There is a power in riding a horse. This is a sentence I have written many times, in several different contexts, but it is an idea I find myself coming back to again and again. The power isn’t just one of mass, or force, or brute strength. I’m not sure I know exactly what it is, or why I am drawn to consider it in writing. I’m not alone in this, either—there are a myriad of wonderful works of writing that contemplate the experience of riding (Siobhan Hodge’s Justice for Romeo is a recent and beautiful example.) By my hypothesis, as it stands, is that there is something empathetic between the power of riding and the power of writing, something common in the sense of connecting with that which is other and greater than the tight bounds of self.
In 2013, I gave a conference paper which tried to explore and explain this (I am a creative writing academic, and one of the perks of research is that the things that fascinate you invariably find their way into your working life). The paper was a spectacular failure, resorting to the use of a dry theoretical framework drawing from philosophies of ontological pluralism in the effort to explain. It also featured a youtube video—blurred footage of myself and my horse Sarry out riding in the forest, still live online today, largely because I’m not quite sure how to take it down again. My basic premise was that when riding I am forced to be conscious in a way that is unusual day-to-day. Watching the video of Sarry, I noted the fact that her response to the spaces we rode through was far richer than my own*. She was sensitive to the world in a way I would never normally be, and riding began to give me access to that experience. Riding involves a quieting of self, a responsiveness that is closer to instinct. You are suddenly working with a body that is not your own—meeting it, trying to communicate with it, but also simply finding a shared point of balance. It involves a different style of self-awareness, too. In riding in the forest, I pointed out, I needed to be aware of the footing, that fallen branch, that kangaroo, because Sarry would not always be sure about them. She needed my guidance and reassurance to maintain her confidence and enjoyment in the experience, to prevent her deciding she’d rather not be there, or with me, and that we should really part ways. There is no possibility of a dictatorship riding, in either direction—one body or the other forcing total control is dangerous for both. Instead, there is shared endeavour, and ideally a shared thrill.
This double manoeuvre of consciousness and responsiveness seemed to me a productive metaphor for the writer at work, balancing random points of inspiration, images, ideas, symbols, different concepts and techniques, in an effort to produce something that speaks, that sings joyfully for itself. My very best moments of riding have been out-of-body experiences, in the sense that they have been moments wherein my body was totally subsumed by the larger and more wonderful being that is connection with the horse. My very best experiences of writing have a similar quality, moments wherein I am taken over by something which again is larger than myself. The work is instinctive, on the same level as those rare equine experiences of unadulterated connection and communication.
Let me try again to describe it: the power in riding is not hard-shod and cavalry. It is in the lightness of mouth-feel on a rein. It is in the attention offered, each to the other. It is the experience, yes, of your own physicality expanded and extended by the strength and athleticism of the horse’s, but it is the subtlety of this which is most powerful. It is the sensation that the slightest movement of a leg or a finger can be an act with resonance and meaning, understood by both.
I’m not sure why I am writing this here, except that, when asked to write a blog, I have fallen (self-indulgently) into thinking about what writing is and means to me. And I don’t know, again, whether I have succeeded in explaining to myself this affinity between writing and riding. But writing feels to me something like that power in riding. And I’ll happily spend a lifetime writing and riding and pondering it.
*I wrote about all this, too, in a paper which was published in Westerly, before the point I began as editor for the Magazine. My thinking had shifted by then to the ways in which this riding and reflecting informed specifically my writing about place, but the premise at the heart of it is the same: that writing and riding involve for me very similar sensations.
Catherine Noske is a lecturer in Creative Writing and editor of Westerly at the University of Western Australia. Her research focuses on contemporary Australian place-making. She has been awarded the A.D. Hope Prize, twice received the Elyne Mitchell Prize for Rural Women Writers, and was shortlisted for the Dorothy Hewett Award (2015). Her first novel is forthcoming with Picador.