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For a moment I became a horse. It doesn’t happen that often that you become so intimate with the animal you are tending that suddenly there is no separation.

But it did happen to me once.

Many people who have ridden horses have spoken of how they feel their bodies merging with the powerful limber of the beast in motion and becoming as if one with it. I could never ride bareback for more than a few minutes myself, but I can imagine that once the discomfort of riding unsupported astride such a bony companion is mastered, the joy of flying along through the wind must be heavenly. Even with a saddle, it is already heavenly.

Life on the farm

When in the 1980s I lived on Osho’s ranch in the US, Rajneeshpuram – its political history made famous by the Netflix series Wild Wild Country – one of my many jobs was to tend to the horses. I had had some experience horse riding in England as a child, riding English saddle, and was lucky enough to land this down-to-earth and messy job that peaked with guiding VIP visitors on small pony treks out into the stony, juniper-studded hills. There was a bit of cowboy-style cattle-herding as well, but most of the time I was engaged in the basics: feeding, grooming, hoof-cleaning and mucking out.

My boss was another, much younger, English horse-lover who actually knew a thing or two about horses (and to this day runs a small horse ranch in Portugal [overtheedgefarm.com – essentialanimals.com]. I was able to watch her, with her bowed cowboy legs and her orange blue-jean breeches, tame a captured wild horse and break him in for riding. The operation was a riveting and elegant process that kept me sealed to the spot when I should have been out in the fields wielding a pitchfork.

The Horse Whisperer

The Horse trainer

It took hours of patient manoeuvring with a long trainer’s horsewhip, an equally long halter and lead, and a fluffy thing on the end of a stick she used to simulate scaring the animal by fluttering it up to his eyes. 

We had built a makeshift circular corral so she could stand in the middle and drive the horse, a pale mustang, round and round, periodically cracking the whip to reverse his direction, engaging his eyes, approaching and walking away, and rewarding him when he got it all right with a caring stroke of his nose and a pat on his thick sleek neck.

This is how a horse learns to accept the human as higher in the hierarchy and becomes a willing subject. Now he is ready to endure, first a simple pad, then a saddle and finally a whole human body on his back. The trainer told me that horses think you are bigger than they are because when you stand beside them your face reaches above their eyes. But considering the height of some horses, you’d have to be a giant for that to be universally true.

Either way, I was not a great horsewoman but she was tolerant of my equestrian flaws and patiently showed me the ins and outs of engaging till I got quite good at it.

The deer in the night

One of my horse-riding highlights was the night we got to chase away the deer. Deer, great breeders all, had expanded into the surrounding hills because we refused to allow local hunters to come onto our huge tract of 64,000 acres to reduce the deer population during the annual hunting season, as was customary (just another reason for them to hate us!). It was one of Osho’s requests, I believe, he being of the non-violent, vegetarian stripe and especially fond of deer and peacocks. 

Deer in the forest

The problem was that whenever, in our drive to bring vegetation to our arid desert, we planted young saplings, the deer, seeing a ready feast, popped in at night to gobble them up.

A racket of scary sounds

So a plan was hatched for the riders to take tin cans and spoons and clang our way up the various screes and valleys, hooting and hollering, making as much noise as possible all night long to keep the deer away from the freshly planted orchards.

As we clanged our way in shifts, each had been told, at a prescribed point, to take a break. 

Who hasn’t had fantasies of being a cowboy? Perhaps because I was a lifelong city-dweller, I’d longed to live the Western movies of my childhood and lie on a blanket in a rough desert terrain (ideally accompanied by a huge cactus) and stare at the night sky with a horse snorting nearby.

And now I was living my dream…

I parked my noble steed by tying her to a juniper tree, unrolled my thin bedroll and lay down under the huge open sky. The air was pristine clean, the light majestically clear, the silence chasmic. And the sky, a dazzling black blanket of starlight. 

I was in ecstasy.

Milky Way out in the wilderness of the Ranch

The beasts at my water trough

The main event of my work day, however, was not scaring away encroaching fauna or staring at the sky. My job was to clean out the stalls in the open-sided barn; a huge manger needed refilling with fresh bluegrass hay and the carpet of dung-filled straw had to be pitched up into a cart along with whatever droppings I could find in the corral.

And then there was the filling of the trough. 

The trough was a long metallic number, not especially elegant, and I would drag the hose across the scrubland to pop it inside to make sure the horses had plenty of water in our very dry terrain. They would all come around and take their drink, each jostling beside the other, nostrils flickering, haunches nudging, lips slurping and sucking.

Holding the hose, squished among all six of them, I cherished this intimacy with their raw animal presence. And one day, on a whim, I squatted down beside the trough, so my eyes were level with their heavy rubbery lips as they worked the water.

There I was assailed by the smell of horse, of their glistening coat, their swishing tails, their snorting noses.

Otherworldly

That’s when I had my moment.

Eye-level with several animals all around me, all drinking at the same time, literally nose to nose, suddenly I became a horse. I was one of them. Squatting at the water trough, my lips curled towards the water; my nostrils bristled as theirs appeared to do; I could even feel my teeth grow to the their chunky size. 

A huge space opened inside me and I just lingered, lapping it up the way they were quaffing at the slowly decreasing water level. I felt I could at any moment fling back my mane, swish my tail and gallop over the sagebrush.

And then it was over. 

After having their fill, one by one the animals retreated and my own horse-ness retreated with them.

I lifted the hose, let it writhe across the ground for a moment and turned off the tap. Then I went back to my duties. First re-coiling the hose and then pitchforking the stuck-hay muck into the cart for transport to the composting yard.

My horse moment had come and gone.

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