Relatively late in life, I began dressage riding lessons, a sport not for the faint of heart. When I first met my teacher, I was terrified. Muscular, handsome, a twenty-year old veteran, Saab—S-A-A-B—is a square, sixteen-hand, thousand-pound Russian Warmblood. When I stand beside him, I feel like a scooter parked next to an eighteen-wheeler. But Saab is a gentle giant with a bad name, simply because he was once traded for a car of that make.
Such are the everyday indignities of animal life in the human world. I see this indignity whenever I drive to Saab’s farm because there is so much casual death on those back roads: rabbit, opossum, raccoon, cat, dog, deer, snake, an occasional unfortunate vulture and saddest of all because comical, stiff-legged armadillo. In the wild, death comes also in terrifying forms: owl, panther, wolf and bear. But vehicular death seems both terrifying and unjust, so I drive slowly.
Despite his ignoble name, Saab is nevertheless a noble Russian, a champion, a stolid gelding and he has shown me in our year together that animals, particularly horses, truly know and respect life in a manner I try to emulate even though, in a sense, Saab’s wisdom about life is ineffable. Words, being human, fail. Like many prey animals, Saab feels, smells and tastes the world keenly. Vision is secondary. He is, in every fiber of his flesh, hyper-alive to weather, to subtle shifts in the atmosphere, and to all living others. He is so sensitive that if my seat is a fraction of an inch off, he will halt to teach me the correct posture. And if Saab knows life, he also knows death, fears it, will, in the end, bow to it, but he lives every moment in the moment, of the moment, with that moment, even if that moment is maddened by flies, or an itch teeth can’t reach.
Saab has a dignity his name cannot undignify; his patience with this old dog has shown me I can learn new tricks and to race the wind astride his back in that ancient human-equine ballet is to experience life. Many horse-people believe, as I do, that a true wonder is how this powerful, unspeakably beautiful creature will endure a human like me, even protect me, since I am, still, a novice. Saab can feel my clumsiness on every nerve, so I am humbled each time he accepts the primitive, ancient tools of human-equine communication from me—bridle, bit, reigns, saddle. When I mount, he waits; when we ride, he offers unbounded grace and a generous heart because in his wisdom he knows the sacred value of life in that moment. Being human, I cannot live as he does, but Saab has taught me to try, at least, to be present to all of the moments before death comes, as it will for both of us, and it is in this effort that I believe.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.