A hundred times this.
Dakota and I don't know each other very well but we're learning each other. Humans aren't new to him but he's not been a lesson horse before and his owners live in Halifax; horses are new to me and I've not had lessons before but I'm not afraid of them.
To walk alongside Dakota, to feel his head bob up and down by my shoulder with the rhythm of his gait, to hear him breath in my ear, is the companionship I've read about, the familiarity I'm seeking. This is just the beginning of creating a camaraderie with a horse, however.
You get to know a horse first of all by grooming him. Your hands are on him, you're talking to him ("This is one of my favourite songs," I told Dakota this morning while he stood in the cross-ties and the radio played in the background), and you're seeing every ripple of muscles, every hair, every nick from another horse's teeth. You're on your hunkers cleaning off his belly, you're combing out his mane, you're sneezing from the dust coming off his coat.
I could brush a horse forever, not only because they are deeply dirty but because it is a form of meditation. It's like cleaning a house or washing dishes: It's methodical and repetitive, it requires no thinking, just doing. You can see the results of your work. There is a sense of achievement.
"I'll just come over and brush all your horses," I said to Dawn Helm, the owner of Galloway Stables in Linden and my instructor.
Grooming is also how you gain confidence with a horse. When he dances forward in the cross-ties, you step in front and make him back up to where you want him. When he pushes over and you realize you're going to be squashed against the stall door, you poke him and say, "Over." You make him do it. You show him who is the boss. You are consistent and insistent.
None of this is second nature to me so it's more like multi-tasking and a challenge to remember everything, especially when I'm lost in the rhythm of grooming. But I corrected Dakota today, and once, I backed him up and moved him over at the same time, earning my instructor's praise.
"I did that by accident," I admitted to her.
After this second lesson, I can pick his hooves clean and brush him down by myself. This means I now arrive at the barn in Linden twenty minutes early in order to bring him in, put him in the cross-ties, and groom him. Then I get my hour-long lesson. After this week, I feel confident I can do that. I can't wait to do that.
I'll get half an hour in the saddle next week but it's so clear that learning to ride isn't as simple as getting up on a saddle and walking around an arena; with the wisdom of four decades behind me, I'm not impatient to get in the saddle (eager, yes). Body language is key to communicating with and controlling a horse. After my first lesson last week, I didn't grasp how to control Dakota, his trotting and his turning, through my torso but I knew it mattered so we worked on that this week, and I'm beginning to use it properly. My hands matter, too, and I keep getting them mixed up or tangled up in the lead line.
As Marjorie Simmins wrote in her book, Year of the Horse, which inspired me to learn to ride, "Mostly [horses] will be watching you as discreetly as you are watching them openly, looking for clues to your ways and wiles, and deciding, like you, if there's trouble or peace ahead."
I'm gaining the small steps of improvement, of understanding. My turnings need work but I can stop him easily now and he follows me without the lead line. I know to wait for him to drop his head and I know that licking his lips means he's submitting to me.
What I'm most pleased about is my lack of nervousness around Dakota. I talk about being afraid of horses' hooves and teeth and tails but in truth, I'm not. Even so, I think the first thing I'll get Dawn to teach me next week, when I'm on Dakota, is the panic stop.
You know, just in case. For someone whose default reaction is panic, I think it's the one skill I need to know second nature.