I found something very special in my email inbox this morning that I wanted to share with you.
And it’s called THE BEAUTY OF A HORSE’S SOUL by HANNAH RIVARD
It’s the spectacular winning application for the GoldStar Scholarship from a few years ago that Corey Mindlin from New Zealand put up in an effort to get competition people inspired to the kind of lightness and artistry and beauty that she saw people on our courses experience with their horses regularly.
What would you say if you felt you were writing the most important essay of your life? How would you start it? How would you explain your heart? How would you reveal your dreams? Perhaps you would simply begin with your heart, with your story.
My parents tell me when I was two my favorite color was brown, because, obviously, all horses were brown. As a five year old, I was towed around the trails every Wednesday on Pepper, a murky black Shetland with warhorse ancestry in his dumpy walk and frizzy mane. My brush with true magic in horses, however, first came to me through dragons.
It is 5 p.m. or midnight—in a theater you can never tell—the premiere of Avatar. Above me, 3-D dragons plunging, people gasping, funny glasses. My father next to me, sister to my right, both enraptured by glittering scenes of Pandoras and avatars. Yet all that swoops through my mind like open-jawed dragons is that the Na’vi and their impossible bond—the “tsaheylu”—with their dragons is me and horses.
The scenes of flying above the clouds unchain feelings I cannot comprehend: that I am seeking a gift— a dream—a magic with horses—what is only dreamed of, like the connection these people have with their war-dragons. I have always believed that there is truth in legends—of Pegasus and centaurs—with the reason I love fairy tales being that they remind us of what this world was created to be.
And so, I dreamed of Harimad-Sol, heroine of The Blue Sword, of the land of Darian, a young woman full of the magical kelar who saved her people from the back of her bridleless warhorse Tsornin.
The first time she rode him bridleles, Harimad-Sol was transformed:
She was, for the first few moments, fearful of her own lack of skill, and of the strength of the big horse, but she found they understood each other… She felt almost uneasy that it was too simple, that she understood too readily. But she was too caught up in the beauty of it to wish to doubt it long.
Harimad-Sol, fictional as she was, achieved the transcendental state with horses I haven’t been able to yet find on this earth: the bridleless warhorse who charges across the field to his death and your life, the centaur whispered about around flickering Indian fires, the Pegasus of legends etched on Greek temple walls. No bridle with steel bit clanking or reins to clutter your hands, no iron stirrups choking your feet—just an explosion of dappled horseflesh, wild gallops on churning ground, rears with striking forelegs—a horse who saves you, dies for you, you for him. There is bridleless piaffe, liberty capriole, collection, balance, hair-trigger responses, and raw power. Such exorbitant magic between a horse and human was not something normal horse trainers seek, only authors, naïve girls, romantics: “A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.”
Reading those worn pages, I realized Harimad-Sol’s key to unlocking a life of magic was her connection with her sungold stallion, and until I find that magic, I will not quite be truly alive, and neither will my horse; it’s a longing that has never left me.
Someone once said, “The greater the art’s beauty, the greater the sense of yearning that it evokes.” Books such as The Blue Sword have split open in me a yearning for that horsemanship—to find Pegasus—the perfect, joyful relationship with a horse without force, fear, or pain.
I have been consumed by that quest, and after my high school encounter with Avatar, the pressure I felt to reach an other-worldly horsemanship state made me nearly sick. Late nights I’d turn heated mattress pad on high, bedside lamp on low, and study Dancing With Horses and Breathe Life Into Your Riding and a hundred other books, scribbling notes in the margins with a cheap blue pen. I studied obsessively, not because I was a good trainer—though that’s what everyone thought—but because I couldn’t become good. To be a transcendent trainer was my duty to God and the world, and if I could not achieve it, I had failed.
My mare has an even deeper sense of the transcendence than I do. In 2008, I won her—my dream horse—in an essay contest: the Foundation for the Pure Spanish Horse was hosting an essay contest in which she was the exotic prize. When I won her, in a burst of gratitude I named her Maia, “close to God” in Hebrew, for I was convinced in uncanny premonition God had handpicked her to teach me something beautiful— oblivious to the pain learning that lesson would cause.
I know so much—more than many—and yet Maia seems to find no happiness anywhere. According to her, the saddle is wrong, the bridle is wrong, my riding is wrong, and for that matter, so is the trailer, the clippers, the farrier, the halter. If I concentrate too hard, she becomes upset, and if I touch her in the wrong spot, she swishes her tail.
“All mares swish their tails,” my friends would tell me. “She’s just concentrating, that isn’t frustration,” others would say. “What are you complaining about,” they ask, “you’re doing awesome bridleless dressage—that is amazing—obviously Maia ‘must’ be happy!”
But I can’t accept that. I know she is unhappy, and nothing I have done so far has helped set her free from that. Yet, I am grateful, in a sad way: she will never, ever settle for anything less than pure magic, pure happiness. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t reach it. I’ve brushed my fingers against it—and Maia glows with pleasure and my heart does that small jump that I finally touched magic—and then in the next breath, it’s gone, I am in tears, and Maia has run to the far end of the pasture yet again.
I knew Maia has been trying to tell me something; I believe she has been God’s gift to me, hand picked among all horses, to never let me rest until I’ve found this pure happiness and magic. Therefore, I try to listen to what she says, and for years I assumed she was asking for more—more experience—more skill. Hard work, I “knew,” could fix anything; failure was because of my lack of effort. So I studied harder. I trained her two, three hours a day. I watched stacks of training DVDs, typed dozens of pages of notes, wrote hundreds of pages in my training diary. Yet with every new training technique, Maia has grown steadily worse, and when my young horse-crazy cousin asks innocently if Maia is fully trained yet, I have to hide gritted teeth behind a smile.
And, beyond all of that, I hate training.
I always have. The feeling of utter wrongness has been there from the beginning, when one June morning when I was in middle school—years before Avatar—I was riding with my sister, she on Maggie, me on Jewel. We snapped farm driveway’s gravel under eight bare hooves, the sun choked on my black helmet, blinking water mirages laughed at me always twenty feet ahead, and I admitted what I never had before: “I love horses but never look forward to seeing them. When I think of riding, it’s too hard, it won’t go well, I won’t know what to do. I hate training horses.”
I loosened my clutch on sweaty reins, certain after confession such unreasonable feelings would slink shame-faced to a new home. But they didn’t, they were still there gaping the next day when I watered Jewel, and the next month at the Sibley County Fair.
Ashamed, I stuffed them under sweaty saddle pads and chestnut bridles, trying to forget I loved horses and hated horsemanship. In college, I drove up shaded driveway to redwood barn every morning to check riding off my to-do list, as if forcing myself one more time to slog through arena sand drilling canter transitions would make me enjoy it, the young woman in an abusive relationship who thinks what her boyfriend gives her is love.
I still hate training, and when people ask me to ride, I have to put on a fake smile. It is too hard, too full of pressure and pain and fear. Where is the happiness and lightness? Why is it so hard? Despite all I know, I haven’t touched magic, and if I cannot have true happiness, true magic, I am afraid someday I will relegate horses to glossy posters on my wall and a flickering screensaver on my desktop screen. I don’t understand how I can love horses so much and dread working with them so deeply; they are supposed to be my place of joy.
In fact, I am writing this on my porch at the horse farm where I work, and I see a rider, world class, world renowned, hitting, kicking, and slapping her horse. I relax my mind, and I can feel into the horse. I feel he’s not swallowing, and maybe that he has a headache. I know he’s having a difficult time breathing and that his mind is so frustrated and cluttered he can’t even think. He’s kicked again, jerked in the mouth again. I know this woman loves her horses, but how is there joy in that for either of them?
I start to cry.
This is why I hate training. And this is why I want to learn another way. I’ve tried on my own—for nearly ten years I’ve tried—and I cannot find my own way. I’ve never told anyone, but my deepest dream is to never put a bridle on my horse’s head again. It’s to never slip my feet into stirrups again, to never have a neckrope around Maia’s throat again. It’s to have her so connected to me that I seem to know what it was to talk of Pegasus, and to have a seat so solid I understand how a centaur would have felt. It’s to be able ride a Grand Prix test in this way, to have balance, softness, collection, and joy without a bridle. It’s to see her run to me in the pasture, and to never again be shot through the heart by her turning, looking at me, and running away. I want us to be blissfully happy. I want to know what Harimad-Sol had: the bridleless warhorse without bit, bridle, or neckrope, whose heart is connected to mine.
But even more, ultimately, my goal is pure happiness: it is knowing I touch my horse’s soul and she can touch mine, that the joy I feel in riding without fear, pressure, or pain is the same joy she has in me. Because bridleless Grand Prix, a horse who runs to me in the pasture, the one I can play with at liberty in a thousand acres, who will live with me on a mustang preserve—those are all just the outcomes of deep joy, magic – happiness. Having the latter, the former can come.
I have searched everywhere I can think of and tried to reach my horses’ hearts until I cry with the frustration of it. I know it doesn’t have to be so hard, like there is some door I need to find, and once I step through, I’ll have what I seek. I believe your training may have that door.
When I found your website some time ago, I subscribed to the 6 Keys to Happiness (now Nine Keys) and in each one was astounded by the profound lessons I was reading. When, one morning, through your writings, I gave myself permission to not even go into the pasture, I began to cry with relief. And the more I read your writings, heard you also were interested in bridleless dressage and the path of grace that leads there, the more I felt you understand my dream—understand magic—and how to reach out to the horse with your soul. That is why I am applying for this GoldStar Scholarship.
Even more, that’s why I have shared your work and the scholarship so much with others. I used to feel no one else was seeking the magical horsemanship just beyond my reach, like a word you try anxiously to remember while biting your tongue until it bleeds hot. At least, that is what I told myself until I had coffee one afternoon with a dear friend, nearly forty years my senior, who was describing energetically from across the oak wood table her horsemanship clinic experience in Ohio last month.
Hours pass, latte gone, sun setting—my turn to talk, I hesitate—begin to describe transcendent connection with horses. My words slap at each other, lurching, slipping, and I wonder if I even make sense—until I look up. My friend’s eyes full, her coffee forgotten, she nods, leans forward, exclaims. She knew, felt the other world as much as I, and she, too, thought she was alone. And I realized, sitting in that straight-backed chair, magical horsemanship is not just one person’s dream: we sense it, know it is possible, seek after it our whole lives, because it is ingrained in our being, in our native understanding of the way the world was to be sin. Such horsemanship is beautiful, and beauty is being in touch with reality and with God.
That is why I have told so many about your scholarship contest. I have posted it on my Facebook, horsemanship Facebook page, horse blog, and Twitter. I’ve also put it on YahooGroups, Facebook groups, a horse forum, and individually to over 90 friends; I have seen them share it as well, so in total, over 6,600 people have the potential for hearing about the scholarship and your programs through my efforts. I have had tremendous positive response and many are excited about the opportunities you’re giving the horse world. Some compete and some don’t, but I didn’t even consider that in my choosing of them: I just want everyone to know that there is a way out there for them to reach their deep happiness with horses, and that pursuing that is beautiful—that they shouldn’t give up on their dreams.
I won’t give up on mine, either, with my ultimate dream spending weeks or even months riding bridleless and stirrupless with the mustangs on a mustang preserve here in the United States, in order to explore the depths to which a horse-human relationship, as well as the art of riding, can go. But before I do that, I need to be able to touch Maia’s heart. I believe your program can help me do that, but my finances are limited right now—greatly due to spending all my spare time in college and over the summers training Maia and taking unpaid horsemanship internships and apprenticeships in search of the magic, peace, and happiness with horses I know is somehow possible.
For all these reasons, I am asking for the GoldStar Scholarship. For so long I have been searching for a horsemanship that is both magical and practical—one that not only is full of joy and touches my and my horse’s heart, but it actually allows us to achieve our practical, real-world riding dreams.
Perhaps you see now why, at the beginning of this essay, I wrote that it may be one of the most important essays I’ll ever write: I see it as my last best chance for finding true happiness with horses. Ellie James said, “The more you wanted, the further you had to fall,” and I know some would think I want too much, inspired as I am by castles in the clouds—movies like The Black Stallion and books like The Blue Sword—but I can’t give up my dreams—I would rather live in a made-up world full of light than a real world of hopeless darkness. So I continue my search for that deep happiness, for the door in the hedge that will let me into Narnia, and I am asking for your help in finding it.
See… What Hannah has expressed so beautifully – her yearning – is what I think all of us are really looking for from our horse. It’s certainly that indefinable, magical “it” that I was looking for. The emails that hit my in-box – from people nowhere near as eloquent as Hannah – it’s ROUTINE for me to hear beautiful stories about that magical feeling between horse and person.