Horse Latitudes

In the years I was growing up there, the grasslands surrounding Dodge City, Kansas were a regular Mecca for horses, many of them worthless and rarely ridden. My cousin-in-law Kim Goodnight owned a couple of such animals on his and my cousin Beth’s farmstead north of Dodge City. It was there, under Kim’s tutelage, that I had my first riding lesson, a five-minute affair which consisted of the transmission of three basic rules or ideas: (1) kick the horse to go, (2) pull back on the reins to stop, and (3) if you should happen to fall off, pick a soft place to land. “Think you can handle that?” Kim asked.

I nodded, full of a teenager’s brash confidence.

“Good. Let’s get you introduced to Jack.”

Jack was a thirteen-year-old paint gelding that shared a five-acre pasture with another of Kim’s horses, a fat grulla mare whose name I’ve forgotten. “You’ll find that Jack’s barn sour and a little mulish but otherwise bulletproof,” Kim remarked as we saddled him up.

“Bulletproof?” I asked.

“Easy to catch, and he doesn’t buck, bite, or kick. Those are traits you’ll come to appreciate, if you keep riding.”

“What about the mare?” I asked, nodding at Jack’s pasture mate.

“Whole different ball game,” Kim said, giving Jack’s front cinch one last tug before climbing aboard his John Deere and disappearing into a nearby milo field.

I had been anticipating this moment for a while by then, and my expectations could not have been higher. I expected to ride hard and go fast, while at the same time maintaining a Zen-like balance and poise—all movements in sync, no separation at all between thought and action, no effort at all, just a transcendent, gliding motion, like an eagle soaring above a bottomless canyon.

Jack, however, had other ideas. No sooner did I climb into the saddle and try to ride away from the barn than he locked his legs at the knee and refused to budge. I moved my hips back and forth and prodded him in the ribs with the heels of my Converse All Stars. “Hey now!” I yelled. “Get going! Ha!” In response to this, Jack pivoted on his back feet and turned to face the barn, as if to say, “That’s the only direction I intend on going.”

So much for soaring like an eagle, I thought.

In the barn, I found a two-foot length of nylon rope with a hondo tied into the end of it. Applying this improvised whip to Jack’s backside, I managed a painfully slow zig-zag across the pasture. The trip lasted five minutes and took far more out of me than it did out of Jack. However, a reward of sorts awaited at the far end of the pasture, for no sooner did I turn Jack around to face the barn than he took off in a bone-jarring trot, holding the gait without further bidding until he fetched up before the barn door, where the fight to get him to go commenced all over again. In this herky-jerky way, like a sailboat tacking into a strong headwind, then turning to glide freely and with full sail, I managed to cross the pasture a dozen times in the space of an hour—not exactly a stellar showing, given all the work that was required of me to make it happen.

Even so, I was hooked. I loved Jack, loved the staccato feel of his movements beneath me, the way his feet hit the ground in such steady and reliable rhythm, four beats at a walk, two at a trot, three at lope (if you could get him to lope—not an easy proposition). I loved the way his ears moved to indicate where he was looking, the way he rolled on the ground like a big dog when the saddle was taken off, the sucking noises he made when drinking from the water trough. Young as I was, I felt that I was discovering all of this for the first time. No one before me, not the Plains Indians, nor the nomads who rode with Genghis Khan, nor even the knights of the fabled Round Table had ever noticed or experienced any of these things. Two or three times a week, more often in the summer, I made the trek out to Kim and Beth’s place to ride, at first limiting myself to the five-acre pasture, but then venturing farther and farther afield.

Then Jack ate some bad grain, bloated like a hippo, and died. The news devastated me. Every time I saw a paint horse in a pasture somewhere my eyes would well up and I would cry. This period of mourning lasted a week, maybe two. Then I got on my Suzuki and rode back out to my cousin’s place.

I saw the grulla mare standing in the far corner of the pasture as I turned into the gravel driveway. She lifted her blue head from where she was grazing and looked at me steadily, as though sizing me up. I knew from talking to Kim that riding this horse would be nothing at all like riding Jack. Whereas Jack was mulish but predictable, the mare was responsive and quick, but also prone to sudden explosions of cantankerous ill temper. Even so, I figured to give riding her a shot. If nothing else, getting kicked or bit would give me something else to think about than Jack’s sudden demise.

I caught the horse, snubbed her to a post, and threw a blanket and saddle on. Choosing a curbed bit with some stopping power should I need it, I led the mare into the pasture and climbed on. No sooner had my butt hit the saddle than the horse took off at a gallop, slowing only to throw in a buck every ten yards or so. Holding the reins in one hand, I gripped the saddle horn with the other and held on for dear life. From the corner of the pasture, I could hear Kim yelling, “Turn her! Put her in a circle, for Christ’s sake!” I did as I was told, and yet still the mare ran, nostrils dilated, hooves pounding. For more than twenty minutes she kept it up. After a while, I loosened my hand on the saddle horn; then I let go of it altogether. I stopped pulling back on the reins and let the mare have her head completely, concentrating instead on matching my rhythm with hers. By the time she ran down to a trot, and finally to a walk, I felt like a switch of some sort had been thrown in my brain. So this is what it means to ride, I thought. This is what it’s supposed to feel like . . .

Later that same day, the mare would buck me off the back of the saddle and dropkick me halfway across the gravel lot in front of the barn, but not even that could dampen my growing enthusiasm.