Back and forth, hither and yon – whether on my habitual trajectory between Touraine and Paris or further afield… destinations, encounters, events and observations I can’t resist sharing.

Strung Out on High Strung

December 19, 2012

After admitting to a passion for poetry, I decided to come clean about another addiction. It’s comparably indulgent, with the added frisson of masochism.


You may be rolling your eyes, but indulge me – as this is sure to have therapeutic benefit, at least for me.

Owning and caring for a horse qualifies one for automatic enrollment in the school of humility. Similar to parenthood, nothing prepares you for bringing a horse into your life. Not only will anything that can go wrong go wrong, you’re also condemned to the unsolicited advice and condescension of anyone who’s ever had their butt in a saddle.

On my side of the family, horses are synonymous with misery and folly; extravagance followed by ruin or the madness of desperation. When I announced we had three horses and a pony to one particularly battle scarred aunt, the phone line went silent. “That’s it, no more, stop there!” was all she could muster. As an Irish-American it doesn’t take much genealogical research to connect the dots.

My paternal great grandfather James O’Brien traded rural poverty in Tipperary for a rung on the ladder of American upward mobility mucking stalls at the 5th Avenue Bus Co in Manhattan. Meanwhile, on the earlier-to-assimilate maternal side, John H. Cooney was investing profit from his Harrison, New Jersey heating contracting business in racehorses.

So you see it’s not entirely my fault.  Among the Irish, partiality to poetry, tippling and the Virgin Mary are often accompanied by fondness for horses.

Though I’ve ridden off and on since the age of eight, I didn’t seriously consider owning a horse until I began hunting in France 13 years ago.  At first renting seemed a viable option. You think blind dating is stressful!  Not only was I a complete novice concerning the intricacies of hunting to hounds (la chasse a courre as it’s called here), I was dead bottom of the stable pecking order.  No sooner would I rent a horse with a tolerable quota of vice, than I’d discover it was reserved for the remainder of the season, and be back to Russian roulette.

My limit was tested one freezing January morning, when recovering from flu, I fantasized being up to the challenge of tearing across forests and fields glazed with slick frost. Clipped horses are especially frisky in winter, and when I sighted my date fresh off the van, blanket removed, steam rising off his back and snorting in anticipation, I sensed my number was up.

Etiquette demands horses walk from the rendez-vous to the parcel of forest where a stag is ‘launched’ by the hounds. Setting off next to Jeffrey (astride his OWN horse) I quickly gained ground as Ivanhoe transitioned from race walk to nervous prancing.  Panic wreaks havoc with survival instinct – drivers slam on the brake, skiers lean back and lose their edge, riders pitch forward.  A horse detects a crack in confidence quicker than a mosquito hones in on young flesh. That shift in weight was all Ivanhoe needed to get his head down and break away in a gallop. I shut my eyes as the road approached, opening them as we skidded into the haunches of a pasture pal.

Next morning I announced “I’m buying my own”. Out of the frying pan…

Horse and rider, like happy couples, do best when temperaments are complementary, but just as we’re apt to fall for unsuitable partners, equestrians are hopeless at recognizing their limitations. The consequence is too many horse and rider combinations fraught with angst and frustration. I should know.

Kalmar is my second horse. We’ve been together five years and accept one another’s shortcomings. There’s plenty to complain about on both sides and neither of us has the upper hand. Trading in for a new model is a last resort.  It’s unlikely to work out well for either of us since Kalmar’s getting long in the tooth and I prefer coping with the evil I know.  Taking on a new horse before it’s absolutely necessary presents a set of potentially worse unknowns. The expression ‘there’s no such thing as a perfect horse” is spot on.

In an ideal world, a horse-for-sale ad might read: “Recently broken 4 year old thoroughbred gelding seeks relaxed, experienced rider”.  Sadly, full disclosure is as rare in horse-trading as used car sales. A key difference is the feeble percentage of horse buyers capable of judging the quality and suitability of a horse, and they don’t have “Consumer Reports” to fall back on.

The golden rule is young horse/old rider and vice versa. High-strung or fearful riders stand a chance when paired with a calm, not-prone-to shy horse; while over bred warm bloods and afraid-of-their-shadow horses should only be entrusted to a confident, experienced rider. “Finally have an age appropriate horse” a veteran hunter recently consented with a smile as we headed back to the trailers after clocking 40 kilometers. At 75 he was ready to accept a mount aged in double digits. In terms of speed, a horse’s prime is between four and eight; so male hunters don’t celebrate their horse hitting 11.

I took on Kalmar at 8 after his retirement from a career as a steeplechaser. Horses leave the track wounded either in body or mind.  Kalmar has yet to limp but could use use a good shrink. He reacts VIOLENTLY to black and white dairy cows, rears if a strange person tries to touch his head, can’t be attached without risk of breaking his halter, or be clipped without resorting to desperate measures.  Yes, part of the pleasure is the thrill of potential danger.

Despite the insanity and uncertainty I love him, and accept that whatever goes wrong is my fault because he’s a herd loving herbivore, while I’m the wily carnivorous biped responsible for his physical and emotional well being.  Mostly I’m grateful – for the yin of beauty, grace and trust paired with the yang of power, perseverance and guts. Kalmar taught me the difference between sensitivity, vulnerability and fragility – to see with my ears and speak through touch.

This isn’t to say I haven’t sworn to myself and others, more than once – I’m quitting!  Can’t take it anymore! Not squandering more good money after bad!

I carry on because my frustration is self-directed. To my husband’s annoyance, I can’t get mad at my horse. Jeffrey’s lucky to be free of the sort of psychological vulnerability and nervous reactivity that gives me insight into a horse’s twitchy insecurity.

I can be furious for a horse about the unknown past, imagining the fatal encounter that left an indelible scar, and wish we could go back and make it right.  Life isn’t like that, so we adapt and get on with it. If it weren’t one tick it would be another.

Once when our eldest was six and taking his first riding lessons I watched a young woman galloping a thoroughbred around the perimeter of a paddock.  She was raised off her saddle like a jockey and the two of them moved in graceful harmony. In my memory they circle in slow motion. I dreamed of taking her place.

And I did, beyond the paddock – galloping up a grassy track leading to a narrow forest path. We race into a tunnel of bark, branches, leaves and ferns, where earthy forest odors mingle with the scent of leather and horse sweat.  We’re galloping beyond time – today, fifty or three hundred years ago – decades on.





Harriet said

December 28, 2012 at 6:49 pm

Beautiful photo, and I loved reading this post on your relationship with horses. We don’t ride, but we love to go to the races (KY & NY), Richard especially. Happy New Year!

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.


Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!