One of the first school fights I got into was when I was in fifth grade. A gangly, stringy-haired girl who wore horse T-shirts and came to school with mud on her shoes from feeding horses was an easy target for would-be bullies. But don’t feel bad for me, I wasn’t a kind fifth grader. I’m pretty sure I tried to kick a few of the other kids.
The fight was over the phrase “It’s just a horse.” You know like saying “it’s just a squirrel” when you run over a furry, confused critter running zig-zag across the black top.
In the horse world (the world of horse people, that is), a few of us actually refer to non-horse people as “muggles,” borrowing J.K. Rowling’s term for non-magical people. And that’s what it is: the difference between magic and non-magic. You have to practice magic in order to understand magic. You have to develop a partnership with horses in order to understand that it isn’t “just a horse.”
The closest relationship I can describe it to as a police officer and her K-9. They work in partnership toward the same goal, spend countless hours together, and their lives depend on each other. The K-9 is not just a dog. It’s a partner.
Yes, I did just say “just a dog.” I have two dogs and two cats. I love them dearly. I know they are intelligent and loving and each has her own personality (I also have 13 coturnix quail, and they too have their own personalities). But they are pets. Sure, there might be a scenario down the road where my gigantic 17-pound cat takes down an intruder (more likely to happen than depending on my dogs to do it), and then, yes, my life would depend on her. But that’s a hypothetical. My pets aren’t my partners. There is a snuggle-for-food mutual dependency going on here.
I don’t think I’m not doing a great job of describing this relationship without ticking cat and dog people off … Here’s another way I’m going to try to describe it. My horse Buttercup and I have known each other all of her life. I met her when she was a few days old. I’ve put in nearly all the training on her. We have seen each other at the worst and best moments. I have known her longer than my husband and longer than most of my adult friends.
Before I go into this next part, I’m going to preface this with I love my husband. He is my best friend and I rely on his support so much. He has helped make me the best person I can be, and what more can you ask for in a life partner? Now, Henry, if you are reading this, stop reading.
When Henry proposed to me, he jokingly told me to take the ring out to the barn and show Buttercup that he comes first now. My husband has a great sense of humor, and this was clearly a joke, but I couldn’t even laugh (he will tell you I take myself too seriously and don’t “get” his brand of humor; only the former is true). I’m not saying I would choose my horses over my husband if, say, some unrealistic, gun-to-head scenario played out. To me, asking me to put my horses AFTER my husband is the same question as asking me to put my husband AFTER my horses.
It is basically asking me to sever one limb to spare another.
Some of the feedback I’ve heard from the muggle beta readers on The Wilding has been “This is the exact relationship every child dreams of having with a horse.” What Aideen has with Esther is beautiful and thrilling, but that magic isn’t unique. There is magic whenever you create a partnership with a horse. The magic comes from the horse, not from the human. If we humans can get out of the way of our own desires and fixations, we can learn that magic.
So, if you think Aideen’s relationship with Esther is fiction, it isn’t. It’s the most real thing in the book. Esther isn’t “just a horse,” and neither are the millions of horses around the world. Horses have done everything from letting a sad child cry into their mane to helping to build empires.
If you’d like to keep saying “it’s just a horse,” I won’t fight you. I know better and I’ve come a long way from kicking people I disagree with.