I had a very brief look at my own horses the other day. The last few days have been cold and grey and misty, the kind of mist that comes at you horizontally in rolling clouds, the kind of weather that inspires you to run from the car to the house and then stay there.
From my mom's dining room window, I saw a flash of white. Another streaked after it. I bolted out of my chair to run to the window and watch. This is one of the best parts of horse ownership, no matter what you're told: the vicarious experience of a full gallop.
This is not your well schooled lope or canter.
Head up, ears pointed, tail flagged out behind and up front, nostrils flared. The speed is dizzying, as they cover the two acres of pasture in mere blinks of an eye. They race out of sight behind the barn, and suddenly, they're back, racing to the fence, crouching into a sharp turn and blasting off in another direction. With a twist of their long spines they throw their hing legs into the air, arch their necks, and take off in powerful strides. Their legs reach and pound out the thumping strides. You rarely get a chance to ride that fast, and when you do it's terrifying and exhilarating. I shrieked when Phoenix let out a heck of a vigorous buck. I'd rather not try to ride that, but it sure is something awesome to see!
I admit that my heart was in my throat. The grass was slippery and I feared that those long legs would go off in four different directions, or a skidding stop would take too long and end in a fence. My mother always watches these little running sprees with a combination of admiration and sheer dread.
What is it like to have four long legs like that? To scoop up all that air through those curved nostrils and into those huge lungs, to have that much power and grace. It's got to feel incredibly good.
The air was cold, the horses were speckled with mud, and they didn't care who was watching. Times like this, I believe that all horses are still just a little bit wild. We can raise them to respect fences and let us handle them, train them, turn them into partners for us, but all it takes is some cold air and a stiff breeze to stir up all those ancient instincts. For almost twenty years now I've had the kind of horses that lend themselves to fantasies of history; my precious half- arab, who looked like a little Quarter horse cowpony in a mellow mood, but who turned into a desert wind-drinker when he busted out a gallop; and these two Appaloosas, with their primitive looking markings and prominent eyes. You could fool yourself into thinking that they were actually there, running across a land with no fences and no power lines and no blacktop.
Phoenix eased up his gallop into a quick lope as he neared the corral fence. He headed for the tree and at the last minute, just before the branches hit his face, lowered his head. He cornered the tree with about a foot of room, and like a sling shot propelled him, ran off in the direction he came. Copper did a severely sharp pivot and followed him, right at his shoulder.
Even though it's healed and she doesn't limp, I'll always regret the little mare's cracked leg when I watch her run. She is so tiny, so short legged and short backed and short necked...and powered by incredibly muscular little hindquarters. She's an efficient machine. We will never know how fast she really is, because we have vowed to never push her that hard for fear of aggravating an injury that isn't causing her any problems at this point. But even out in the field, we'll never know because I don't think she's ever really let herself go. She is always #2 in the herd and knows her place. Her mate is the boss, always, no matter who her mate is. She has never outrun another horse, always holding back to stay a neck's length behind, and I doubt she'll ever change.
Later that evening, before getting in the car and driving home in the black rain, I went out to the barn to do chores. The barn really needed me. I swept up the loose hay and took a few wheelbarrows out to the brand new manure pile. It's that time of year again. Dad's been busy with work, and after the necessities of feeding and cleaning stalls, he ran out of time for tidying and fussing. I love tidying and fussing. I fed my horses, rubbed their spiky wet manes, and admired their filthy long winter coats. They do look like ancient prairie ponies. It almost looked wrong to see them in this building with a ceiling and light bulbs, manure forks, grain bins, and mangers to hold hay.