Chapter 12: The Cowboy Way Isn't Limited To Texas

Jan 25, 2010 - 5:40 AM

From where I sit—the passenger seat of the Ram 3500—the horse is black, possibly dark bay, about 16 hands, and seems curious enough. He trots to the center of the corral, which is about 15 x 30 meters, pushing his nose up, sniffing the air and looking out at us.

On the drive here Bruce explained that he was to take this horse on for 90 days and start him. The owner, a cattleman, apparently by inclination more than need, wants a new ranch horse. “He’s 4,” Bruce told me, “and he’s lived out most of his life. This will be all new to him.”

The view from our parking spot is of grasslands on the right and the Jacksboro High School football stadium, dropped, it seems, like a frontier outpost, on the left. Bruce chats with the owner, a middle-aged man whose paunch is hidden underneath a Dallas Cowboys jacket. The man hands Bruce a slip of paper. Bruce glances at it and pockets it. After a minute Bruce nods, shakes the owner’s hand and returns to the truck.

“Hey Tik. Grab the halter and my rope. Lets go!”

The rope halter is in the backseat, and the lasso is lying on the bed of the truck, immediately behind the cab—it’s a 40-foot polypropylene rope, worn soft as leather.

Bruce is already heading for the gate, and I jump the fence to catch up. We stand together in the middle of the pen while the owner watches from the fence. Bruce looks at the horse and lowers his voice: “That boy. He ain’t 4. That bill of sale he showed me says he’s born in 2003. He’s 6.”

I study the horse. From close up I can see a narrow stripe that starts between his eyes and stretches slowly out into a snip that separates his busy nostrils.

“I figure it don’t really change much. Just that the buck on a full growner is bigger. We’ll be a bit more careful.”

Bruce stands in the middle organizing his rope and letting the horse get used to our presence, then yells over at the fence, “He’s gelded right?”

“I s’pose so. Check his papers,” the man yells back. Bruce takes out the paper and confirms that he is a gelding.

A Process Of Patience

As we start walking towards the horse, Bruce explains the plan to me. We’ll step closer, slowly, just a few steps at a time. If he moves at all, we stop. Bruce tells me to watch his feet. When they are still, we move forward, our two bodies creating a wall that will, in a few more steps, corner him.

When I am close enough I reach out and touch him. He faces the corner, and I stand by his hip slowly petting him. Bruce stands by the opposite hip blocking the horse’s escape and watching me. I move up and pet his shoulder, but as I do, he pins his ears back and turns his head away from me. I take a step back and rest my hand near his withers again. I slowly, easily let the rope that is attached to my rope halter fall around his neck.

Then I grab the lead rope at both ends. But I didn’t leave enough slack, and I find I don’t have any leverage or play in the rope. The horse spins on his hindquarters and runs back between Bruce and I.

“I would have done that a little differently,” Bruce says, as he shakes his head. “I would have gone slower. It’s not a race. And when you get the rope around his neck make sure you leave out more slack.

“Now we just have to catch him,” he continues. “One try with the halter is enough, we just want to get him out of here as easy as possible. It should be whatever is easiest for the horse. Later, when he’s settled in at my place, we can start with the real work.”

The horse is now at the far end of the ring, looking straight back at us. One ear is forward and one back, then they switch. But his eye never leaves us.

Bruce goes to the middle of the corral where he left his rope and picks it up. “How we get him in the trailer now depends a lot on what space he’s in. With this size here, the lasso might work best.”

He lets the rope slide through the honda knot, creating a cylindrical loop a couple of yards long. “If you keep him at this end, I’ll see if I can throw this over him.” Bruce says.

“Sure, no problem,” I say, but I’m a little sceptical, both of Bruce throwing the loop over the horse, and of this being the best tactic in order to quietly catch him.

Bruce walks down the middle of the corral, directly at the horse, and the lasso knocks against his thigh as he moves. He stops about 15 feet from the horse. I stand on the left side of the ring, so that if the horse moves we know it will be to the right. Bruce brings his lasso into a slow swing over his head: the simple forehand. The horse immediately bolts down the fence. Bruce doesn’t hesitate. Once more the lasso goes behind Bruce’s back, picking up speed, before leaving his hands and moving, slowly it seems, towards the fence, slightly ahead of the horse. The horse gallops on straight into the trap. As the rope settles around his neck, his speed and momentum tighten it, but he continues down the fence.

Time seems to speed up. Bruce madly plays out rope, letting the horse gallop, giving him a chance to feel the rope and the easy tension in it. I try and stand out of the way behind Bruce, and he lets the horse circle the corral twice while he settles.

“This is a lot different than roping cattle,” Bruce yells, coiling in the rope now.

I think back to when we spent the afternoon learning roping. Bruce showed me the simple forehand first, then the backhand from different angles and finally the hula and the scoop toss. I learned how to switch from the backhand to the hula, but how it’s impossible to go from the hula to the backhand. He showed me how the scoop toss soars into the air like a dove freed from your hand, returning to the earth in a dead fall, until suddenly, when the calf steps into the trap, you pull on the rope, and the scene unfolds at double time, the rope quickly, suddenly ferociously alive. 

Horsemanship Doesn’t Change

“Tik,” Bruce says, breathing hard now, “I don’t call this natural horsemanship. Once he’s got that rope around his neck, or a halter on his head, that ain’t natural anymore.”

The horse turns his head to the outside of the corral, and there is sweat on his neck now, but he breaks into a trot. Bruce is watching, ready to release the tension as soon as he steps towards us.

“Look at it this way,” he says as he looks to the left while managing the rope. “Here are the natural horsemen. And often there is nothing natural about what they do. And over there,”—he glances to the right—“are the, well, whatever the opposite is, the people that don’t take into account the horse and what its capabilities and tendencies are.” Bruce pauses for second, thinking. “There are lots of those guys I guess. In the middle though, are the Horsemen.”

To Bruce, a Horseman is a person who can balance the need for performance with the understanding of how a horse’s mind and body works.

The horse takes a step towards us, his eye calmer now, and as he does Bruce relaxes, and the rope goes slack. The horse knows he’s caught now.

The horse settles quickly, and I put a halter on him. I lead him with two ropes to the trailer, one attached to the halter and one to the lasso around his neck. Bruce follows behind, encouraging the horse forward and still explaining. “Anybody can rope a horse. It’s what you do after that’s important. Do you let him run with it and get used to it, or do you jerk him up right away? Can you teach him to follow a lead? Are you in a hurry?”

As the horse steps up into the trailer, and into a new future, the owner walks over to us. “That was easy,” he says, resting his hands on his stomach, “I thought we’d have to chase him down the chute.”

Bruce doesn’t say anything before the man continues: “You think he’ll be ready in a month? I’ve got some cattle that need bringing in.”

“Well now,” Bruce thinks for a second, “I don’t know. Depends on how things go, but I’d like to keep him for 90 days. A solid start you know? Give him some time to get confident. It’s not a race.”

On my first day Bruce told me, “I want a horse to think and enjoy his job. If we have a problem, I want to fix it, not just manage it. Horses are like people, they learn more if they make mistakes. If I always micro-manage situations, then the horse will eventually either rebel or lose interest. I want a horse that has personality, and I want him to show it when he performs.”

This is a theory that can be transferred to any situation, any discipline, any relationship. It is a theory that David O’Connor has shown me on the cross-country course in Florida, and Ingrid Klimke has demonstrated in her indoor in Muenster, Germany. I imagine a partnership in dancing: the male leads, the female follows. The male’s role is to show off the athleticism and animation of the female, the female who won’t be forced, but must be led. Dancing is fast and slow; it is playful and boastful; it is confident and humble, but it isn’t a race.

The owner doesn’t seem totally convinced, but Bruce shakes his hand and latches the trailer. I see the man still standing, hands in his pockets, and the football stadium behind him, as we drive off.

In the summer of 2008 Tik Maynard came up with a grand plan. He decided to spend a year working for some of the greatest horsemen he could find in different disciplines and writing about his experiences. So far, he has worked for Johann Hinnemann, Ingrid Klimke and David and Karen O’Connor. Although he spent the summer of 2009 at home in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, he’s still working on expanding his equestrian education.

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