When you ride a horse, you spend a lot of time looking at the back of his head. You view the trail ahead through the poll, the crown of his head, the part that sits between his ears. You notice how those ears move independently, each one turning toward a sound of interest, warning him of danger, announcing another horse’s arrival, or signaling a human with a bucket of grain. Those ears can rotate almost 180 degrees—a half circle—and when riding out in wide-open spaces like the desert, he can point one of them forward and the other to the rear at the same time. He’s also hearing a lot more than you are because his ears are bigger and shaped better for capturing sound. Plus, he can hear frequencies that are way beyond what you can hear, such as the rustling of a mouse in the bushes or a bat flying around at night.
Sometimes those ears are both pointed back in your direction. That means either he’s paying attention to you or there’s something behind you that you should be paying attention to. If the ears are pointed backward but lying flat against his head, he’s either angry or, more likely, resentful. If you’re riding a horse who has his ears pinned back in anger, either a direct threat is approaching or you’re doing something wrong. Most likely, it’s you who is causing it.
Anyone who has ridden horses knows what I’m saying when I talk about seeing the trail ahead through the horse’s ears. It’s just a natural thing. A rider in the show ring judges how she’ll make the next jump by measuring the distance between her and those ears and then the distance from the ears to the jump. It’s all done in a split second, and the rider doesn’t even know she’s doing it. It’s a way of putting things into perspective. I got so used to seeing the world from his back that Gizmo’s ears are still imprinted upon images I see today.
As the days and weeks passed, he became more and more trail-hardened and used to all the new sights and sounds he was exposed to. This was normal, and I had expected it. He was becoming trail broke, as any good four-year-old would in those circumstances. And while he eventually quit spooking at things, he still maintained his aural vigilance, and his ears were continually seeking out and identifying the elements of the soundscapes we traveled through. I learned not to focus so much on his body language or on his eyes, but to concentrate mostly on his ears. They were the early warning alarms that counted.
The perspective seen from atop an equine is a unique one. The horse’s ears, like the windshield of the car you’re driving, remain at a fixed distance from you as you travel along. Much like the windshield, you tend to look past the ears without seeing them, but they provide a measure of perception about what’s in front of you. How big, how far away. As Gizmo’s ears spun around, back and forth, they taught me to shut up and listen—to keep an ear out—for that which normally would have gone unheard and unnoticed.
Any good hand with horses will tell you that you need only get the horse’s head to go somewhere and the rest of him will follow. This is true, and it’s worth remembering, especially when you’re trying to get the horse into a trailer. It’s such a simple concept that it seems it should be a simple matter to get a horse to go just about anywhere. But it’s not so. Those ears are too big. They get in the way. They hear ghosts and goblins, dragons and monsters, and they tell the head to turn the other way and engage the body, and the head wants the body to run like hell. Where the head turns, the body follows. And where the body goes, you and your lead rope go too—until you let go. You don’t ever want to wrap that lead rope around your hand.
I think I finally learned to hear out there in the deserts of the southwest. I first learned to listen—mostly by watching Gizmo’s ears and imitating him—and then I learned to hear. Since I couldn’t twist my ears as cleverly as he could, I cupped my hands behind them to make them bigger, and I turned my head in the direction his were pointing. I stayed very still and often could hear the kinds of small sounds that even my breathing would have masked. I didn’t just pay attention to things he was intent upon. I sat still in camp for long periods of time, playing this listening game with him, making it a sort of competition (which he always won, of course), and setting a goal for myself that I would try to hear something that was inaudible. I got better and better at it as the days and miles passed behind us.
The fact is, the desert was full of things that made sounds, and I saw it as my job to hear them, recognize them, and arrange them into what they meant at the time. The important thing was that I could hear them at all. The most important thing was that I was able to suspend my actions, and those of the world around me, for the short time it took to actually hear those sounds.
Gizmo was a constant presence in my life then, as I was in his. The view between his ears was the way forward. To look back, I had to twist myself around in the saddle so I could see the way we had come. It was far more difficult to view the past than it was to see the future.