No Seabiscuit, Just Riley

March 24, 2008
By Chesla Douglas, Hockley, TX

Standing on the top rail, I very strategically use the leather reins of the bridle to maneuver Riley's entire body parallel to the wooden fence. As soon as his back is within a reasonable jumping distance, I swing my leg over his withers and gracefully plop down on his bare back. I'm too lazy to mess with a saddle, and I have not yet mastered the art of running and jumping onto a horse. I settle myself on his back and then notice my mom walking my way. “Chesla,” my mom begins in her lecturing voice, “you need to take riding a little more seriously. When was the last time you actually saddled him up and went for a real ride?” This rhetorical question was met with my typical response of a slight smirk and roll of the eyes. I waited patiently for the next harsh accusation. “How do you expect for either of you to get better if you don't take your training seriously?” Allegations of this nature continued for a minute or two. I used the time to contemplate how I was going to respond. I surreptitiously measured my mom's attitude. I decided that she was not in a particularly bad mood, probably just stressed by work. I decided to take my chances on easing her mind by joking it off. I smiled casually at her and started swinging my legs back and forth like a little girl whose legs are not yet long enough to touch the ground when sitting in a chair.

“Hello?” I playfully sneered, motioning to my unrestrained legs. “I would have to say that it's more of an accomplishment to ride like this and stay on, than to be able to do the same things strapped on to him. If we can do almost all of the maneuvers like this, than showing him under saddle will be simple!” Her face softened and she asked me to saddle him up the next day for her benefit, which I grudgingly agreed to. She stayed to watch for a few minutes as Riley and I walked the perimeter of the pasture and she eventually walked back to the house. I gauged his attitude and responsiveness. His ears swivelled back and forth, scanning our surroundings for something out of the ordinary. He kept his head relatively low, and his pace was a steady, even tempo. All of those signs indicated relaxation, yet his hearing was not focused on me. That meant that he was not going to be quite as tuned in to my cues as was ideal.

Though Riley is not yet four years old, I trust him enough to ride through his familiar paddock without lurching out from under me. Or, at least, I am willing to take the risk and exercise my bronc-riding muscles. He was the first horse I ever attempted to train by myself, and I feel a great sense of pride in saying that I am the only one that has ever been on his back. I even feel confident in saying that I know him better than any other living creature, humans included. From the special quirks he has while riding to the slightest bump or scratch on his body, I know it all. I've fallen off of him a total of four times, and each time I learned his different rowdy routines that have the potential of leaving me on the ground. Now I can stop him from almost any risky maneuver before it turns into a confrontation. We've tuned our senses to each other so well, I have to be careful when I feel his muscles tense up under my legs. If I unconsciously tense up my muscles with his, that tells him that I am also afraid, and it might be beneficial to run away from the situation. If I keep my body relaxed and my mind calm, his will mimic mine.

After warming him up at the slow paces, I try my luck at staying astride his galloping frame. I unconsciously cue him into a left-lead lope: shift weight to the right, squeeze right leg back slightly, lift left rein minutely, and kiss. Though we weren't attempting to outrun Seabiscuit, this was no frolic through the park. The feeling of being astride a running creature is like no other. Nothing can be heard except the rhythmic breathing of horse and human, the effortless, three-beat stride of a canter, and the ever-present wind. All I can think of is how easy it would be for him to flick me off of his back. It could be as simple as the wind blowing from a different angle and causing a branch to become a beckoning demon in his mind, a piece of trash he hadn't noticed before, a dog or cat ambling through the bushes. Any of these could give his prey-animal mind reason to jump sideways and take off running in the other direction, but Riley trusts me enough to know that I wouldn't put him in a situation where he could get hurt.

We were rounding the corner of the pasture opposite of the barn. Another possibility entered my mind: At any moment, this half-ton animal could decide that he didn't feel like responding to my feeble cues and take for the barn so he could get his hay. He's hundreds of times stronger than I am, yet he chooses to stay with me, allows me to direct him where, and how fast, to go. Every time I think of things like this, I feel lucky to have such a strong bond and relationship between a human, the ultimate predator, and a horse, the ultimate prey animal. If something like that can be sustained, then the possibilities of a human society are boundless. Many people take advantage of what, and who, they have in life. I feel very fortunate knowing that I am different from many people, and understand the intricacies of a healthy relationship built on trust and communication. He provides me with companionship and, at times, transportation, and I provide him with leadership and his essentials for living. I slow my rhythm down and slowly exhale, which signaled Riley to slow down to the desired gait of a walk. He may not have been breathing hard, but that was definitely a workout for my legs.

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