When I think of horses, I tend to think of them groomed and saddled. I think of them as domesticated or “broken,” as the cowboys used to say in old-fashioned Westerns.
Those “tame” horses would open their mouths to the bit, which caught under their tongue or clunked against molars. They might sidle as the saddle was swung onto their backs, but they stood patiently as I swung into riding position. And they could be maneuvered. A cluck and off they went. A tug of the reins and they stopped, even backed up.
They were fun to sit upon, especially since I sat upon them so rarely and back when everything was still brand new, such as the muscular sway between my legs, the bristly curve of the neck as they turned, the musky odor of fermenting hay after they cantered, but mainly the amazing sense of being in control of something so large and foreign. A creature under my command. “My horse,” even if only rented.
Once, though, all horses were wild, not tame. They lived like wildebeest in a game park, only freer. Migrating as a herd. Kicking up their heels. Fleeing any predator, whether wolf or human.
An encounter with two horses on the Flint Hills in Kansas woke me to this fact. The pair I spotted must have been around humans occasionally, or they would not have grazed right toward me when, after parking on a highway pull-off, I walked to the corner of the fence on an immense prairie.
They were not afraid of me. Just curious. But the hundreds of acorn-sized burrs tangled in their manes suggested they were, in essence, feral. Months of open grazing, whole months of poking their heads into brushy ravines, had created dreadlocks of knotted burrs, and clearly no human had taken time to pick those burrs away.
The unrestricted freedom of the two horses made me aware that all horses are, prior to training, simply animals. They are not our transport devices or tools. They are not our showpieces. They are as wild and instinctive as muskrats or coyotes or white-tail deer.
Of course, we are just animals too, in some sense, even though we have so many accoutrements: tennis shoes, bras, cellphones, hand sanitizer, bugspray, lipstick, bottled pop, M&M’s, checkbooks, watches, cigarette lighters, condoms. We are so busy controlling the world with all this stuff—making sure we stay warm, safe, entertained, and on time—that we forget we are just animals too. For us, nature seems distant, when in fact it is as close as our fingertips.
Once we were not so domesticated ourselves. We slept with nightfall and woke with the rising sun. We ate only what was available in that season or what had been carefully preserved using the simplest of methods—heat and salt. We bathed rarely and drank straight from streams. We burned dung as fuel. We adorned ourselves with clay and feathers. We thanked God for each creature that had died so that we could be fed.
When I finally reached out on that prairie hill and stroked the big, ruminating jaw of the nearest horse, a bay mare, and when her eyes widened in response, it was as if all that lost reality came tumbling back. In that moment, nothing existed between me and her. The two of us were brother and sister.