Amateurs Like Us: Fighting With Your Best Friend

Feb 16, 2016 - 4:57 PM
Photo by Joe Nevills

I’m often grateful that I work late hours, because it means that I have most weekday evenings with the barn (and arena) to myself. The peace and quiet of the farm at nighttime is great for a meditative stall cleaning or a stream-of-consciousness grumble about my no-stirrup struggles.

There are nights, however, when my running narrative turns in the direction of four-letter words. I do own a mare, after all, and I maintain that I am just mirroring her language.

“You aren’t keeping your hands consistent, and I don’t appreciate it.”

“Well, I’m working on it, but you’re half-rearing every four strides, and I don’t appreciate that.”

“I’m hopping because you’re bouncing all over the place. Hey, what’s up with that dressage whip?!”

“What’s up with the bucking thing? We worked on this. Knock it off.”

You knock it off!”

“I’m so furious with you right now.”

“Yeah, well, I hate you too.”

These rides don’t happen often, but they do happen, and when they do it absolutely ruins my whole day. Two of them in a row, and the subsequent bad mood poisons my week. I spend cool-outs issuing long rants with rhetorical questions like, “You know, I work really hard to pay for your special care food and organic supplements. The least you could do is be patient with me. Do you know how many more hours of sleep I’d get in a week if I wasn’t worrying about the best feeding program to prevent colic?”

And of course she doesn’t respond, because she’s a horse.

I don’t ride because I find the practice, in itself, essential to my functioning. I know many adult amateurs do, but for me it’s always been about the relationship with the horse. Jitterbug is a former neglect case who, at the beginning of our journey together, I compared to a person with a weirdly specific form of autism—she had so little experience with humans that she didn’t connect with them.

She didn’t make eye contact, she didn’t look for me when I left the stall, and she rarely turned an ear my way. She existed in her bubble, and as far as she was concerned, I existed in mine. Getting her out of that bubble and forming a bond with a horse like that is a bigger reward than all the horse show ribbons in the world, and if she had to retire tomorrow, I wouldn’t be cruising sale horse ads anytime soon.

But the flipside of that bond is that for someone like me, the horse becomes a friend. Maybe even a best friend.

It means that after I dismount from a ride like the one described above, I feel crummy not just because I’m frustrated—I feel crummy because I just had a fight with my best friend. I’m here to tell you, no amount of Cold Stone Creamery will totally take the sting out of that (though that doesn’t keep me from trying).

I’m not sure that’s appropriate. I worry that it clouds my judgment and makes it harder to work through training issues with the confident, calculated attitude that the professionals have.

And yet, when we come to a deep spot at a jump, she saves me. When I lose a stirrup, she shifts her shoulder to support me until I can get it back. I can’t begin to guess how many times she has dried my tears with her mane.

When I dismounted after our most recent World War, she turned her head to look at me as I was grudgingly running the soft brush over her back, puffed softly at me and softened her eye. It’s probably wishful thinking, and it’s definitely anthropomorphizing, but it was such a change in expression and so out of character for her that it made me think—I might be lucky enough to be her best friend too.

And even though that makes the fights more upsetting, it means we’ll always make up when they’re over.

You’ve gotten to know Jitterbug, the Chronicle’s Quadraped Correspondent, over her years of posting hilarious columns from a cantankerous draft-cross mare’s point of view. And now her “Human,” Natalie Voss, has joined our roster of bloggers to share her adventures as a hunter-rider-turned-eventer mounted on the ever-opinionated Jitterbug

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