Be a Bold Swimmer

My friends Gary and Julie Holmes, who run Shangrila Guest Ranch in southern Virginia, just sent me this photo of their one-year-old daughter, Melody, merrily astride one of the trail horses. The contrast of the tiny tot on the giant draft horse made me laugh out loud. If you look closely, you’ll see Gary (or, more accurately, a bit of Gary’s leg) standing on the other side of Rosie. You can be sure he’s holding on to Melody with all he’s got.

After I was done laughing, I began to parse the photo, which speaks to me at a level far deeper than sight gag. For me, this image represents a boldness and delight in life that all of us might aspire to. It came to me at a time when I’m feeling less than bold: I see the gap between my skills as a fledgling counselor and where I wish to be; I wonder if I truly have the ability to help Mystic recover from his seemingly bottomless trauma. My doubts, whether about working with horses or humans, boil down to the same thing: Am I enough?

When I look at this photo, I see a little girl who knows she’s enough. She embodies fearlessness, joy, and power. She’s independent yet supported by her father’s steadying hand. Other people support her too: the person just out of frame who is holding Rosie’s reins, the photographer capturing her moment of mastery. She grips the horn, providing her own stability and security. As she grows up, she’ll look at this picture and be reminded of her own strength and willingness to take risks.

This enchanting picture reminds me of all the supports I have—family, friends, professors, fellow horse lovers—and, most of all, my parents, who are always standing on the other side of the horse for me. It reminds me of the joys of risk-taking and independence. And it reminds me of one of my father’s favorite poems, “Song of Myself,” by the 19th-century poet Walt Whitman—a stunning paean to the power of self-transcendence. Melody, you’re an inspiration.


The Buck Stopped Here

Buck Brannaman leading a clinic at Flintrock Farm, October 2, 2011

Buck Brannaman, a big-name natural horsemanship trainer—made bigger by the recent documentary Buck—just held a four-day clinic at Flintrock Farm in Reidsville, a few miles down the road from Fiore Farms.

I couldn’t resist the chance to see this legendary cowboy-horseman in action, so I ponied up $25 to audit his Sunday clinic. The focus of the morning session was Horsemanship 1.

Seeing Buck in person after watching him on an enormous movie screen was exciting: slightly beaky, thin-lipped, and pink-shaven, he looked like Steve Martin’s country cousin. His seat and riding were impeccable; he moved his green three-year-old quarter horse as if by magic, using body language nearly imperceptible to the human eye.

Buck on his blue roan quarter horse

For three hours, the students worked on laterally flexing their horses, disengaging hindquarters, moving front quarters, using their horses’ drifting motion to engineer turns, and backing up. Throughout the session, Buck provided generalized instruction but not much one-on-one guidance. He’s obviously a master horseman with decades of experience, and a small-group lesson with him would surely be a once-in-a-lifetime event. With twenty riders in the ring, however, the session felt somewhat mass produced.

One fellow whose horse was slow to turn did receive a good dose of Buck’s attention. Armed with a red flag on a stick, Buck chased them around the ring, shaking the flag to motivate the horse to move his hindquarters. Every time Buck waggled the flag, the horse spun its hind end around like a speedy cow pony.

The flag-waving provided relief from the rather glacial pace of the clinic. After hours spent bending, flexing, and circling, the horses looked glazed. I was a little zoned out too. I wrote down some of Buck’s pearls of wisdom to keep myself occupied.  Here are a few:

Whenever a horse is over-flexed, it means you’re not having an influence on the feet.

Timing is important. But if your horse isn’t responsive, timing means nothing. That’s why it’s so important to be light with a horse.

You gotta use your whole leg. A lot of folks only use from the knee down. That doesn’t work. You gotta use your hips, your thighs, the whole thing.

And this unforgettable phrase:

 If you’re just going to be a half-assed hack on a horse, well, that’ll do—but you can do better.

Buck did not come across as a warm and fuzzy guy: He was blunt in his assessments, though he gave credit to the rare riders who mastered his instructions. He knew everyone by name and, at the end of the morning session, asked each rider if she or he had any questions.

“I feel like my horse is lazy, and I don’t know what to do about it,” one man said.

“He’s not lazy,” Buck said. “The problem is you. Give me five minutes on him and he’ll be performing like you wouldn’t believe.”

I suppose fame and healthy-sized egos go hand in hand. I felt glad I wasn’t asking any questions. A comment like that might have set me back a few years.

When the session ended at noon, I decided to head home rather than stay for the afternoon cow-work clinic. I don’t see cow roping in my future.

Buck with two students; the rider on the right was notably gentle with his horse

On my way out, I passed a fellow with a dark bay quarter horse, who’d caught my eye in the arena because he worked so gently with his horse.

“You have a lovely, soft way of being with your horse,” I told him.

His face lit up. “He’s a rescue horse. A year ago, no one could go near him.”

Neal—as he introduced himself—told the story of his horse, Ranger, whose first experience with humans involved having his feet tied, being thrown on the ground, castrated, and branded three times; after that he was relegated to a pasture, where he went untended for months stretching into years. When anyone tried to handle him, he went ballistic. Neal rescued Ranger just before he was to be euthanized at the age of four.

Neal started reading and watching everything he could about horses. He worked patiently with Ranger, teaching him that humans could be kind.

Neal and Ranger of Holden Beach, North Carolina

“I’m in no hurry. I’ve got the rest of my life,” Neal told me about training Ranger. He gazed lovingly at his horse, who was happily munching grass, looking anything but wild and uncontrollable. “I wouldn’t sell him for any amount of money.”

While the Buck Brannaman clinic occupied my head for the rest of the day, Neal and his horse took up a permanent resting place in my heart. For me, it’s the small stories, not the big showy ones, that linger.