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One Paper Kid

Cattle Feeder Wagon & Running Horse, originally uploaded by elefanterosado.

…and he’d heard of a place it was legal to dream
So he sat with his coffee in a blue [New Mexico] wind
And he wrote on a rock
The one paper kid is rollin’ again.

—Emmy Lou Harris

He tells me there are only two rules.

“Keep up and don’t fall off.”

He is riding a buckskin Quarter Horse mare with a criss-cross of scars across her chest that look like the imprint of barbed wire. He says he held her together—blood, veins, sinews and all—while the old vet sewed her up. He wasn’t sure she’d make it. Neither was the vet. But like him, she’s tough.

We set off across the wide expanse of fifteen thousand acres, teaming with prickly pear; cactus and low-lying scrub brush. Three sleek Border Collies follow seamlessly and noiselessly at the horses’ heels. He speaks to them in hushed tones, the lowest registers of which they instinctively intuit and hear.

“Shandy, back. Daisy, go hide.”

Their ears are pricked as they follow the scent of cattle. They are eager and alert.

A hot wind blows across the desert as the sun bakes into the exposed flesh of my neck. The horses trot on through cactus and cockleburrs, impervious to the stickers that pierce their skin. We arrive at a low barbed wire gate and he casually swings a leg back over the mare to dismount. It is a soundless motion, like an acrobat doing a tight roll of somersaults through the air. No spare energy is wasted or expended.

He is rangy, with the long, lanky legs of a steer roper—that indispensable set of God-given equipment that a cowboy is either born with or isn’t. His tall brown boots reach nearly up to his knees.

With eyes squinted, he lays the rope bridle reins lightly in the crook of his arm and unfastens the loop holding the gate to the post. He looks into the middle distance with a far-reaching and imperturbable gaze.

“See over there? That’s where we’ve got ourselves a problem.”

I nod, pretending to be able to focus my eyes on the unfathomable blur hundreds of feet away and lick my chapped lips. I understand from an earlier conversation that he has located the hole through which the peripatetic cattle have slipped through, like stealthy ghosts in the night.

“Now we’ve gotta find those pairs and split ‘em off,” he says to me matter-of-factly, as though I’ve been chasing cows my entire life.

He leads his horse through the gate while I follow, still riding my horse. He anchors his left foot in the stirrup without benefit of aid or elevation and swings his right leg effortlessly over the saddle. Minutes later we are again doing a slow jog through the sage.

I survey the horse I’m riding dubiously, wondering if she’s equal to the task at hand. She is, in fact, my own horse. A ten year old Canadian Cheval broodmare from the arctic tundra of Quebec that I’d purchased more than a year before, with a coat and mane as black as shoe polish and a generally lazy and sluggish disposition. Three months ago I’d become obsessed with the crazy notion of sending this cold-blooded product of the Northeast to the heart of the Southwest for a proper cow horse training by a proper cowboy. Fueled by my own memories of the five years I’d ridden my Arabian mare through miles of sand, sage, arroyos and endurance competitions in Northern New Mexico, I became convinced that only Southwestern cowboys know how to train horses correctly. I was tired of the tight concentric circles and brain-numbing arena work that are the bread and butter of Eastern equitation—of which I myself am a product, for better or for worse. Armed only with the internet and a vague idea that the theoretical cowboy I was in search of reside not more than 120 miles from my own ten acres in Tajique, New Mexico, I fired up Google and hit the “return” button.

And there he was on his modern website—which still seems a somewhat incongruous modern tool for a figure steeped in as much folklore and nineteenth century romanticism as a cowboy—sitting on a highly muscled Quarter Horse stallion who has since passed away.

“We believe that every trip should be enjoyable and even fun,” his website proclaimed.

He looks and rides like a cowboy, but not a garden variety one. He’s a Natural Horse Man of the fabled Whisperer strain, who has spent years working kindly and humanely with his equine friends, via rope halters, carrot sticks and other friendly accoutrements of the like. There are no tie-downs or mechanical hackamores (known to natural horse trainers as “mechanical torture devices”) to be found in his barn. I don’t tell him I ride my obstreperous Arabian mare in a mechanical hackamore and have for years.

I decide I’ve found the man for my broody and stubborn Canadian mare. I hire a shipper (and dole out a third of what I paid to buy her) and watch her drive off into the sunset. It’s more than two thousand miles from Vermont to New Mexico. By e-mail I receive well-written, grammatically correct, thoughtful reports of my mare’s progress under his tutelage. If I’m expecting the rough, terse, macho verbiage of a bronc buster—along the lines of: “Yer mare did good today. We drugged some cows out from yonder pasture just as it was fixin’ to blow a good one”—I don’t get it.

And while this cowboy has ridden roughstock at the rodeo, he doesn’t speak in the taciturn homilies of his mentor—the great, late grandfather of The Natural Horse Movement, Ray Hunt—either. In my experience, most “horse whisperers,” in fact, seem to say precious little but infer much. They are practical and efficient, yet ultimately mysterious. Like an ace poker player, they are loath to show their hand and often covetous when they do. It’s not that they aren’t generous and painstaking about sharing their knowledge, because they are. It’s just that they seem to imply that if you can’t think like a horse and learn to speak its language before entering its mystical realm, you probably deserve to get soundly bucked off—and stepped on afterward to boot. At least, that was the unspoken message I always got after observing these guys over the years on DVD’s and in clinics. As someone with deeply honed powers of intuition, I began to tire of this unspoken, unilateral, holier-than-thou subliminal message and decided impetuously to just ride instead. (Despite the fact that I was getting bucked off regularly and stepped on too.) But I could go for miles and ride the hell out of my horse. The whisperers couldn’t take that away from me with their rope halters and round pens. They could keep their “savvy” and “change to fit the situation” psycho-equine-babble too. Or so I reasoned. But honestly, I hadn’t bothered to reason the obvious: I was just a lousy student. A lazy student. I was too impatient to really take the time. What was the point of swinging a rope lead rope at a horse when I could be on its back going hell-bent-for-leather instead?

Trouble was, this eastern, tall-boot-wearing and crop-wielding equestrienne never outgrew the desire to think like a cowboy—that is, to be able to survive and thrive in a horse’s world (that is to say, a man’s world) with economy and frugality. I don’t really believe you can truly grasp or have compassion for the mind and heart of a horse (to say nothing of your fellow humans) otherwise. After all, in the immortal words of my lyrical friend, The Man With The Big Hat, “If it were not for the life [the cowboy] led, there wouldn’t be no west.” The cowboy won the west through hard work, toil and strife. And he conquered it on the back of a horse. And so (at the crass risk of nails-on-chalkboard-squealing use of two double negatives in one paragraph), if it were not for the life the horse led, there really wouldn’t be no west. Period.

But this cowboy is different. He likes to talk. A lot. He likes to communicate. And he delights in poking fun at horse and uninitiated eastern greenhorn alike. This is the genius that sets him apart from the others. Humor and patience. He waits like a snake to uncoil, like a leopard to pounce. He waits until dinner, when he has an audience in front of him, to rib me mercilessly about sneaking off to find a minuscule rock to use as a mounting block. This audience is key to broadcasting my folly.

“So she goes looking for a rock—this little flat rock that gives her…oh…I don’t know, an inch extra height, if that,” he trumpets to my husband and his wife. His eyes twinkle mischievously. “Maybe not even that much. But she’s got this idea in her head she needs a mounting block.”

I wonder at first why he hadn’t lectured me out on the trail. The wheels in my noggin turn slowly, but suddenly I get it: that would have been as inefficient and inopportune as my farcical mounting block, and wouldn’t (to quote my hero Gus of Lonesome Dove) have made the “pint” anywhere near as neatly. He understands that the power of education lies in economy. Like the rowel of a spur, the corrective nudge needs to be administered at the right time and place—not too far fore of the cinch and not too far aft. That’s his cheerful, open secret. And also how he gets results. A little bit of shock value goes a long way toward stimulating the brain. After observing cows in solitude for over twenty years, he gently urges his students to think like one. Be slow, placid and cogitate. But don’t wait too long. Because pretty soon it’ll be time to switch strides and start thinking like a Quarter Horse.

That is to say: turn on a dime and kick back nine cents change. Fast. So fast you forget to think.

My Canadian Cheval switches gears and moves from a slow jog to a floating lope behind the buckskin mare. Her ears are back. This is her country now. He suddenly pulls up the buckskin mare and indicates for me to follow quietly. He offers soothing words to the dogs, whose hair is now standing up on end like a trio of recently coiffed Rhodesian Ridgebacks.

“Oooh cows, oooh cows,” he coos softly, as he follows the fence line at a circumspect distance from the herd.

The mellifluous sound of his voice seems to create a somnambulistic hush as all animals on the range—horses, cows, and canines alike—wait ready and alert, yet silent. About eight or ten low-slung and well-muscled cows of a medley of colors regard us with a look of petulant indifference. He gives me an introduction to the breed in one succinct sentence.

“I always say you have to treat these corriente like your girlfriend instead of your wife,” he informs me. “There’s a little more romance and wooing involved in catching them.”

Like the American Mustang, I learn that the corriente is a singularly tough breed that have evolved on sparse feed and scant rations after being brought to the New World by Spanish settlers as far back as 1493. They were selected for their hardiness and ability to withstand harsh ocean crossings and adapt readily to their new land. They came to the West Indies, south Florida, as well as to Central and South America. Over the centuries the descendants of the corriente cattle were bred for different purposes, including for milk and meat consumption. They also adapted, through natural selection, to the various regions in which they lived. Eventually, their descendants spread across the southern U.S. and up the coast of California. Despite their romantic-sounding Spanish moniker, corriente actually means “common.” In other words, they are the common cattle of the American West; inured to rough terrain, meager feed and human attempts to “tame them down.”

But apparently, tame them down we will. In what seems like a five second quarterback huddle, I’m informed of the game plan. We’re going to be cutting a pair—which means isolating a black momma and her babyfrom an unruly harem of some tough-looking brown broads, who are even now glaring at me unnervingly, as if to say: “I’d sooner trample you flat as look at you.”

I’m ready to plead my case. After all, the only thing I’ve ever “cut” on horseback is a jump or errant water bucket…okay, maybe a feeding trough or two—admittedly by accident. He can’t really be serious. I mean, do I look like Roy Rogers? Does the black nag I’m riding look ready to rear up on cue like Trigger?

But if I’m displaying any signs of nervous angst, he seems to be unaware of it. Instead, he sizes up the competition from a safe distance and removes a small tin from his shirt pocket, which he proceeds to whack methodically against the palm of his hand. His horse looks up hopefully.

“Naw, you’re too young for Copenhagen,” he tells the disappointed creature. He selects a chaw with the precise pincher movement of thumb and forefinger  before depositing the stash somewhere way back in the recesses of his mouth.

The dogs snarl and begin to move in.

“Back Shandy, wait!” he commands sharply.

And before I can count to three we’re moving in on the cattle. His mare quickly demonstrates why Quarter Horses are affectionately known as “sleepy little critters who can unwind like lightenin’ ” as she throws her weight in front of the brown cows and then commences to deftly zig-zag in front of them. My mare acts with far more expertise than I’m capable of, pinning her ears and gunning for the black mother and baby.

They escape anyway.

We take a short break and I weakly suggest that I abstain from any further attempts.

“Why don’t I just park myself over here?” I ask hopefully.

“No, no. This is a learning opportunity. Take any opportunity to learn,” he tells me with a no-nonsense jerk of his head. And before I can say “ooh cows” we’re off again.

This time we manage to isolate the black pair, though I’m not really certain how. I’m pretty sure he’s somehow managed to finagle it (while driving the others out simultaneously) while I’d foolishly meandered about like a brain-damaged polo player on a braying donkey, but if all the credit is his, he’s not about to take it.

“There, see. We got the job done. And in case you were wondering, it would’ve gone the same way if you’d been riding my mare and I’d been riding yours,” he tells me cryptically.

I decide he’s right: he would have done the job just as well—that is to say, on either horse and without my gutless assistance—but just as quickly realize that, once again, I’ve utterly missed the point of the exercise. As we’re herding the cattle back to the trailer, the words of my phantom idol Big Hat came wafting back like a gentle, long-lost friend.

I’ve seen the days so hot my pony could not stand
If your water bag was dry you’d better not count upon the land.
Winters, I’ve seen winters when your boots froze in the snow
Your only thought was leaving
But you had no place to go.

And in that moment I’m finally able to grasp the immortal words of the great Ray Hunt: bend. Yes: bend to fit the situation. The cowboy bends to fit the situation and finishes his job quite simply because there is no place to go. And as the cowboy I’m riding with reminds me subtly again and again during my one week visit: “there’s no ‘can’t do.’ ” A situation presents itself to be completed, gutlessly or otherwise. But complete it you must before an open space for grace can enter. That plain-spoken sentiment is a metaphor for life itself, for the long walk into the Eternal Present I began many years ago. And it is lesson we will all learn, either by hook or crook, on the journey Home.

And somewhere in this sacred space of completion, I understand too what greatness in another human being truly is. It has nothing whatsoever to do with grand gestures or grandiose accomplishments. Like most human beings, the architect of this priceless lesson is a creature of longing. The important distinction is that his is a longing for the things he already has rather than the things he doesn’t: A pair of six hundred dollar cowboy boots that are worn and well used. A tin of chewing tobacco. A horse with a kind heart. A blazing fire with steaks charring. A loving wife, cattle to chase, and thousands of acres to ride.

As I digest this epiphany, I turn to my right where he had, a short moment ago, been resting. But he’s already ridden off—bent toward the future with a wise, placable smile. And that smile, more than anything, is the grand gesture. He turns his head toward the blue New Mexico wind.

One paper kid is rollin’ again.


Comment from Lisa
Time September 9, 2009 at 11:07 pm

Love the epiphany about “completion, gutless or not”, as a matter of course. What a grand lesson for us all!

Comment from admin
Time September 10, 2009 at 5:47 am

hey lis, thanks for commenting. This one was a long time coming, but I finally found the time to write it!