Tuesday, August 9, 2011


But I promised you a ride on a horse, didn't I?
OUR CAR CAME BACK TO BIRDLAND A LITTLE THE WORSE FOR WEAR—we found a small ding in the windshield about halfway. I meant to have it fixed in Seattle, but forgot all about it until I was ready for the return trip. Then I saw it had become a full-blown crack. But in one way our car came back a tiny bit better. When I bought it and put on my new license plates, I discovered that one of the screws that holds the front plate was broken. The corroded screw prevented a new screw from attaching. I knew I could get a special tool and dig it out, but had been putting it off. If I tightened the good screw, I could straighten the plate for a while, but after driving through several states, the vibration would set it askew again.   

At a rest stop in Montana, I returned to the car to find Ellis talking to a man. My youngest is a little shy, so I was surprised to see him visiting with a fellow traveler. They shook hands as I walked up to the car. “I'll be right back,” said the trucker with a smile. True to his word, he returned with a plastic fastener. He threaded the plastic through the plate, and pulling it tight, he sliced off the end with his pocket knife. “Better than a screw,” he said, proudly, and hopped back into his truck. Once again, I'm awed by how a brush with a stranger can enrich a community—sometimes a rooted neighborhood, sometimes a linear community of travelers. My license plate has been straight all the way home.

 But I promised you a ride on a horse, didn't I. Back in Wyoming, after visiting the foals, my friend, Claire offered to introduce Ellis and me to Pockets, a gentle gelding. We are not experienced riders, maybe 5 or 6 trail rides between us, but Claire's calm advice and instruction reassured us. Ellis was first, so I got to sit back and observe. I noticed Claire's respectful manner toward the horse, even down to the vocabulary she used to teach us how to let Pockets know what we wanted him to do. As she spoke, I began to understand that her method of riding and teaching was based on respect, even reverence, for the animal. I noticed how communication between the rider and the horse (rather than a set of assumptions on the rider's part—that if I yank the horse's head this way with the reins, he will go this way; If I kick him harder he will trot.) was paramount, and the key to that communication was careful and respectful observation.

She had us notice Pockets' ears, one cocked back. She said it meant that he was paying attention to Ellis, waiting for cues. This seemed natural, and reminded me of child rearing. By “respect,” I don't mean that she lets the horse do whatever he wants to do. She made it clear what kind of behavior was acceptable, and gently corrected him when he got too pushy. I came away with the idea that the rider needs to be assertive. When the horse lets us know he is waiting for prompts, we have a responsibility to prompt him. I told Claire I wish I lived closer, so I could take lessons from her, and we sat for a moment, wishing.

After the lesson she rustled up Chris, her husband, and he gave us a demonstration of some of his training methods. They give clinics at home and away. After seeing them in action, I'd love to invite them here. We sat in chairs just outside the arena and Chris brought an unbroken horse in, an older mare. He told us that horses are social animals, and communicate with each other through body language. Having someone yank on a halter to tell the horse to go somewhere is kind of a foreign concept, but they're smart animals, so they can learn it. However, it is simpler, and more respectful if we can learn the horse's language. 

I'm thinking the road to Wyoming isn't so long after all.
Of course, I'm paraphrasing and adding my own emphasis, also writing a few weeks after the fact, so I may misrepresent some of their ideas. Neither of them said the words, “horse whisperer,” and I forgot to ask them how they feel about that term, and whether they would use it to describe what they do. But I swear, Chris got an untrained horse to walk in a circle with a small, but assertive gesture. He got her to set her feet in a certain way (like they do in a show?) just by looking at her legs. At any rate, they made me want to learn more about horses, and I'm thinking the road to Wyoming isn't so long, after all.

Respect Beauty; Communicate Peace; Blessed Be.

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