Saturday, December 08, 2007

Knowing Fancy

I am reviving this blog with a story about something about which I have hardly ever written: my horse, Fancy. Anyone who knows me knows how important Fancy has been in my life. I’ve owned him almost 15 years, and I owe much of my personality development to the time I’ve spent with horses. This makes it all the stranger that I’ve never really written about them.

But why haven‘t I? I’ve written about my car, about Hawthorne, about irony and all the ideas that I consider so central to my life. But Fancy, who is equally central, has never appeared in my work. Part of the reason I’ve never addressed the topic is that my horse-life has been quite apart from the rest of my life. Every time I go out to the barn, it is like walking into parallel life. Even my personality is different. I am all-business, serious, and often silent. When I ride, I am so focused that I don’t have a single off topic thought. Taciturn, focused, workaholic--these are not terms normally used to describe me! In my other life, I espouse on the benefits of idleness (and experience those benefits often enough), procrastinate, and my thoughts are like a string of xmass lights (to use a seasonal metaphor): hopelessly tangled, flickering and if one idea goes bad the whole mess might click off.

Compartmentalizing--keeping aspects of one’s life apart from each other--is the prerequisite to having a double life. It would be a useful ability if I had any plans to be an adulterer or a embezzler. In general, I don’t think it’s a good thing which why I am glad that my horse life and my artistic life have begun to converge. The catalyst has been the discipline Fancy and I now do. Dressage (“horse ballet” for the uninitiated) has a strong interpretive and aesthetic element, so I have had to begin thinking like an artist when riding. The terms used to describe the horse’s performance are even poetic: impulsion, expression, lightness, trueness, suspension, loft… The way I think about riding and the way I think about writing are suddenly not so alien to each other.

Dressage itself might be a topic for another post. But I wanted to write about Fancy because of something that happened the other day. Last Monday, I took Fancy to Michigan State University’s Veterinary Hospital because he keeps losing weight. Normally, vets make farm calls, and taking a horse to a veterinary hospital is only necessary if the horse's problems or diagnosis are beyond local vets. Veterinary hospitals can offer better care to horses because they are actual facilities--with X-Ray machines, surgical equipment, and exam rooms.

When I first unloaded Fancy and led into the hospital, he was put into a "holding stall," a normal looking affair without any bedding. But once his number was up, we walked into an exam area that looked eerily like an actual hospital. There was no hay or shavings on the floor, no buckets, and very few of the trappings one associates with a barn. The exam room had a stainless steel table, a sink and cabinetry just like a human doctor's office. There were a few computers hooked to machines, carts, and on the wall, a wipe board, used for teaching veterinary students. The total effect was like walking Fancy into a completely human realm. The only thing that gave indication that this was a place for animals was the exam platform--a metal chute that contained the horse for examination.

Fancy was surprisingly willing to walk into this world, and stepped right into the chute. The veterinary students attached a rope in front of him and behind him, wholly containing him. When I looked at him so trapped, in this place so sterile and human, I began to feel afraid for him. What did he make of his surroundings? He was looking around, touching everything with his nose, occasionally whinnying and though he was behaving well during his exam, I couldn’t believe that he wasn't deeply unsettled by the space. I was holding his lead-rope and watching him as he looked around and I began to see the room as I imagined he saw it. In a horse barn, there are few hard edges or bright colors. Everything is muted--old wood with the angles chewed off, dark stalls, leather tack, dirt aisles. But this room was all crisp lines, bright white, and edges. I watched Fancy looking over a stainless steel metal cabinet and I, too, started to see it as if it were a cause of wonder and fear

The exam was exhaustive, and Fancy was subjected to a full ultrasound of all his organs, which involved a probe digging into his side while a machine was wheeled around him. At one point, the vet used the wipe board to draw a diagram of a horse's heart murmur, and Fancy insisted on craning his head to join the circle of students watching the board. They all cooed and petted him and said he was so sweet, but I found the whole scene disconcerting. No one can really know an animal's mind, but he seemed to be constantly touching everything and demanding attention (if a student was within his reach, he would nuzzle them until he was acknowledged) as if he was trying to confirm the reality of what was around him. He even looked up once, noticed a hanging cord and pushed that with his nose in a way that could only be described as contemplative, as if it might contain some clue as to his fate. Did he wonder what happened to his life as a horse? Did he wonder what happened to fields and sky and other horses? Being in the presence of Fancy in a place so out of context made me acutely and suddenly aware of his consciousness in a way I am normally not.

I've owned Fancy for almost fifteen years, and I've ridden him nearly every week of that time. Our familiar and complicated interactions as horse and rider are so absorbing that I have rarely considered the great and immense mystery of the difference between us. Fancy and I communicate with each other in a way that has become second nature--I can predict his reactions, I can tell when he's feeling good, or frustrated, or playful, and I have no doubt he can read the same from me. But knowing how to communicate with Fancy is entirely different from knowing Fancy.

In this exam room, so divorced from the familiar context where we interact, the mystery of how Fancy experiences the world was suddenly overwhelming. He was so dissonant against his surroundings that his presence seemed particularly vivid. I look at Fancy's eyes often to determine what he needs from me, whether it be comfort or discipline. But now I looked into those eyes and saw how inaccessible he was and will always be to me.

People who own animals are often accused of anthropomorphizing them, giving them human feelings and thoughts. Scientists who study animals tend to classify their behavior as a series of automated instincts and responses to stimulus. The truth of what animals experience, think and feel is probably neither of those poles. No matter how logically we try to infer the mind of an animal from an animal's behavior, it will always remain a mystery as great and wonderful as death. Sometimes, I think about the mystery of death and I wonder how there can be any other topic of conversation. How can people act so casual in the midst of such an immense and terrifying unkown? Shouldn't people be grabbing each other by the lapels and demanding answers? I had the same feeling in the exam room with Fancy. How could we stand in the presence of that alien consciousness and speculate about anything but the universe that exists in him?