I woke that first morning in Katikati to birds more riotous than the ones in my own trees at home. I padded to the dark kitchen and made tea by the glow of the kettle switch. My hosts were already up and out, feeding the horses, mucking out. We had a busy day ahead so it was agreed that I would write my daily words while my friends ushered in the day on their farm. 

First up, before the rest of all that we had planned, I was to ride Ari. He is a fine-looking, big Dutch warmblood, with solid legs, a shapely arched neck, well-muscled shoulders and a powerful hind end. An advanced dressage horse, Ari has been ridden to Prix St George, just one step below the highest level of training. His movement is fluid and sensuous, his paces springy and elastic. I’ve never ridden a horse like Ari — it is a rare privilege, and in Ari’s case it is also something of a miracle.

Ari suffered greatly in the hands of an ambitious professional rider, who ignored his sensitivities and pushed him until he snapped. Carrying a rider is not easy. Training and performing the higher level movements — the pirouettes, the collected canter, the lateral movements are every bit as difficult for a horse as the routines of an Olympic gymnast. An advanced dressage horse is a high-performance athlete and relies on their rider to manage their training to create the strength, suppleness and fitness required for their work. It’s not uncommon for a rider to overface their horse. The rider’s ambition and the horse’s raw talent are a seductive combination. The rider pushes too far, too fast; anxiety, exhaustion and even pain are overlooked and soon the horse is overcooked, stuck in their sympathetic nervous response: fight, flight or freeze. Unable to say “slow down” or “stop” they lash out. Ari wasn’t overcooked, he was fried, and when he hit the wall he began to rear and shy and bolt with his rider. He became so dangerous that his owner gave up in disgust and sold him on. As a schoolmaster.

Ari has a ponderous nature and large, glossy eyes that miss nothing. Standing beside him, I feel so small, keenly aware of all that this gentle giant is capable of. Surprisingly, I am not afraid.

Ari is curious about me. Standing at liberty in the wide breezeway of the stable block, he is free to investigate the new human. He sniffs the backs of my hands, gently turning them over to snuffle my palms. Perhaps he is looking for treats, but he doesn’t seem disappointed when he finds my hands empty. Of course, his sense of smell is acute. I’ve been holding my riding gloves, which smell of leather and my own horse. Ari continues sniffing down my torso and makes a dive with his teeth for the zipper pull. Debbie has warned me that he likes to play with zippers, so I step back to his shoulder and reach up to give his withers a scratch. 

A schoolmaster is a horse, generally older, who is approaching retirement. He has been trained up the levels as far as his age, fitness and conformation allows. As his competitive career winds down, he will often be offered to an up-and-coming rider, in order for the rider to learn the higher level movements. When Debbie bought Ari, something entirely different occurred: Ari was so mentally broken by the intensity and pressure of his original training, that he was nearly unrideable. He was anxious and, like Bucephalus, afraid of his own shadow. 

Debbie leads Ari out to her arena and climbs into the saddle. Holding only a light rope tied loosely around his neck, she walks and trots to give him a stretch and warm up his muscles and joints. Ari pops into a steady rhythm in every gait, his trot like a metronome, neck lightly arched, stomach lifted and with just a hint of his potential — the power of his forward energy — as he relaxes into his “work.” 

There are times when a ridden horse is clearly working: When the rider pushes them in and out of their paces, challenging the horse to move in ways that are obviously strenuous. Often you can see the concentration on a horse’s face; just as often you can see signs of stress: a swishing tail, pinned ears, narrowed eyes. This morning, with Debbie lightly astride, barely cueing him, riding with her intention rather than the gross cues of leg and rein, Ari looks like he’s out enjoying a morning constitutional, as if he doesn’t even have a rider on his back. His ears are soft and forward, attuned to birdsong and the breeze moving in the trees alongside the arena. And the flick of a backwards ear that tells me his attention is also on his rider.

When Debbie stops and says it’s my turn, I climb into the saddle with all the confidence of a young girl. Not a hint of fear, just a blank slate beginning to fill in with desire for connection. I’m clumsy, of course, because it’s a new saddle and he’s a very big horse. I try holding the reins at the buckle to “stay off his face” but I can’t steer. My undisciplined legs are bouncing on his flanks and Ari starts to wander. I have no steering. Debbie calls out a few words of encouragement, a few instructions and suddenly I’m away. We’re wobbly, but we start to move in shapes that resemble the familiar patterns, the circles and arcs which are easy and pleasant for a horse. 

His walk is huge, and I feel my seat bones rising and moving with every stride. Debbie reminds me to breathe, and when I do, there is that delicious melting of rider into horse, where the movement becomes one. This comes and goes, it’s fleeting, but if I were my former self, I would be far too afraid to relax into his rhythm. The ride is short, there’s a bit more walk, a little trot and Debbie teaches me something really important about how I hold my hands (too rigidly) and suddenly Ari lifts beneath me and the forward momentum unsticks and we are truly away. 

When I cue the halt it is with a long exhale. I sit for a moment, without thought, just breath, and then it happens. A swelling of energy floods up through my body and fills the cavity of my chest. I am aware that this originated in Ari and that he is releasing something, letting something go. Tears spring into my eyes; I think Debbie and I are talking, but I’m also inside the moment with Ari. Afterwards, it feels like he’s given me a very precious gift, this horse with a history of such trauma, still willing to connect.

2 thoughts on “Schoolmaster

  1. Abby, I could read this over and over again, you did such a marvelous job with him. I will never forget that moment, its in my heart forever.


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