'Give 'Em Their Head'
I’ve never been much of a horseman, though horses and I have crossed paths many times over the years. One of my earliest memories of being on a horse would probably qualify as scarring.
I was 10, living in Africa with my parents, a doctor and a nurse who had decided at ages 41 and 37 to move their young family to Kenya for a while. That wasn’t the scarring part. For my brother and me, Kenya was the ultimate playground—a whole country full of dangerous animals, camping in the wild, and soccer (football, we learned) everyday, played barefoot and with a tennis ball. The part I didn’t like about living in Africa was that often on Sundays we packed into our old Land Cruiser and drove the Ngong Road from Nairobi to the town of Karen and the home of the Cunninghams.
The Cunninghams were missionaries and perfectly nice people who regularly hosted big picnics for all the ex-pats in the area. Kenya was an independent country at the time, but just barely. The atmosphere was still markedly colonial; the British were everywhere. The rub with the picnics was that before or after each one, I had a riding lesson nearby in Karen. Why I was doing this I have no idea. I had no interest in horses, and my parents certainly were not horse people, didn’t even ride.
As it happened, my riding teacher was British—very British and stern and old and a colonel in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. He followed me around the arena on his horse, riding crop in hand. When my horse or I balked at the barrel, or little wooden gate we were supposed to sail over, the Colonel let the crop fly on my horse’s haunches. You wouldn’t think a 1,200-pound horse with a 90-pound boy on it could accelerate very quickly, but you’d be wrong. It was a little taste of terror every Sunday. I still think about that jackass (the Colonel, not the horse) every time I ride.
I felt a similar surge of terror the first time I crossed a river on a horse. Happily, I was an adult and with a friend who knew quite a bit more about horses than I did. As we rode down the rocky bank to the river—a good 75 yards of flowing river to cross—he said, “Give ‘em their head.”
As I manhandled the horse right and left to where I thought we should cross, it became obvious to everyone, including my horse, that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, nor what my friend was talking about.
“Let up on the reins,” he said. “Give him his head. He’ll know where to go.”
Halfway across the river, water at my boots, I started to relax. My horse, despite his rider, actually did know what he was doing. Now, I had spent years studying science, worked as a scientist with very smart people. And yet, somehow the concept of evolution hadn’t occurred to me: that horses had been crossing rivers for eons, long before anyone decided to get on their backs to do it. To state the obvious: Grass isn’t always on your side of the river.
Ironically, it took a horse (and a long-dead British colonel) to crystallize in my mind the Herculean struggle all parents grapple with: trust. Most parents will say they trust their kids. Sure, trust them to do their homework, mow the lawn, turn in their liability release for field trips. But what about when there are real consequences? Like finding yourself underwater with 1,200 pounds of horse on top of you.
Parents reach that moment of giving ‘em their head at different times in life; some never do. I remember one summer crossing southern Wyoming with my son and oldest daughter. We were on I-80, which, for the uninitiated, is about as close to the Wild West as you will ever experience. The speed limit is 80 mph, which means everyone drives 90 to 100 mph, some faster. There are streams of semi-trucks, and not just eighteen wheelers, but triple rigs, which are basically little trains without the tracks to contain them. Then there is the wind. My god, the wind. It is incessant and, given time, will make a man insane.
My son had his driving learner’s permit and, of course, wanted to drive everywhere, every day. (In Idaho, where I live, kids can get driving permits at a ridiculously early age, sometimes 14). So, suddenly, there I was in the passenger seat—young daughter in back—rocketing across Wyoming certain we were destined for a fiery crash.
Hours later, terror transmuted to confidence, which, in turn, burnished into trust. It takes a while and is wholly uncomfortable, but sometimes you just have to get across the river.
One last horse story. My dad, who is no longer alive, always had a distinct red mark on his forehead. Throughout childhood, I was sort of fascinated by it. Apparently, he had been kicked by a horse when he was young. When I was about 20 or so, somehow that mark came up, and I asked my dad how it actually happened; how was he not killed by the kick?
His smile broke slowly, then blossomed. There was no horse, no life-altering blow to the forehead. It was just a run-of-the-mill birthmark and a long-running joke between my parents.
Of course, there were more revelations. Soon thereafter, I also learned that, in fact, my mom had not really dated the tallest man in the world, Henry Hite (8’ 2”), after all.
Turns out, trust is more complicated than it seems.