I asked everyone to gather up and meet me over by the round pen. Earlier we ran the horses out of the shop area, past the garden with the corn growing tall, and down through the fifteen acres of pasture we keep for them in the middle of the property. Bucking and twisting, resisting and rearing, we eventually corralled them into the round pen—a recently built structure at the far end of the pastures. Today will be the first day we start working the horses. Twelve men and a few women assemble around me. Some are casually talking, while a few others are very quiet and watchful. There are still a number of them who struggle to hold their attention on any one thing too long. They gaze at the horses with a glazed and stagnant eye.
This ranch is their prison—all of them multiple offenders, felons. They refer to themselves, over and over again, as people who have done some very bad things. They live at the ranch now after hitting rock bottom; the ranch is here to save their lives. Period. Horses have always been part of the ranch. They live loosely with the residents on the property, which sits along the banks of the Rio Grande. By loosely, I mean they roam freely in the pastures, they gather in the automotive shop when it rains and snows, and in the woodshop when the flies get too bad. They forage through the ranch dumpsters for cookies, leftover baked goods, Wonder Bread. At night they are corralled into sizeable pens with shelter, water, and alfalfa hay. During the day they wander the entire property like giant gods who have dominion over all things: humans and horses coexisting in containment.
No one on the ranch knows much of anything about horses. They don’t know that Wonder Bread and Tastykakes are not good forage for an animal that has historically grazed on grasses, flowers, and tree bark for thousands of years. The horses run in packs like dogs chasing the residents when they bring the trash out from the cafeteria after meals. The residents gather in a tight circle next to the trash carriers. They carved wooden poles in their woodshop which they carry to fend off each attack. Residents have been bitten, had arms and wrists broken, been tripped and stepped on, and frightened out of their skin. Men and women, toughened by prison and living on the streets, run as fast as they can for safety when the horses begin their charge.
For me it was just another call. Another person or ranch asking me to help them with their horses. It’s my job, what I have done every day for the last twenty years. I hear many stories of how people are having trouble with their horses. I can hear the trouble in slow motion, see the footage shoot through my mind. There are a lot of things that go unsaid: the slightest movements, a flick of an ear, the corner of an eye, a shortening of breath—all of which when noticed could have averted the whole bad tale in the first place. But this call was different. Not once in my life had I heard of horses acting like this: scavenging, marauding war parties of horses. I didn’t think it could be true, and if it was I certainly needed to see it.
My first trip to the ranch was on a Sunday. The one day of the week the residents have off from a grueling work schedule. At the ranch, they have a livestock division. That means certain people are required to feed and care for the horses, ducks, dogs, and cats that live on the ranch. There are two heads of the livestock division and about twelve other members who split daily duties of caring for the animals. A long time ago, the residents used to ride the horses. But as the accidents and injuries piled up, along with the mythic tales which accompanied them, the horses became much more than a liability. They were deadly.
When I first came to the ranch, the livestock division was run by two women, Angie and Sarah. Angie was in her early thirties, a heroin addict for fifteen years. She was in prison for a multitude of crimes, with the last term for robbing her mother’s house on the pueblo. Her mom turned her in, feeling certain that prison was the safest place for Angie to be. Sarah was forty-five; a mother of three, a meth and heroin addict, and a prostitute since she was thirteen. Sarah was emotionally volatile, a damaged woman trapped inside a strongly abused body. Angie and Sarah had caused a recent stir by claiming that the horses were not being treated properly by the other members of the livestock division, who were mostly all men.
That’s when I got the call. I am a small woman, and I don’t weigh more than 120 pounds. I can be quiet when I first meet people, and I don’t usually make a dramatic first impression. On this particular Sunday, I found myself in the middle of the most dangerous behavior I had ever encountered before. Everyone was there, sitting on the benches under the shelter of the small equipment barn that sits just a few yards away from the nighttime corrals. It was four in the afternoon, feeding time. Recently they had a few bad accidents during the feeding routine, arguments about whose fault it was, and the question as to how to fix the problems had forced them to seek professional help. I introduced myself to everyone, and they graciously introduced themselves back. Then, as if a curtain dropped, everyone fell silent. The horses were at the far end of the pasture, grazing peacefully in the late afternoon sun.
“Okay,” I said, breaking the silence, “show me how you bring them in.”
Barrett, a young, strong man in his early thirties got up and went over to the hay barn door, which is a few feet away from the equipment shed. A few other men followed to stand behind him. He unlocked the door and started throwing flakes of alfalfa into the arms of the waiting men. They each grabbed the hay, tucked it tightly against their bodies, and took off at a full race toward the night corrals. They emptied the hay abruptly into the troughs, and then raced back to the shelter of the equipment barn. A few of the men had to make round trips to ensure each horse would be fed. Angie, Sarah, and the others were crammed into the shelter and shouting loudly as if participating in an important sporting event.
“Hurry up! Here they come! Get back in here!”
The screaming paralyzed me. And then there they were—the horses galloping, ears back, kicking up and thundering towards us. I was standing alongside the large cottonwood tree that shades the barn and night corrals. A herd of horses running in my direction never ceases to have a mesmerizing effect. Most of my days are filled with teaching horses how to love my world, but the real secret is how I love theirs. The shouting and screaming became louder, and a few of the men ran out and grabbed me, dragging me back inside the barn area. We were all enclosed together in an 8’ x 10’ overhanging shelter in front of the hay barn. The horses could see us, but they could not get to us. These were not horses, I thought, watching them bare their teeth at us as if we were the main meal for the night. Their dark, cold, angry eyes were unrecognizable to me.
We were their captives, run into our cell like lesser animals. I felt I had landed on another planet. Once we were solidly put away in safe subordination, the horses walked off casually into the corrals for their evening meal. The men snuck quietly out of the shelter after a few moments and shut the corral gates. We could now re-enter our world, but only because the giant beasts were content and contained for the night.
People say that a horse can mirror you, that they can blend themselves to the inside of a person—emotional camouflage. The ranch horses have seen a lot of damaged people over the years. Ninety or so residents live on the ranch, with some staying two years and others who never leave. They carry around their life histories: frightening baggage which they wear overtly on their faces, in their postures, and within their unique styles of movement. It’s a language the horses are well equipped to understand. Fear and it’s family members—anger, frustration, pain— are all carried in their steps, in their shoulders and necks, the way their backs round forward, forcing them to look out through the tips of their eyes, hiding in the shadows just beneath their eyebrows.
Some of the residents move with an artificial confidence, something they must try on in order to eventually make honest. Others have no life left in their bodies; they are soft and amorphous, like small sea creatures hanging on to any reef to which they can cling. Movement, and the lack thereof, is an emotional story. It tells all. Every day, the horses absorb the stories told from the roaming residents. Over the many years of this contained engagement between hurting humans and once-wild animals, a disaster had been created. Strong men and women beaten down by poverty, by family history, by the prison system all walk the ranch daily, doing chores and odd jobs, unknowingly constant in their communication with the horses.
Survival means to take full notice. With their ears and eyes, even while grazing head down, the horses see all, feel all. Horses survive by acknowledging risk and by asserting leadership. Flight, not fight, is how horses naturally resolve troubling situations. Leaders become leaders by being adept at keeping the herd out of harm’s way, by noticing peril and using their inherited gift of speed to reduce the danger. The movement and the emotions of the residents tell a repetitious story of hazard to these horses. Choppy, abrupt, artificially strong, and emotionally detached, the residents create and contribute to the ongoing silent disturbance.
Flight or fight: inside the tall adobe walls of this contained ranch, thousands of years of inherited instinct has been reversed. Not enough space to truly flee, where danger walks ninety men and women strong, fight is the new form of survival. The mirror has spoken.
The horses moved around the round pen, watchful with their ears but casual and aloof with their eyes. The men and women gathered around the top rail, leaning in on the horses, anxious to see what might happen next. What I saw in those horses worried me. Vigilant but dismissive, defensive and certain—they may have been corralled, but they were still in charge and they knew it. I gathered my ropes and a small bamboo pole six feet long and walked into the round pen. The men were casually talking, joking, and berating each other. Their world as small as a pinhole, narrowly aware of their surroundings. Without saying a word, I started to work. I chose the big bay named Hawk. Hawk, I was told, was the worst of the herd. He would lead the charge after lunchtime when the residents brought out the trash. Baring his teeth, flattening his ears, and reeling around with his hind legs to threaten to kick them away from his garbage, Hawk was well versed in how to intimidate and trample.
Inside the round pen, my mind was on Hawk. When he walked, I walked. When he stopped, I stopped. He heard me. His ear and the corner of his eye were sternly on me. The other horses gathered in the middle of the pen while Hawk and I walked the perimeter. I picked up my bamboo pole in my left hand and started tapping it on the ground as I walked. Hawk’s ears flattened. Still walking away from me, he became more and more agitated. He swung his head and neck toward me like a lion; his dark, cold eye warning me to back away. The men fell to a hush, but I kept tapping. I won’t get back, I said in my mind. No, I will not back up. Tap. Tap. Tap. I knew what was coming; I had seen it before, but only rarely. Hawk was coming in to attack me, and I was armed only with a bamboo cane and a rope to save my life.
At first he charged me halfway, swinging his shoulders, neck, and head in my direction—teeth bared, ears flat. I stabbed the bamboo cane into the center of his chest and quickly slapped it hard against his momentum. He flashed himself backwards in surprise. I tapped against the ground just behind his back legs to let him know I wanted him to walk forward again. I spread my legs and crouched a little, readying myself for the next charge. I began to swing the rope coiled in my right hand a little, over and under, in time with the tapping of the ground. And then he turned and came at me with all he had. I smacked him across the forehead with my cane, then twice again quickly across his shoulders. He rose up off his front legs, rearing straight up into the sky and towering over me, refusing to retreat, pumping his front legs at my head. I had never before heard the sound that came out of me: a roar so fierce, so determined and clear, but I was trembling. I thrashed at his front legs with the bamboo, moving sideways but never backwards, holding my ground. Down he came, and on the way he swirled around swinging his rear end toward me, determined and aiming. My rope was eight feet long now, the lash of it stinging him over and over again across his back, his loin, his strong, powerful rear-end musculature. Still jumping left and right to remove myself from his view, I crashed against him with all of the small force I could muster. I swung my rope and smacked with my cane. He kicked out and twirled again in order to catch a glimpse of me and set me up in his line of fire. In a final effort, I lashed him evenly across the back of his hind legs and succeeded in giving him a good sting. He jumped forward, away from me, a tiny victory. Tap. Tap. Tap. He walked away from me, ears still pinned. I quickly turned away from him as he walked away from me. Pressure off: no harm, no foul. I climbed over the top rail of the round pen and walked away from the horses. The men gathered around me, like a huddle after a big game-winning basket, whooping and hooting in disbelief at what they had witnessed, their jaws dropping.
After a few minutes, I looked back towards the round pen, keeping an eye on Hawk. He was standing alone where I had left him, his head low with one leg cocked and resting. His ears were soft and placed lightly to the sides of his head. His whole body looked deflated, less rigid. His eyes were half shut, half asleep. His mouth hung loosely, with his bottom lip in a droop. The other horses sniffed and muzzled the short weeds and grasses in the middle of the pen. We opened the gate to let them out, and they walked out casually and calmly back to their pasture. Hawk stayed resting.