|Photo: Dory Touhey|
"The Teacher's Teacher" is about a great pony that I was lucky enough to be in a partnership with, while it's mostly about the journey of the horse, and our misconception of our true place in their lives.
By Rhonda Hoskins Arza
This past fall, while searching for a book in my son Ryan’s bedroom, I found a stall plate with the name of our old pony “Church Mouse”. As I contemplated the sweetness of her perfect name with waterlogged eyes, I must have winced because Ryan heard me from his study, and asked immediately, loudly calling, "Mom are you okay?"
"Yes I'm fine honey. I just found Daphne's nameplate in your room, and I got a little sad that's all."
Then he asked the hard question, “Mom, do you even know where she is anymore?" The truth was I was unsure. I had given her to a dear family friend some years ago, who used her in her school program for a few years after we sold our farm, and I had been told that she had found her a great retirement home with a family in Barrington who had young grand kids who enjoyed riding her around from time to time, but I had not heard anything about her for years, and I started to feel guilty for losing track, for not asking about her occasionally, and mostly I felt at fault for not thinking about her enough anymore. Even though I was certain that Daphne was always in the best of hands, and had been cared for and loved every day since she left my world, I was certain that she must have died by then, she had to be at least thirty five years old or more, and not knowing definitively made the guilt transparent. I prayed for forgiveness not only for losing track of Daphne, but for losing track of most of them.
After being a part of the horse industry for more than thirty seven years, it is difficult to count all of the horses and ponies who have come in and out of my life, horses who I have loved and cherished. Reflecting on the life span of a horse, and how many different experiences each horse must embrace is complicated for most of us. If they had tough times we really do not want to know, as falsehearted as this not knowing may feel for us. As trainers and as horse owners, we can only ask ourselves to love them while they are with us, because sometimes without notice they move on, and many of us are overcome with the weight of a self-imposed responsibility to see the horses owned by us, and even those owned by others, through during their lives. It seems unreasonable to put such burden on ourselves as trainers, as we work within a transient sport, filled with horses and owners who move from one place to the next, and then on to the next again. Though in some way we feel a troubling heaviness, and we carry this guilt for years like baggage whose weight can only be eased if we can find them again.
It was overwhelming to find that name plate, and as I sat on Ryan’s bed, and held it up to the light coming in from his bedroom window, I asked for forgiveness from her. Forgiveness for not keeping up with her, for seemingly not caring about her anymore, and most of all I needed understanding for forgetting what she had done for me, and for only just now realizing the magnitude of her significance throughout my career as a teacher of this magnificent sport that I owed so much to, as I sat there and recognized her reflection through the memories of her life with me; All that she had taught me, all that she had prepared me for, I could now see her lessons so vividly laid out before me.
In my asking, a merciful and miraculous answer came almost instantly, as if within the complexity of the question of where she was, held the simplicity of the answer. That same afternoon, during my daily routine of working on school stuff with Ryan, and completing mundane household chores, my husband Rene sent me a text message that read, "Check your email :)". The incredulous thing was that I hadn't spoken to him at all yet that day, so he could not have known that I had found the name plate, and especially how finding it had affected me so deeply, because even I was surprised by my visceral reaction followed by an entire afternoon of beating myself up.
In my inbox I found a forward sent by our family friend who had taken Daphne for us all of those years ago that read, "Guess who this is?", and when I opened it there was a photograph of our beautiful Daphne taken just days earlier. Though her coat was long and had dulled, her chestnut roan color showed itself quite prominently, and I could see that she had aged ever so gracefully, and that she still had her adorable round bulging goldfish shaped eyes that now made her look like a kind and wise grandmotherly pony mare. Her beautiful flaxen mane that was her trademark had grown long and now looked like stringy human blonde locks. She had a small child sitting upon her bareback with a halter and lead rope, and she was surrounded by a charming backdrop of a white barn with lovely white fencing.
Irony didn’t begin to explain the velocity of the answer to my question; the only explanation was of course the simplest most blessed one. What I hadn't considered in the present however, I surely have considered in retrospect with seamless clarity. Daphne came into my life undoubtedly to teach the teacher. In my twenty four years as a riding instructor, there has been no horse or pony that stands out to me as my teacher more than she does. Somehow, she knew exactly how to communicate with me as I taught lessons with her, and my job was as simple as taking each prompt from her as she guided me. It was an astounding experience, and I am certain that without her observable ability to show me the way, I would not be able to read the more subtle cues that other horses use to help me teach their riders today. Given that Daphne had such a strong will, there was no way around working from within her perspective, and there was no avoiding learning to teach by listening to her strong wisdom and guidance.
Although she was already a late teenager when I purchased her as my first very own lesson pony from a good friend and colleague who knew she would be perfect for me, Daphne had the unique range to teach many levels of riders. She was able to teach first time riders of four or five years old, as well as teaching more seasoned kids who rode in short stirrup to 2’6”, and she had taken many kids all the way up to the large pony division long before I had her. She really was an instructor’s dream pony. She knew when it was time for her to give them confidence, and she understood exactly when it was time for them to learn to ride. She understood the unique needs of each rider’s level, and through her lifetime of experience as a teaching pony, she effortlessly exhibited to me how to ready each of them for the next step in their riding education.
I am a huge advocate of starting new riders on the lunge line. It gives the student time to learn so many important basic skills on horseback, and it also gives them time to develop a trusting relationship of the partnership of three that goes on in learning to ride. There is a horse, a rider, and myself, and the three of us together have to trust each other fully. I love the lunge line also because it is like a life preserver for a new rider, and when the time is right to let it go, it is such a great feeling of accomplishment for all of us. Daphne however, hated the lunge line. She would do it begrudgingly, but she would only go one direction, and she held her ears back the entire time, often crinkling her nose and shaking her head up and down in disgust towards me, especially when I would urge her to pick up a trot, or to increase her speed.
One week she and I had many brand new beginner lessons coming in seemingly all at once. She and I had to teach two or three thirty minute lunge line lessons a day, and she was finished with it. I remember lifting a tiny little girl by the leg to wheel her up on the pony's back. Daphne made no move, and she stood perfectly still as she always did, but when I went to clip the lunge line onto her bit she rounded her back ever so slightly, and she squealed just a little as if to threaten me. I swear I could hear her speaking loud and clear, "If you lunge me one more time lady, this kid won't live to tell the story of her first pony ride."
I paused for a moment, and I contemplated the consequences of what I was about to try, verses the cost of asking Daphne to teach one more lunge line lesson. I seriously considered the child's inability to steer, or to stop, or to get her to go, or to communicate in any way with this pony mare of great opinion. I walked alongside the pony with the child for a long while, instructing her from the mental cassette recorder playing “Beginner Lesson #1” aloud from within my head, while I was actually really considering how I was going to get Daphne to agree to the lunge line again. While I jogged along side of them for a bit I felt the moment was right to say to her out loud, "Okay Daphne, I trust you."
I carefully and slowly backed towards the center of the arena, leaving the pony and this little baby out on the rail together. I remember the rider’s reins were miles long, her feet were dangerously home in the stirrups, her heels up, knees gripping. Her leg, which barely reached the bottom of the flaps of the saddle, was flailing behind her, and as I gently redirected the child's position with my watchful words, I looked on in amazement as Daphne dropped her head low, took a deep breath of freedom and relaxation from the confinement of what was to her that horrible lunge line, and she walked ever so quietly as she awaited my next instruction aimed towards her. She treated the entire arena as one great big lunge line, and instead of a rope tied to her she listened for my words, watched my body language, and I watched in bewilderment as she continually assessed the ability level and the balance of her rider. "Trot Daphne", I cautiously instructed.
She gazed back at me with those noble bulging eyes, and I clearly heard her speak to me once again and she said ever so clearly, “You teach the riding, I’ll give the lessons”.
Then she picked up the slowest most careful shuffling slow jog I had ever seen, and as I repeated, "Up down" again and again to my rider, she stayed within the exact rhythm of my voice, and clung closely to the groove made by the others who had trotted before her on the rail. I rejoiced in my mind thinking of the freedom of trusting her with the tiniest of souls on horseback, and then I noticed an even more extraordinary thing, I noticed that with each lap after she rounded the corner and was on the long side she would prick her ears forward and physically turn her head towards the inside, and look right at me. When she did this I would point my finger towards her and say, “Not yet Daphne”, and she would then allow her ears to fall into the position where she could best listen to her rider. When it was time to come in, I would simply crumple a candy mint wrapper in my fingers, and in she would jog, stopping to walk just short of me. Daphne and I taught beginner riders together like this for many years, she and I shed our lunge line, and because I recognized the moment when the teacher needed to listen, to trust her, and to honor her needs, our partnership continually grew.
With all of the appeal of her ability to be good with baby riders, she was a pony mare after all, and she knew how and when to teach children the dangers of horses and horseback riding. She was quiet and sensitive with new riders, but older more seasoned kids were constantly being hardened and tested by Daphne. She had developed a rock hard mouth from all of the rough hands throughout the years of being a lesson pony, and there was no amount of pulling or leverage that could stop her if she made up her mind to go. A beginner rider could learn how to canter on her because she had a perfect tranter, she could four beat perfectly, cantering in front but somehow trotting behind. But if a rider kicked her too hard to try to make her go faster, she was virtually impossible to stop. I could generally coax her into the center with my candy wrapper, but one day she went straight for a 3'0 ramped oxer backwards, jumped it, and then came running over to me. Luckily the small child riding her, who had never jumped, had been taught her two point well enough that she automatically found her jumping position, and actually made it look planned.
Daphne also had to be ridden only in enclosed arenas. She was known to pull a few riders over her head if she could get to the nearest grassy area, and she even took a few riders back to the barn, and into the aisle way narrowly avoiding the crossties. One year she was showing in short stirrup with a very good riding child with a lot of experience. The rider had just finished her winning round, as Daphne rarely made a mistake in the show ring, and Daphne was exiting the arena at a very forward walk. I reached out to grab the reins to stop her for our post round conversation, but they slipped quickly past me. I called to the student to turn her around, but Daphne had already picked up a trot. She began heading down the steep hill towards the barns, and then she began to canter. The child's mom began to run after her, I grabbed my golf cart, and we started down the hill but we had lost sight of them completely. We started searching the stabling areas but still didn't find the runaway pony until we spotted the two of them walking along the road coming back towards us, kid dismounted, pony in tow. “What happened?” I inquired, “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” she said, rather calmly for a child who had just been run away with, “Some man reached out and stopped her down by the barns.” Neither one seemed phased, unbelievably. I always made sure Daphne was properly escorted out of the show ring after that day, and that tough little kid, not surprisingly, now rides as a professional.
Daphne also had a great sense of when it was time for a child to graduate to a new pony. She would decide without notice, but I always knew when they were getting close because she would challenge them in new ways, she would first look within her bag of usual tricks, and when those no longer worked, she would simply buck them off. That was my clue that it was in fact their final ride on Daphne, and they were ready for the next step.
Daphne composed brilliant schemes to teach children both leadership, and how to always pay attention to their mounts body language. I asked two of my young riders to bathe Daphne after their lesson. I was in my loft office when I heard blood curdling screams from the barn aisle below. I ran down the stairs as quickly as I could, and I found the girls standing outside her open stall door. One had a lead rope, and the other was just standing there shaking in her paddock boots. "What on earth happened?" I asked curtly, noticing Daphne inside her stall munching quietly and innocently on her hay.
"She won't let us go in and get her." the teary eyed one explained.
"That's ridiculous," I said sounding more irritated, "Just walk in there and grab her by the halter."
I stood and watched as the braver one with the lead rope tentatively went back in to try one more time. She gingerly walked towards the pony and sure enough, with teeth bearing, Daphne charged at her like a rabid dog. "Daphne,” I yelled walking past the two kids, marching straight into her stall, "That is terrible behavior!", and I grabbed her halter and put her lead rope on, and lead her out. I worked with the girls for a long time, we spoke about leadership, and I told them to march in there with authority, and not to make eye contact when they went in her stall, because if she got them to look at her with just a little bit of fear in their eyes, she knew she could lunge towards them to get them back out again. I had them each go in and get her fifteen times, and when I was certain the girls were leaders and no longer followers, at least for that day, I left the kids to take her for her bath.
They had each given enough supervised baths, so I was confident that if one held her in the outdoor wash rack and the other one used the hose, they would have no problems. Daphne always enjoyed her baths without incident, but what I hadn't considered was how smart Daphne was, and how much she was enjoying toying with these kids. Once again, I heard the same outlandish screams from the girls, and I stood in amazement at what I found. Daphne was standing with her right front hoof on the toes of the girl with the running hose, and her left front hoof was standing on the toes of the girl with the lead rope. She was actually holding them there, so neither one could move.
Luckily, the kids were okay, and thankfully they were both laughing at the ridiculousness of the whole situation. She taught them a lot that day. She taught us all a lot every day. I owned Daphne a total of ten years, and as hard as it was to let her go, when the time came, I knew that her place was no longer with me, and that she had many useful years left as a lesson pony to teach other children, and other young instructors how to understand and listen to the language of each horse.
The day that I found the nameplate, and received the photo I cried for so many reasons as I stared at her now older and weathered frame, and saw the same gift of a deep dimpled smile on the face of this child that I had seen Daphne give to so many other little girls throughout her years with us. I thought about how blessed I was to receive my answer, and that perhaps it was my moment to understand that my responsibility with the horses lies within the present, not within their past or their future. I can only do what I do when I am with them, and if I am lucky enough to be there when the horse is passed along, I can rest knowing that I have helped them make their next best move.
I contemplated the philosophy that like us, perhaps each horse has their own predetermined journey, and because free will is not a choice among domestic animals living in a human world, their only purpose lies within the lessons they are sent here to teach each of us, lessons that are perhaps predestined long before they are born. They have many lives to touch, and much to do, and even if their journey is an often difficult one, it is our sole duty to do our best to help them through if we are able, but moreover to learn the lessons they bring to each of us along the way. If during their passage I can be a soft place to land for a time, then I can accept that, and hope that I learned the lessons which they each brought for me, and that it is enough to send them off to complete their mission here, and to also send with them hope that others won't miss the opportunity they are being given to learn from these vast souls who have much to teach.
I mercifully received the message a few days ago, that after a well lived life full of love, and a blessed lifetime of devoted owners, Daphne completed her teaching assignment here. She left us better listeners, better teachers, better horseman, and great leaders, but especially she made us better people for having learned so much from her, as she was called to move on to do her teaching now as a reflection from heaven, a much gentler place from which to send us her messages, her final and perfect home.