At Home On The RangeIssue: Section:
It’s a little after 9am and the horses are saddled and ready to go. The sky over the Little Sandy Creek is ominous: smoke from a distant wildfire has blown our way, turning it the color of a bruise and subduing the sun to a dull orange disc. Beneath me, Flash shifts his weight and tosses his head, as impatient to hit the trail as I am. But there’s one final bit of business to attend to before we go: Bobbi and Mike are going to lay Batman down.
I need horses like I need air; the cadence of a canter is the pulse that moves my blood. I haven’t ridden very much this year, and there have been days when I felt like I was suffocating in the city with the oppressive heat rising from the asphalt and the silt of the subways settling on my skin. Even my hair is twitching by the time I retreat to Wyoming to spend a week on a horse and off the grid. This is my third season riding with Mike and Bobbi Wade, and it’s more like a homecoming than a vacation. The Wades are the proprietors of Blue Sky Sage Riding Adventures, which I think of as cowgirl camp for grown-ups. Wyoming’s wide-open spaces are the ideal anodyne for the city-rattled soul: we sleep in tipis beside a roaring mountain creek while the Perseid meteor shower rains pale sparks above our heads. And, hey: Horses! The opportunity to see wild mustangs in the Great Divide Basin--one of their last remaining habitats in North America--had lured me out there in 2010, but Mike and Bobbi’s kindness to humans and horses alike keep me coming back. While they shy from being called experts, they are the most knowledgeable and dedicated horse people I have had the privilege of knowing. So when the Wades say they will be laying Batman down--literally-- I know I need to overcome my own resistance to the idea.
For a prey animal, there is no more vulnerable position than to be on the ground. In the most primitive, instinctual part of a horse’s brain is this hard-wired understanding: a down horse is a dead horse. Even grazing can be a dangerous proposition when predators are around; in the wild, some herd members will stand sentry while the others put their heads down to eat. Now Bobbi and Mike are going to ask a thousand-pound prey animal to override a millennium of instinct. From Batman’s perspective, not only will he be helpless on the ground, but two apex predators will be looming above him--his life, literally and figuratively, will be in their hands. “It’s like a horse intervention,” one of my friends whispers. She’s not far off.
Bobbi and Mike have had Batman for a couple of seasons now, but of his 9 years on this earth, six of them are a mystery-- where he lived, what he did... and most importantly, what was done to him. He came to Blue Sky Sage as part of a package deal, but he brought some bad juju with him. He’s a beautiful little horse with a lovely way of going and a willingness to work, but he’s got a lot of fear in him, and that fear sometimes manifests itself in the form of sudden and explosive tantrums which can even unseat riders as skilled as Bobbi and Mike. Horses are the Wade’s livelihood, and there’s no room in the remuda for non-productive citizens: Batman needs to contribute to society, or he’s going to have to go. The economy has not been any kinder to horses than it has to humans, but this season in particular, American horse owners are finding themselves faced with difficult decisions. Drought has devastated the hay crop, and what little has grown is being sold at record high prices by farmers desperately trying to stay afloat. A lot of people are selling their horses, and often at a loss, or wondering how they’re going to get them through the winter. Out west, some have even resorted to turning their horses loose in the desert and hoping that they will be able to fend for themselves. The Wades want to do right by Batman; they don’t want to sell a horse who could potentially cause someone harm, and they don’t want to give up on a horse that shows so much promise. This is a radical (and in some corners, controversial) last-ditch effort to help him learn to trust riders again, and to help him understand that submitting to human requests will no longer cause him fear or pain.
It is a powerful and unnerving thing to watch someone lay a horse down. I am skeptical of circus tricks and dramatic gestures, and the horse world is full of self-styled “horse whisperers” who dole out dubious but attractively packaged wisdom one $100 DVD at a time. While I understood the general premise of this tactic, I hadn’t quite worked out how I felt about the process. Was it inherently cruel or unnatural? Would it further traumatize the horse or rob him of his dignity? Would he get hurt? Would Bobbi or Mike get hurt? Make no mistake: this process is not without risks. Bobbi and Mike have decided that for them-- and for Batman-- the potential rewards outweigh them. I trust them, so I reserve judgment.
Mike slips the loop of his lasso around one of Batman’s fetlocks and, using the saddle horn for leverage, begins to pull Batman’s front leg up. The horse resists--of course he does--and tries to evade the rope, backing up frantically, unstable on three legs. Mike’s face shows no strain, though, and no frustration. He wears an expression of patience and quiet determination that fits him as naturally as an old pair of boots. He insists, but gently, going with Batman’s motion rather than fighting against it, letting the frenetic moment pass and beginning again. The process will not be rushed, and it will take as long as it takes. It is compelling to watch, this dance of conflicting wills, a conversation between man and horse playing out in silence. It ends when Batman decides he has been persuaded and, with less grace than resignation, sinks to the ground and lies stiffly on his side.
Bobbi and Mike approach him slowly, then drape themselves over his body, leaning against him with their full weight, rubbing his face, petting his neck, massaging the base of his tail-- touching him in any way they can that transmits security and compassion. “Trust us,” they are asking him with every stroke, “we mean you no harm.” Even from where we stand, mounted on our own horses (curious and enrapt observers) we can all see the moment--the precise instant-- when Batman’s body softens, when his resignation becomes relaxation, when wide eyes become hooded and sleepy. He stretches out his neck and begins nibbling at a sparse tuft of tall grass. In this moment, Batman is a happy horse, and he has let go of his fear.
“You teach what you release,” Mike has told us throughout the week. Now I get it. I’ve seen it. It is...well, it’s pretty much like magic.
Bobbi mounts Batman while he’s still on the ground. Now that he’s gotten comfortable, he’s almost reluctant to get up. But after a little coaxing, he rises to his feet in a powerful upward surge and walks off, quiet and calm, all his attention focused on Bobbi. You teach what you release.
We ride out, and all of us, I think, are replaying the morning in our heads, revisiting this transformation we have been privileged to see. The land rolls out before us and behind, the jagged teeth of the Wind River Range rising over our shoulders. The still-smoky sky and endless expanses of sage scrub testify to the wildness and unforgiving character of this land, and wagon-rut scars of the Oregon Trail tell of the human ambition to leave their mark on it.
Following cattle paths and game tracks, we move higher into the mountains. From time to time, a pronghorn herd bounds by and disappears over the crest of a hill or into a distant valley. Their speed inspires us. I trust my horse, and he trusts me; we dodge the brush as we lope, leaping and cutting an unpredictable course over the uneven ground. “Hoka hey,” Bobbi shouts: Let’s go! Keep yourself in the moment! Be ready for anything! Flash, all flaxen mane and copper hide, is nimble beneath my saddle and light in my hands, and we are a herd of two, moving together, and for an attenuated moment, there is nothing else but this: the horse, the rider, and the land.
You teach what you release. We breathe in, we breathe out. We crush the brush beneath our hooves mile by mile, and the air smells like sage.
Blue Sky Sage is an independent, family-owned and family-operated tour outfitter specializing in active riding vacations.
For those interested in the philosophies and practices of Natural Horsemanship, these books are an excellent introduction:
Buck Brannaman, The Faraway Horses
Tom Dorrance, True Horsemanship Through Feel
Monty Roberts, Shy Boy: The Horse that Came in from the Wild
For the more visually inclined, the 2011 documentary Buck is a moving and inspiring look at the horse-human relationship, and the transformative power of kindness.