Good Girl, Damnit, Part 2: The Continued Adventures of Smokey

Alex and Smokey, c. 1990s
Alex and Smokey, c. 1990s

I hadn’t ever thought of training a horse as communication; I hadn’t thought of my responsibility in making myself clear to the horse, of rewarding and correcting in ways the horse had understood. When I’d kicked Smokey, I thought he deserved it, the stubborn jerk. I thought if I got mad enough, he’d finally pay attention and listen to me.

When I realized how wrong I’d been, I was sick to my stomach for weeks. I’d been scaring the horse. That was it. All I had done was act like an asshole. I didn’t like it. Nancy forgave my angry outburst, and helped me learn how to actually train a horse.

“Think about what you’re teaching him,” she said. “When you pull on the reins, and he doesn’t do what you want, and you stop, what do you think he’s learned?”

“Not to listen to the rein,” I answered. It was, as she taught it, staggeringly obvious. You figured out what was a reward for the horse–usually a release of pressure: no pulling, no kicking, and no working–and rewarded the responses you wanted.

Learning the correct timing of pressure and release, and learning when to push the horse and when to back off, might have been simple, but it sure wasn’t easy. I still regularly lost my temper, either in boiling rage or hysterical tears.

One challenge was getting Smokey to walk–just walk, nothing faster–with his head down. It was stupefyingly difficult.

“It’s not working. He’s not keeping his head down,” I snarled, careful to contain my temper to my tone. My hands were light on the reins, and my legs loose against Smokey’s sides. Smokey continued moseying around the arena with head up and his nose poked forward. “Why isn’t it working?”

“You’re not insisting,” she said. “You keep letting him put his head up.”

“But you told me not to hold his head down!”

“Ask a little every stride,” she said. “If you feel him start to put his head up, ask more. Then release when he does it. Back on the circle.” When I didn’t move, overwhelmed by the difficulty of following these basic instructions, she waved me off jokingly, “Out, out, damn spot.”

I asked Smokey to walk on, and we set about trying again.

Nancy had showed me the difference between communication and intimidation, but that wasn’t the main reason I trained with her.

I had undiagnosed depression and anxiety. At thirteen, hormones gave the already sickening emotional rollercoaster an added burst of speed. I loathed school. I sneered at my classmates as immature and my teachers as boring. I did not make a lot of friends. Both my parents worked full time, and my mom was taking classes on top of that to get into pharmacy school. When I refused to be reliable about chores, they called me ungrateful, and we fought constantly. While people loved me, few of them actually liked me.

Nancy liked me. She was so good with horses that people paid her to ride and train the $100,000 warmbloods they had imported from Germany. She created oil paintings of horses and horse-spirits that embodied the horses of my imagination: their edges fiery, their movements flowing. She was brilliant. When she found out I was an artist, she asked to see my work. I hesitantly showed her my writing and drawings. She gave me real, appreciative feedback, and we began writing stories and illustrating stories together.

She also accepted my wild moods. With her, my anger at the tedium of school and dread of social situations seemed natural. She told me how she, too, felt isolated and had a terribly hard time dealing with people. At the barn, she slunk around everyone else to avoid small talk, but spent hours talking to me. We trained Smokey together, and he went from being unable to walk around a circle with his head in the right position to winning blue ribbons at dressage shows.

One of the crowning glories of this time was a musical freestyle with Katy. Our barn was hosting a musical freestyle exhibition, riding to music, and I was deemed competent enough to participate. Under Nancy’s direction, Katy and I put together a performance to: me on my little white horse, and she on her strapping black Hanoverian, to the Star Wars soundtrack. We wrapped our dressage whips in green and red bandages, and during the performance, came at each other across the arena, thwacking them together and startling our good-natured horses. The little audience laughed cheered for us.

For almost two years, Nancy had a glorious time teaching my pony fancy dressage movements. I spent most of my nights on the phone with her, complaining about school and soaking up her sympathy, and then moving on to tell the next chapter of our shared story. I adored her. I felt like I’d met the first person in the world who understood me. I was 13, and she was in her 40s.

We both had depression, but Nancy had been living with it undiagnosed for far longer. Even in her blackest moods, I could coax her into talking and smiling, and I craved that satisfaction, the feeling of being necessary and wanted, and the power to make someone’s life better.

As time passed, I began to notice how dangerous Nancy’s moods actually were and how little effect I had on them. With growing desperation, I kept trying to fix her, at least to the point where I wasn’t scared for her. I needed her to be okay. I couldn’t stand the thought of failing my one close friend.

The realization that I had no choice about failing her came slowly and inexorably. I told her I was there for her no matter what. I told her to go to therapy. I told her that I needed her to try to get better, for my sake if she couldn’t do it for her own. Nothing helped enough, and night after night on agonizing phone calls, I listened to my friend drowning.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I felt myself drowning. I wrote her a letter, apologizing for my inability to help and returning all the artwork and writing we’d exchanged. I sent Smokey up to retirement in an irrigated pasture. I stopped riding.

I missed horses. I missed being good at something. I missed my friend.

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