Sunday, August 29, 2010

The musical horse

One of the unexplicated mysteries in riding is why horses like human music and why so many horses have specific tastes in music. 
Big Band for a big horse
    I had a big spotted mare when I was growing up who was a fearless jumper but who otherwise unpredictable and often quite cowardly. Scatty, unfocused, and  prone to  panic, she liked Bach--I found this out quite by accident one year when I was teaching at a summer camp and brought her with me. The only station we could get on the radio there was a sort of light-classical mix, pure mayonnaise, but each Friday morning from ten to noon they played Bach. And, as it happened, Fridays morning was when I would usually work her on the flat, with Bach in the background. She would settle into the music and stay on tempo, her ears flopping to the sides like a donkey's, completely relaxed. She was my  first horse.

My last horse, before all these neck surgeries put a stop to riding, was a huge Dutch Warmblood gelding (above) who had nothing whatsoever going on between his ears. This was nice sometimes, when a spectacular lack of imagination made my life easier, but it also made schooling him up both boring and frustrating--we could work on transitions and brightness off the leg on Wednesday, and by Thursday morning he'd simply forgotten everything we'd talked about. It was as if he'd done a full system dump overnight, and all I came back to was a blank screen and a blinking cursor. 

He liked big band--String of Pearls, Parade of the Milk Bottle Caps, Walkin and Swingin, stuff like that. And like the spotted mare, he set himself inside the tempo, flopped his ears, and danced. And the four horses I have had in between all did exactly the same thing, once I stumbled over (and learned eventually to hunt for) the music that liked best.

It's easy to dismiss this phenomenon and say of course horses like music because music is beautiful. But that assumes that horses share our opinions about beauty, whatever beauty is, and these's no real evidence that this is true. I've never seen a horse admire a painting or get caught up in an interesting movie or play, for example, and I'm quite sure that the stories horses tell to themselves and to each other are very different from the stories we tell about them or, for  that matter, the stories we humans find beautiful and describe as literature. 

I've been thinking a lot about this lately, and wonder if musical preference in horses is linked to their individual body music--their natural tempo and their individual nuances of gait. One of the things that make horses so interesting is that they are all so  different--they trademark themselves, and elaborate along a consistent theme. They know who they are in a purely physical, very specific way, and their reliance on tempo is far more advanced and complicated than a cow's or or a pig's or any other domesticated barnyard creature. Pigs are very intelligent, and I'm a fan of pigs, but horses trump every species but our own in this one dimension. 

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