Humans have memory triggers that set off very strong recollections of past experiences. A memory trigger can be a sound, a particular scent, or something you see that flashes you back into your past. These triggers cause you to relive long ago times so intensely, nothing else exists but the moment you are reliving. Memories relived so strongly, so vividly, you feel the same feelings you felt when the memory was born.
Most of my memory triggers are set off by horses. For some unknown, and intentionally unexplored, reason, I've always been addicted to them. My grandfather and uncles on my mother's side were equine addicts, however, I don't think my affliction is hereditary because my mother has no interest in horses. With the exception of my grandfather, my mother's two brothers and a distant cousin who is a very famous racehorse trainer who lives at a race track in Chicago, all the other members of my family could take or leave horses...mostly leave.
I do remember at a very young age watching the Cisco Kid, wearing a dazzling black and white outfit, and Diablo, his black and white pinto, on a very small and snowy fist-sized black and white TV screen. And then there was The Lone Ranger. All that flashing black and white, like lightning in the night, must have seared some sort of impression on my brain and welded me to a life of needing to have a horse close by.
I've blindly clung to a love of horses for almost 50 years even though they have done some damaging things to me. They taught me early on - if you monkey with horses long enough you're going to get hurt. Forgiving as a parent, I always went back for more causing friends and neighbors, not to mention myself, to question my mental stability. There are things about horses that jerk me back into the past like a shell-shocked old soldier who is constantly fighting a long-over war all his own.
My grandfather always had a team of dinosaur-sized horses on his farm even though he had a mint-condition twenty year old tractor in the garage. The teams he preferred over the tractor seemed that large to me anyway. After all, when you are five or six years old it is difficult to separate dinosaurs from Clydesdales. When you can sit in a bucket a one of their hooves won't fit into, relative sizes escape you.
Harnessing the four-legged giants was a confusing process to me. My grandfather would take huge piles of leather, drape them over and around the team as they stood patiently. Before I realized it he had blended piles of leather and horseflesh together. Then taking the reins he began using them to do impossible things with quiet words and gentle pulls. I would watch fascinated, my head filled with the sounds of straining harness and jingling chains as my body trembled with the thunderous power vibrating through the ground beneath my feet as the team set huge hooves down to push.
Watching and listening to the team dragging huge trees, pulling living-room-sized loads of hay, or sleds loaded with people over snowless ground gave me an early lesson in possibilities - if you lean into it and push, you probably can do it. Put a strong piece of leather any where near a horse and I'm there again.
Frigid winter temperatures in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan so cold you gotta back up to spit cause lakes to freeze over with about 40 inches of ice. My grandfather and uncles used the horses to gather ice for the ice house where it was stored for summer. They would go out on the lake and chop a hole through the ice. Then they would put a long straight saw through the hole and begin sawing automobile sized blocks from the ice.
As each block was cut free and floating, the team, specially shod with caulks, would be driven out and hooked to it with large tongs. The team would pull the block up a sloped cut onto the ice and then pull it several miles over the frozen ground to the ice house. At the ice house the horses were used to block and tackle the block inside. As soon as the ice was stored they would return for another block which was usually waiting.
Damp sawdust is another mental catapult. Thick sawdust was packed around the ice when the icehouse was full insuring a large supply of ice in July and August. The smell of damp sawdust sends me back 45+ years and once again I'm digging through cool sawdust to get to the ice on a hot August day, my head full of winter memories of work-warmed horses on a frosty day, haloed by clouds of their breath like living locomotives.
In harness the team flowed, prancing and surging fluidly as they obeyed the teamster's directions, but when they were turned out in the pasture they were quiet, slow moving behemoths. They grazed, moving only when necessary to get to more grass, occasionally switching their tails or rippling their skin at flies as if they were saving themselves for the next harnessing. Their docility in the pasture made it safe enough for a young boy to get close enough to lean against, walk under, or feed grass to them.
Every chance I got, I gathered a handful of crimson clover, climbed on the low-eaved but horse-high peaked grain shed and used it to lure the horses to the shed. When one of the horses came close I would leap out onto it's table-sized back and there I would sit or lay, often napping, while the horse grazed around the pasture unmindful of my presence. Whenever I wanted to get down I would slide down it's neck to the ground as it grazed.
I especially enjoy being close to horses on hot days when the sun gently toasts them and brings out their bucolic fragrance. The smell of a sun-warmed horse will flash me back to relive those hours spent on the tops of the living mountains on my grandparent's farm and make me wish I was small enough to curl up once more on one.
A few years later my family lived a short time in Grand Rapids, Michigan where my only contact with horses was watching the milk horse pull the milk wagon down the street. The horse knew the route so well the milkman could concentrate on delivering the milk while the horse just pulled the wagon down the street, stopping and waiting for the milkman at the same spots every day.
One afternoon a friend and I impulsively grabbed a quart of chocolate milk from the back of the milk wagon and took off down the street with the milkman running behind yelling, "Stop! Stop! Police!" Chocolate milk brings that afternoon back and with adult amusement I remember the panic, the legs of lead that would hardly work, and the sounds of the milkman's footfalls behind me as I ran too scared to look back. Only the fact I was carrying a quart of milk while the milkman carried two baskets saved me from what I was certain was certain death.
Horses exchange breath with each other, it helps them to identify the unique essence each possesses. I exchange breath with horses too. Holding my face close to the nostrils of a horse and breathing deeply triggers me into a whirlpool of life long memories mixed with the anticipation of new unformed ones ahead. When the uninitiated ask me the purpose of human to horse breath exchange I invite them to try it. I explain the sweet grassy smell tells me the horse is okay and they nod in understanding. Only a special few are able to understand I really do it to see if I'm okay. If I smell the memories, I'm fine.
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