Enter world of horses slowly

Eleven years ago, I learned to ride, the better to help an equestrian write his memoirs. It was the start of amassing the myriad skills that comprise good horsemanship, and I’m not there yet by a longshot. Horses became the focus of books I would write, but professional interest turned personal; it endured and deepened. Last summer, finally, I took my horse fever up a notch: I bought a ruggedly handsome young gelding, a purebred Canadian called Dark Fox Dali.

Buying a horse is both a first step — the start of an exciting new relationship — and so a kind of final step in a long, slow dance. It’s wise to enter slowly into the world of horses, taking lessons at riding stables, leasing a horse and sharing expenses, going on riding holidays that let you ride the same horse for a week. Buying a horse is the ultimate step, and one never knows where it might lead. The literature on horses is awash in surprises.

In February 1956, Harry de Leyer — a riding instructor at a school for girls in Long Island, New York — arrived too late at a horse auction. The dregs of the sale were being loaded onto a butcher’s van. One sorry horse, an angular part-Percheron who had pulled a ploh for most of his nine years, intrigued Harry. Past the dirt, bite marks and manure spots, he saw “a kindness in those sad eyes.”

De Leyer bought the dappled grey for $70, groomed him a lot, schooled him a little, then sold him to a chiropractor down the road. At least he tried to: Snow Man, as de Leyer named him, leapt every paddock and repeatedly galloped home; the horse clearly loved Harry and, my, how he could jump. Snow Man became national American showjumping champion two years running and was celebrated in countless articles and two books. Someone offered de Leyer $400,000 for that horse, a staggering sum then. I imagine the Dutchman laughed.

Outside the show ring, Snow Man was a family pet. A photograph in the November 7, 1959, issue of Life magazine shows Snow Man swimming across Long Island Sound with three of Harry’s kids on his back. He seems to be grinning. Harry, in his 70s now, still breeds, trains and jumps horses. “Horses do more than keep me young,” he told me. “They keep me happy.”

Downside of horse fever
The downside of horse fever is the expense: blacksmith’s bills, vet bills, board bills — never mind the untold hours grooming and riding and hot walking. But those demands also keep one moving and alive. Horses challenge both mind and body. For the first time in my life, wakeful moments at night are devoted to a horse. Dali has entered my dreams.

It seems I’m not alone, as several 50-something people from my base in Kingston, Ontario will attest. Cathie MacLeod, a physiotherapist, hadn’t ridden since her teens but five years ago rediscovered the horse. “Riding is excellent exercise for mobilizing the spine and legs,” she says. “Psychologically, there are intangible benefits, like the smell of fresh cut hay in a field. Even walking my horse on a lead rope brings my stress levels way down. When I’m at the barn, I know exactly what it is I should be doing with my life.”

Garry MacDonald, a retired OPP detective, several years ago fulfilled a lifelong dream by buying a small farm. Now he has three quarter-horses and a donkey. “I love the ritual of going out early in the morning to feed, water and groom them,” he says. “And when you ride in the back fields you notice the birds. It’s all intertwined and you just feel happy to be alive.”

Lynn MacKenzie, an occupational therapist, had little experience of horses until a year ago when she bought, on a whim, a patient’s three-year-old mare. Asked about the physical and psychological rewards of riding, and the words spill out: “I love the smell of her. The warmth. The trust that needs to be earned and developed, the way she takes me the way I am. The skills necessary.” On top of that, MacKenzie says, “I have fibromyalgia [a neuromuscular disorder], and I get better joint movement and less pain.”

Risks inherent
Not everyone feels the need to ride hard or fast; nevertheless, there are risks inherent in getting on a horse — sometimes even in attending to their needs (a horse can deliver quite a kick to the unwary). Yet I find even the risks life-enhancing. I cast my lot with the horse, that most gentle giant. Would that our highways were half as forgiving of pilot error.

In coming months, Dali and I will start going on long hacks, rambling through the fields beyond the stables and train for distance riding. But my hope is that one day the place I hold dear and the horse I hold dear will converge. A few years ago, I and others rebuilt a square-timbered log house on our quiet acreage in southeastern Ontario.

Our cabin is not on the water but close to a point of land looking south across Lake Ontario. The coastline of crown land is so ragged with tiny bays that even if other people happen to be there I can tuck into a cove at sunset and enjoy the illusion of solitude. A grey heron may glide past. Ducks, cormorants, swallows appear; we are all drawn, like moths, to the dazzling play of sun on water, of gold on blue.

In my dream, Dali is part of that ritual — I am sitting on the flat, chiselled rock, letting the sound of the water wash over me. Tied to a tree, Dali may look up from his grazing to catch the molten color, the last scattered light of the day.

Lawrence Scanlan is the author of Wild About Horses: Our Timeless Passion for the Horse, published by Random House. He also worked with Ian Millar and Monty Roberts on their respective memoirs, Riding High and The Man Who Listens to Horses. His next book will be about Dali and his breed, the Canadian horse.