• VOLUME 50 • © HORSES For LIFE™ Magazine
Riding By Torchlight
by Susannah Cord for Horses For Life
“So. What now?” said I.
“Hmm…” said Torchlight, thoughtfully munching a smattering of alfalfa, carefully extracted from his 4–way mixed hay.
“What do I write about?” asked I, with a touch less patience.
“Hmmm…..” said Torchlight, sorting his hay carefully into piles of descending preference. Alfalfa first, then timothy, next orchard and last brahm. He stood and considered his handywork with pricked ears, then reached out for a bite of alfalfa and mixed it with a touch of timothy. His eyes closed as he savored the flavor combination.
“Oh for Pete’s sake, man, help me out here!” I exclaimed. “I cannot do another piece on Rollkur or whatever we’re calling it today, and I don’t care if our two revered leaders are name-calling and cat fighting Maybe we’re imploding as a movement and the top brass are out to lunch. I am just sick of it all, so WHAT do I write about?! And don’t you dare say HMMM!”
“Weeeellll….” said Torchlight and looked at me slyly from the corner of his eye. “If you had a treat it might just jolt my imagination, trigger an inspiration. If you catch my drift.” And then he winked, slowly, but most decidedly, very deliberately.
I pinned him with narrowed eyes but Torchlight knows me well and cares not a whit for slitted eyes. Instead, he nuzzled my pocket and waited with a raised eyebrow, confident of imminent success. Sure enough, as if of its own volition, my hand reached into my pocket and handed him his drug of choice - miniature alfalfa cubes with berries. A sure hit, every time.
“Aaaah.” said Torchlight. “I feel inspiration seeping into my veins now, it will reach my brain in a moment and I will comprehend. But,” said he with innocence stamped on his forehead, “another one of those little thingies might speed the epiphany.”
Clenching my jaw and smiling tightly, I handed him another.
“Oh yes,” said he. “Oh yes. I understand now.”
“What?” I demanded. “What do you understand?”
“You might ask the Oracle.” said Torchlight.
“The ORACLE!??? WHAT oracle?” I all but yelled, patience threadbare and tattered.
“The Oracle of Lower Siberia, of course.” Torchlight’s shrug and raised eyebrows conveyed a slight exasperation that I was unfamiliar with said Oracle. Not to mention loud.
“The Oracle.” I repeated stupidly.
“Mm-hmmm. The Oracle. How’s your Latin?” asked Torchlight.
“My ..what?” said I.
“Your Latin. You know, root of languages like Spanish, French….”
“I know what Latin is, “I interrupted, rather rudely. “I don’t speak it though.”
“The Oracle does, it’s maybe all it speaks, other than horse. Could be a problem, then, a bit of a language barrier there.” said Torchlight slowly. “How about Pig Latin, know any Pig Latin?”
I could not believe I was having this conversation. “You want me to speak PIG Latin with a HORSE that speaks LATIN?!”
“Actually, he is an Oracle, that happens to be incarnated as a horse.” Torchlight corrected me. “But you have a point there. He may not be too impressed with Pig Latin. He might even find it offensive. Kick you out on your booty.”
“That’s a relief,” said I lamely, “Because I don’t speak Pig Latin either.”
Torchlight took a big mouthful of alfalfa, as if to fortify himself. Then he spoke through the corner of his mouth, keeping his head low and eyes deliberately on what would presumably be his next order of hay:
“What about Aramaic, know any Aramaic?”
“A-ra-ma-ic?” I was momentarily speechless.
Torchlight took the opportunity to professorize some more. “Yes, Aramaic.” said he, looking down at me along his, well, long nose. “It’s an ancient…”
“I know! An ancient biblical language, thank you very much Professor T.” I took a deep breath. This conversation was not going as I had hoped. Ever my muse, until lately I could always count on Torchlight for inspiration. Now he just seemed intent upon running me around in circles. Could this be revenge for a few too many 20m circles of my own back in our heyday? Alright, thought I, payback’s a bitch, but let’s play. Let’s play along till I sneak it out of you, you dastardly muse of mine.
“So. This Horse Oracle of yours speaks Aramaic, too?”
In way of answer, Torchlight said “Do you?”
“NO!” I sputtered, losing sight of my game plan. “I do NOT speak Aramaic and what good is an Oracle if all it speaks is two basically extinct languages? If you ask me, that Oracle of yours sounds like a pretty pretentious little wannabe, wannabe, well, Oracle! If he’s so smart, why doesn’t he speak English, or French or, or German for Pete’s sake, whatever, but some modern language anyone can understand!? Huh?”
“Now, now,” snickered Torchlight, “Hold your horses now.” He snorted as he almost got hay stuck in his throat at his own pun.
“For one thing,” here Torchlight had to pause to collect himself, so amused was he at his own comedic prowess. “For one thing, he lives in Lower Siberia. I don’t know if he speaks Aramaic, but it might be more useful if he was to learn to speak Russian!”
I had lost the game, and I knew it. Furthermore, so did every other horse in the barn, not to mention those schnarky little donkeys in the front pasture, Tortilla, Salsa and Taco. Donkeys I called my friends. Horses I called my friends. And they were all laughing at me. I might as well have been thrown by one of them and be sitting in a puddle of mud, wearing a horse apple for a hat. The chorus of equine amusement was bad enough, but the burros’ braying just added insult to injury. Or was it injury to insult? My ears hurt almost worse than my pride.
“Fine,” I muttered, trying to gather my last shreds of dignity.” Fine. Abandon me in my hour of need. Fine muse you turned out to be. See if I’ll keep you stocked up on miniature alfalfa cubes with berries.” Admittedly, and I am not proud of this, ‘berries’ came out rather, well, let’s just say I was kind of sneering.
Torchlight followed me to his stall door and hung his head out after my, about to be, vanishing back. “Oh come on, be a sport, come back. I’ll tell you another story.”
Pausing, but not yet turning – after all, I didn’t want to appear too desperate – I said, with a touch of sarcasm, “Does it involve another Oracle?”
Torchlight choked his snort on a mouthful of scrumptious Wyoming orchard grass. “Well, that depends.”
Oh no, thought I, oh no, I am SO not going down that road again. But what choice did I have? I was stuck and I knew it. Worse, Torchlight knew it. “OK.” said I. “I’ll bite. On what does this depend?”
He tugged at the back of my shirt, leaving a healthy green stain. “Come on, turn around and I’ll tell you.”
I turned and looked into his soft brown eyes, pursed my lips and told him with my best steely-eyed baby blues that I was not in the mood for any more of his pranks. But Torchlight was relentless.
“It depends on who you ask.” he said softly and really, I must admit, quite sweetly. He rubbed his nose on my shirt front, then laid his head across my left shoulder for a snuggle, his favorite cuddle stance.
“And who, pray tell, should I ask?” I let him talk me into stroking his face, my left arm draped over his head. Which got heavier and heavier on my shoulder. I steadied myself with my right hand on his shoulder.
“Hmmmm?” he mumbled, lost in cuddleland.
Only a little – and of this I was proud – testily, I repeated my question. “Whoooo should I aaaask?”
“Oh. Gusto, of course.”
I stepped back slowly releasing his head but holding his nose in my hands and looked him steadily in the eye, waiting for the punchline.
“Because…Gusto is an Oracle?” I asked suspiciously. Gusto was many spectacular things, but an Oracle?
Torchlight twisted his head slightly in my hands the better to rub the side of his nose in the palm of my hand.
“Weeeellll. HE thinks he is!” and the barn erupted in raucous neighing again. Game on, thought I, and stomped to Gusto’s stall.
“So, are you or aren’t you an Oracle?” I asked Gusto unceremoniously.
“Do you speak Aramaic?” asked Gusto.
Oh my aching head. I sighed. I was definitely going in circles. “No, I do not speak Aramaic, Latin or Pig Latin. Nor do I speak French, German or Finnish, never mind Croatian. I do, however, speak Danish and a smattering of Swahili. Jambo sana, Toto. Does. This. Help?”
Torchlight chimed in again. “Hey, how do you say alfalfa cubes with berries in Swahili?”
One dirty look from me and he was bobbing his head, trying to catch a juicy straw hanging and perilously close to falling out of his mouth, eyes innocently on the ceiling, counting birds’ nests.
“Gusto, come on, what is all this Oracle business and Aramaic and whatnot. What’s the story?”
Gusto pulled himself up in the way only he can, somehow majestic, wild and infinitely gentle all at once. “Well, if you must know…”
“I must.” said I.
“I am the story.” He said it simply, and watched me, waiting.
I was sitting in Gusto’s stall on a bucket. Notebook in hand, waiting expectantly. “So?”
Gusto eyed me thoughtfully. “Remember the first time you sat there like that?” he asked.
“Yes.” I smiled at the memory. “You had been here three days and I was sitting here chatting with you, and you lay down at my feet and I got down on the ground with you, and then you put your head in my lap, so I sat with you for twenty minutes and stroked your face while you closed your eyes and just breathed. It was the sweetest, most profoundly moving thing.”
Gusto nodded, his amber eyes liquid and glowing in remembrance. “I was reliving my life,” he said quietly. “I was feeling every moment I can recall, every step that finally led me to you. I needed to go there one last time before I began to let it go. From the time I was just a little princeling, punk foal in Germany, till the moment you stepped into the stall at my old home. Somehow I always knew I was destined for something special, but I also knew it would be a hard road before I would find that one person who would see me become what I really am. But it’s what I had to go through to get to you.” He eyed me with a wicked little gleam in his eye, but softened the blow with an affectionate nudge. “Otherwise, you could never have afforded me.”
“I can’t argue with that.” said I. And truly, with his breeding and class, I could only ever have dreamed of it. Had he not been found to be practically unrideable beyond a certain point, labeled a rank rearer, I would never have been sitting here on a bucket calling this horse my own. Only the love and generosity of Gusto’s owner, and the sage advice of my mentor, Eddo Hoekstra, made it so. When Beth offered me this horse, I had already heard about him, both from her but also a few friends who had seen him at his worst along the line. I called and emailed these witnesses and all but one told me to stay away. This horse was done, rank, dangerous. One friend who had seen his last wreck however, said “It wasn’t his fault. If you don’t take him and give him a chance, I will if she’ll let me.” Both she and Beth gave me a detailed account of the accident that subsequently led Gusto to me.
Beth had a lovely young rider working with Gusto and she was doing well, although he would still exhibit some issues in certain areas, like freezing at the mounting block. But once he was moving, with a little help initially from a person on the ground leading him, he was working quite well. They decided to take him to a clinic for the weekend. The schedule did not allow for much preparation, but still, the first day went well enough. However, on the second day, it was decided that he needed lunging to address what was determined to be a slow hindleg. This proceeded to in-hand work, with the focus on half steps. The clinician warned that this might not be pretty, and indeed, it became a nightmare for all involved. Trapped in short and tight sidereins with a whacking whip at his hindlegs, Gusto reared up, tangled his left front leg in the sidereins and fell over. Somehow, thrashing and unapproachable, he scrambled back up with his leg still caught in the rein and repeated this pattern twice before the bridle and sidereins broke. He was close to being tangled under a fence, but narrowly avoided this second trap.
As Beth watched in horror, the clinician assured her that this was actually a good thing, as he would now learn that rearing could get him hurt. But as Gusto reared in panic, fell, rose and fell again, struggling in his pain, claustrophobia and rage, Beth’s decision was made. She had never and would never stop believing in this horse, but she knew she had to seek help in a different place, from a different angle. She had been to my Eddo Hoekstra clinic, she had seen me ride and how Eddo teaches. Not long after came her first email making me an offer I could hardly refuse. Or could I?
I emailed Eddo, confused and uncertain. I had just given away a horse and was happily reduced in horse expenses. I really didn’t want another horse. But this horse was calling me. Despite what everyone said, he was calling me, day and night. But I really did not want another project horse now. Especially one that reared. I asked Eddo for advice. He gave it, plain and simple. “You can’t not look at him, with that breeding and at that price, or rather lack thereof. Forget everything else, and just go look in his eyes.”
One look in Gusto’s eyes and my world changed forever.
“My sire is a king amongst horses, you know. So was my grandfather. And I embody their bearing and caliber. I am the culmination of the long life of a man who bred for championship horses.” Gusto said it simply, without pretense. “My father, Weltmeyer is his name, is known to be sensitive and intelligent, proud and in command of himself, and I take after him, physically, too, or so I have been told. Sometimes, that means we are labeled difficult. But really, we are just not about to be bullied and forced and though we are more than willing to work, and work hard, it must be fair. I don’t mind a little burn in my muscles, I am proud of my abilities and happy to flex them, but I see no reason to tolerate pain. I cannot tolerate unfairness. I will not be taken advantage of. I was born to be of willing service, but not a slave. But you already know that.” he said and blew in my hair. He was quiet.
“This destiny you speak of,” I hesitated, not sure whether to interrupt his solemn silence, especially not with a question that could be taken for a jest. But his very presence, laserlike focus and keen intelligence had always impressed upon me that here was a horse unlike any other I ever met. And after all, earlier I was discussing ancient languages with a horse. Anything was possible. “I am not joking now, but really, ARE you an Oracle?”
I was rewarded with a little snicker.
“Now that does depend.” was all he said. Here we go again, I thought, sorry I asked.
“On how well you listen and whether you receive the message.”
Oh. Not a snide answer after all. “On how well I listen.” I repeated slowly, tasting the words, letting their impact settle in.
“Yes. We horses, our messages have always been intended for the seekers, for those who listen deeply. If you listen deeply and sincerely enough, just about any horse can be an Oracle.”
We sat in silence once more, listening to the wind easing in and around the barn, to the birds chattering quietly in the trees outside. A cat miaowed somewhere in the barn and I felt more than heard the steady, deep breathing of horses all around me, as if we were all in a warm, pulsing cocoon of Gusto’s making, woven by the power of his presence, the threads of his tale. It slowly dawned on me, this wasn’t just Gusto’s story, this was the story of horses all through the ages, all around the globe. They had always been messengers to those who would seek. Numinous messengers of that which lies beyond intellectual understanding. And all the horses were listening in, like the tribe sitting closely around the campfire, hanging on every familiar word as their storyteller spun once again his tale from their past, present and future.
“I was a handsome foal.” Gusto broke the silence. A derisive snort was heard from Torchlight’s direction. Gusto studiously and with dignity ignored him. “Or so my mother told me. But then, she too was beautiful, and from a very distinguished line herself. Not a day went by she didn’t tell me I was bred to be a champion. I had heard of horses disappearing to other countries, never to be heard from again, and worried about such a journey in my future, away from all I held dear. I asked her if she thought I too would disappear into an unknown world. She snorted and said “They will never let you go. Babies like you are kept in the home country, my dear. So don’t you worry. Go nap in that patch of soft grass and sun and I will stand here and guard your dreams.” So I stopped worrying. I dreamed I would always be with my friends and family, my brothers and sister who ran with me then.”
Here Gusto fell silent once more, but by now I was not about to interrupt his story. Torchlight had no such reservations.
“I had that dream, too.” he said, albeit in a voice so low I hardly heard him. Mumblings around the barn went up like a whispered Greek chorus. Apparently, this was a common enough dream amongst foals.
The barn fell silent once more. Somewhere, a horse breathed a deep and heavy sigh, almost a moan. Gusto stirred himself once more.
“But when I was three, that all changed. The breeder died, and his family sold us all, willy-nilly, to the highest bidder. I’ll never know where they all went, though sometimes they visit me in dreams. I think some have gone on into the Great Meadow by now, where all horses go when they leave this place, though it seems awfully young for them to have moved on. A few times I have thought I would be there soon myself. A few times it seemed preferable to what I had to live through here. But then my family and friends would come to me, and stand close by me, share their warmth and their breath the way we can only do in dreams, and I would know, it was not time yet, and I must not give up the fight. I still had purpose.”
Gusto took a deep breath and swung his head to look me right in the eye. “They told me I would find you. That I would know you when I saw you. And that I should follow you, no matter where you went.”
“And you did!” I laughed, remembering. When Beth brought me Gusto, I turned him out in a large roundpen with a run connected. I walked slowly around the pen and into and out of the run, hoping to build a connection with this new and mysterious horse before I asked him to follow me on a lead rope. Beth had already warned me he could rear and perhaps even come at me pawing, just leading him around the barn. Gusto immediately exceeded all my expectations. His eyes never left me, and he followed me closely, wherever I went. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, as they say.
“You were forewarned, too.” Gusto said with certainty.
“How did you know?” I asked, surprised. “I never told you, I didn’t want to impose any expectations on you. Or me.” I added, realizing how true that was. I had been forewarned, I had felt the pull of a life-changing event, but I was afraid to believe in my own senses.
“They told me. In my dreams. They said they were showing you the way, too, that you also would know when you saw me. They implored you to take leave of all your senses but the sixth one and take a chance on me.”
That explained the calling I had felt, as early as six months before Beth even offered him to me. Beth came for an Eddo Hoekstra clinic and told me of this lovely horse she had, and of all the tragedy in errors she and he had endured together. I felt a pull but ignored it, seeing no way forward. Beth’s trainer imported Gusto at three with Beth in mind, lucking into a horse of exceptional breeding, intelligence, temperament and talent, due to the breeder’s circumstances. Feeling inexperienced and unequal to the talent of her prize horse, Beth, as so many owners with a talented horse, entrusted him in the care of trainer after trainer. And like so many horses loved by owners who do not trust themselves or their instincts but instead put their faith in trainers, who may or may not have the correct skill-set for their horse, Gusto’s career soon took a turn for the worse, into rearing, bucking and bolting, and finally refusing to go forward at all. It is easy to judge and condemn trainers that cause such exquisite horses to become rank rebels, but in truth, when I ride Gusto, I see how tempting it is to mine for the gold buried deep in his DNA, when the nuggets are strewn so closely to the surface.
“Oh.” I said, realization dawning “I understand better now, my mind fought all the logistics, but my heart kept urging me on. And then there was the thing with the book.”
“The book?” Finally! It was Gusto’s turn to ask a question. I felt almost smug.
“A few weeks before Beth contacted me about giving you to me, I was suddenly and unrelentingly compelled to buy a Walter Farley book. I thought I was just wanting to reconnect with the beloved books of my childhood. I went online to buy a Black Stallion book, but somehow what arrived in the mail was Walter Farley’s The Island Stallion.”
Gusto’s ears perked up. “Any mares in it?” he asked with sudden and intense interest. Ever the ladies’ man, as I found out on one trip where his paddock was adjacent to the mares’ pasture. This turned out to be the source of unending and passionate attraction for my chestnut gelding. He appeared to be unaware of this one little difference between himself and other male horses, and I was not going to be the one to break it to him.
“Yes, Gusto, there are mares in it. But what’s more, it’s about a young boy who forms a deep and extraordinary bond with a chestnut stallion.” I waited for the point of this to sink in.
Gusto considered this piece of information. “Oh, sort of - kind of like you and me?” he said brightly.
“I like to think so.” I let my finger run down the middle of his forehead and rest in the soft spot between his nostrils. I tickled him and he nudged my forehead.
“Me, too.” he said and we let it hang in the still air for a long, contented moment.
“You know,” said Gusto. “I was pretty excited really, about traveling, taking the first step on this journey of my life, flying overseas and all that. I liked my new person, she was funny and I could tell she really wanted to do the right thing. I felt pretty spiffy, like I was a real horse now. I thought I’d go out and make my mark on the world, show them what I was made of, what could be done with the raw materials of where I came from. And at first, it was OK, it was all fine. I missed home, my family, but I was young and strong and I had a person who adored me. Nothing was too good for me. When she rode me, I felt capable, I could do what she asked of me, and I was happy to try. I knew I made her feel wonderful up there. But then the trainer convinced her she was ruining me, that she should turn me over to the trainer for a year, as she was too inexperienced to do me justice. Justice!? I was three years old, maybe four, how much did or should a trainer expect of me by then?”
Gusto gazed into a distant past, and heaved a big breath. He hung his head and pawed gently at the shavings.
“Well, I soon found out. And I would not call what happened next justice. Misguided, painful, frustrating, yes, but not justice. You have a word for it, I think, in your world.” Gusto nudged me.
“Oh.” said I. “I see. I think we have several words for it actually. They keep coming up with a new one when the last one doesn’t cover it up anymore. So that did happen to you?”
I had had my suspicions, because although his x-rays are miraculously clean, what we did find in soft tissue damage was extensive. Starting with a severe imbalance in the muscling of his back, an imbalance that when recognized by Beth had helped prompt his move from a trainer for the first time. He was only four to five years old, and already, his physiology had changed, his right hip had noticeably dropped two to three inches and remains dropped today, an imbalance we have addressed through therapeutic shoeing and I continue to address through gymnastic training. He could not move in a straight line but would crab along, hanging to the left, and he still finds it difficult to maintain a left lead canter on a straight line.
Accompanying this dropped hip was a bulging, spasming muscle in the loin area that has now released, but a slight difference can still be seen if one looks closely. Imagine, I received him as an eleven year old, and these injuries were still in evidence. Only Beth had attempted to alleviate these injuries over the years, with rest and therapy, but whenever he returned to training, so did these issues.
My equine massage therapist, Kerry Gowin, found severe scar tissue in abdominal fascia, poll connective tissues, as well as the uneven and completely incorrect back muscling, and he exhibited an extreme tendency to curl up and break at C-3 and C-4, along with TMJ imbalance. Gusto held himself rather than carried himself. He had never wanted to talk about his past before, though. He was just happy to put it behind him, though he always spoke tenderly of his owner.
“She only did what she thought was best for me. And she always bailed me out. She’d fly to wherever I was to check on me. She never stopped believing in me or looking beneath the surface of my behavior or the trainers’ stories.”
But his body he could not hide. It told its own story. As talented and magnificent as he was, I initially had a hard time defining what always left me feeling oddly imbalanced when I looked at him. And it wasn’t just the awe that hit me every time I remembered he was mine, or rather, I was his. This horse, so many other trainers’ problem horse and/or reject, was and is the most profoundly moving horse I have ever had the privilege of being around, never mind riding.
Funnily enough, as he began to improve, and his body changed, I could see more clearly what I had not been able to label before as it faded away into a new and increasingly balanced physique that allowed for the flow of energy from tail to poll. When Gusto arrived, all energy and movement stopped at his lower back, and reappeared in the front end. In response to this lack of flow in his back muscles, his hindquarters swung jauntily from side to side at the walk and trot. As supple and mobile as he is, part of this swaying – his Marilyn Monroe walk as Beth calls it - is naturally his, but it is becoming less pronounced as he relearns to allow locomotion through his back, where it is absorbed and redirected as impulsion. Nonetheless, each session begins with his hindleg moving more up and down than forward as he lets go of his back all over again. Once released, he swims over the earth in powerful strokes.
His beautifully arched neck that appeared with statuesque immobility out of an overly muscled shoulder now swings at the walk and enters the withers and back unimpeded by excessive shoulder flesh. His back, which appeared rounded but somewhat low, has become a supple line from withers to sacrum, and movement now undulates freely over his loins and large back muscles. He is more or less free of scar tissue and his back has re-muscled in correct patterns. His neck ‘pops’ every time we stretch it with treats. But it’s taken me eighteen months of slow and persistent work and the support of a team of therapists and therapeutic shoeing to make it so. Not to mention Gusto’s willing heart, still soft and open even after all he has been through. He is the oyster and the pearl, and you can’t just take one and leave the other.
“Ach,” said Gusto and turned in disgust. I watched him as he walked the length of his run. I was about to rise and follow when he turned and marched right up to me, nose to nose. Cross eyed, I tried to return his gaze. I tried to remember where it is horses can and cannot see.
As if reading my mind, Gusto said quietly “You know where horses see the best?”
My eyes hurt, not generally used to being cross eyed for this long. But I did not want to break the tender connection of our noses. For one thing, it was kind of sweet, for another, maybe it was a horse thing and I could be committing some major horse etiquette faux pas. My nose, and my eyes, stayed put.
“Er, is it something to do with monocular peripheralisticism or something like that?” I asked, somewhat nervously, sensing a change in Gusto’s demeanor. I felt like I was on trial or at the least in an exam. Too bad it was not a multiple choice question, I could have made an educated guess.
“Try ventricular.” Gusto winked and broke the connection. He took a step back and watched me closely. Gratefully, my eyeballs uncrossed without incident and I rubbed them while I considered the clue.
“Erm, ven-tri-cu-lar” as if I was in a spelling bee and would spell it for him next. “…like in…the heart?” I asked, and was rewarded by a slow nod. “Oh! Oh! I get it!” I raised my hand like a schoolgirl. Gusto waited expectantly, ears pricked, head cocked, flicking his tail at a fly. “The heart! You look into people’s hearts!”
“Bingo!” called Torchlight and the call went up around the barn. “Bingo!” called Triton in his sweet young tenor, not really understanding but excited to be part of the fun. “Bingo!” brummed Banner in his deep baritone. Echoes rang from horses up and down the barn aisle. “Brrrriiinnngo-oh-oh-oh ooohh!” brayed the burros in perfect unison. I covered my ears.
“Silence!” trumpeted Gusto. The barn wound down in a murmur of chuckles and fell into a reverent quiet once more. Gusto dropped his head till his eyes were only just a little above mine, though far enough away I, mercifully, could avoid going cross eyed. He looked at me intently.
“The hearts of humans, yes. We horses came to give service but the Great One knew this could be a bitter and difficult task in the company of the two-legged. So he gave us the power of insight. To instinctively know what moves in the hearts of the people in whose care we find ourselves, that we may know their pain, their despair, their anger and their fear, and have some understanding when they channel this darkness into our mistreatment. Through understanding comes compassion, and with compassion comes the strength to endure. We are messengers, yes, but only by moving in your midst and subjecting ourselves to your darker selves may we shine our light and deliver our message. And this requires strength, trust and understanding, empathy. Only by witnessing the truth that lives in your hearts can we hope to have the faith and strength to fulfill this task.”
I was stunned. I never quite thought of it that way before. “But..” I stuttered slightly, “that is a huge sacrifice”! Why would you subject yourselves to such a thing?”
Gusto wagged his head side to side as he considered this.
“There is no real sacrifice in the service of the Great One,” Gusto said. “And perhaps you forget, that if we can look into the hearts of man and see all the darkness that moves within, then we can also see all the potential for good and kindness, the light of compassion, the seed of change that lives in you all, waiting for the day you find the courage to bring it to life. This, too, gives us strength. And we can mirror either. Therein lies our message.”
Gusto tilted his head as if listening to a voice inside himself. Then he continued, his expression darkening, somehow seeping sadness.
“It also, however, causes some horses to allow themselves to be used far harder and far more cruelly than I think even the Great One had ever anticipated. These horses are gifted with such compassion, such insight, they feel the pain of the perpetrator far more deeply than their own. And they carry on despite the cost to themselves. They are called stupid by some, but really they are simply kind beyond human comprehension. I could not, but then I did not feel that it was my purpose to do so. I knew mine was a different path. Many cannot. They fall by the wayside, as so much wasted potential, they are accused of being problematic, rank, having a bad attitude, or their bodies break down. We can only hope that one day their loss will add up to the dawn of a new understanding in the hearts of the people whose hands they passed through.
“Others bear it, but without real understanding, only submission, weaned too young to have received the full education of their mothers’ wisdom, or born to mothers who never learnt themselves and have no wisdom to offer, only tales of horror and caution. They have been bullied into submission so young their hearts stop growing long before their bodies, before they have grown to the place where they can truly allow for or undertake this service or the strength of our purpose. They are in a place of perpetual arrested development. When they look into your hearts they see only that which frightens them, and it does not awaken compassion, only fear, and so they hide, they hide behind what kindness they can muster, that which comes naturally to all horses. But they can only hide for so long, then their hearts can no longer hold their fear and pain, their heart cracks and they explode. These are the horses about which they say, oh, but he was so calm, so kind, and then one day he just went crazy over nothing, exploded out of nowhere. But really, it was their hearts that stopped growing and could hold no more pain and no more fear.”
“Like Moose,” I said quietly, thinking of Gusto’s neighbor.
“Yes, like Moose.”
“Like me,” said Moose sadly from next door. Moose, who had adored his kind owner and held all his fear and frustration from a terrible past on a tight leash till he came to me and I unwittingly opened the door to all his pent-up suffering with my questions and suggestions.
“Moose,” I said tentatively, “if you ever, you know, want to talk…or…” I stopped, unsure of how to proceed.
“No. Not yet.” said Moose quietly. “Let’s just keep doing what we’re doing, it’s helping. But I am not ready to go there. Yet. Maybe one day.” I left it at that.
We sat there, Gusto’s nose to my forehead, and I contemplated the enormity of what Gusto had told me. Why? Why would they keep allowing us such privilege? Why, if things had become worse than even their Great One had allowed for, would they keep going? I looked at Gusto and he saw the question written all over my face.
“Because all this is far greater than any of us, and yet it depends upon each and every one of us. Because our Great One is your Creator, and the Universe is home to us all. If we leave one, we are all left behind. You can’t have the pearl without the flesh, and you can’t have the flesh without the shell, there is no shell without the sand and the sea, whether you like it or think you need it or not. It’s not always pretty, it’s not always fun, but a deal is a deal, and we will persevere until we have completed this service. It’s bigger than all of us. We are drops in the sea.”
I scratched my head. I really needed to change the subject. This lesson in Universal Love stuff from a horse was making my head hurt worse than an FEI statement.
“Uhm, not to change the subject or anything,” I felt my way carefully. “But, what happened next?”
Gusto tossed his head and rolled his eyes. “What didn’t happen next? Someone told my owner she really needed to get me out of that first barn, because they saw how I was bound up in a straitjacket, and then she noticed the changes in my back. So she did. She always tried to do the right thing. But she knew I was special, and she wanted so much to see me reach my full potential. I went from trainer to trainer, I got better, I got worse, we’d start out fine and then if I gave them an inch they’d take a foot, if I protested they’d ace me, I went to Florida, I came back, I went back to Florida, I came back. I’d give it a go each time, try to give each trainer the benefit of the doubt, knowing my owner loved me dearly and was really trying to give me a chance. But each time they’d say one thing and do another, or they’d say it outright and she’d say no and they’d do it anyway. They’d feel what I could become with time and demand it today, before I had anything but raw talent to carry it off. It would hurt and I’d get scared and mad, and I couldn’t figure out how to do what they wanted me to do when the pain was so bad. I’d try to tell them but they didn’t understand so next thing I knew, I was deemed a bad boy and drugged or beaten.
“They trussed me up like a turkey and rode me like an ox. Often, they’d only ride when my owner wasn’t around. Or they wouldn’t ride me at all. If she showed up they’d drug me to ride me. So finally, I just would have to say ‘no’ on my own. If they wouldn’t listen to my owner, they’d have to listen to me. And one day, she said - enough. She always gave me another chance, though, you know? She’d bring me home after another disaster, and I’d come off the trailer wound tight as a yo-yo and rearing just in case someone was going to take a swing at me. She’d love on me, get me all checked out, take care of me, turn me out and let me be a horse. I was lucky, and I knew it. I knew a lot of horses along the way who weren’t so lucky. Some of them I still see in my dreams.”
“Well, in the end, you and I were both lucky.” I said, wanting to draw him away from such sad thoughts.
“Hmm, yes we were.” Gusto rested his forehead on my chest and I stroked his ears. “When I had that wreck in the side-reins, I saw it in her face. She just said - enough, it’s time to let him go, one way or another. Then I knew it was close, I knew it wouldn’t be long. And then you stepped into my stall.”
“And then I stepped into your stall.”
“And here we are,” we both said. And we laughed.
I gazed at Torchlight as he chewed contentedly, eyeing me back with a gleam in his eye.
“Thank you.” I said and smiled, a peace offering after all my grumblings earlier. “For sending me to the, err, ‘Oracle’, I mean.”
“Did you learn anything?” he asked, that gleam still in his eye.
“Oh I hope so. It wasn’t for lack of Gusto’s trying, at least.”
“Yeah, but did you learn anything?” he repeated patiently.
“Well, I learned you are all Oracles.” I said, trying a little light hearted banter.
“I meant, did you learn any Latin or Aramaic?” Torchlight ducked my swatting hand as if he thought it would actually connect. Old habits die hard.
“Oh, sorry, forgot.” I apologized.
“It’s OK. I knew you were kidding.” He scuffed my arm.
“So you know who Gusto is now, don’t you?”
I frowned. Where was this going now? It had been a long day and I was really not up to any more guessing games.
“Come on, Tom, give me a break. My brain is just smoking as it is.”
“I’ll make it easy on you.” he said. “Who am I?”
“Well,” I said, still wondering if this was a trick question. “You’re, well, you’re….Torchlight?”
“That’s right” said Torchlight. “And if I’m Torchlight, then?
“Then…?” said I, still lost in my inner wafting fog.
Torchlight took a step back and drew himself up to his considerable height in an easy stretch. He released in a pleasurable shudder and turned back to his hay. As he walked away he tossed it off over his shoulder.
“Then Gusto, my dear, is the Torch Bearer.”
I smiled in beatific bliss.
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