Monkey See Monkey Do

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Jec A. Ballou

By Jec A. Ballou

I’ve often heard that people choose pets that look like them. And while I’ve never actually decided whether my friends’ dogs look like them, I can attest that their pets do eventually act like them. With enough time, a pet will take on the characteristics of its owner, for better or for worse. Horses have proven this repeatedly to me over the years.

I’ve seen perfectly well-mannered horses under everyday circumstances turn into basket cases the moment they hear their owner’s car in the driveway. Suddenly, they’re pawing at the wall, pacing circles, chewing the wood from their stall doors. It’s as if the presence of their owner unleashes a spoiled personality that is otherwise dormant.

Likewise, I’ve witnessed stolid and steadfast mounts turn into spooky freaks once their owners mount up for a ride. It never fails to amaze me, though I should have become quite used to it by now. Like it or not, our animals mirror us. They take on our neuroses, our strengths, our weaknesses, and everything in between.

And sometimes it’s uncanny how little we want to admit that. I recall a few years ago riding a client’s young mare and having a productive schooling session when the client raced in the driveway, kicking up clouds of dust behind her sports car. She spilled out of the car, eyes bulging from a day of stress at the office, clutching a cell phone in one hand and a large extra-caffeinated mocha from Starbucks in the other.

She was using the speaker function of her phone to have a conversation with her ex-husband that used volumes of profanity I hadn’t heard since high school.

Anyway, before I knew it, she was in the arena with me (having put the ex-husband on mute) and wanted to ride her horse. Mentally, I came up with a dozen immediate reasons that amounted to a bad idea. Against my better judgment, I told her that would be fine if she could take five minutes and settle herself down. To her, that meant finishing her mocha and setting down her keys.

Before I knew it, I was giving this stressed-out, hyped-up woman a leg up on her young unsuspecting horse. Needless to say, within moments, the horse mirrored the woman, even without the ingestion of a 16-ounce mocha. It began darting around the arena, jumping out of its skin, and — I’m not kidding — its eyes bulged, just like its owner’s.

The woman wanted to know what was wrong. I gently pointed out that the horse had picked up on her frenzied state and was absorbing that energy, causing it to be unsettled. Of course this made no sense to Ms. Starbucks. Horses are horses, she said. As if they are completely dead to sensory input. No, I reminded her, horses are like their owners.

Fortunately, this can work favourably. My trainer friend Mark Schuerman is one of the calmest, unflappable people I’ve ever met. After two months in his barn, any horse takes on his quiet nature. It’s like a magical transformation, an osmosis of sorts. I was deeply grateful for this fact six years ago when I had just moved to California.

I shared a barn with Mark, who trained exclusively Arabians at the time. He had a fondness for these sometimes high-strung animals that became docile puppies under his hand. Being reputable in the Arabian world, he was invited to give a short riding performance at the Western States Horse Expo, the largest horse exposition on the West Coast that regularly attracts 65,000 or more spectators over one weekend in June. Mark was honoured. He would ride one of his most prancing, gorgeous, bay Arabs under spotlights in the late-night ticketed show. He agreed to it with enthusiasm.

Then he got a hot date for that same night. But he didn’t want to let down his fans from the Arabian community, so he held his commitment to do the Expo gig by recruiting yours truly to ride his horse. I agreed without further thought because, first of all, I had no idea what I had gotten into and secondly, I knew Mark really wanted to go out with this attractive blonde woman. So, there you have it.

A few weeks later, I found myself mounted atop an increasingly nervous Arabian gelding squeezed into a crowd of roughly 100 other demonstration riders on equally nervous horses in the pitch black, scrambling around on pavement while we each awaited our turn to blast into the main arena for five minutes of glory.

There’s much I don’t remember about that evening. What I do remember is that the act preceding my ride was a mounted shooting demonstration, which meant that while I waited with my snorting Arabian outside the arena’s main gate, a dozen or more out-of-control riders galloped around inside shooting pistols at balloons until they all popped. I’m not sure if it was the gunfire, my sudden nausea, or all the yelling and screaming, but my horse was quickly coming unglued.

I tried dialing Mark on my cell phone to tell him not only was I not going into that arena, but this night marked the end of our friendship, too. Before the call went through, though, a rearing giant Friesian stallion streaked across the pavement towards me, slid on his shoes, and rammed into my horse’s backside. That itself would have been startling enough. But the horse and his rider, a wannabe—eighteenth century knight, were entirely decked out in chain mail armor. The more the horse reared, the more his armor clanked and rattled, which added further mayhem to the gunfire in the arena.

It was at this point that I realized I’d not ever drawn up a will. It became clear that I would not survive the evening alive and I was chanting to myself “huh, so this is how it ends…” when I remembered that the only thing in my favour was the fact that I was on top of a horse Mark had trained.

This meant that even with the Friesian stallion attacking us from behind and gunfire in front of us, things might turn out fine if I just acted like Mark. So, in spite of my chattering teeth and trembling bones, I did just that. And my horse reflected it. Albeit a little nervous, the horse kept himself composed. Someone swung open the arena gait, and we cantered in under huge spotlights in front of a crowd of a couple thousand people. We floated as if on air, as if my life hadn’t just passed before me moments earlier.

Part of me thanked Mark for being such an exceptional horseman. The other part wanted to hunt him down during his date and tell him I would never again ride at an event with both gunfire and horses.

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