“I Remember You”: Wildness, Gratitude, & Western History, on Horseback

Erstwhile editor Julia Frankenbach reflects on the vitality of the notion of wildness in her everyday life, arguing for the inseparability of academic and non-academic learning.

IMG_4881

Horses grazing on the mowed hayfield, looking southwest. Photo by author.

It was a sunny mid-October day on the Colorado Front Range. I had just finished the week’s work, so I drove the twelve miles north from Boulder to visit my horse, an 18-year-old warmblood mare named Loulou. I pasture Loulou at a quiet farm, where the largest of three fields had just been mowed for its autumn harvest of grass hay. The horses had been moved from their grass-poor summer pasture to the mown field to enjoy its thick green stubble and to manure it for next year’s crop. As I pulled in to the long driveway, the horses came into view like tiny breadcrumbs on a green tableau. I resumed an old game, trying to distinguish my mare from the far-flung throngs of horses within a few seconds. A quick scan of forty dark bodies, and a handful seemed likely candidates. But only one is Loulou. I tried to summon instinct—that one. After nine years, I fancy myself good at this game. Of the forty brown horses in the field, Loulou is discernible from a distance if you can recognize the broad slope of her shoulder and the exact angle at which her back tapers away from it—what horsepeople call the animal’s “topline.” A familiar tuck of the left hind foot or a clear view of the clip to her grazing style, and she is found. The lines of their bodies exposed to the air, horses are easier to distinguish than people are. It just takes some time to learn what to look for. For me, picking out that well-known, supple topline and walking toward it feels like coming home. But it’s a kind of home—a reunion, a return—the terms of which I often take completely for granted. This sketch is an attempt to unsettle those terms a little.

The pasture is a rich place for an historian. Despite its apparent tranquility, it is a place defined by resource conflict and labor negotiations between dissimilar entities—familiar themes of the Western American past. A recent quibble with my horse invoked these themes and challenged me to consider whether I sufficiently embody the lessons of academic history in my thinking about the present. The confrontation reinforced for me the alienating potential of the concept of wildness and reminded me of my sameness with beings who appear different. Although these realizations came well after the fact, as I revised my initial reactions, they serve as an example of the inseparability of academic and non-academic learning. Learning to listen to the other is a lesson that travels back and forth from the pasture to the university. In both places, this and other lessons of the past are of utter relevance.

I ducked through the pasture fence with Loulou’s halter in hand. She stood far away, banded with two chestnut mares and a piebald gelding in the far northeast corner of the pasture (see the glossary below for definitions of terms). I had found her like this the past several visits. Together with her token male and two harem-mates, she had established a territory.

In past years, I have found these iterations of wildness “cute.” How touching, one thinks, to see these large creatures assemble little families in their preferred sex-ratio configurations, as if they were living on BLM land like the majority of the western United States’s 33,000 wild horses. Perceived through the layers of my maternalism, this behavior seemed akin to watching one’s children scope out a new backyard and erect forts. Turned loose onto a new, relatively vast stretch of land, the horses seemed to take pleasure in exploring the landscape and imagining territories for themselves. These domains of exclusive group access were, of course, pretend, I told myself. Forty acres is a paltry allotment, the male horses are all gelded, and they assemble their bands against predators that no longer exist on the Colorado plains. Despite these qualifications, I usually managed to nurse a feeling of gratification that my mare, despite years of human solicitation, still wanted to be wild. How quaint. Visions of Loulou’s red-and-black form in the Nevada sagebrush added fleeting cinema to the sentiment. But now—time to ride.

As I approached the small band, the piebald lifted his head and pricked his ears. The mares stopped chewing and lifted their heads too. I took three more steps forward, and the piebald’s ears flattened. An ungentlemanly choice of companion, I thought. As I made my way around the piebald, Loulou affirmed the gelding’s hostility by wheeling around and trotting away, followed closely by her bandmates. She maintained her beeline across the entire field, scattering distant bands of horses who flattened their ears against her intrusion. Each time I made my way back across the field to try again, Loulou and her allies fled. After my fourth attempt at reconciliation, the horses were galloping.

IMG_4871-001

The piebald gelding stands guard over his mares, alerted to my approach. Photo by author.

IMG_4878-001

Loulou leads the fourth escape. The piebald gelding brings up the rear. Photo by a stressed author.

This was a serious problem. I fumed. Wildness had ceased to be cute. I despaired that I would never be able to catch Loulou, cursing the corruptive influence of the piebald. Wildness was, of course, only acceptable on the condition that it did not affect my easy 24-7 access to my horse’s time and labor. Wildness, in other words, was a pleasing aesthetic but a displeasing reality. I resolved to move my mare to a paddock, where I would be able to catch her more easily.

Hindsight allows a clearer view. I did catch my mare that day—eventually—and I never had such trouble again. She remains in the pasture and, three months later, appears to have disbanded from her former companions. But the incident provided a good opportunity to critically evaluate my notions about wildness, work, and my willful equine partner, who I must remind myself to understand as a thinking being who daily navigates the distance between freedom and un-freedom. Wildness is a well-worn explanation for behavior that contradicts the desires of the judging party. Though I initially appreciated the look of wildness, my amusement was predicated on the assumption that my mare was simply answering to instinct and that she had not actually “gone wild.” When her behavior undermined my interests, wildness became real. And real wildness was not acceptable in a horse that was supposed to be tame (read: compliant). The problem with this thinking is that it predicates a judgment about nature on a false distinction: that between horses who fulfill human wishes and those who do not. This is an arbitrary rubric for creatures who will necessarily fall under both categories and who could not, in fact, care less about what humans want.

To work with a horse is to negotiate with a creature whose desires are unlike one’s own and whose physical size sets the preliminary stage of that negotiation on vastly uneven terms. This basic principle, though it seems simple, receives a great deal of distortion from filmmakers and from horsepeople themselves. A quick survey of horse-themed films released in the last fifteen years reveals the anthropocentric significance of the horse to popular audiences.  Seabiscuit (2003), Hidalgo (2004), Dreamer (2005), Secretariat (2010), War Horse (2011), and 50 to 1 (2014) all feature animals whose competitive spirits and loyal partnerships with their human counterparts make them gratifying characters for the big screen. Throughout the equine-themed film canon, viewers enjoy the horse’s complicity in human dreams of supremacy over others. The animated film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002) is unique in this regard for portraying a wild horse who fights to remain separate from Euro-American people during the transcontinental railroad’s penetration of present-day Nebraska and Wyoming.  However, even Spirit takes on human mental capacities when he perceives kinship in Native American people and allies with a young Lakota man to stop the railroad’s progress and win the return to freedom. The film sets Native lifeways in opposition to technology and order, bringing them in line with the supposedly more-equine need for a spirited, wild existence. Its promulgation of this racial trope aside, the film takes its place among those that emphasize the horse’s empathy with human desires and its ability to perceive kinship in human counterparts. Watching these films, one would never suspect that equine beings are mentally and emotionally different from human beings.

spirit image

Screenshot from Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002).

Horsepeople themselves propagate these fantasies when they anticipate sympathy from their equine companions. I feel comfortable criticizing such people, because I was, and still am, one of them. My romp through the pasture as I futilely pursued my wayward horse is only one example. Even when I managed (years ago) to accept that Loulou values first safety and then food security above any kind of relationship with me, I found myself expecting absurd forms of reciprocity. I anticipated cooperation, especially, in our rides together. The horse-and-rider figure is subject to romanticization of epic proportions. Between the popularization of Western American iconography during the last decades of the twentieth century and the zen-like instruction of horse trainers who sell “natural” horsemanship methods, the ideal of perfect horse-and-rider harmony has become highly desirable, especially for its ability to grant the feel of communion with powerful animals and the powerful Western American past. To be sure, a rider should strive for harmonious, respectful physical communication with her horse. Many, if not all, riding disciplines emphasize the importance of balance and clear communication. But it is important to draw a line between mutual respect and mutual mindedness. The horse does not need for me to succeed. Count on the fact that my emotional wellbeing has never entered her mind. She simply does not hug back.

In her stunning memoir about her work at an Australian cattle station, Rafael de Grenade gives eloquent voice to the allure of anthropomorphism. “To a rider,” she writes, “a horse is like a second spirit, and riding is like becoming one being with two minds, two beating hearts, four legs, and two arms that must join into a seamless whole. The secret is to strive to become the horse while it yearns to become human; then the elusive ephemeral being comes into momentary existence.”[1] While this passage describes my wildest dreams, it does not describe my beliefs. I do not believe that horses think about riding the same way people do. Though the idea of interspecies “becoming” is in vogue among anthropologists, animal historians, and other multispecies thinkers (and I am particularly prone to its seductions), I have never known a horse to strive to become human. Certainly, they learn our ways and those of other animals. The professional cowhorse, for example, learns to independently anticipate the movements of a solitary cow who desperately wishes to return to the herd. She learns the cow’s desires and her rider’s desires and expertly navigates the two. But to think that she does this because she strives to be human is to misunderstand a complex three-way relationship. Horsepeople, like all of us, are too quick to gratify the human need for intimacy with and endorsement from the other. We dupe ourselves into thinking that because they answer to our cues, horses share our dreams. We are not nearly so special.

This principle deflates the well-meaning aspirations of many good horsepeople, and it kills the magic of the movie theater. But it clears the way for horsepeople (and all people, for that matter, who look for meaning in the interactions between dissimilar entities) to locate magic of a more mutually fulfilling kind. Increasingly, I see my visits to the farm as opportunities to think against the tendency—in petting horses and in writing history—to explain cooperation between different beings in terms that are prematurely self-congratulatory. There is more to discover at the ranch than reiterations of human dominance. In a related vein, there is more to discover in the histories of various western North American peoples than colonial stories of absorption and assimilation. As an historical scholar, I strive for the ability to look upon a landscape and see more worlds than one. To look upon the pasture and see two worlds—one human and one equine, distinct but intimately ingrown, marked not by wildness but by imperfect communion—seems a step in the right direction.

A second problem I reckoned with last October concerns the ego-damaging fact of an animal world in which humans are emotionally irrelevant. If my mare does not “care,” what are the lessons to be learned from her? How can I, an emotional creature in need of engagement, flourish in an equine world defined by detachment? Anthropologist Matei Candea suggests that this is the wrong question to be asking. He proposes a kind of thinking he calls “inter-patience” as an antidote to the tension between human needs and non-human disinterest in answering them. Patience, he writes, is “the active cultivation of inaction.” It is the choice to remain detached, to simply wait. “Inter-patience,” therefore, “is the mutual suspension of action, a cease-fire of sorts.”[2] It is a form of activity in which detachment between two creatures becomes, by nature of its active maintenance, a form of engagement. The mutual choice to remain apart, in other words, must be viewed as an affirmation: yes, I see you, and I know you. With the view of inter-patience in mind, detachment is the natural counterpart to engagement, rather than its opposite. If I had managed inter-patience last October, I might have listened to a clear signal. Rather than letting the horses’ rejection offend my sense of entitlement, I might have simply watched in amusement as they exercised their right to form an opinion about me. Loulou’s choice to maintain the physical distance between us was not a refutation of our relationship but a statement brewed specially for me in the wake of our intense, prolonged engagement. Her behavior affirmed our long past together, her many memories of rides and groomings and long stints tied to a horse trailer while I snap photographs of her. She knew what was coming—work, on my terms—and she preferred an alternative. Inter-patience makes possible not the magic of physical closeness but the magic of a mutually acknowledged past and its potency in an ever-negotiated, “wildly” provisional present.

“I remember you” is something to be thankful for.

I have often approached my horse presumptuously—full of intent, empty of learning. Sometimes I come to the farm when I am sick of learning and all I want is to borrow my mare’s four legs to feel the wind through my hair. But a Western American historian ought to know—to “borrow” the resources of another is to invite conflict and unexpected outcomes. The fact of Loulou and her willing labor is not a guarantee. Her failure to please me has no more to do with wildness than does my failure to please her. I am lucky to bridge the world of an other. Practicing thanks and being patient with her is one way of accommodating and living with the unknowable.

IMG_4743

Photo by author.

—-

Notes

[1] Rafael de Grenade, Stilwater: Finding Wild Mercy in the Outback (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2014), 24.

[2] Matei Candea, “‘I Fell in Love with Carlos the Meerkat’: Engagement and Detachment in Human-Animal Relations,” American Ethnologist 37 (2010): 249.

Glossary

Bay – describes the color of the horse’s base coat, in this case consisting of brown fur with a black mane and tail

Chestnut – describes the color of the horse’s base coast, in this case consisting of red-brown fur, mane, and tail

Gelding – castrated male adult horse

Halter – set of straps buckled around a horse’s head to catch and lead it

Mare – female adult horse

Piebald – color pattern made up of white patches on a black base coat

Skewbald – color pattern made up of white patches on a non-white base coat (such as chestnut or palomino)

Advertisements

One thought on ““I Remember You”: Wildness, Gratitude, & Western History, on Horseback

  1. Julia–What an absorbing, reflective–and well-illustrated!–post. Your careful and discerning writing brings us inside your thoughts, and LouLou’s too. For me, your ideas go well beyond human-horse bonds and make me think about the people who feel (and occasionally examine) a connection to such very different creatures as dogs and cats, birds and fishes, elephants and camels. Keep hold of this thread, or should I say horse hair? PHW

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s