"I discovered that the horse is life itself, a metaphor but also an example of life's mystery and unpredictability, of life's generosity and beauty, a worthy object of repeated and ever changing contemplation." ~ Jane Smiley
Since I can remember, I've been scared of horses. No one is scared of horses, you say. Well, I am scared of horses. Since I was a child and set upon a pony for obligatory photos, I've found it easy to imagine them charging, biting and kicking their way through me at any moment. Yet, when I see horses roaming the countryside I see God putting the finishing touches on a static land. I see myself riding them proficiently, masterfully, over the mountains and into the sunset. It was with this conflicted mind that I set about trying to photograph them.
A fresh snow had fallen overnight. I stood on the road between Aspen and Snowmass at 5 o'clock in the morning with only a faint sense of the surrounding mountains and the hope of a brilliant sunrise. In the distance I could hear the exhalations of horses. The sound grew louder. Though the sun didn't break through the cloud cover as I had hoped -- the presence of these horses was an unanticipated gift, and the interaction was much more meaningful than a decent photo.
It wasn't long before a mare approached. Light brown with a white patch of hair running from forehead to nose, she smelled the air and put her head over the top of the fence, peering at me with black eyes. I backed off a few feet for fear of her biting off my hand or arm. (I never said it was a rational fear.) She left once I took a few more steps down the road.
Soon another came to the fence--this time a white horse with a broad face and a more direct disposition. His eyes hit mine square on and, with camera in hand, I found myself remaining still, not out of fear, but with intrigue at what it might feel like after twenty or more years of avoidance to touch a horse. I didn't. Instead, I took photos as the horse sniffed at my pockets, nudged the sleeves of my jacket, and, for a split second, I think, tried to attack me. He eventually walked off, leaving me to take photos of the mountains, reeling from the fact that I had let the beast touch me. Over the next few minutes more horses left their grass eating behind and came to the fence. I had become a popular attraction.
Now interaction was unavoidable. Several horses lined the fence. I cautiously touched one on the head-- coarse hair, slightly matted, stiff. I withdrew my hand quickly, but quickly put it back on the horse's head as his breath fogged up the air between us. I patted in between the ears, the long hair, softer, finer, and I pet the neck, feeling the twitch of the immense muscles. I may have even whispered to the horses (but I'll never reveal the truth).
With the touch of the horse's mane I acknowledged the fine line between fear and respect--something I certainly had not set out to do when I left the house. Did I really fear horses? Up until that interaction I was certain that I did. But now I prefer to describe horses with a profound respect; for their beauty, their majesty, their speed, agility, endurance, and their power. As Jane Smiley says, they are "an example of life's mystery and unpredictability, of life's generosity and beauty, a worthy object of repeated and ever changing contemplation." And thanks to them, the morning's lesson of fear and respect was a gift better than any sunrise photograph on earth.