I'll get to know Ben by staying off his back

You'd think that if a leaf blowing across his vision makes a horse skittish, then something as spectacular as a fully loaded garbage truck crashing into the pasture fence and catching fire would render him apoplectic. But our black Percheron draft horse, Ben, is unpredictable that way.

In fact, we have no clue really what might or might not trigger his sudden heel-flailing angsts. Which is why he's broken so much harness strapping over the years, and more than once taken off riderless as one of us has watched from a low seat on the pasture.

I stopped riding Ben regularly several years ago, as it became clear that age wasn't dampening his explosive psyche - even as it highlighted the more cautious elements of my own. Still, I love to be with the horse, and I often seek him out during the day for a talk. The dark, living light in his eyes attracts and fascinates me - they are pools of tranquility one minute, tempest-tossed seas the next. The change can be as swift as it is beautiful.

I wasn't actually at the scene when the big truck's wheel caught the edge of the newly paved road, but when I hurried up minutes later and talked to the driver - who was unscathed - I realized that it must have been quite a spectacle. The vehicle had taken down one large tree and ended up half on its side in our hedgerow ditch. Its exhaust pipe had broken and collapsed inward upon impact. The whole mess leaned against the cedar fence posts, stretching the wires into a bowing arc. And, as we talked, dark gray smoke began to rise.

Ben, meanwhile, grazed nonchalantly into the near distance, not in the least bothered by the scene. The wailing arrival of three fire trucks did nothing to break his serene concentration on the still-lush fall grass. Nor did the more serious billows of smoke and now visible conflagration - the back end of the truck had been opened, exposing the flames to the hoses. The strange man who ducked under the fence to take my name and number for later damage compensation was unacknowledged as well.

This is the horse who spooks if the grain scoop delivering breakfast unintentionally taps against the edge of his feed box; who runs in zigzagging panic at the gentle, drifting passage of a hot air balloon. It is the very same animal who cannot, with any semblance of equanimity, tolerate a gust of wind bearing a ragged scrap of flotsam.

Maybe Ben has a keen sense of boundary and of personal space. Let anything unsettling - however benign, however small - unfold on his farm, and he goes off his rocker. But let true mayhem erupt offsite - even at the bare outer edge of his personal world - and it's another story. As a fair contingent of the community's emergency-response resources converged within yards of his grazing, but beyond that critical fence line, he essentially shrugged.

My theory doesn't quite explain everything, including Ben's response to the hot-air balloon - unless he claims airspace as his personal territory, too. But it might account for some of his more volatile idiosyncrasies. I'll just have to keep on studying the horse - keep trying to penetrate those amazing, expressive eyes to get to the mystery of him. And the best way to do that is to keep off his back - even if I never figure Ben out, I'll survive to wonder why.

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