Poetry on the Hoof

I have a friend who likes to explore back roads and is fearless about talking to strangers. Consequently, she discovers all kinds of nifty places that most people don't know. One day she took me to a farm that has a herd of rare Lipizzaner horses.

Lipizzaners in Danby? In Vermont, anything is possible. Lipizzaners are those horses especially cherished in Vienna. The Viennese train them to waltz to the "Blue Danube" and put on shows in their own marble horse-palace. The trainer at the farm told us that Julius Caesar brought them to Europe from Arabia for his army because they are extra large, useful for trampling the enemy. Colts are born black, gradually turn gray-brown, and finally, the purest white.

I enjoy sketching animals and I have a friend, Judy, who likes to photograph them. One Sunday afternoon Judy and I set out to do the Lipizzaners. Sun shone on our expedition. We were cordially greeted by staff, shown the access gates to the fields, and warned about electric fences. They also told us that it might be hard to draw and photograph because the horses would get in the way. I didn't think this would be a problem, but I didn't know much about horses. I'd had riding lessons in the third grade, but since then I'd admired horses from a discreet distance.

We started toward the herd on a distant hill, went through the first gate, carefully closing it, and across the first field toward the herd. A large gray-brown horse came walking over and stopped right up close to me, head to head. Though he was big and startling (I am used to a Welsh corgi only inches high), he was not hostile. He had come to greet us the way my dog, Al, comes up to visitors, welcoming. I reached up and rubbed his nose. Then he plunged it into my jacket pocket, sniffing vigorously. Sorry, no carrots.

We unwrapped the chain at the second gate and slid quickly through to the second field with the herd. By the time we had secured the gate, six or seven young gray-brown horses had arrived to greet us. What a greeting! In moments, I was surrounded with a circle of huge horse heads. Being short, I could only see heads: long noses to be patted, wiggly ears, eyes with long lashes, shaggy hair hanging over foreheads. They pushed and shoved to get as close as possible to us, like a bunch of kids wanting lollipops.

Horses do have a whole lot of nose. It startled me to be looking at a horse's nostril three or four inches from my eyes. A horse nostril is very large and deep, shaped like a giant comma. I saw that horses have thick rubbery lips and lots of whiskers. They were interested in my sketch pad and attempted to sample it with their surprisingly sensitive and gentle lips. The metal clip that holds paper to my drawing board was knocked off. An extra-large, sandpapery warm tongue licked my arm. Even Rembrandt would have had trouble drawing under such conditions. I wasted a lot of paper, but Judy got some great pictures.

Horse ears are strong and important-looking, lily-shaped, dark, and fuzzy inside and securely fastened to a base that you don't notice from a distance. I kept smelling something nice. It wasn't a wet-dog smell, not manure, not cow, not sweet like a flower, though I looked around to see if something was in bloom nearby. The clean woody smell, a cross between mushroom and apple-blossom, was horse!

SUDDENLY I knew where I had seen horses like these before: the British Museum, carved out of white marble, huge and handsome, once on the Parthenon, now in Danby. I was standing right in the middle of a live Greek frieze.

The only white horse in the field was Belinda, a retiree, sway-backed. She was considerably larger than the younger, gray-brown horses. She demanded my attention, bumping me and shoving the others away. Not a horse to ignore, insistent. What was she trying to say?

Just as some very old women are still beautiful, perhaps because of their spirit, so the old white horse was still beautiful. When she held up her great white head on its powerful neck with white mane against the blue Vermont sky, well, call it poetry.

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