as his hoof rose past my chin by a fraction of an inch. The pony missed and I rolled out of his reach.

And yet, and yet... It must be said, many of the girls I knew and liked the most, loved horses. They were the sassy ones, the interesting ones. They wore clothes with nonchalance, moved inside them with natural grace that didn’t seem like posturing. They would be willing to play rough with you. They could be included in sports. They weren’t delicate or dependent, which made them seem all the healthier. And they were good at reading minds, perhaps a skill they developed interpreting the moods of horses.

There was belief among us adolescent boys that straddling a horse in motion provided a certain pleasure for the girls. Some girls “claimed” that horseback riding was how they lost their hymen, or was that just the explanation they gave their parents? In any case, they knew something about us that they must have learned from horses. These girls did not seem an alien species. They knew how to rein in our savage desires, and trained us to dance in unison with them; there was a gratifying concord in doing things together. I might not have liked horses, but I liked the women who liked horses.

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any
comments or suggestions,
the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon,
as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"