I guess I’m a late bloomer. Having finally reached the stability of middle age, I learned something new recently. For the first time in my 42 years of life, I rode a horse.
Some dear friends of mine had been bugging me about this for a while. They live in the middle of the state on a beautiful family homestead of rolling hills, green grass, a placid lake and silent woods. In other words, it’s a perfect place for horses. Little did I know what I had assented to by riding one of their noble steeds, and how it became a blessing in my life.
The first thing I noticed when I approached the horse was its enormous size. These are very large and powerful animals — first in presence and then in fact. And, of course, it was looking at me intently, sizing me up. I was informed that the horse’s name was Ringo. What this equine had in common with the lovable drummer of the Fab Four remains a mystery to me, but I assumed that any animal named after one of the Beatles could not be all bad.
I was given a short — very short — lesson about holding the reins and how to mount the horse and to watch its ears because inexplicably the ears would tell me what it was thinking. (How is that possible?) Ringo continued to look at me. Finally, I drew up some courage and was able, barely, to throw my leg over the horse’s body and settle into the saddle. I was told to kick him once, twice or three times depending upon how fast I wanted to go, pull left or right on the reins to change direction, pull back once on the reins to stop and once again to go in reverse. Just like a car — or so I thought.
So I kicked Ringo with my left foot. And nothing happened. So I kicked him again and still nothing happened, although this time he turned his head and looked at me seeming somewhat bemused. I patted his mane and kicked again — hard. And off we went. I realized in a flash that this was a thinking being that I was riding who needed to be convinced that I knew what I was doing. This was not a machine.
Ringo, you see, was 22 years old and had been around the corral a few times. Two members of the family rode ahead of me on other horses just to make sure Ringo didn’t gallop off with me. As we walked through the fields, they informed me that sometimes Ringo did his own thing and that I needed to exude confidence with him to let him know who was boss. Right. I was now riding a horse. A noble, sensitive, intelligent animal who was trying to figure me out as much as I was trying to understand him. Sometimes he did his own thing. So did I. We could hurt each other or we could work together.
Up and down we went, but alas, when the horse went up I went down in the saddle, and vice versa. Ouch — I’ve never felt that kind of pain in my hips before. We rode on through the woods and fields, Ringo and I getting used to each other along the way. After a while, just to see what would happen, I kicked Ringo again hard. He started to lope — which is a kind of modified run. Frightened, I pulled back on the reigns and he slowed down, completely stopped, and turned his head to look at me. Why did he keep looking at me with those big eyes?
As a peace offering, I swatted some flies away from his ears. He seemed to appreciate this, and walked on. Eventually, after 45 minutes, we returned to our starting point, and I dismounted from Ringo. I gave him an apple, which he promptly devoured, showed me his smiling teeth, and he was led away to be watered and brushed.
I was very moved. This noble animal, seemingly made precisely for human beings, inspired me with an insight into human nature and our place in God’s creation. The experience of riding a horse for the first time was the opposite experience offered by our modern, sterile, digital world. The horse sometimes listened to my commands, other times did not. Sometimes it seemingly laughed at me, challenged me, and then inexplicably complied. It responded to kindness, firm direction, but even then it was thinking. It could have seriously injured me if it had wanted to, but I could also have done the same to him.
I experienced what many others have experienced throughout human history, that in the building of a bond with as noble a creature as a horse, trust, confidence and respect were needed.
In short, riding a horse is exactly like life.
In our divided society — with the fission of the family, our nation, and even the church — Ringo the horse taught me that in sizing each other up, we need to find a way to work together for the true common good. Yes, we can and do often hurt each other. But perhaps if we approach the mystery of the other person with reverence and respect, we learn that their fears and our fears, their hopes and our hopes, are more similar than it might first appear.
We so often look at each other across the trenches of our divided society, as Ringo looked at me. And yet, if we ride on, getting to know each other better, we might discover that we have more in common than we first thought. Inexplicably and inevitably, we need each other. God, in his ineffable way, has brought us together at this time and in this place for a reason. With trust then, born of necessity, we ride on.
Fr. Girotti, who serves as vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the Curia, is author of “A Shepherd Tends His Flock.”