The young German woman stood quietly with her horse as the group began to melt away towards dinner.
Her horse, an Icelandic just like all the others, refused to leave her. He stood quietly, his nose pressed into her chest, while all his herdmates hurtled down the length of the long pasture towards a well-earned rest and roll in the rich grass.
She stood silently, stroking his face, something passing between them.
Then he quietly turned and made his way calmly to the rest of the herd.
The young woman made her way to the end of the long line of women as we walked the low hills towards our sleeping quarters.
Her head was shaved completely on one side. Various tattoos and piercings made her look fierce, her outward appearance almost menacing. A combination of punk, biker, and rock dropout.
That, of course, depended on your point of view. If you weren’t part of her generation, and most especially, if you didn’t watch her with the horses, you might interpret her presentation as menacing. And you’d have been totally wrong.
Our group was made up of mostly European women, primarily in their twenties or thirties. We were riding with Eldhestar, out of Reykjavik, Iceland (http://eldhestar.is/), through magnificent open territory with the mountains always rising in the near distance. Each long day we would stop periodically and change our mounts from the herd that moved with us. After rides of up to nine hours each day our horses were released to feed, roll and gambol as they wished.
Usually without fail, the horses would take off at a run when their bridles were removed.
Those of us who choose to ride these long hours and spend endless days on horseback with the Icelandic horses (not ponies, please that’s an insult) become intimately familiar with their sweet natures and engaging gait, called the “tolt.” Combining elements of pacing, the speed of a canter or a gallop and most definitely not a trot, the tolt takes a bit to master. It requires a very different riding position than one might use for just about any other horse or tack. The tourist horses at times tortured their riders by trotting for hours, which rattled the molars, until the riders realized their horses were fooling them and they learned to demand the smoother gait.
Icelandic horses have no natural predators, so they are exceedingly friendly. However after a very long day’s work they are ready for their freedom. The moment we release them they leap towards the open fields.
But not this woman’s.
We Know Nothing About Others
This girl’s relatively aggressive outward appearance belied her spirit. She was gentle, and deeply connected to her animals.
Horses know. That’s why they’re so effective in therapy, leadership training, and in so many other interactive and teaching applications (https://health.usnews.com/health-news/patient-advice/articles/2016-09-02/equine-therapy-how-horses-help-humans-heal).
Each of our riders fancied herself an excellent horsewoman. However it’s one thing to be well-trained; it’s another to be well-connected with your animal.
I had just finished one long ride with a group of some 22 German, dressage-trained women in their twenties. I’ve never been with such an arrogant self-absorbed group in my life. I was the only American, and they intentionally made sure that there was no seat for me at the meals. They always spoke German, although most also spoke English, as a way of isolating me. As a result I rose early, ate in the kitchen, and spent more time with the horses. I’d get up at 4:30 and go play in the herd, which responded with warmth and affection.
After a few days one or two women wanted to know my secret as to why the horses would gather around me both in the early mornings and at night.
No secret. Love has everything to do with it.
Like this young German woman on my second ride.
Each of us in our own ways loves to express ourselves through fashion, or lack there of, or adornments, or lack thereof. Fashion is a fine way to to express our individuality. For those outside a culture, of an older or different generation, certain fashions can get in our faces, or we judge people based on what we see them wear rather than how people- and most especially animals- react around them.
For my part, all I need to see is how a horse (or most any animal, for that matter) responds to a person. When he chooses to stand in the low light of a long summer’s day, eschewing a happy gallop with his buddies to stand with his soft, warm muzzle pressed into a woman’s chest, eyes closed in pleasure, that tells me everything I need to know about this young woman. He trusts her. That’s good enough for me.
While it’s a bit unfortunate, far too many of us judge others instantly by body art, or low-slung crack-revealing jeans. Rather than allow character (or a butt crack for that matter) to be revealed, it’s a lot easier to make snap judgments about external appearances.
We are so very often so very wrong.
When I was growing up in the Sixties, my father was deeply threatened by my big brother’s desire to grow his hair long and my desire to wear mini-skirts. It was just fashion. Like every other adolescent of our times we wanted to make a statement. That didn’t impinge upon our character, any more than body art or a partially shaved-head makes someone stupid or amoral.
Or a gang member, for that matter.
I have always gotten a bang out of the occasional Facebook video of a huge, tatooed man, a Harley enthusiast, who will address the viewer about his kids, his puppies, and what he does in the community for the elderly or veterans. It is a complete about-face for anyone who loves to make snap judgments about those who love big bikes, have long beards and are colorfully tattooed. It’s just playful expression. That appearance can hide a Harvard education, a wealth of knowledge and a deeply kind spirit. If we label, we may lose a deep connection. And label we do, to our loss.
Among the great gifts of travel is to be exposed to others whose personal expressions are vastly different. I might not choose a tattoo, but that is simply a choice. If I let my preferences become prejudices, I push people away who might otherwise have a great deal to offer, teach, and share. Whether on extended riding trips in Iceland or on a street corner in a city neighborhood, our vast variety of expression is simply that: expression.
For my money, let me watch how you treat a dog, a cat, a horse, any creature. Let’s see how that animal responds to you. They know. If that animal relaxes in your hands, for my part, you’ve got a good heart.
And that really is all we need to know about each other.