Contest - 2nd Place
Jacqueline Kolosov is Professor of English at Texas Tech where she teaches in the graduate and undergraduate creative writing program. Her third poetry collection, Memory of Blue, is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry this fall. Essays, stories, and poems have recently appeared in Bellevue Literary Review (winner of the 2012 Nonfiction Award), The Southern Review, Cimarron Review, and So to Speak. With Marcela Sulak, she is co-editing an anthology of hybrid forms forthcoming from Rose Metal Press. She lives in West Texas with her family including 3 dogs, 2 guinea pigs & a beautiful, opinionated Azteca mare.
Equine Character: A Meditation
Your horse’s head is a major expression of his personality. Learning to recognize the meaning behind the placement, shape and size of his ears, profile, nostrils, lips and eyes are essential keys to understanding and ultimately to working with his nature—adapted from Linda Tellington-Jones’s Getting in TTouch: Understand and Influence Your Horse’s Personality.
I. Reading the Head
A straight, flat profile indicates an uncomplicated character that is quick to learn. Horses with such heads remind me of the high plains of West Texas where I now live, a land without native trees or defining landmarks to interrupt the expanse of sky. Justin, one of the many Arabians at Patty’s barn, possesses such a profile, the sleek copper of his head marked only by the diamond-shaped swirl of white in the middle of his forehead, the sign of “an interesting character,” says Tellington-Jones. And Justin is that, always thrusting his head into my way when I step through the gate, eager to sniff my neck, shoulders, hair—clues to where I’ve been. Justin shares the paddock with my beloved twenty-seven-year-old Arabian, Tommy. Both are geldings and such close friends they can quietly share a stall when storms tear open the sky. On other nights, Justin and Tommy sleep outside, eyes closed to the stars, though never, I know, unaware.
The Dish-faced horse possesses a slightly concave profile. Since the nineteenth century, the trait has been selectively bred for in Arabian horses in Europe and the States. The Dish-face suggests sensitivity and occasionally timidity. If the horse is Dish-faced and endowed with a long moose nose, however, he’s likely to be extremely intelligent and confident. Tellington-Jones’s theory of equine character confirms what I have always believed about Tommy who carries my six-year-old daughter with real gentleness, trotting so evenly that she will not lose her balance. When I walk Tommy from his paddock to the riding arena, I keep my pace even with his, talking to him as we go, conscious of the tilt of his ears, a sign that he is paying attention.
The Roman-nosed horse can be an excellent performance horse. Many of the original Lipizzaner stallions from the famous Spanish Riding School had Roman noses before Arabian blood was introduced, in the process bringing a look of greater refinement to the breed. Roman-nosed horses are traditionally hard-working and resilient.
The other horse I ride is a black, Roman-nosed Quarter horse gelding named Cupid with a heart freeze-branded onto his left hock. Unlike the light, long-legged Tommy, Cupid is stout-chested with short, sturdy legs. The first time I climbed onto his back, I tapped twice with my calves. He wouldn’t budge. “I don’t want to ride Cupid,” I moaned, anticipating an hour of using all my energy to get him to move.
“Then get off,” Patty said, as tough-minded and determined as her most powerful horses.
“I’ll stay where I am,” I said, accepting her challenge.
“Good.” She smiled. “Now, let me show you what this horse is capable of.” I dismounted, and she climbed into the saddle, flicked Cupid with the crop twice on his freeze-branded hock, and he steadily picked up a productive walk, progressed to a trot.
“You just need to wake him up,” she told me afterwards. “He goes deep inside himself much of the time, and it takes energy to pull him back.” What, I have still to discover, has propelled him there?
II. Reading the Mouth
An unusually long mouth is a sign of sensitivity and suggests the ability to learn quickly. Without proper stimulation, however, such horses can become bored and under such circumstances are quickly and inaccurately judged as possessing bad attitudes.
The Dutch warm blood U-deck, a muscular black powerhouse recently imported from the Netherlands by his highly accomplished dressage rider, Alicia, possesses both the resilient Roman head and the long mouth. U-deck’s history prior to his arrival in Texas remains unknown. During his first weeks with Alicia, U-deck reared up on his hind legs and misbehaved so badly that Patty put him on a longe line, and when he reared up at her, she kicked him hard in the chest with her left leg. Had it been a person on the receiving end of her foot and not a fifteen hundred pound horse, I have no doubt that she would have shattered the recipient’s ribs.
Despite this correction—or punishment—little changed. U-deck bit Alicia hard on the thigh. When she asked me to hold his reins before her lesson with the visiting Irish trainer, he stretched out his sleek black neck and bit me on the arm, and although he did not break the skin, he left a raspberry-colored crescent moon that purpled before turning green. “If U-deck could talk,” the Irish teacher said to Alicia as she warmed him up for his lesson, “what would he tell us?”
A horse with a short mouth can be hard to teach and is difficult to fit with a comfortable bit. I imagine that horses with short mouths are slower eaters. If they are fed with their herd, who’s to say that the others won’t finish first and then go after the short-mouthed horse’s food? Maybe they’re just hungry, preoccupied with getting enough to eat. I’ve known people like that, short-mouthed or not, often on the younger end of a big family, who tended to be possessive of their food and possessions—little wonder.
Horses with full mouths are prone to be strong-willed. Avoid conflicts with such horses, Tellington-Jones warns, as they’ll only become more difficult. I have not yet met a horse with a truly full mouth, and perhaps this is for the best, for I fell in love with a full-mouthed Venezuelan once. We met while walking the Way of St. James, a pilgrimage that traverses northern Spain. The Venezuelan’s mouth was decadent as overripe fruit, “a big, bad, box mouth” was his abuela’s term, he said. The Venezuelan ate and drank and made love like a character from opera. From the beginning, he told me that he could never be faithful—“Fidelity is not in my blood.” When I asked him why he was walking the Camino, he said he had not finished a single thing in his life. Five weeks later, as he neared pilgrimage’s destination, Santiago, the Venezuelan wept with joy, then shat his pants.
III. Reading the Lips
Horses whose lips resemble an inverted heart are often curious and outgoing. Just such a horse is Patty’s Rhinelander stallion LeBeau, a massive being standing some seventeen hands high. LeBeau has fathered two sons, Logan and Leon, and although they have inherited their father’s build and his temperament neither possesses lips like his inverted heart. LeBeau’s daughter, Juliet, alone inherited her father’s lips. “Her birth was terrible,” Juliet’s owner told me. “She was so big that she tore open her mother’s birth canal. The poor mare bled to death. I bottle-fed Juliet until we found a mare that had lost her foal—she became Juliet’s foster mother.” LeBeau has seen his daughter only twice since she was born.
The mobile upper lip is indicative of a temperament with the need to touch humans, by mouthing them, for example. On hot days, Tommy likes to lick the salt from my arms while I walk him around the arena after our ride. He will nibble at my skin, very delicately, something that horses do to each other as a sign of affection or to bestow a good scratch. Once Tommy used too much tooth, and I flinched, and he immediately pulled back. Sometimes I run my fingertips along his upper lip, and he wiggles it, revealing his strong, yellow-white teeth. “He looks like he’s laughing,” my daughter said.
“Tell us, Tommy,” we said together, “what’s so funny?”
A horse with a relaxed upper lip is not necessarily relaxed, warns Tellington-Jones, and must be evaluated in light of other facial characteristics. Cupid’s upper lip possesses that softness, and under most circumstances Cupid is a calm, imperturbable horse. Not that he’s especially affectionate, though he always comes willingly in the paddock and lets me place the halter around his big Roman head. Cupid, Patty has told me, is at the low end of the social hierarchy among the five horses with whom he spends his days, four of them geldings, the other a mare named Blu who threw her rider and broke her pelvis. Typically, Cupid stands a little apart, and usually I find him at the rail “cribbing.”
Cribbing is mouthing the rail, biting down on it again and again. It wears down a horse’s teeth, but it also releases endorphins. When Cupid cribs, he also burps. Initially, I found this mortifying and absurd. While the other riders readied their elegant or at least quiet horses, I stood beside Cupid who cribbed and burped. And of course, when I picked his hooves, Cupid farted. Picking hooves, like cribbing, also brings on endorphin release.
IV. Reading the Nostrils
Horses with shapely nostrils that are fluted at the top are usually cooperative, but only if the person working with them is fair and confident. Fifteen-year-old Marguerite, who acquired Tommy when she was eight before outgrowing him at thirteen, owns two horses, both of them Arabians. There’s the new, flashy white Andante that she plans to ride in the show ring; and then there is Tulip, a small black mare with shapely, fluted nostrils. Marguerite is Patty’s most “talented” student. A quiet teenager who wears her coppery hair in a long, straight ponytail, Marguerite spends hours at the barn working on her gaits, and she cares for Tulip with steady constancy. Andante, thus far, is more aloof.
Marguerite does not hold conversations with Tulip (or Andante, for that matter). Instead, she grooms Tulip meticulously, and she practices with her, always holding her crop but rarely needing to use it, so fine is Marguerite’s seat and leg. Tulip is very willing with Marguerite, repeating the same pattern dozens of times if the girl requests it. That said, the showy white Arabian waits on the sidelines. Once Marguerite begins riding him in the show ring, what will happen to Tulip?
Large, open nostrils that flare at the top are a reliable sign of intelligence. Little Beauty, a shaggy Shetland pony so dark brown she looks almost black, possesses just such nostrils. According to Tellington-Jones, such horses—or in this case, ponies—tend to think a lot and should be treated seriously. Beauty is used in lessons with children. Once I arrived at the end of just such a lesson when Beauty, who is called difficult and willful, was being punished. Her punishment involved the one hundred and thirty pound teacher sitting on Beauty’s back while scolding her. Afterwards, the teacher tied Beauty to the rail, and there she was forced to wait, for a good forty minutes, for her dinner. Given the need of horses for routine, this was no small reprimand.
Wrinkles above the nostrils can be a sign of pain or disdain. It was the visiting Irish trainer who ultimately diagnosed the fact that U-deck was in pain. “And pain,” she said, “is often the reason for bad behavior.” Though U-deck’s nostrils are large, open and rounded at the top, a sign of alertness, there were also wrinkles above his nostrils. Yet it wasn’t U-deck’s nostrils that revealed his suffering. “Look at the way he’s carrying his head,” the Irishwoman called out, as Alicia rode tight circles around her.
From outside the arena, I stood and watched the sharp incline of U-deck’s head, the way he curved in to the circle, as Alicia kept the outside rein short for control, but also, I think, because she was nervous. “Your job will be to allow him to extend his neck, to elongate it,” the Irishwoman called out. “The muscles are cramped, tight, and they’ve likely shortened. Until that changes and he gets some relief, I doubt his attitude will.”
V. Reading the Ears
Lop-eared horses, Tellington-Jones says, are almost always highly dependable. The first horse my daughter rode was a forty-five-year-old Shetland pony-cross named Angus. The woman who owns Angus rescued him from an abusive situation nearly twenty years ago now. “They were using him as a roping decoy,” my daughter’s teacher explained.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“As in cattle: they’d rope Angus by the legs and throw him to the ground.”
Although Angus allows no one other than his rescuer to touch his legs, he is immensely patient. He carried my daughter stoically through the outdoor arena and let her steer him around metal drums and over railroad ties. Like Tommy’s friend Justin, Angus has a white swirl in the middle of his forehead, a tiny blaze of light in a body that is otherwise all dark.
Horses with fine or fluted ears are usually sensitive and intelligent. Tulip possesses just such ears as does Tommy. My husband’s ears, too, are fine and slightly-tipped at the top edges. His sensitivity and intelligence were what compelled me from the start. Our daughter, too, has very fine ears, although there’s a slight indentation in her left ear, as if someone had taken a bite out of it. In Tellington-Jones’s book, I can find no information about horses whose ears are in some way different or marked by some unusual characteristic, and this irks me a little.
Tufts in the ears suggest willfulness. I have not yet found a horse with tufts in his ears. Inevitably, this image brings to mind old men, my grandfather in particular, who lived alone on two acres of land, his companions the birds who came to his feeder and a tabby cat named Mutz. As children, my sister and I spent a week each summer with him. Peanut butter on toast and the foam from his beer are among the best memories I have of this silent, stubborn man, though he did take my sister and me to a lakeside resort where we enjoyed our first pony rides.
My husband tells me that when he is old he will have tufts in his ears and in his nose. Will his ears lengthen, too, as have the ears of my father and so many old men? And if so, what will that lengthening mean?
VI. Reading the Eyes
A supraorbital deep depression, or an indentation above the eye, is often indicative of a stressful life. Only now do I understand the significance of the fact that Angus possesses such eyes.
A hooded, half-closed eye can indicate withdrawal. When I fetch Cupid in the paddock, his eyes often possess this look, though I’m becoming attuned to the pace at which his eyes open as I bring him into the barn, groom him, then tack up, talking to him as I work. Cupid will never be my Tommy, but these days I ride him with pleasure, pulling him far enough out of himself that he will work in harmony with me. “Good boy, Cupid,” I tell him each time. “You are such a good boy.” There’s another horse at the barn whose eyes are always half-closed; and almost always, she stands facing the corner of her stall, staring at the wall. A small Arabian, she belongs to a horse trainer who does not allow her to go outdoors with the other horses. She never feels the sun, the rain and only leaves her stall those evenings when her trainer comes to longe her. In the seven months I have been coming to the barn, I have been waiting for something in this horse’s situation to change.
Large, soft, round eyes are common in trusting, willing horses. James Wright’s “A Blessing,” a poem I have carried around for more than twenty years, begins:
Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness….
"Blessing" comes from the Old English "blessen" which means "to spatter with blood," and Wright wrote this poem in the aftermath of his divorce.
The eyes, they say, are the windows to the soul.
Yet a horse rarely looks one in the eye, not even Tommy, whose eyes are soft and round.
It is Little Beauty alone who has done me this honor. Two days after her punishment, I came to the barn to bathe and groom her, having discovered a fungus along her spine. (“Yes,” Patty replied to my email, “giving Beauty a bath would be a HUGE help.”)
I’d never bathed a horse before, and Beauty probably hadn’t had a bath in more than a year. At first I used gloves, afraid I’d catch the fungus; but the rubber irritated my fingers, and it somehow felt wrong to run my hands across her small body with this artificial barrier between us. I took them off. While I worked the shampoo into lather, Beauty stood patiently at the rail, only occasionally scooting away when I turned the hose on her, the water having turned cold after the first few minutes. I rinsed her clean, used a bladed, rubber-edged tool to remove the excess water from her coat, brushed until her coat was nearly dry.
“I never even knew she had streaks of white under all that hair,” one of the teachers said, approaching us.
Steve, a gentle, barrel-chested man who owns a gray Friesian, also came over. “She looks like a horse again,” he said. “For a while there, she was looking like something out of Star Wars.”
I laughed, then stepped back to fetch another brush.
“Well, will you look at that,” Steve called out. “She just can’t take her eyes off of you.”
I turned, and sure enough, Beauty was looking back at me, her chocolate eyes trained on my own.
“ Genesis: Sometime this spring, I knew I was going to buy a horse. What had initially seemed an immense if not wildly expensive undertaking now seemed part of the plan: the future: my destiny. Ashleigh, a grounded, generous horsewoman at the barn where I ride, introduced me to the work of Linda Tellington-Jones, a deeply respected member of the dressage world who pioneered the therapeutic T-Touches with which riders and trainers can work with performance horses. In conjunction with T-Touches which are essentially methods of reading the horse’s body and soothing if not correcting problems or sore spots, Tellington-Jones developed a method for evaluating equine character (including the stress and other factors that have impacted a horse’s history) through the physical features, many of which I discuss in my essay. Having always been drawn to symbolic ways of looking at reality, I gravitated immediately to Tellington-Jones’s insights. Her attention to every part of the horse’s body—from the shape of the head to the tension visible in the chin—empowered how I look at horses, and yes, at human beings. Along the way, I discovered that Tellington-Jones’s method for evaluating equine character provided a very organic way of structuring, in the form of the essay, a great deal of the experiences I’d had at the barn. Some six weeks after I wrote this essay, I brought home Marah, a five-year-old Azteca mare, who is teaching me so much more about equine character—and my own. As a friend said yesterday, 'The good news is that you have the rest of your life to learn. The bad news is you have the rest of your life to learn.' Meaning, time moves. So we must make the most of it. ”