There is a bond of magic between man and animal; this I have emotionally known from early on in my life. In my case, the horse has been the creature that most deeply cements this bond. Whenever it has been possible, I have had a horse to ride. The relationship with these beautiful animals has been a passion, and my treasure box of memories is filled with amazing and beautiful moments. Given my age and the bits of metal holding some of my bones together, riding is no longer an option for me. When my last horse died in 2010, I promised I would never have another. But the empty pasture now calls to me as I pass, and I can’t help but imagine bringing back the gallop of a powerful horse to that rolling field. My mind is primed with images of all breeds of horses, pondering thoughts of what sort of horsepower will be best for my Tòti Bleu project; this is the mental landscape that fills my days.
We’ve all watched films about the ‘Wild West’: horse-drawn wagons racing across the prairie, cowboys yelling and jerking the reins this way and that, bullwhips lashing out at the horses. My first driving lesson put those scenarios to rest; and fortunately, those imaginings exist only in the artifice of movies. I was surprised to feel the delicacy required to transmit a command to the horse I am presently in training with. First of all, think of what this animal is allowing me to do to him. He is harnessed, and he tolerates a bit in his mouth. Next, he is attached to a heavy, awkward vehicle. (I was happy to find there are emergency clips attached to the wagon that are easily flipped and provide an exit for the horse in the case of an accident.) My human trainer and I climb onto the driver’s seat, take the reins in our hands, and down the lane we go. There is no body contact such as one has when riding a horse, so every command must be given by voice and the clear manipulation of the reins. He is sensitive enough to feel any doubt or fear that one might have. (There are books written by people who have studied horses and believe they are telepathic as well.) I noticed immediately the difference in the gait of the horse I am training with when I fully took the reins from my teacher. The horse moved slower and with less assurance. Holding the reins, and not at all sure of myself, confusion was the message he received from me. Imagine the trust a horse must have in his driver! Every ounce of him is paying close attention to the voice and the touch of hands on the reins. At the same time, I realize that I must pay complete attention to him and what is around him. There cannot be a hint of fear from me because this intelligent creature will sense it immediately. If there is something unknown and a bit frightening to the horse along the way, one must show with voice and hands that there is nothing nearby to be feared. At the same time I have to trust the horse to obey me and not foolishly put both of us at risk. My calm and confidence is transmitted to him. Of course, he must have had the proper training, as well as a calm and willing character to begin with. in addition to proper training and knowledge, I must have an interior calm, and a love of this animal. With this in mind, it is easy to calculate how important and sensitive my selection of the horse or horses I choose for Tòti Bleu is. We must love and trust each other.
Whatever horses I end up selecting to pull Toti Bleu, they must be strong enough to do the work easily. And, they must be hardy enough to stay healthy through the long cold winters here in France. I have several breeds of horses in mind.
My favorite is the Fjord:
The Fjord is a small but strong horse originally from Norway. It is one of the oldest breeds of horses man has domesticated. For hundreds of years, it has been used as a farm horse in northern European climes. For the size and weight of a gypsy wagon, two will be necessary to do the work of one large horse. It would be a pleasure to have a couple, since horses don’t like to be alone; they would keep each other company while working and also when on pasture. I am not tall enough to harness a large draft horse whose withers are above my head; picking up the hooves of an enormous horse would be difficult as well. Therefore the size of the Fjord is perfect for me. They are known for their hardiness and lovely disposition, kind and willing. They have a beauty that brings joy to my heart.
A few years ago, a friend lent me her Fjord during a summer when my daughter Dana was visiting. We both fell in love with him and were very sad when we had to return him to his owner. One of my fondest memories is a two day ride we made together. We rode all day, finally arriving in the evening at a country inn where the horses were stabled, and we feasted on a delicious dinner. The next day, exhausted and nearly home, I will always remember Dana galloping joyfully past me; her giggling still echoes in that memory.
Another is a breed known as Merens: In our area of France, the Merens is a beautiful breed of horse–small but strong–originally from the Pyrénées mountains. They are always black. I have talked to a few people about this breed, and I get mixed responses about their disposition. An internet site I have researched describes them as “gentle, hardy and economical”. They are usually not as heavily built as a Fjord. I have not had any experience with this breed yet, but I am studying to find out more and to have a first-hand experience of the Merens.
There is also the possibility to find a small breed of draft horse. There are several in France, and they are on my list to study more deeply. Already I have read that the heavier breeds of horses are often used for meat; should I choose this particular lineage, I might be able to save a pair from that unthinkable destiny.
I’m sure as I begin to research the different possibilities, hopefully visit some horses, other interesting options can open. This coming winter will prove to be a period of waiting; there will be a lot of reading to do, stories to hear, people and horses to meet, and unexpected clues. All will continue to unfold.