To Horse

‘A duck,’ we used to read in the primer at school, ‘a duck is a long low animal, covered with feathers.’ Similarly, a horse is a long high animal, covered with confusion. I speak of the horse as we find him in the patriotic parade, where a brass band precedes him, an unaccustomed rider surmounts him, and a drum corps brings up his rear. A military parade is incomplete without its mounted guard; but I hold that there should be compulsory military training for the horse.

On the eve of our most recent patriotic procession, the Legion voted to treble the number of its mounted effectives. All overseas officers should join the mounted guard. All overseas officers were instantly up in arms. A horse was something that we personally had never bestridden. In spite of our desperate veto, the motion was carried by acclamation, and we were told that well-bred and competent horses would appear punctually just before the time for falling in. We were instructed to go to a certain corner of a side street, select our favorite form of horse from the collection we would see there, and ride him up to the green.

My mother, who had enjoyed riding in her girlhood, gave me a few quiet hints. Some horses, she said, had been trained to obey certain signals, and some to obey the exact opposite. Some would go faster if you reined them in, and others would slow down. Some waited for light touches of their master’s hand or foot, and others for their master’s voice. You had to study your horse as an individual.

I was glad to hear a little inside gossip of this sort, and made my way alone to the place appointed, skillfully dodging friends. The fence behind the garage was fringed with horses securely tied, and the top of the fence was fringed with a row of small boys, waiting. I approached the line of horses, and glanced judicially down the row. Books on ‘Reading Character At Sight’, I remembered, made a great point of the distinctions between blond and brunette, concave and convex profiles, the glance of the eye, and the manner of shaking hands. I could tell at a glance that the hand-shake of these horses would be firm and full of decision.

‘Which of these horses,’ said I to the gang on the fence, ‘would you take?’

‘This one!’ said an eager spokesman. ‘He did n’t move a muscle since they hitched him.’

The recommendation drew me instantly. Repose of manner is an estimable trait in a horse.

I looked my animal over with an artist’s eye. He was a slender creature, with that spare type of beauty that we associate with the Airedale dog. He was not, I was glad to see, a blond. I closed the inspection, and prepared to mount.

From which side does one conventionally mount a horse? I remembered that Douglas Fairbanks habitually avoids this dilemma by mounting from above — from the roof of a Mexican monastery, or the fire-escape of an apartment house. From these points he lands, perpendicularly. With this ideal in mind, I got on, clamped my legs against the sides of my horse, and walked him out into the street.

When I say that I walked him out into the street, I use the English language as I have seen it used in books; but I confess that the phrase would never have occurred to me independently. I felt at no time that afternoon any sensation of walking my horse or of doing anything else decisive with him. He walked, to be sure, dipping his head and rearing it, like a mechanical swan. But I did not feel that I was walking him. I missed the sensation of direct control that one has with a machine. When you get upon a horse you cut yourself off from accurately calculable connection with the world. He is an independent personality. His feet are on the ground, and yours are not.

I bow to literary convention, therefore, when I say that I walked my horse.

As we took our places in the ranks, I discovered that my horse would stand well, if I would let him droop his long neck and close his eyes. If, however, I drew up the reins to brace his head, he took it for a signal to start, and I had to take it all back, hastily. With the relaxed rein he bowed again, his square head bent in silent prayer.

With the approach of the band, however, he woke with a start. He reared tentatively. I discouraged that. Then he curled his body in semicircular formation, a sort of sidelong squirm. I straightened him out with a fatherly slap on the flank.

It was time to start. The band led off. The other horses started forward in docile files, but not mine. If that band was going away, he would be the last person to pursue it. Instead of going forward, he backed. He backed and backed. There is no emergency brake on a horse. He would have backed to the end of the parade, through the Knights of Columbus, the Red Cross, the Elks, the D.A.R., the Fire Department, and the Salvation Army, if it had not been for the drum corps that led the infantry. The drum corps behind him was as terrifying as the band in front. To avoid the drum corps, he had to spend part of his time going away from it. Thus his progress was a little on the principle of the pendulum: he backed from the band until he had to flee before the drums.

The ranks of my friends were demoralized by needless mirth. Army life dulls the sensibilities to the spectacle of suffering. They could do nothing to help me, except to make a clear passage for me as I alternately backed from the brasses and escaped from the drum corps. Vibrating in this way, I could only address my horse with words of feigned affection, and try to strike a position equidistant from all military music. The crowds in the street began to regard my actions as a sort of decorative manœuvre, so regular was my advance and retirement. And then the band stopped playing for a little. Instantly my horse took his place in the ranks, marched serenely, arched his slim neck, glanced about. All was as it should be.

My place was just behind the marshal, supposedly to act as his aide. He had not noticed my absence from my post, but now he turned his head, hastily.

‘Just slip back, will you,’ he said, ‘and tell Monroe not to forget the orders at the reviewing stand.’

I opened my mouth to explain my disqualifications as courier; but at that moment the band struck up, and my charger backed precipitately. The marshal, seeing my swift obedience, faced front, and I was left steadily receding, no time to explain, and the drum corps behind us was taking a rest. There was no reason for my horse ever to stop backing, unless he should back around the world until he heard the band behind him again. As I backed through the ranks of infantry, I shouted the marshal’s message to the officer of the day. I had to talk fast — ships that pass in the night. Then I put my whole mind on my horse. I tried every signal I could devise. Some horses wait for light touches from the master’s hand or foot, my mother said. I touched my animal here and there, back of the ear, at the base of the brain. I kicked a little. I jerked the reins in every direction, in Morse Code and Continental, and to the tune of S O S. My horse understood no codes.

The Knights of Columbus were now making room for me with howls of sympathetic glee. Must I back through the Red Cross, where my sisters were, and into the Daughters of the Revolution float, where my mother sat with a group of ladies around the spinning-wheel? The Red Cross had a band, if it would only play. It struck up just in time. My horse instantly became a fugitive in the right direction. On we sped, the reviewing stand almost in sight. Could I make the cavalry in time?

Heaven was kind. The drum corps had not begun to play. Through their ranks we cantered, my horse and I, and into the midst of my companions. At a signal, all bands and all drums struck up at once. My horse, in stable equilibrium at last, daring not to run forward, or to run backward, or to bolt to either side, fell into step and marched. Deafening cheers, flying handkerchiefs; my horse and I stole past, held in the ranks by a delicate balance of fourcornered fear. If you fear something behind you and something in front of you and things on both sides of you, and if your fear of all the points of the compass is precisely equal, you move with the movements of the globe. My horse and I moved that way past the reviewing stand.

My father, beaming down from the group on the stand, was pleased. Later he told me how well I sat my horse.

But that evening I had a talk with my mother, as man to man. I told her the various things that my horse had done; how he went to and fro, going to, when I urged him fro, and going fro when I urged him not to.

‘Probably he had been trained to obey the opposite signals,’ said my mother. ‘You must study your horse as an individual.’

My horse was an individual. I studied him as such. I am quite willing to believe that he had been trained to obey the opposite signals. But I cannot stifle one last question in my mind: signals opposite to what?