What the Horse Means to Me
LATELY, I’ve been asking people what the horse means to their lives.
Some answers were surprising, some simple, and some expected. Some have answered that horses “have meant everything” to their lives. I can’t claim that. Despite my love for the equine, people and things more eternal outrank the horse.
Without question, though, horses have been a significant part of my life. Growing up on a ranch, we did all the work we reasonably could horseback. In adulthood, they became more of a hobby. Transitioning from a desk job back to managing cattle, I find the horse has once again become a partner in business. Horses have always been a part of my life, but to characterize them simply as “partners” or “hobbies” doesn’t do the relationship justice.
Perhaps the most basic role the horse serves in my life is that of connection-maker. The most important relationships in my life are deepened and explored through the prism of the horse. With my wife and children, character flaws are revealed, life lessons are learned, and opportunities to bond are made. Forging friendships with fellow horsepeople is easy with the equine as a baseline.
Through the horse, I’m connected to my ancestors. I can ride a horse that descends from horses my great-uncle trained or my father bred. Less literally, I’m connected to my greatgreat-grandfather, who took herds of cattle from Texas to the railheads in Kansas horseback. In fact, I’m connected to horsemen throughout history. From J.E.B. Stuart’s First Virginia Cavalry to the Comanche of the Texas plains. From the Royal Scots Greys to Genghis Khan to the Crusaders of the medieval period to the Greek horseman and soldier Xenophon.
Horses bring an undeniable dignity to their riders. Both literally and figuratively, horsemen have always been looked up to. It’s a feeling I take comfort in, because through the horse I’m something more than I am alone. I can cover ground faster than afoot and traverse obstacles that stop machines in their tracks. I can rope and tiedown a big yearling steer or sort a wild, dry cow from the herd. I have justification for feeling an “otherness” when horseback because the pairing of man and horse is something different than any other pairing a human can experience. While it’s rooted in practicality, the partnership transcends a professional relationship. It’s minds and bodies in synchronicity. At its best, the use of a horse doesn’t make me stronger, it makes me smarter, more creative, more thoughtful, and more imaginative.
But the horse also keeps me humble. I’m working with a colt now that every day reminds me just how inept I am. The process of bringing the best out in a horse is a siren song that has kept people seeking it out—perhaps more than ever—even in a posthorse culture.
Yet, for as much as we glean from horses, they need us too. For all their toughness, they can be so fragile. A mouthful of moldy hay, a change in the weather, or an especially hard workout can end their lives. To not only depend on a horse, but have a horse depend on you, gives a sense of purpose and duty. We all want to be needed.
Above all, for me, the horse is an ever-changing, ever-demanding, ever-gratifying source of experiencing life. To pair with, learn from, and lead a fellow creature through this world is a privilege I’m learning to appreciate more and more all the time.
Through the horse, I’m something more than I am alone. I can cover ground faster than afoot and traverse obstacles that stop machines in their tracks. I can rope and tie-down a big yearling steer.
Bob Welch has spent his career writing and thinking about horses, riders, and the West. When not sitting at his computer working through writer’s block, he and his family enjoy being horseback, working cattle, and competing in ranch horse shows and ranch rodeos.