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I climbed back over the top rail of the round pen and stood on the far side facing him. This is our new herd, I thought, you and me. “If you don’t know what number you are,” one of my teachers once told me, “then you are number two.” Generally speaking, I think humans could use a good dose of learning to be number two, but in this situation I didn’t have that luxury. I walked to the middle of the pen and picked up my pole, standing there quietly and waiting. Hawk’s head rose a little, his legs straightened. In the corner of his eye, there lay a question, a curiosity toward me. I took a step towards his hind end but kept my pole still. A light, clear click came from the edge of my tongue. His ears captured it and flickered back and forth. I took one more step forward, one more click. Hawk stepped forward and slowly went away from me; I followed behind at a safe distance. When he would slow his step, I would click and he would return to walking. When I would stop, he would stop. When I would go, he would go. His breath became deep and noticeable. He blew through his nostrils that comforting catching breath of horses who are satisfied and settled. His mouth and jaw rolled his tongue around, and the ease of it warmed me. I stopped, walked away again, and climbed out of the pen. I went over to the dusty old box that holds the halters and picked one out. I realized they hadn’t been used in a long time. I walked over to the gate, opened it wide, and placed the halter and lead line on Hawk. He followed behind me with his head low and his eyes soft. I took him out toward his other herd. When we reached the pasture, I slid the halter off Hawk. We stood silently as I groomed his neck, face, and chest with the palm of my hand. Then as I turned and left him, he bent his head down for the grasses and never looked up.
She was definitely crooked. Most of her weight listed off to the left. Her head cocked sideways, tilting the world away from center. Everything from her waist down looked like it was out of joint. Abuses to the soul run deep, long rivers of pain into the body. Sarah appeared to be always happy, always ready for things to change. Her enthusiasm seemed to irritate quite a few of the other residents, but it also commanded a quirky sense of leadership at the ranch. She was one of the oldest people in the livestock department. Before she began her career at her father’s strip club at the age of thirteen, Sarah lived in the country outside of Los Angeles on a small ranch. Her memory of her childhood with horses was coated in a dusty, pink haze from her thirty years of drug addiction. Her love for the ranch horses was real; she alone knew that these horses were in trouble, and she was the voice on the line when I got the first call.
I drove into the ranch on my second trip with a trailer full of horses I had trained. The residents met me at the main gate, not accustomed to seeing a woman drive such a big rig. We unloaded the horses, tied them to the trailer, with everyone in awe of their size, beauty, and excellent manners.
“Before we get started, I want everyone to line up facing down the road,” I said.
To a painter’s eye, it would have been a cacophony of form. Some round, some thin, slumping shoulders, and a few arrogantly carried chests. They carried their heads slightly turned, twisted, and fallen—the shapes of uncertainty couched in defiance.
“Today we are going to learn to walk.”
Laughter poured out from the crowd. I lined up next to Sarah, and I asked everyone to watch me carefully. I walked away from them, taking long, smooth strides, my head upright, eyes forward, arms loose. Then I turned and walked back, demonstrating the same flow.
“Let’s take turns. Sarah, you go first.”
Peeling off to the left, Sarah wobbled up the road and back as best she could.
“That was good; now, let me help you. Everyone, listen up.”
The group was getting restless and silly. The simple exercise seemed ridiculous to them.
“If you want these horses to respect you, you have to respect yourself,” I stated loudly. “How you walk, how you hold your posture, tells these horses whether to stomp you or follow you. It also tells them whether you’re trustworthy or a fake, and believe me, they know the difference.”
I went over to Sarah and gently put my hands on her head, neck, and shoulders and centered them. I pulled downward on her right arm until her right hand was level with her left. I stood in front of her scanning her whole body for balance.
I spoke up so everyone could hear, “Sarah, you love the horses, but you walk around them like a hobbled, weak woman. They see this, and because of it they will never respect you. We need to fix that, okay?”
With her head on center, she firmly conceded, “Yes!”
“I’ll show you one more time,” I said and walked down the road and back, confident but not artificial in my gait.
Sarah stepped out, emphasizing her attempt to correct everything to the right. It was a valiant effort.
“Each of you has to stay conscious of yourself and all your behavior and movement patterns when you are around the horses,” I told the group. “That kind of emotional and physical control is the only way these horses will ever take an interest in you. Basically, I am telling each of you that you are going to have to change on the inside and on the outside for this to work. You’re going to need a lot of practice. Who is next?”
Fred walked forward, “I’ll go.”
He walked down the road like he was mad as hell, pounding strides with his head held up, eyes forward, hands clenched into fists. He turned and stomped back. Fred weighed over 300 pounds, six feet tall, with broad intimidating shoulders. He admittedly had anger issues; this was the main reason for his stay at the ranch. Fred did not need to be here, because his current prison term was up. His wife told him after his last release from prison that he needed to come to the ranch and work on his anger issues before he would be welcomed back home. Some days he was extremely frustrated by his situation, and other days he was honest and crumbling. He was a giant seesaw of emotion.
As he walked back into the lineup, Fred announced, “These horses don’t mess with me. I’m not afraid of them.” Fred put his best badass on, shoulders slouched forward, arms doing the downward punch, popping up and down off his toes. “I know horses; I used to work with them off the track in Florida. These horses don’t scare me,” he repeated, freely pumping his toughness with his lips pinched and readying for a fight.
I looked down the line at the other residents who were shaking their heads quietly in denial of Fred’s boastful show.
“Oh,” I said, “well, good, then why don’t you head over to the trailer and untie Billie. She’s an ex-track horse. Second one to the left, with the four white socks. Untie her, and bring her over.”
Fred stopped cold, the beefy bravado melting away. “You want me to do what?” he said.
I repeated myself carefully as he looked at me in disbelief. He then did his best to put his hammering body back together and strutted off toward the trailer at a much slower clip. The residents in line were all sheepishly smiling as they turned to watch Fred head off. The horses were in line, each tied to the trailer with a chain of slip knots and a lock at the end of each one. Fred’s first challenge would be to slip his 300-pound angry body between my two biggest horses tied closely next to one another and untangle those knots while standing inches away from Billie’s mouth and four strong hooves, essentially sandwiching himself between the two horses on either side. He stopped at the edge of the trailer and pointed at Moo, my Morgan gelding who was tied at the far end of the trailer.
“This one?” he asked.
“No, the next one,” I quietly corrected, trying to hold back my desire to run over and help him out of his predicament.
“You want me to go in there, untie her, and do what?” His memory was slipping behind the fear now. He was shaking a little, his lips no longer tight but held slightly apart and panting. “There’s no way I can get in there, Miss Ginger, no way,” he finally confessed.
“Do you want some help?” I offered gently.
“Yes, that would be great.”
I walked over to the trailer with the other residents coming behind me in a semicircle.
“Everybody likes to say that we cannot show our horses any fear, but I disagree. What they need most is honesty. If you are truly honest about how you feel, you will express that outwardly with your body and give it a chance to leave you. Open the door, Fred,” I said confidently, “you can do this.”
He stepped into the thin space between the two horses, muttering oh, shit and fuck this a number of times.
“Lay your hand on her rump, Fred, as you walk in there; let her feel you.”
Fred lifted his colorfully tattooed arm above Billie’s tall rump and placed it caringly on her shining brown coat.
“Now walk up to her head, allowing your hand to travel along her back as you go. Nice, Fred, good job,” I said with a quiet, calm voice.
I coached Fred up to the lead rope, where I had him unlock the slip knots, pull and release each one down the chain. Fred was quiet now, gaining confidence in the steamy space between the two large equine bodies.
“Okay, back her out of there now. Take your lead rope, face her head, and walk into her chest. Ask her to back up. Don’t be too strong with her; she doesn’t appreciate that.”
I had chosen this horse for a reason. Fred did exactly what I said, and in a moment he was out on the road with all of us gathered around him.
“Good job, man. How awesome. Look, man, at how big she is! Way to go dude!”
Everyone jumped in to praise Fred on this simple task, knowing how debilitated and freaked out he was. Fred handed me the rope and quickly bent over at the waist, hands on his knees, breathing heavy.
“I gotta sit down, man. I think I’m gonna faint.”
A few of the guys grabbed him under his shoulders and held him up. They helped him over to the edge of the road and, next to a small irrigation ditch, they sat his weakened body down.
This was the beginning of opening that fragile door which I had to unlock to give these residents an honest chance at getting along with and staying alive around the ranch horses. We spent the rest of that warm afternoon putting energy into the lifeless bodies of some of the residents and deconstructing the false pride carried around by the others. I constantly insisted on less and more: Less toughness, more honesty. More confidence, less apprehension. More focus, less staring at the ground. We untied my herd of horses, and everyone was soon walking around the pastures and roads, leading them without pulling on their ropes, gesturing with a body language horses could understand and respect. Watching the residents enjoy the companionship of horses for the first time was restorative, splintering the fear, doubt and confusion they had held for so long. The tyranny of the ranch horses emptied out for the time being, each resident gaining the confidence and insight needed to build and recover. Everyone was spread out wide, walking and stopping, backing up and turning, the horses following on a long, loose line.