I’ve gained much horse knowledge and human support since Anna Blake opened the doors of her Relaxed & Forward Barn. I was very anti on-line horse groups because of the bitching and showboating that goes on, and shy about airing my dirty horse laundry in public, but I soon discovered most horse laundry has the same stains and the same whiff of human failings, no matter which continent it is on. The like-minded people in the Barn don’t include force in the same sentence as horse, and are humbled by what their horses choose to give them; I found my tribe. Anna’s training methods are always unique, and last week she suggested dancing with our horse as a way to be more interesting, lift our spirits, and see calming signals as the horse processed this different ‘us’. Barn members have posted videos of themselves in rhythmic sways, and while many horses watched with a mixture of awe and disdain, quite a few joined in the dance. Loving a challenge and accustomed to making a fool of myself, I decided to have a go.
Nothing worth doing is ever plain sailing. The dancing drawbacks were obvious but not insurmountable; I don’t have a playlist on my phone, or access to make music at the stables so the only alternative was to sing as I danced. However, I am profoundly tone-deaf and cannot carry a tune, and the last time I sang aloud, in church on Christmas Eve, the entire congregation cringed at my caterwauling rendition of Away in a Manger. Even the ancient church organ, creaking its way through malfunctioning chords sounded more tuneful (and quieter) than me.
My dancing partner Bruce oozes charm and gentlemanly manners, and has the countenance of Cary Grant in his heyday (although Bruce is a little more rotund in the girth area), but I wasn’t sure my music choice would be to Bruce’s taste. His reaction would be very interesting! I was also unsure if my creaking joints would be able to dance, but at the very least, I would sing and sway. The only video I have is on my phone, and the star of the show was the underside of my chin if I filmed and danced simultaneously. Inflicting my singing (I use the term loosely) on another human as they filmed would be mental cruelty, so the only solution was to write about it.
Getting up especially early is easier now the mornings are light. I had a quick cup of tea, and when I went out to the truck, the mist was just rising, bathing the countryside in calm. I was at the stableyard before anyone else arrived, and found Bruce still asleep in bed. He scrambled to his feet and whickered a quiet, personal greeting. I brushed the bed-shavings from his coat with my hands and picked out his feet with the hoofpick; knowing the picking order by rote he lifted each foot in turn. I presented his halter and waited as he began his routine, first putting the noseband in his mouth, rattling the buckle in his teeth, chewing the rope, and then having a brief think before dropping his head for me to put the headband over his ears. This routine is one of the remaining habits of his anxious past, and I feel he’s entitled to the comfort if it helps.
I led Bruce out of his stable, down the concrete path into the arena. He stood as I shut the gate and took off his halter, but looked confused as I stepped away from him. Finding comfort again in routine, he turned and walked along the arena fenceline as if we were warming up together. At the top corner, he changed direction across the diagonal and came to a square halt at the centre, flapping his lips together loudly while he questioned why things were different. This was my cue. I told him he was a good boy and asked if he would like to dance? His ears flicked back and forth; good boy he recognised, but dance was not a common word in his vocabulary. I walked to the fence, mimed the action of lifting the top of my imaginary record player, selected three 45rpm vinyl records (remember them?) and placed them on the central stacker arm. I turned the imaginary ‘on’ switch, placed the stylus on the first record and replaced the lid. Ever hopeful this action might be food prep, Bruce moved close behind me, breathing hotly in one ear. I told him again how good he was, and gently ushered him a few steps back so we had more room. Then, being careful not to face him directly, I started singing.
“Lets Twist Again, like we did last summer dum de dum de dum lets twist again woo hoo like we did last yeeeeear” and as I launched into my best Chubby Checker moves, Bruce leapt in the air, let out a huge buck and an even huger fart and flew round the arena, prancing and dancing along with words. “Up and down and round and round we goooooo again” I sang, clapping and dancing and laughing, “YEAAAAAAAHHH lets twist again, twisting time is here. . .” I got low to the ground and was really rocking when Bruce stopped, pawed the ground and as his knees crumpled he flopped down with a huge exhale, rolled over to one side, then rolled all the way back over to the other side and waved his legs in the air as I danced round him. He got up, shook hard twice from head to toe, as I told him what a very good boy he was. I think he liked Chubby Checker.
Before the second record started up, I sat on the ground for a breather. Bruce stood over me with his nose on my shoulder; he’d stood like that when I fell off him, and I don’t think he liked seeing me in this unfamiliar position. Our second number was Gladys Knight’s Midnight Train to Georgia. I stood up and took Gladys’s imaginary microphone and bah bah bahhhhdd the intro as tunefully as I could (it sounded okay to me), singing aloud while Bruce stood a few feet away looking at the ground. He raised his head as I did the Pip movements, moving sideways and spinning round just like they do “sooper star but he didn’t get far” and he was quite interested in choo-choo-train arms chugging away. “Dreams don’t always come true. . .” I sang “oooh oooh I’d rather live in his world than without him in mine. . .oh, I gotta be with him. . . his world my world our world my man, his girl.” Bruce was now standing by the fence thoughtfully chewing a blade of grass and watching me while detaching from the action. The Pips did one last synchronised turn and Gladys did one final flourish before bowing graciously and leaving the stage. Phew! It was exhausting!
People were starting to arrive at the stables to do their horses, and I although I wasn’t entirely sure how Bruce felt, I’d had a really good time. I decided the last record would wait for another day and in the spirit of continuity, I walked back to the record player and switched it off. Then I sat down on the mounting block with my back resting against a fencepost so Bruce could re-acquaint himself with ‘normal’ me. It had been such fun!
Afterwards, I noticed Bruce watched me more intently. He thrives on routine and habit, and I had a niggling feeling dancing in the arena had given him an anxious situation rather than a good experience. A week later, I was mucking his field, and as I pushed the barrow from one poop to the next, I began humming The Harlem Shuffle, which was our third record. No-one was around, so the humming turned into a low song, and then, wheeling the barrow to and fro, I moooooved it to the left and moooooooved it to the right. . .and shuffled up and down the paddock, sliiiiiiding to the left and going low as I continued poop-scooping. Bruce loved this! We grooved it right yeah yeah, we did the monkey shine, we hitchedhiked baby across the floor, and whoa whoa whoa we couldn’t stand it no more! When we got to ride ride ride little pony ride, he really did shake like a tailfeather baby, and we ran round the field together shaking and shuffling until I landed in a heap on the barrow because I couldn’t breath anymore, and Bruce was snorting and puffing, all big eyes and flared nostrils. Now I know he’d had fun! Spontaneity worked better than fixed ideas.
Dancing with horses definitely lightens any mood. Bruce gets apprehensive in the arena about being unable to do something he’s asked, so a gradual introduction would have been better. Dancing in the field ‘just because the mood took us’ was completely different because we were both relaxed and it didn’t feel like a training exercise. We just goofed around in that special way partners do when no-one is watching. And I guess that’s what dancing is all about. Being partners.