Easily the most frequently asked question I get from kids about the horses is, “how old is he?” My mind boggles every single time, because I honestly don’t think it ever occurred to me to ask the age of my mount as a child. If I were looking to buy or loan a horse, I’d certainly want to know their age, but when I’m riding one for an hour or so, I’m really not bothered. There are many more important markers of fitness to work for an hour other than age, so it drops down my list of priorities.
There are other things the kids are curious about and, apropos of nothing, the current second favourite seems to be, “do they know us?” Meaning: can horses tell one person from another; do horses prefer some people over others; do horses remember certain people? My answer to all of those questions is and always has been a resounding yes, but my appreciation for horses’ abilities in these areas has recently improved.
In order to explain, I need to rewind to early August. As our third session of camp drew to a close I was preparing my campers – whether I taught them riding or horsemanship – for visiting weekend, when they’d be able to demonstrate what they’d learned for their families and friends. Whilst teaching my classes – polishing riding routines and pushing kids through new ground work exercises – I found myself feeling horribly jealous of the horsemanship students. Most of them had been with me for six weeks by this point, and all were working beautifully with their horses: if I ever had to take the rope and demonstrate something, I found the horses to be remarkably responsive, and far more willing than they had been at the beginning of the programme – a testament to the hard work the kids had put in.
But it wasn’t me the horses were responding to, it was the kids who had been working directly with them. One of the first things I learned and decided when teaching horsemanship, is that you really have to do it from a significant physical distance most of the time. The horses are very easily distracted, and in order to help them focus and encourage the students to be more independent, I mostly stay well away and hover by the edge of the arena observing quietly. I’m sure that if a stranger were to pass by, they’d wonder if I were teaching at all. So my literal involvement had been minimal – I’d truly stepped back and allowed the process to happen, becoming more of a facilitator or coach than anything.
I’d thrown a huge amount of energy into teaching these classes, and had abandoned the idea of working with my own horses during the day. I’d then been lazy about keeping horses in to work with them after dinner in the evenings, preferring instead to spend time with friends or relax in the sun. So although I’d facilitated improved relationships between students and horses, I had nothing of my own. I spent a few days pining for something I thought I wouldn’t achieve, waved goodbye to the campers who were leaving and then took stock.
Two of my students remained and, for the first time in six weeks, I had an hour each day where I had no students (and my other two classes had both become private lessons). As the kids who remained were now six weeks into the class, I no longer had the excuse that they needed a lot of help, as well as the fact that I was now only responsible for one horse and human per class, rather than two. It was time to pick up a rope again.
My boss and I formulated a plan, deciding that I would continue to work with two of the horses I’d been supervising, with my third hour reserved for my favourite horse, who needs a lot of entertaining (even more so when he lost a front shoe, therefore rendering him unrideable until the farrier was able to visit). I stepped a little cautiously back into the ring, at first going through the motions. I can’t remember what happened in order for me to do what I like to call pressing the fuck it button, but that’s what I did: I realised there was nothing to lose, so I should probably make the most of the remainder of this opportunity and just see what happened.
A week later, my three horses absolutely know me. The one who was off work playing Cinderella would trot to the fence of his field and whinny whenever I walked past (at least eight times per day as I head to and from classes, the bathroom or to catch other horses), but wouldn’t give anyone else the time of day. One of them – who is actively despised by most instructors because it takes a very particular type of rider to make him move – volunteered a movement at a canter when I was teaching him a new pattern during one of our most recent sessions (I almost fell over in shock, but instead cried “good boy!” and cheered him on). The final horse pricked his ears, lifted his tail and peeled around the indoor arena on the end of a lunge line, completing a tricky pattern at an enthusiastic trot which rendered one of the other horsemanship instructors speechless.
Horses shouldn’t surprise me like this, but they do. Following about an hour per day for a week, I’m confident that those three horses know who I am, what we do together and remember certain things about me. How much they’d recall and how quickly if I were to disappear for a few months, I don’t know. But getting started is far easier than I thought.