When Rusty arrived, his eyes were as hard as his muscles. He had rain rot from withers to tail and large old white scars on his back where someone had ridden in a saddle that didn’t fit. I chalked up his disinterest in his new surroundings to the long trailer ride from Texas.
A few days passed before he recovered and made it clear that it wasn’t the trailer ride. He had zero interest in all things people. He was adamant about how he meant to be handled, which was not at all.
He was difficult to catch, he didn’t stand still for grooming, and he was not going to have his feet worked on. He was disruptive in the herd; Rusty operated on a kick first, ask questions later philosophy. Oddly enough, he was quiet and reliable under saddle, which was exactly what we needed. We found him to be a safe horse for actors to ride, for our then upcoming movie, “Out of the Wild.”
During the filming of the movie four months later, he proved to be trustworthy and levelheaded. With time growing shorter to get the footage we needed, he chose to do several spur-of-the-moment jobs for us that we hadn’t prepared him for. For some reason, Rusty decided to work with us, when for months all he wanted was people as far away as possible. Preferably outer space.
We couldn’t look a horse like that in the eye and sell him. So he stayed with us.
It’s been four years since the movie, and Rusty is a changed horse. The rain rot is long gone. He’s soft and sweet with eyes like a clear mountain pond. He’s easy to clinic with; he stands tied quietly, drinks and sleeps well, and doesn’t threaten other horses if they get too close. He doesn’t worry if another horse is nervous. He’s become a quiet leader in the herd.
Those saddle scars have never softened or gone away, despite numerous treatments and consistent grooming. His stifles are a little creaky, and his right hip bone is sheared off; the result of an old injury which was probably hitting the metal enclosure fast and hard when he was a roping horse.
As time runs on like the river it is, we gather information and glean insights, much like the list above. This is the Rusty we know today.
Most horse owners are an enthusiastic bunch; since a sizeable chunk of our income goes toward our horse way of life, we focus on what is important. We know what our horses like and don’t like, where their strengths and weaknesses are, where we can excel and where we need work. We know when they are sore, or tired, or feeling great. I’m sure they know this (and much more) about us as well.
It’s part of being human that we sort that information and adapt to fit our conclusions about any given horse in any given situation. Getting more skilled and informed as a horse person comes with a good news/bad news scenario: the more you learn, the more you see. And sometimes, the more you don’t want to see.
This past summer, Rusty let me know everything I’ve learned about him over the years had changed.
It was the end of our clinic day and everyone had left the arena. Rusty and I’d been trotting but I asked him into his canter to find out how he felt.
We transitioned into an easy lope and after a lap, I thought “Ok buddy, it’s hot out and you’re getting to be an old man so let’s go ahead and stop.” I exhaled and touched the reins lightly, which usually is enough to help him slow down.
Nothing. Instead, he lengthened his lope, making the wind rush past my smiling face.
We cantered for three more rounds, then came down to a walk. And I laughed. “Old Man” indeed.
That day he showed me how having a story about him had shortchanged what he could actually do. He reminded me that just when we think we know something, we are in store for a surprise. We are shown a facet we weren’t expecting to see because we relied on our cruise control story to give us information, instead of being more present and open to seeing new things.
Stories are a form of insulation; if we think we know something or have all the information about anything, we don’t have to put much thought into how we are interacting or any effort into being aware. Stories and expectations are best buddies. Assumptions might be holding hands right along with them.
It’s a curious occurrence that with the whole kaleidoscope of life passing around us on any given day, that out of the bazillions of things to see, we choose the comfort zone of our story. I get comfort zones (you could say comfort zones and ruts are buddies too). You get in a groove, in a rhythm, and you can spend years dancing to the same beat.
There is a great chasm between having knowledge and creating a story. Knowledge stands on its own and can be shared among many. A story is singular, insular and needs knowledge to prop up its flimsy walls.
What I know about Rusty is knowledge – where he needs support physically and how reliable he is mentally. My thinking of him as an “old man?” That’s the story.
It’s a potent lesson for me every time I’m snapped out of my own rutted thinking: that by listening to what I thought was a familiar situation, I can actually learn and see new things. Seeing new things is what keeps horsemanship, and life, full of surprises.