Things I Learnt from Pumpkin

by Nada Andersen
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It’s funny to admit that a horse is my teacher these days. But it’s true.

I saw Pumpkin as a horse that had given up on life, fun, people long ago. He was standing in his stall, head low down, disengaged, disinterested, a bit skinny, rigid – all that I dislike in horses, considering all the beauties and powerhouses I used to ride. I was immediately taken by this horse, maybe because he was so lost and unplugged, more likely because he is the right height for me and right kind, the kind I know.

Race horse is a strange animal. While other horses take life easy, race horse wants to race. It is true although many people want to deny this. Race horses are challengers, fighters, they move forward. So I learnt from Pumpkin that the horse’s nature doesn’t change, no matter how hard he has been bashed. Once a race horse, always a race horse. The need to run fast will always be there.

I deliberately don’t say – the need to win. That is non-existent. Winning is not on his mind. But racing certainly is.

I learnt that I can mount the horse the wrong way round – on the off side. I did not believe this was possible. All my life the movement of getting into the saddle was on the near side. It’s like writing with my right hand (even though I paint with both). So I learnt that doing things the ‘wrong’ way in order to achieve a desirable outcome is not the end of the world. I learnt to unlearn a habit, of course, because Pumpkin needs to unlearn the race horse drama. If I approach him from the near side, he dances around me in a circle. He knows I want to mount and the excitement of riding and racing is too much for him. Mounting the wrong way is the right way for now. Until he unlearns whatever bothers him.

Next thing would be cleaning the hooves. It is very important to do it before and after the ride. This is something I did not have to do as I had the stable boys do it. I had my horses readied by others and dried by others. Hooves inclusive. But now I do it and it’s hugely important because I can see all the signs of changes on them, when the filing is due, what chips can go bad, how much to take off and all that. Smelling the hooves is also important. Horse’s feet are the base of his structure, if anything goes wrong there the whole animal is in pain. Taking care of the base is key and it can not be handed down to anyone, plus it’s not beneath me.

I bet you have no idea that a horse grooming process involves two sponges and two buckets with water. One for the face, one for the rear end. I’ve learnt to clean his rear end to high sheen. Sure, I can just wipe it a little and it will be done but no – I lift the tail and spend substantial time cleaning. He appreciates. I’ve learnt that you have to be able to clean the shit off the animal you care for because he can not reach there himself. That is the proof of love, not carrots and pineapples. So yes, if you love someone be prepared to clean their rear end and do it properly, thoroughly, truly with love.

I’ve mapped his scars. I know where they are and which ones are actively healing, which ones are done. I watch his scars with keen intent. Any new scar is a cause for concern which require immediate action in medicating and also understanding where it comes from. You can avoid new scars if you know where the old ones came from. Same counts for people. If you know what hurts them, you’ll avoid doing that.

Horses smell like grass. I’ve learnt that smelling is a very important ritual. So I smell him and he smells me. Hugging is another important ritual. He rests his head on my shoulder if I hug him and lean on him. It’s like connecting to my energy and exchanging peace vows. He can fall asleep like that, if only I can stand the weight of his head on my shoulder. Hugging is hugely important.

I learnt to carry the whip and not to use it at all, except to threaten the village dogs that come too close. He learnt that the whip is not there for him and is very fine seeing it in the air, moving front, back. He learnt not to fear me with the whip. Which is a huge thing.

Now, bitless bridle. As a jockey all you think you’ve got on your horse as a tool for control is the bit. Riding with a bitless bridle is not any different, except you never tear your horse’s mouth and you use just a bit more of your arms and legs for directional guidance. I learnt it’s possible to direct without instruments of power.

Togetherness plays a big role in the relationship between a horse and a rider. I learnt that he has to trust me, and he does. He rebels on exiting the stables because he feels lazy to go to work but I ask, and he obliges. Half way through the hack he’s as excited as a child, he looks around, he’s engaged, he plays the role of a man, protector, guardian (we ride with a few mares) so his senses are wide awake and he’s very observant. By giving him some of my courage (to ride him totally unfit) he pays back in kindness to me and the mares. He’s never in their way and he patiently guards their backs.

I see better and further than him. It is my responsibility to watch where we are going. He trusts me with this entirely. He obliges even to the most abrupt requests for most unusual stops and turns. That’s how we avoid stepping into holes.

Walking together is very important. We are not very good at it because he’s the only man (though gelding) amongst all those women, ten to be precise. So he gets distracted and he gets harassed by the oldest mare and that’s a bit of a nightmare. But we are trying to walk together and carrots are somewhat helpful. Walking together means he allows me to lead him, or shows his need to follow me. Every day we progress. Trust takes time to build. But if you love someone, you will take that time.

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