Horse talk with their feet. Free in her pasture, your horse will tell you she’s warm by moving into the shade, tell you that she’s thirsty by going over to the water, tell you she really loves grain by waiting at the pasture gate just before quitting time. She may tell you she loves you by standing still when you hug her, or that she’d like some quiet time by moving to the back of her stall.

A few weeks ago a saddle fitter came to see if she could get an old saddle to fit Freckles, my new mule. She began with the saddle positioned so far forward that the girth was jamming Freckles in the armpits. I objected, arguing it needed to be farther back, and that a rear girth and britchin’ would almost certainly be needed to hold it back, since she has no discernible withers. But never mind my two cents — Madame Saddlefitter took Freckles out for a spin. Immediately she decided this wasn’t right, and we came back for adjustments. The second fit looked even worse to me, but out we went to try it. Except that at the barn door, Freckles stopped, and would not go on. Stubborn mule? Maybe. But when we got back to her stall five minutes after this second fitting, Freckles was bleeding from the armpits. I’m sorry Freckles. I was paying the lady $80 an hour, and she claimed to know what was best for you.

Freckles’ armpits healed, and I decided that the two of us should go camping in the mountains. On our first day, we spent about 5 hours climbing and descending the steepest, rockiest stuff you’ve ever seen. If I hadn’t been lounging on Freckles’ back, I would have been on my hands and knees going up this stuff. On our second day, we spent about 3 hours doing the same. And on our third day, we entered a 14 mile “Endurance” ride. This ride involved climbing a mountain from valley to top, descending to the valley on the far side, then reversing our steps. I say “our steps”, but only Freckles was doing any stepping. Our total vertical ascent this weekend was over half a mile.

At around 12 miles, Freckles was not willing to catch up to the Arabs we’d been moving along with. At 13 miles, Freckles seemed to think we should stop right here and take in the view. After some kick-kick-kick, a group of riders overtook us, and she decided we could join them. We finished the event. But all the way home in the truck, I thought about my days as a distance runner, about my whining and whimpering and misery when I’d hit the wall. And I thought about my idiotic love for Freckles, believing that she could never tire, and forgetting that she will never whine or whimper when she does. When Freckles slowed and later stopped, she was talking. She was trying to tell me she was exhausted.

On today’s trail ride, we covered about 11 miles total. As we neared the half-way point, Freckles paused with increasing frequency to snag a quick bite. I decided that she must be ravenous. But when we turned around, Freckles’ hunger went away, and I couldn’t even get her to slow for a snack. Looking at this fancy footwork, I conclude: 1) Freckles may begin to tire after around 5 or 6 miles of trail riding; 2) Freckles is happy to eat when she stops to rest, and might use eating as an excuse for stopping; 3) Hunger and fatigue are both easily overlooked when you are heading back to your stall in the barn.

Freckles tells me how she’s feeling with the speed she chooses to go. But she also tells me with the direction she chooses. On the trail home today, we came to an intersection where I was certain the correct route was to the right. She insisted on left. She was right.

Back in the barn, I took her for a stroll on a very loose lead, letting her choose which other horses she wanted to visit with. Her choice is always the same: we visit with two donkeys.

Your horse has lots of opinions. This bridge we are coming to does not look safe! We should go left here. Is that a dragon I hear in the distance? My back hurts.

Horses express their opinions. Horses talk. Are you listening?