Deep-down, in it for the long haul horse people have a look to them. They come in all shapes and sizes, and they aren’t all leathery whipcord types in well-worn breeches or a cowboy hat that’s seen a thousand miles and expects to last a thousand more. But you can spot them. It’s the way they stand in a crowd, not making an effort to be visible, and probably not saying much; giving way when the crowd pushes, but not letting themselves be pushed. They have a core of quiet to them.
It’s the way they talk, too, when you get them to open up. It’s not easy if they don’t know you. Oh, they’ll happily talk horses for hours if you’ll let them, but that’s surface stuff. The real, deep stuff, they save for people they trust.
All horse people, even longtime horse people, aren’t in that category. There’s a large contingent of empiricists, for whom horses are just horses: nonhuman animals, servants and sports equipment. Many of them are trainers, and very successful ones. They’ve mastered the art of getting horses to do what humans want them to do in ways that satisfy human standards of performance.
The counterpoint to the empiricist is the devoted hobbyist, the lover of all things horse. This person may come to horses early or late—as a child or a mature adult—but they truly love the species and will do anything for the horse or horses in their care. Whether they’re well off or making personal sacrifices to keep the horse bills paid, their horse gets the best of everything. Maybe they’re into shows or events. Maybe they’re happy just being with horses.
For them, horses are loved like children. They may actually take the place of human offspring, in the same way owners of pets call them “fur babies” and refer to themselves as parents. To the empiricist, a horse is essentially a Skinnerian machine—stimulus in, response out—but for the hobbyist, the horse is, in a quite literal way, family.
Human family. That’s the lens, as it is with the empiricist. The love of horses still centers the human.
When the lens shifts, then you’re looking at deep horsemanship. Horse at the center. Human wants and needs still very much present but making the horse the priority.
And then the story shifts toward what we (and definitely the empiricist) might call fantasy. “Anthropomorphism,” says the empiricist. Projecting human thoughts and feelings and social structures on a nonhuman animal.
Which is what the empiricist would say of the hobbyist, too, but there’s a difference. Deep horsemanship is:
Standing in a high pasture in a circle of mares. Feeling them rooted in earth, but poised between earth and sky. Realizing that they choose to show themselves to you.
Sitting all night with a dying horse, remembering all the years together. Waiting for the morning, knowing it will be the last. Being with her all the way to the end, however horrible those last hours may be.
Standing beside a horse who has gone down and can’t get up. Watching her slip into a dream—her first in days, because horses can’t get REM sleep while standing, and she hasn’t dared lie down for this exact reason: that she won’t get up again. She runs in her sleep, though her hindquarters are no longer working. Suddenly she whickers, as a horse does when she sees a loved one. Then she calls, a loud peal. And then she goes quiet, though she’s still alive; she’ll need your help to finish it. And you know: the ones who have gone before have called her home.
The loved horse is gone, suddenly or more slowly. Your heart has a huge hole in it. But within days, you’re driven to do something. Make a call. Check a sales website.
And there’s one. The person you called just hung up from another call: a horse is available, exactly what you’re looking for. Waiting for you. Needing you.
Or there’s one entry on the sales site. Not even the type or breed or age you were looking for. But you can’t get the horse out of your head. You contact the seller. You get answers to your questions.
The horse is deep in your head. You dream about her. Long before the papers are signed, she’s yours. She was always yours.
Morning in the foaling pen. Newborn lifts his head, looks at you. You know exactly what he is and who he is and that he’s for you. Or more precisely, you are for him. Anne McCaffrey wasn’t kidding. The eyes really do swirl at Impression.
Riding in the arena beside the pen with the mama mare and her three-day-old daughter. Daughter sees you riding and pitches a screaming, leaping, furiously jealous fit. And you realize she’s outraged because you’re not riding her. And even more outraged when you tell her she’s too little. She has to grow up.
Introducing visitors to a five-day-old foal. Visitors stand around talking. Except one. And you see that this baby, who has never been more than a few feet from her mother (and at this age she wouldn’t be), is over a hundred feet away. She has herded the visitor into a corner and is keeping him there. Claiming him.
It takes a few weeks, but in the end he admits: She’s in his head. He’s dreaming about her. Will I possibly consider selling her? Not that it’s even a choice. She’s made it for all of us. At five days old.
Deep horsemanship. A little like Impressing dragons. A lot like living in a fantasy novel.
Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks by Book View Cafe and Canelo Press. She’s even written a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. Her most recent novel, Dragons in the Earth, features a herd of magical horses, and her space opera, Forgotten Suns, features both terrestrial horses and an alien horselike species (and space whales!). She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.