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The Partnership

At what point are we going to leave horses the hell alone?

Already there was plow work and riding and chariot-towing.  We lump tourists on their back and send them over the same mile of broken dirt, urge them over six-foot fences placed eight feet apart, pile packs on their sides, splash them through freezing mountain streams.  We braid their tails and ball their manes into ridiculous neck-long mountain ranges.  If you think it's a long ride from Plymouth Rock to Sutter’s Mill, try walking it.  They haul our caskets, our carriages, our cowboys.  They gave of their name to the measure of power of the machines that replaced them, then in a fit of non-irony affixed their image to the hoods.

And even then, their very horseness is not enough; we must superimpose ourselves on their bodies.  We slap human heads on their necks, write sitcoms on the presumption that they talk, ask others to believe they can add and subtract.  We ask that they look good doing these things, for now that the horse is no longer a necessity, it has become a mark of luxury and mourning, centenary and celebration.  The Prince and Duchess do not travel from the church to the castle in an elephant-drawn golden carriage.

Then we step back from these grotesqueries, rest our chins on an open palm, and say “You know what a horse needs?  Wings.”  And a horn, and-- when I was a little girl—a mass-marketed casting in plastic with neon tails, butt tattoos, and names like Rainbow Princess Twinkletwirl.

We teach them to dance.  We affix feathers and hoods to their heads to echo our own costuming.  Even when molded in wood and fiberglass and mounted on a round table, we ask them to move, cranked up and around, spinning on and on.  They’re FedExed and insured and bred, rolled in sequins and cantered past circus clowns.

And here’s what else we do:  We then stand beside a barely-standing foal in a Kentucky stall, asking, “Are you my Derby baby?”  We ask this not for the purse, not for the tickets he will cash—but to validate a life, a career, a nation.  Onto their backs, rather than sacks of flour or a wagon harness, we pile bitter disappointments and unmet goals:  Here, can you carry this?

We do these things because the horse permits them, and, perhaps, recognizes that for all our Corvettes and Corollas, space shuttles and skateboards, a part of us still needs him.  I know it even if the horse doesn’t; the last time I inhaled and exhaled without the terror of failure wrapped about my lungs, I was six years old and on the back of a sun-warmed quarter horse who would have plodded faithfully from corral to Colorado overlook whether I held the reins or not.  And lately, I want to breathe clear, and so I placed my city and the words “barrel racing” into Google.  It’s not a permanent fix and I cannot bring myself to come face to muzzle just yet, for the horse probably won’t care one way or another and I'm not sure I could bear the disappointment when he fails to piece me back together as I hope.

But I will pat the long neck, feel the lash of the wiry tail against stiched boots, lean forward to assess the world between two pricked ears.  The attempt, and the hope of the attempt--these will steer the both of us more than the reins and stirrups ever could.

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