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Horsing Around

Book review: Conversations With a Prince by Helen Husher


Published June 15, 2005 at 6:35 p.m.

Every sport and pastime has its obsessives --the people who dissect an ice skater's layback spin, recite the ancestry of their pedigreed dogs, tell you how to get to every single level of "Tomb Raider." There's something compelling about folks who can discourse on their pet topics with a fevered, geeky intensity. When the obsessive has a way with words, even those who couldn't care less about skating or hounds or video games may find themselves hunkering down to listen.

That's the case with Montpelier writer Helen Husher's new book Conversations with a Prince, a meditation on horses and the people --mostly women --who love them. Part of Husher's book is reportage: She interviews the owners and teachers at Plainfield's East Hill Farm, a "thirty-horse boarding and lesson barn," about their experiences with equines. But this is no "objective," from-the-outside-in view of horse culture. Husher is a passionate, nearly lifelong rider, and she writes with the love of technical subtleties and lingo that separates the truly obsessed from the dabblers.

In a discussion of what it's like to watch show-jumping competitions, Husher confesses, "I have exasperated more than one companion by my perfect readiness to spend hours on end doing nothing else." Yet, even while employing terminology that means nothing to the non-horsey reader --"steady twos," "easy threes," "in and outs" --Husher somehow manages to convey just what's so "infinitely interesting" about watching dozens of horses jump the same fence. Horses, she explains, are far-sighted, with a "surprisingly large triangle of nothingness that extends about six feet in front of [them.]" Hence "when a horse leaves the ground ... he is actually jumping a memory." Will he navigate his "blind flight" correctly, or will he balk or fall short, subjecting his rider to a Christopher Reeve-style disaster? Taking us inside the animal's head, Husher makes the case that what looks like a simple, exuberant leap is anything but.

Another way in which Husher holds the reader's interest is by giving her book a slippery, elusive format, halfway between essay and memoir. Some of her chapters begin with aphoristic generalities that lead into increasingly focused meditations --"The idea that riding is for rich folks is both true and untrue," for instance, or "When we tell our stories about horses, they answer by telling us the truth, which can make for an unsettling transaction." To back up these cryptic statements, Husher takes us on a breathless tour of horse history and lore, including affectionate yet skeptical discussions of the classic stories that make little girls beg for ponies: Black Beauty and National Velvet. (Like much good children's literature, both turn out to be odder and deeper than we remember.) Something about horses, Husher believes, makes people want to tell stories, particularly fantasies about servitude, oppression and redemption by the "right" rider.

What do the horses themselves think of all this? Husher doesn't presume to know, but she does use her personal experience with the animals as a foil and a reality-check for our cultural mythologies. The book contains two parallel stories. One concerns Husher's return to riding in her fifties and how she gradually becomes a better rider of several horses at East Hill Farm, including the "cockeyed and ebullient" Prince of the title.

The other story, closer to a conventional horse narrative, tells us how the young Husher took her foster sister's jumpy pinto mare, Gem, and transformed her into a confident show horse named Bones. Husher uses this narrative to show us what the tales of equine redemption ignore --namely, the vagaries and misunderstandings in the interaction between a horse and even her most well-meaning rider. Horse stories, with their abusers and saviors, merely obscure the unpleasant fact that "All riders, however accomplished they may be right now, have behaved badly toward some horse at some time in the past."

Despite the ribbons she won with Bones, Husher describes herself as a "tentative" rider. When it comes to stringing words together, though, she's firmly in the saddle. While Husher's style is conversational, it's acerbic and never rambling, and she can turn a mean metaphor. Riding Prince, for instance, the author feels "reminded ... of a bumper car, with its yawing, mushy, and approximate steering, but his tiny strides also felt dry and strangely inanimate, as if I were mounted on a manic and perhaps defective sewing machine." While some readers may find these descriptions almost too precise, i.e., overwritten, part of the fun of Conversations with a Prince comes from trying to imagine how such a ride would actually feel.

Husher's preferred metaphor for riding in general is "conversation --with its flow of ideas, objections, proposals, counterproposals, rebellions, limits, reactions, and treaties." She's not an anthropomorphist who thinks that horses want to chat silently with us about the weather and increasing their ration of hay. Rather, she believes that good riding is based on being open to the signals your partner is sending and a willingness to "calibrate other creatures as individuals." Here the book expands beyond the radius of Husher's "obsessive" pursuit --that's fine advice for dealing not just with horses but with human beings.