Horses and Dyslexia

By

1.

When I was nineteen, I worked at a horse stable as a horseback riding guide. I got paid twenty dollars a day plus tips if I was lucky. Most days were not lucky.

A good hitching rail should hold strong when a horse pulls back. It should be made of iron and held in the ground by concrete. But the sound of nails pulling away from wood when this rule was broken is a sound I will never forget. It is a sound caught between lighting a match and the squealing groan of a boat caught in a gale.

On a day in June, a cheap, wooden hitching rail broke free from the nails that held it in. The horses still tied to it panicked and pulled back. The top log of the rail flew into the air suspended by the horses’ lead ropes. Its weight swung back and forth among the chaos of hooves and rope and wood and dust.

Amongst the chaos, the head wrangler cut the other horses free with a pocket knife, but Pigeon, a Sorrel mare, and Tequila, a Buckskin, were still attached. Tequila chucked her end of the log toward Pigeon. It flew, popping Pigeon’s eye. Blood squirted black shadows toward the sun-bleached sky.

I do not remember what the hole—where Pigeon’s eye used to be—looked like. I do remember blood coming down her face. The droplets of it misted on our jeans as her nose puffed. She did not panic, jump, or squeal, she just stood there, breathing. Now her new life began, a new life as a half-blind horse.

The others loaded Pigeon into a trailer a few hours later. They took her back to the place they had rented her from. I never saw her again. If she survived that day, she would have had to relearn to see. She only had one last view into the visual world. Does that other, now empty, side vanish? Or did she learn by seeing another way?

 

2.

My grandmother had a horse skull on the top of her car port. It was probably one of those things my grandfather—who was the kind of man who brought home great horned owls and bear cubs—picked up for the sake of curiosity.

I don’t know why I remember it, but I can still hear the twang of the spring coil on the old log gate as I walked out alongside it with my grandmother to feed her herd. The bone didn’t gleam; instead, it soaked in the mountain light through its cream-colored pores.

The horse’s skull was a long thin funnel shape, with a tip at the end where the cartilage for nostrils once flared and puffed. Each elegant line like the sleek keel of a racing boat.

It didn’t look anything like what my skull would have if it had been catching some rays up on that car port. Mine would have been flat and round and short. Designed for holding my bulbous human brain in place, designed for looking forward. I have binocular vision. As a member of the human species, my periphery is laughably limited when compared to other members of the animal kingdom. My eyes are at the front of my head, leaving depth, detail, and color in clear focus. Anything behind the line of my temples lies only in memory and shadow.

Horses’ eyes stick out so that they can see around them with only a few minor blind spots. Their eyes catch the world all around them as the orb of the eyeball itself protrudes from the socket. Human skulls have evolved to sink the eyes back into the skull leaving a ridge in front, and even a little on the side to protect the eyes. As a horse, Pigeon had no protected ridge. Even if she did, I often wonder if the bones would have been any match for a fifty-pound hitching rail that popped out her eye.

 

3.

My other blindness isn’t as horrific or debilitating as Pigeon’s. Even calling it “blindness” isn’t correct. I am worried that I am comparing myself to those left completely without sight. I do not need Braille, or a cane, or even glasses, but blindness is often the easiest way to explain it. I have dyslexia.

Dyslexia does not impact how I see with my eyes. Instead, it is a form of neurodiversity that affects the way the brain decodes patterns. The difference with a dyslexic brain is not in seeing itself, but in the ability to manipulate, process, and decode some of the things we see, such as language, numbers, maps, and other codes. I can write whole pages completely backward. In other moments, the symbols on the page seem as though they move, dancing in and out of the paragraph or warning label.

The worst for me are commas. Endings also, such as “s,” “ed, “or “ing,” spill through my sentences like grain out of a sack after the mice got into the barn. I will also strangely capitalize words that don’t need to be capitalized as though my brain resets in the middle of a sentence.

The sensation of this involuntary reset reminds me of a video I saw of a dressage horse spooked by a leaf resting in the arena. Both he and his rider walked along when the leaf came underfoot. Unaware of the leaf being there before his arrival, the horse leapt up a good three feet before his brain reset, realizing that the thing that frightened him wasn’t a predator, but a leaf in the sand. A few second later, he walked on like nothing had happened. This is often what a random capitalization or a proof reading misstep feels like. I read the sentence over and over, then try again on a different day. Sometimes it appears, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it is long after I sent it to someone who needed it. BAM! There it is, a typo, mistake, error, whatever you want to call it, in in all its horrifying glory.

 

4.

Dyslexics often rely more on the right side of their brain than the left. The left side controls things like logic, language, science, and math. The right is responsible for creativity, holistic thought, intuition, music, and art. When most people read, they engage the left side of their brain. For dyslexics like me, the brain starts reading by engaging the left side of the brain and then sending the information through to the right. This drastically slows down the speed in which we process the information.

One of the tricky parts about dyslexia is that it varies from case to case. Many thinks that dyslexia are just a problem with reading. If it were only that simple, you’d think we would have figured out how to fix it by now.

For me, reading has always been reasonably straightforward. If the writing was good and the subject was interesting, I could read like a dream.

My mind vanishes into the world the author lays out for me. The world was even better if the book happened to have a good horse. My paperback stables of literary equines included not just Black Beauty and The Red Pony, but the curly-eared Marwari from India named Degobas in The Far Pavilions and the cheeky and often judgmental war horse called Melyngar in The Book of Three. In The Lord of the Rings I wasn’t just under the spell of Shadowfax and Bill the pony; I also kept track of some of the more obscure, like Snow Mane, Arod, and Hausfel. It was Aragorn’s keen way with his gelding and good seat in the movies that awoke in me more traditional teenager feelings, as well.

I do know that even though I can let my mind make worlds of magic using prose, my brain struggles at manipulating the language well enough to catch spelling errors or quickly learn a new language or number pattern. This explains why Spanish class and science were such a challenge. Algebra, too, meant tears, lots and lots of tears.

Even now I often feel like an imposter when I think of all the awards and honors I earned academically. “But wait a second,” I want to whisper, “the only way I passed chemistry was because the teacher let me do craft projects for extra credit.”

 

5.

In 2016, Gabriel Emanuel did a series of reports for NPR called “Unlocking Dyslexia.” She recorded a demonstration with an eight-year-old girl named Tiffany. While Tiffany was sharp and funny, she clearly had dyslexia. Here Tiffany is learning to manipulate words with her tutor:

“Take a picture of the word MEAL,” Tiffany’s tutor said one afternoon as they neared the end of that day’s six-hour session.

The tutor was holding up a flash card with the word M-E-A-L printed on it, waiting for Tiffany to take a mental picture of the bold letters. Covering the card, the tutor gave Tiffany a puzzle: “If I erase the ‘A’ in that word, what word would we see?”

“Erase the ‘A’? Can I see it again?” Tiffany said, contorting her face in concentration.

Then, she ventured a guess: “It would be MEAL? No! It would be MAAL.”

With a little bit of help, she figured it out: “It would be MEL! “

As I listened I did the exercise too, I tripped on the words just as much as Tiffany did, and I have two English degrees. At first, I thought it was just because “Mel” isn’t a word. When I saw the exercise again in Kelli Sandman-Hurley’s TED-Ed Original, I fell all over myself a second time. This time we had to say which word we created if you took the “c” out of the word cat. “Ca?” I said to myself. “A,” I said a different time. “Dear God, Gretchen,” I swore at myself, “the damn word is ‘at.’” I couldn’t manipulate a word I learned when I was six.

It is the struggle here that feels like blindness. The blip of being unable to see a thing that to most is right in front of them. I often feel as if there is something just beyond my reach, as if I had another set of eyes, and if I could only open them I could see all the things I needed to see.

 

6.

Growing up with dyslexia, I often felt like the rescue horse in a barn full of expensive show ponies. The rescue horse is loved; it can even be well-trained and intelligent, but it just isn’t going to go as far or do as much because it doesn’t have the conformation or the papers. From the minute the show ponies hit the straw in the birthing stall, they were simply born with things like more height, a longer neck, or bigger lungs than the little rescue horse. Sometimes even if the rescue horse has more ability, courage, or talent, it’s just going to take a lot more work and have a lot more failures. Yeah sure, I was still smart and all; I even graduated with honors. “But she is so sloppy,” people said.

Of course, everyone fears being stupid, but my fear was a constant, unending thing perpetuated by the shame I had hurled my way when strangers saw me spell.

This is a shame that has been reinforced with a machine-like consistency, just as horses learn to whinny in the morning when 7 a.m. rolls around and it’s time for breakfast. I always panic when I send out a piece of writing that I didn’t have time to get a friend to look over first. I fear being told how much time I wasted of the person who read my work, how I am not an asset to the company that hired me because I look so careless.

I also know I am not alone.

As dyslexics, we are baptized in shame as soon as we learn to write our names. We are told we are stupid, we drag our classmates behind during lessons, and we often develop behavioral problems because we can’t form language fast enough to stand up for ourselves.

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz describes in his book, My Dyslexia, that dyslexia can cause actual physical pain. Thus, kids with dyslexia do whatever they can to get out of school because it hurts to go. Shultz himself experienced both physical and emotional trauma because of his dyslexia. Not only was he shamed by his overworked teachers, he was also abused and beaten up by the other children.

My father, whose dyslexia is exceptionally more severe than mine, experienced much of the same. Both Schultz and my father were put in the “dummy class” with the other “slow kids.” Alienation and exclusion are bad for most kids; they are exceptionally harmful to dyslexic kids. First, a 2010 study by Yale University proved that dyslexia and IQ don’t correlate. Secondly, neurotypical kids struggle enough with mundane tasks; add a learning variance like dyslexia, and you are staging a two-front war. Not only must we war with our dyslexia but then we are weakened in the trench water of boredom. If I had been put in with the “slow class,” I know that I would have been one heck of a bully.

I was one of the lucky ones. I always knew I was smart and I had the luxury of people who believed in me. Even if I often bombed the tests for my grade level, I often aced the ones that were more advanced. The teacher’s aide that used to take me into the hallway to have me read aloud to her once told me, “You are my favorite student to listen to read aloud.” I know that she could hear me tripping over the words, but my love for the story made the fight with my own brain worthwhile. Even if reading was hard, the victory of reaching the last word on the last page was so sweet; I craved more.

7.

In college, professors shamed me for my proofreading in front of class. The memories are so palpable that I can still see where I was sitting in the classroom. “Come on Gretchen; this is just laziness,” one professor said.

“I can’t, in good conscience, give a good grade to a test with this many spelling errors,” wrote another on an in-class essay test. It was in this same class that I sometimes smudged dirt and filth in my notebook, unable to get home fast enough to change after cleaning twenty stalls for extra money before class.

Meanwhile, I worked as a clerk for the livestock judges for the National Western Stock Show. During my lunch break, I would sneak over to the horse side of the complex and watch the horse shows. Jumping was the most fun to watch. It always left me in awe that someone could climb on a creature and then ring-jump obstacles on its back using only one’s legs and hands for cues. Now, long after lots of experience has left me with a basic understanding of the mechanics, the athleticism of it still fills me with wonder.

After a few jumping classes I learned the signs for a horse that liked to jump. The way their eyes glossed with excitement at that moment when they curled their bodies like springs before they reached into the air. The supple way they gave the rein as they turned, the way they would suck in their bellies when they tried to clear something that was too high.

In college, I also helped with fundraising horse shows to raise money so that my school’s chapter of Collegiate Horseman’s Association could go to the annual conference. It was at these horse shows I learned what it was like to watch horses that didn’t like to jump. Some would leap in strange, resentful ways; others would pin their ears as they came to a rail. The pounding thud of panic that came off horses that were either afraid or angry that they had been pushed into it is a distinct unmistakable sound.

Later, after taking a few jumping lessons of my own, I learned that there are many reasons a horse either refuses a jump or jumps something begrudgingly. Sometimes the rider counts the strides wrong, or takes off badly, and other times it’s saddle fit, an injury, or a misplaced flower box that is seen by the horse as a toxic waste spewing monster. And sometimes we just choke. Part of the joy of watching a good round of jumping is that we also get to watch the riders. A good rider knows the horse and moods and its movements—they have smoothed over the mistakes through their hours together in the saddle.

I stand by the idea that horses thrive when the task at hand is something they like doing and are designed to do. The first gypsy horse I rode, Nuala, hated riding in the fields out back. She got anxious at every bush and every passing tumbleweed. The further we went out into the field, the more begrudging she became, even dumping me in the bushes a time or two because she just didn’t want to be out in those fields any longer.

What she did love, however, was chasing things. I had to help get a yearling in good shape for a halter class; what we had to do was keep the filly trotting for thirty minutes at a time. I would saddle Nuala in the big western saddle and we would play what I called “Chase the Baby.”

Nuala transformed. She turned sharply to cut off the filly if it tried to rest in the corner. If the baby got too far out of reach, she would canter towards it and pick back up where she left off. This little chubby gypsy horse from Ireland turned into a cutting horse with just the right bit of direction.

This same idea applies to people. We all love to enjoy the platitude of saying that we all learn in different ways, but we often refuse to accept that fact in ourselves and in other people. When we can find the thing we are good at and are then given the assistance we need to do that thing, then we thrive.

I have been blessed like Nuala. I had teachers and writers, and employers and publishers, friends and family who all saw a potential in me that I often struggled to see in myself.

Like Pigeon, my half blindness can sometimes make things a little more complicated, but I always need to remember that its okay to ask for help to see the things I cannot.

 

8.

My first understanding of dyslexia came from my father. I made fun of his spelling errors or the way he would forget appointments. I did this because like young horses, teenagers are innately assholes. We are assholes because we are afraid of what will happen if we are not, and because we learn boundaries by pushing against them.

It was from him that I first equated dyslexia with blindness. My dad once said, “Saying to a dyslexic that a sentence has spelling errors is like throwing a rock at a visually impaired person and expecting them to catch it.”

Dyslexia doesn’t show up the same way for the same people; it is an encompassing term describing a bunch of different things. My dad can read a map and measure stuff accurately; I can’t. We both have dyslexia. I can read fast and passably spell oversized words; he can’t.

 

9.

I don’t want to be cured of my way of seeing, because my way of seeing is mine. I just want to be accepted. I just want it to be okay to ask for help when I need it.

I am not a monster with a contagious disease. Dyslexia can’t be cured like athletes’ foot with some cream. Most of the time I don’t want to be cured of my dyslexia. Nor do I want to beat it into submission. It’s my dyslexia. It belongs to me; it makes me who I am as a rider and a writer. My dyslexia made me better at failure. It makes it so that when I get thrown on my head, I am able to dust myself off so I can get back on the horse at hand. It also makes me kinder to those who fall off. Because in horses and dyslexia everything is a risk—so you might as well try a little anyway.

There are also experts that suggest that dyslexics perceive things more three-dimensionally than those without the condition. The reason we blunder our way through spelling and arithmetic is that we see the space around the words as much as the words themselves.

Perhaps one day we will find out just how differently dyslexics see. Perhaps it’s as different as having one eye or two. Maybe will begin to understand how dyslexics see just as we have started to understand the washed-out world of horse vision. Even though they can see almost completely around their bodies they can’t see the deep colors we can, they also have a blind spot right in front of their noses.

 

10.

Years after I left life as a dude wrangler, I helped train another one-eyed horse. She was a big, ebony Friesian, with an arched neck like a swan and a brain like a savant. I saw her gallop across a field with no problem. With her one eye, she could turn in smooth curves and pivot in tight corners. When I had to lead her back to the barn, she liked to body check me with all seventeen hands of her. She always tried this on the side without an eye because she knew she could get away with it.

The memory of the summer evenings I spent working her are framed by Rocky Mountain shadows. The prairie sun set over the blue back of her coat, making it shine with oranges, golds, and yellows like ravens’ wings. Working with her was a dance. It was a give and take, a subtlety. Steps and bends and curves. The two of us together learned grace in our half blindness.

By the end of the summer, she was sold to a fancy barn somewhere and last I heard was learning to be a dressage horse.

I have no such update on Pigeon. I did not memorize the number branded on Pigeon’s rump. Describing yet another beat-up red horse to the even more beat-up rental facility we got her from would have been fruitless. Even if she wasn’t euthanized that day, she would have been put back on pasture with hundreds of other forgotten horses.

I want to believe Pigeon is thriving and that she lived long beyond that last moment in the July heat where what she saw changed forever. I hope someone saw a hardworking red mare with the one still bright eye, and that she, like me, is still seeing what she can.

***

Rumpus original art by Alison Stine.


Gretchen Lida is an essayist and equestrian. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Earth Island Journal, Horse Network, and many others. She received her MFA from Columbia College Chicago and currently lives in Wisconsin. Follow her on Twitter at @GC_Lida. More from this author →