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Ch. 23: Horse and Man

There is no mode of progression so delightful as riding on horseback.
Walking, rowing, bicycling are pleasant exercises in their way, but the
muscular exertion and constant exercise of judgment they call for occupy
the mind partly to the exclusion of other things; so that a long walk
may sometimes be only a long walk and nothing more. In riding
we are not conscious of exertion, and as for that close observation and
accurate discernment necessary in traversing the ground with speed and
safety, it is left to the faithful servant that carries us. Pitfalls,
hillocks, slippery places, the thousand little inequalities of the
surface that have to be measured with infallible eye, these disturb us
little. To fly or go slowly at will, to pass unshaken over rough and
smooth alike, fording rivers without being wet, and mounting hills
without climbing, this is indeed unmixed delight. It is the nearest
approach to bird-life we seem capable of, since all the monster bubbles
and flying fabrics that have been the sport of winds from the days of
Montgolfier downwards have brought us no nearer to it. The aeronaut
gasping for breath above the clouds offers only a sad spectacle of the
imbecility of science and man's shattered hopes. To the free inhabitants
of air we can only liken the mounted Arab, vanishing, hawklike, over the
boundless desert.

In riding there is always exhilarating motion; yet, if the scenery
encountered be charming, you are apparently sitting still, while,
river-like, it flows toward and past you, ever giving place to fresh
visions of beauty. Above all, the mind is free, as when one lies idly on
the grass gazing up into the sky. And, speaking of myself, there is even
more than this immunity from any tax on the understanding such as we
require in walking; the rhythmic motion, the sensation as of night,
acting on the brain like a stimulus. That anyone should be able to think
better lying, sitting, or standing, than when speeding along on
horseback, is to me incomprehensible. This is doubtless due to early
training and long use; for on those great pampas where I first saw the
light and was taught at a tender age to ride, we come to look on man as
a parasitical creature, fitted by nature to occupy the back of a horse,
in which position only he has full and free use of all his faculties.
Possibly the gaucho--the horseman of the pampas--is born with this idea
in his brain; if so, it would only be reasonable to suppose that its
correlative exists in a modification of structure. Certain it is that an
intoxicated gaucho lifted on to the back of his horse is perfectly safe
in his seat. The horse may do his best to rid himself of his burden; the
rider's legs--or posterior arms as they might appropriately be
called--retain their iron grip, notwithstanding the fuddled brain.

The gaucho is more or less bow-legged; and, of course, the more crooked
his legs are, the better for him in his struggle for existence. Off his
horse his motions are awkward, like those of certain tardigrade mammals
of arboreal habits when removed from their tree. He waddles in his walk;
his hands feel for the reins; his toes turn inwards like a duck's. And
here, perhaps, we can see why foreign travellers, judging him from their
own standpoint, invariably bring against him the charge of laziness. On
horseback he is of all men most active. His patient endurance under
privations that would drive other men to despair, his laborious days and
feats of horsemanship, the long journeys he performs without rest or
food, seem to simple dwellers on the surface of the earth almost like
miracles. Deprive him of his horse, and he can do nothing but sit on
the ground cross-legged, or _en cuclillas_,--on his heels. You have, to
use his own figurative language, cut off his feet.

Darwin in his earlier years appears not to have possessed the power of
reading men with that miraculous intelligence always distinguishing his
researches concerning other and lower orders of beings. In the _Voyage
of a Naturalist,_ speaking of this supposed indolence of the gauchos, he
tells that in one place where workmen were in great request, seeing a
poor gaucho sitting in a listless attitude, he asked him why he did not
work. The man's answer was that _he was too poor to work!_ The
philosopher was astonished and amused at the reply, but failed to
understand it. And yet, to one acquainted with these lovers of brief
phrases, what more intelligible answer could have been returned? The
poor fellow simply meant to say that his horses had been stolen--a thing
of frequent occurrence in that country, or, perhaps, that some minion of
the Government of the moment had seized them for the use of the State.

To return to the starting point, the pleasures of riding do not flow
exclusively from the agreeable sensations attendant on flight-like
motion; there is also the knowledge, sweet in itself, that not a mere
cunningly fashioned machine, like that fabled horse of brass "on which
the Tartar king did ride," sustains us; but a something with life and
thought, like ourselves, that feels what we feel, understands us, and
keenly participates in our pleasures. Take, for example, the horse on
which some quiet old country gentleman is accustomed to travel; how
soberly and evenly he jogs along, picking his way over the ground. But
let him fall into the hands of a lively youngster, and how soon he picks
up a frisky spirit! Were horses less plastic, more the creatures of
custom than they are, it would always be necessary, before buying one,
to inquire into the disposition of its owner.

When I was thirteen years old I was smitten with love for a horse I once
saw--an untamable-looking brute, that rolled his eyes, turbulently,
under a cloud of black mane tumbling over his forehead. I could not take
my sight off this proud, beautiful creature, and I longed to possess him
with a great longing. His owner--a worthless vagabond, as it
happened--marked my enthusiastic admiration, and a day or two
afterwards, having lost all his money at cards, he came to me, offering
to sell me the horse. Having obtained my father's consent, I rushed off
to the man with all the money I possessed--about thirty or thirty-five
shillings, I believe. After some grumbling, and finding he could get no
more, he accepted the money. My new possession filled me with unbounded
delight, and I spent the time caressing him and leading him about the
grounds in search of succulent grasses and choice leaves to feed him on.
I am sure this horse understood and loved me, for, in spite of that
savage look, which his eyes never quite lost, he always displayed a
singular gentleness towards me. He never attempted to upset me, though
he promptly threw--to my great delight, I must confess--anyone else who
ventured to mount him. Probably the secret of his conduct was that he
hated the whip. Of this individual, if not of the species, the
celebrated description held true:--"The horse is a docile animal, but if
you flog him he will not do so." After he had been mine a few days, I
rode on him one morning to witness a cattle-marking on a neighbouring
estate. I found thirty or forty gauchos on the ground engaged in
catching and branding the cattle. It was rough, dangerous work, but
apparently not rough enough to satisfy the men, so after branding an
animal and releasing him from their lassos, several of the mounted
gauchos would, purely for sport, endeavour to knock it down as it rushed
away, by charging furiously on to it. As I sat there enjoying the fun,
my horse stood very quietly under me, also eagerly watching the sport.
At length a bull was released, and, smarting from the fiery torture,
lowered his horns and rushed away towards the open plain. Three horsemen
in succession shot out from the crowd, and charged the bull at full
speed; one by one, by suddenly swerving his body round, he avoided them,
and was escaping scot-free. At this moment my horse--possibly
interpreting a casual touch of my hand on his neck, or some movement of
my body, as a wish to join in the sport--suddenly sprang forward and
charged on the flying bull like a thunderbolt, striking him full in the
middle of his body, and hurling him with a tremendous shock to earth.
The stricken beast rolled violently over, while my horse stood still as
a stone watching him. Strange to say, I was not unseated, but,
turning-round, galloped back, greeted by a shout of applause from the
spectators--the only sound of that description I have ever had the
privilege of listening to. They little knew that my horse had
accomplished the perilous feat without his rider's guidance. No doubt he
had been accustomed to do such things, and, perhaps, for the moment, had
forgotten that he had passed into the hands of a new owner--one of
tender years. He never voluntarily attempted an adventure of that kind
again; he knew, I suppose, that he no longer carried on his back a
reckless dare-devil, who valued not life. Poor Picáso! he was mine till
he died. I have had scores of horses since, but never one I loved so
well.

With the gauchos the union between man and horse is not of so intimate a
nature as with the Indians of the pampas. Horses are too cheap, where a
man without shoes to his feet may possess a herd of them, for the
closest kind of friendship to ripen. The Indian has also less
individuality of character. The immutable nature of the conditions he is
placed in, and his savage life, which is a perpetual chase, bring him
nearer to the level of the beast he rides. And probably the acquired
sagacity of the horse in the long co-partnership of centuries has become
hereditary, and of the nature of an instinct. The Indian horse is more
docile, he understands his master better; the slightest touch of the
hand on his neck, which seems to have developed a marvellous
sensitiveness, is sufficient to guide him. The gaucho labours to give
his horse "a silken mouth," as he aptly calls it; the Indian's horse has
it from birth. Occasionally the gaucho sleeps in the saddle; the Indian
can die on his horse. During frontier warfare one hears at times of a
dead warrior being found and removed with difficulty from the horse that
carried him out of the fight, and about whose neck his rigid fingers
were clasped in death. Even in the gaucho country, however, where, I
grieve to confess, the horse is not deservedly esteemed, there are very
remarkable instances of equine attachment and fidelity to man, and of a
fellowship between horse and rider of the closest kind. One only I will
relate.

When Rosas, that man of "blood and iron," was Dictator of the Argentine
country--a position which he held for a quarter of a centuiy--desertors
from the army were inexorably shot when caught, as they generally were.
But where my boyhood was spent there was a deserter, a man named Santa
Anna, who for seven years, without ever leaving the neighbourhood of his
home, succeeded in eluding his pursuers by means of the marvellous
sagacity and watchful care exercised by his horse. When taking his rest
on the plain--for he seldom slept under a roof--his faithful horse kept
guard. At the first sight of mounted men on the horizon he would fly to
his master, and, seizing his cloak between his teeth, rouse him with a
vigorous shake. The hunted man would start up, and in a moment man and
horse would vanish into one of the dense reed-beds abounding in the
place, and where no man could follow. I have not space to tell more
about this horse; but at last, in the fulness of time, when the figs
were ripe--literally as well as figuratively, for it happened in the
autumn of the year--the long tyrannous rule ended, and Santa Anna came
out of the reed-beds, where he had lived his wild-animal life, to mix
with his fellows. I knew him some years later. He was a rather
heavy-looking man, with little to say, and his reputation for honesty
was not good in the place; but I dare say there was something good in
him.

Students of nature are familiar with the modifying effects of new
conditions on man and brute. Take, for example, the gaucho: he must
every day traverse vast distances, see quickly, judge rapidly, be ready
at all times to encounter hunger and fatigue, violent changes of
temperature, great and sudden perils. These conditions have made him
differ widely from the peasant of the Peninsula; he has the endurance
and keen sight of a wolf, is fertile in expedients, quick in action,
values human life not at all, and is in pain or defeat a Stoic.
Unquestionably the horse he rides has also suffered a great change. He
differs as much from the English hunter, for instance, as one animal can
well differ from another of the same species. He never pounds the earth
and wastes his energies in vain parade. He has not the dauntless courage
that performs such brilliant feats in the field, and that often as not
attempts the impossible. In the chase he husbands all his strength,
carrying his head low, and almost grazing the ground with his hoofs, so
that he is not a showy animal. Constant use, or the slow cumulative
process of natural selection, has served to develop a keenness of sense
almost preternatural. The vulture's eye, with all the advantage derived
from the vulture's vast elevation above the scene surveyed, is not so
far-reaching as the sense of smell in the pampa horse. A common
phenomenon on the pampas is a sudden migration of the horses of a
district to some distant place. This occurs in seasons of drought, when
grass or water fails. The horses migrate to some district where, from
showers having fallen or other circumstances, there is a better supply
of food and drink. A slight breeze blowing from the more favoured
region, which may be forty or fifty miles away, or even much further, is
enough to start them off. Yet, during the scorching days of midsummer,
very little moisture or smell of grass can possibly reach them from such
a distance.

Another phenomenon, even more striking, is familiar to every
frontiersman. For some reason, the gaucho horse manifests the greatest
terror at an Indian invasion. No doubt his fear is, in part at any rate,
an associate feeling, the coming of the Indians being always a time of
excitement and com-motion, sweeping like a great wave over the country;
houses are in flames, families flying, cattle being driven at frantic
speed to places of greater safety. Be this as it may, long before the
marauders reach the settlement (often when they are still a whole day's
journey from it) the horses take the alarm and come wildly flying in:
the contagion quickly spreads to the horned cattle, and a general
stampede ensues. The gauchos maintain that the horses _smell_ the
Indians. I believe they are right, for when passing a distant Indian
camp, from which the wind blew, the horses driven before me have
suddenly taken fright and run away, leading me a chase of many miles.
The explanation that ostriches, deer, and other fleet animals driven in
before the invaders might be the cause of the stampede cannot be
accepted, since the horses are familiar with the sight of these animals
flying from their gaucho hunters.

There is a pretty fable of a cat and dog lying in a dark room, aptly
illustrating the fine senses of these two species. "Listen! I heard a
feather drop!" said the dog. "Oh, no!" said the cat, "it was a, needle;
I saw it." The horse is not commonly believed to have senses keen as
that, and a dog tracing his master's steps over the city pavement is
supposed to be a feat no other animal can equal. No doubt the artificial
life a horse lives in England, giving so little play to many of his most
important faculties, has served to blunt them. He is a splendid
creature; but the noble bearing, the dash and reckless courage that
distinguish him from the modest horse of the desert, have not been
acquired without a corresponding loss in other things. When ridden by
night the Indian horse--and sometimes the same habit is found in the
gaucho's animal--drops his head lower and lower as the darkness
increases, with the danger arising from the presence of innumerable
kennels concealed in the grass, until his nose sweeps the surface like a
foxhound's. That this action is dictated by a powerful instinct of
self-preservation is plain; for, when I have attempted to forcibly drag
the animal's head up, he has answered such an experiment by taking the
bit in his teeth, and violently pulling the reins out of my hand. His
miraculous sense of smell measures the exact position of every hidden
kennel, every treacherous spot, and enables him to pass swiftly and
securely over it.

On the desert pampa the gaucho, for a reason that he knows, calls the
puma the "friend of man." The Arab gives this designation to his horse;
but in Europe, where we do not associate closely with the horse, the dog
naturally takes the foremost place in our affections. The very highest
praise yet given to this animal is probably to be found in Bacon's essay
on Atheism. "For take an example of a dog," he says, "and mark what a
generosity and courage he will put on when he finds himself maintained
by a man, who is to him in place of a god, or _melior natura,_ which
courage is manifestly such as that creature, without the confidence of a
better nature than its own, could never attain!" Can we not say as much
of the horse? The very horses that fly terror-stricken from the smell of
an Indian will, when "maintained by a man," readily charge into a whole
host of yelling savages.

I once had a horse at home, born and bred on the place, so docile that
whenever I required him I could go to him where the horses were at
pasture, and, though they all galloped off at my approach, he would
calmly wait to be caught. Springing on to his back, I would go after the
other horses, or gallop home with only my hand on his neck to guide him.
I did not often ride him, as he was slow and lazy, but with timid women
and children he was a favourite; he was also frequently used for farm
work, in or out of harness, and I could shoot from his back. In the
peach season he would roam about the plantation, getting the fruit, of
which he was very fond, by tugging at the lower branches of the trees
and shaking it down in showers. One intensely dark night I was riding
home on this horse. I came through a road with a wire fence on each
side, two miles in length, and when I had got nearly to the end of this
road my horse suddenly stopped short, uttering a succession of loud
terrified snorts. I could see nothing but the intense blackness of the
night before me and tried to encourage him to go on. Touching him on
the neck, I found his hair wet with the sudden profuse sweat of extreme
fear. The whip made no impression on him. He continued to back away, his
eyes apparently fixed on some object of horror just before him, while he
trembled to such a degree that I was shaken in the saddle. He attempted
several times to wheel round and run away, but I was determined not to
yield to him, and continued the contest. Suddenly, when I was beginning
to despair of getting home by that road, he sprang forward, and
regularly charged the (to me) invisible object before him, and in
another moment, when he had apparently passed it, taking the bit between
his teeth he almost flew over the ground, never pausing till he brought
me to my own door. When I dismounted his terror seemed gone, but he hung
his head in a dejected manner, like a horse that has been under the
saddle all day. I have never witnessed another such instance of almost
maddening fear. His terror and apprehension were like what we can
imagine a man experiencing at sight of a ghost in some dark solitary
place.

Yet he did not forcibly carry me away from it, as he might so easily
have done; but, finding himself maintained by a "nature superior to his
own," he preferred to face it. I have never met in the dog a more
striking example of this noblest kind of brute courage. The incident did
not impress me very much at the moment, but when I came to reflect that
my sight was mere blindness compared with that of my horse, and that it
was not likely his imagination clothed any familiar natural object with
fantastic terrors, it certainly did impress me very deeply.

I am loth to finish with, my subject, in which, to express myself in the
manner of the gauchos, I have passed over many matters, like good grass
and fragrant herbs the galloping horse sniffs at but cannot stay to
taste; and especially loth to conclude with this last incident, which
has in it an element of gloom. I would rather first go back for a few
moments to my original theme--the pleasures of riding, for the sake of
mentioning a species of pleasure my English reader has probably never
tasted or even heard of. When riding by night on the pampas, I used to
enjoy lying back on my horse till my head and shoulders rested well on
his back, my feet also being raised till they pressed against his neck;
and in this position, which practice can make both safe and comfortable,
gaze up into the starry sky. To enjoy this method of riding thoroughly,
a sure-footed unshod horse with perfect confidence in his rider is
necessary; and he must be made to go at a swift and smooth pace over
level grassy ground. With these conditions the sensation is positively
delightful. Nothing of earth is visible, only the vast circle of the
heavens glittering with innumerable stars; the muffled sound of the
hoofs on the soft sward becomes in fancy only the rushing of the wings
of our Pegasus, while the enchanting illusion that we are soaring
through space possesses the mind. Unfortunately, however, this method of
riding is impracticable in England. And, even if people with enthusiasm
enough could be found to put it in practice by importing swift
light-footed Arabian or pampa horses, and careering about level parks on
dark starry nights, probably a shout of derision would be raised against
so undignified a pastime.

_Apropos_ of dignity, I will relate, in conclusion, an incident in my
London life which may possibly interest psychologists. Some time ago in
Oxford Street I got on top of an omnibus travelling west. My mind was
preoccupied, I was anxious to get home, and, in an absent kind of way, I
became irritated at the painfully slow rate of progress. It was all an
old familiar experience, the deep thought, lessening pace, and
consequent irritation. The indolent brute I imagined myself riding was,
as usual, taking advantage of his rider's abstraction; but I would soon
"feelingly persuade" him that I was not so far gone as to lose sight of
the difference between a swinging gallop and a walk. So, elevating my
umbrella, I dealt the side of the omnibus a sounding blow, very much to
the astonishment of my fellow-passengers. So overgrown are we with
usages, habits, tricks of thought and action springing from the soil we
inhabit; and when we have broken away and removed ourselves far from it,
so long do the dead tendrils still cling to us!

W. H. Hudson