“Amos, what d’ya reckon is the most important part of learning to get along with a horse?” I asked.
Amos and his twin brother, Walt had become my defacto mentors by default. They were old men when I met them, but they were sharp and wise when it came to horses.
I had been working at the riding school for a few years now and at the ripe old age of 16 I figured I knew a few things about being a good horseman. I knew there was more to learn, but my grasp of more than the basics was obvious. Afterall, people asked me to ride and compete with their horses. I had started several horses under saddle and been praised for the job I had done. I was teaching other people to ride. No doubt about it, I was on my way to being as good a horseman as the old brothers – maybe better one day.
“Mmm matey. I don’t reckon there is just one thing,” Amos replied as he continued mixing the evening feed for his horse.
“C’mon there must be something that stands above the rest when I ask that question. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind?”
“Well, matey I guess it’s probably different for different people, so I can’t give ya an answer that would work for everybody,” he said.
“But I reckon that ya can’t be a good horseman until ya really appreciate that there ain’t no bigger responsibility than takin care of ya horse’s emotions. Nothin is more important if ya goin to get along with a horse. It don’t matter if ya win blue ribbons or get paid a lot of money to train horses or ya write famous books about horsemanship. Bein famous and bein popular with the crowds don’t make a person a good horse person. Bein good with horses comes from inside a person to care about how their horse feels all the time.”
I could have almost predicted Amos’ answer because caring about horses feelings has been the mantra they have driven home to me every since I met them. To Walt and Amos there is no higher priority than helping a horse to feel okay in everything they do with them. So this revelation was no news flash for me. But what he said next did surprise.
“I already know that, Amos. Isn’t there something more?”
“Matey, ya may think ya know it, but ya don’t – not yet,” he said.
“What d’ya mean, Amos?”
“What ya don’t know yet is how hard it is to dig inside a horse where the emotions sit. And the reason it’s so hard is because life is a competition.”
Life is a competition! What the hell did that mean? So I asked.
“Did ya know that Walt is 17 minutes older than me, matey?” Amos asked.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“D’ya know why he is 17 minutes older? Of course ya don’t,” he asked and answered.
“It’s because Walt pushed, scratched, crawled and elbowed past me to get out of our mum ahead of me. We competed inside the womb and we are still competin and bickerin nearly 77 years later. I lived with that man almost my whole life and there ain’t nobody I love more and am closer to than me brother. But we are in constant competition. Still when he is feelin bad or he needs somethin all I care about is tryin to fix it for him. I take no pleasure that it’s his pain and not mine. But when it’s done, we are still arguin, bickerin and tryin to out do each other.
“It’s like that with horses too. People are always competin against our horses. Their need to feel safe competes with our need for them to load into a horse float. Their need to rest a sore back competes with our need to put a saddle on ‘em. Their need to see what moved in the next paddock competes with our need to have their attention. A horse’s needs and our needs are always in competition and it causes conflict.
“If ya gonna give priority to a horse’s emotions when workin with them, then ya have to care a lot about their needs – even when they clash with your needs. This is when ya discover that talking about caring about the emotions of horses is not the same as really doin it. People are always talkin about it, but Walt is maybe the only one I know who does it.
“So when you tell me ya understand the importance of lookin after a horse’s emotional welfare, give it a few more years and tell me again.”
I walked away from Amos feeling despondent, which I know was not Amos’ intention. He and Walt are long gone and there is nobody to confess to that I am still not sure I get it. I wish those cranky old blokes were still around to remind me where the path is.