I came across the skeleton halfway up the mountain, almost hidden in a bracken-choked ditch. The skull was ten feet removed from the spine and ribs, the legs splayed out, fur still attached to the fetlocks. The hooves were separated but perfectly intact like two pairs of slippers left at a bedside. The ribs rested on a matt of dun hair which leaned and blew with the surrounding sedge. I’d passed this way only two days before and there had been no body. The ravens must have had a feast. The bones were picked clean, the skull hollowed of its brain. Nearby the herd grazed calmly, unconcerned that the bones of one of their members lay next to them. Perhaps horses are a species which do not mourn. Or perhaps this particular breed are so coarse, so used to a life of tribulation on these exposed slopes that their feelings have petrified like the mountain.
All the surrounding hill commons have their herd, some almost wild, others bred by local graziers and kept uncherished, like worthless treasure. The higher the elevation, the more hardy the ponies that live there. The ground above 2000 feet is populated by small, sturdy creatures with matted manes grown almost to the ground. Most have the dished profiles and large eyes of Welsh ponies, traits that are not from the original native breeds of these uplands, but bred in when farmers released Arab stallions onto the hills to improve the stock. I once went to a demonstration by a famous horse whisperer and, as a test, a farmer brought him one of the hill ponies to be tamed. When the pony entered the round pen it made no response at all to its surroundings, calmly grazing in front of the audience. When the whisperer threw his rope, an act which would normally get any horse bucking and running, the pony didn’t respond. Then, when no-one expected anything to happen, the pony started galloping around the pen and simply would not stop. In the end the horseman could make no impression at all on the wild thing and the pony was let loose into the fields while the demonstration continued with more biddable unbiddable creatures.
My father was fanatical about two things in life, horses and gambling. A love for the former led to an addiction to the latter. He’d grown up in the 1930s, part of a family of miners and pottery workers who also dabbled in the horse trade. He’d had a succession of donkeys, pit ponies, Welsh cobs and Irish hunters to care for when he was in school. He had stories about all of them, from the pony that jumped an eight-foot wall to escape pulling their cart, to the donkey which just refused to move. I think he was made to spend his life with horses, but he only had an early glimpse of that life. He didn’t own one until he was 80 years old and unable to stand. On his last visit to the horse I shared with him he sat in the back seat of my car and stroked the velvet nostrils which sniffed at him through the open window.
The first horse I saw die was a brood mare which had been left semi-feral on a large farm for a decade, producing a foal a year. She had a name which everyone had forgotten and no-one seemed to know much about her, even the breeder. She was rarely handled except when it was time to separate her from her foal so it could be taken to market. She had been grazing in a corner of a field and had been unable to get out of the way of a kick by another mare. Her back leg had broken. At first it was hard to know that there was anything wrong with her. She lay peacefully on the grass, her head up and legs tucked under her, looking at the world with little interest, not bothering to shake away the flies that swarmed around her eyes. It was only when the herd moved on and she still lay there hours later that they noticed the injury, the back leg at an impossible angle. She showed no signs of pain, not even a small increase in her breathing and her disinterest stayed with her beyond her last breath.
I’m walking the steep path up the side of Twmpa, where a week ago I discovered the pony skeleton. The north face of Hay Bluff is a blue pool of shadow as the sun floats free of its summit. Downhill the hedges are coming back to life, some of them grown out and punctuated with hawthorns which are blazing white, the landscape like a quilt with burst stitching. Nearby, foals are suckling their mothers. There are perhaps a hundred ponies running wild on these hills. Standing grazing by an outcrop of mudstone is a black mare with a smoke grey filly foal who was only born last night, under a full moon. My dog is unusually interested in her, the smell of her mother’s blood and amniotic fluid still fresh. The filly steps away from the dog and I see how shaky she is, like a clockwork antelope, still getting used to her knees. She doesn’t seem overly concerned and slips her head beneath her mother’s barrel stomach to feed. In two days she’ll be able to keep up with the galloping herd, she’ll run rings around the grazing mares, and sprint flat out, kicking her back legs and leaping with the sheer joy of being inside her own body. She’ll have the whole summer to herself before the storms roll in, and then the cold, when she’ll have to knuckle down to the miserable business of survival.
Flight animals have hairpin triggers, they are always tensed and coiled tight. Run your hand down a horse’s legs and you’ll touch fur over bone, cord and stone-hard muscle. The role of those legs is to open gaps, to leave behind, to release the creature from the threat, which, over millennia, has mostly been us. If you’ve ever sat on a horse as it spooked you’ll know that human reaction times are snail slow. A rider with a bad seat can be left Wile E Coyote style, hanging in mid-air with the horse long gone. Fear is ever present in a horse. They evolved to stampede. And yet they’ve stood under us and alongside us in fields swimming with our and their blood, with the air screaming and shells going off all around. Somehow, they’ve learned to love us.
You start with the head, your hand behind the ears, at first just resting and then slowly applying pressure, very gradually until the horse gives. It can be the slightest yield of the neck muscles, the head lowering a fraction. As soon as you feel it you release. Then you try again, and you wait until the give comes again and you release again. In some horses it can take days, in others seconds. Then you start between the muzzle and forehead, applying a little pressure towards you, away from you. Pressure, release. It is in the release that the understanding between you begins. The American horseman Bill Dorrance was still using this technique when he was in his eighties and helping the most ruined racehorses. He was so fragile himself that he had to be lifted into the saddle with a homemade crane. But he managed to earn the trust of the wildest and most dangerous horses, all by using the release. The release is a way for a horse to open up the tiniest of gaps on you. And that’s all they need.
Our relationship with the wild, and with what’s left of the wild inside us, is at a critical stage. We keep doubling down in our attempts at total control as everything around us starts to stampede. But it’s in releasing that we earn the confidence of the universe and its beings. Most of us are numb to the pain of other species, and it is the numbness of a scab over a wound. Once we too ran fast and wild under an open sky. We still can. When you run flat out there’s a point you reach, before your muscles start to burn, when you feel that you might be suspended, that your feet might not land again. Your mind goes blank to the roar of your body. There might be other ways to release ourselves from ourselves but this is one of the few methods I’ve discovered. It’s a way to put on your animal skin and run like a horse.
It is almost completely dark. I cannot see the ground under my feet. The earth is black, the sky blue-black. There is a bat circling me. I flush a snipe from the bracken. It bullets away shrieking. As its call fades I hear the sound of grass being ripped. By accident I’ve walked into the middle of the herd. I’m surprised because, earlier in the day, they had been three miles away to the west of here. As my eyes tune in I can make out two white mares and their foals, the shapes of the others vague, just variations of shadow. I’m stepping as lightly as I can, making little noise. I don’t want to disturb them, but I know I will. I stand still for a while, taking in the sound of their grazing, their breathing, feeling the calm that they exude. Perhaps they do know I’m here. I turn to walk back the way I came, trying to keep away from the foals, but then I trip on a gorse root and fall. As I land they’re already on the move, twenty of them galloping, the ground like the skin of a drum. I can see their silhouettes, arched necks and trailing manes. Already they’re halfway up the hill and within seconds they are gone, over the horizon. Long after they disappear I can still feel them, in my muscles, my ribs, my heartbeat.
James Roberts lives on the edge of the Black Mountains in Wales. He is the founding editor of Zoomorphic magazine. His essays and poems have been published in several journals. His latest project can be found at nightriverwood.com .
The photograph is by the author.