It's like driving a car at night. You can never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
E. L. Doctorow
The wind started as I neared the border. It punched through the open car window. I licked my lips and watched Colorado's piney foothills flatten out into yellow undulations of Wyoming prairie, free of every visible life-form except sagebrush, a pair of crows cruising the air currents, and scattered antelope. Although they evolved here, antelope have always struck me as exotic, with their clean white markings and thimble hooves, their preference for rocks over vegetation, wind over shelter,Wyoming over Colorado.
I was nervous. Smithsonian magazine was sending me to the Wind River Indian Reservation to write a profile of Stanford Addison, a quadriplegic Northern Arapaho reputed to be able to talk rank beginners through the process of breaking horses. I had approached the magazine's editors with the story idea, but now that I had the assignment, I wasn't sure I could pull it off. I was terrified of horses, and worse, in seventeen years of working as a journalist in the rural West seventeen years spent winning the trust of police chiefs and geneticists and forest rangers and heroin addicts I had never won the trust or friendship of a single Native American. I had tried hard and failed completely. I tried not to take it personally.Of course they won't open up, I thought.They're supposed to hate us white people, right? I mean, who wouldn't?
I lived in the tiny town of Paonia in westernColorado. The Utes live four hours south, the Navajos three hours past that.After I'd traveled to their reservations, my drives home gave me ample time to review the interviews I'd blown.
Me: So, how did you become interested in entering the Miss Navajo Pageant?
Beauty contestant: Just decided to do it, I guess.
Me: Was it the desire to be recognized, or to promote traditional cultural values, or to buy a bunch of new dresses, or what?
Beauty contestant: I couldn't afford the dresses. I had to sew most of them.
Me: So you sew! That's great.
Beauty contestant: [Silence.]
Me: It's interesting to me that there's no bikini competition in the Miss Navajo Pageant. I mean, the Miss America pageantis all about sex.
Beauty contestant: [Silence.]
Me: It's amazing that in most beauty contests, women have been reduced into this one tiny thing, one tiny aspect of being human. But not here!
Beauty contestant: [Silence.]
Why couldn't I shut up? Why did I get so nervous and yappy? There was no doubt I carried a small pile of racial baggage. I'd spent much of my childhood in rural Scotland, which was home to five million people the color of skim milk. "Jew" was a swear word. My Scottish schoolbooks called black Africans "savages," and my image of "red Indians" wasn't much different.
When I was nine, we moved from the cloud-shrouded hills of Scotland to Colorado. The jagged, exposed landscape evoked in me an exaggerated sense of beauty and danger.When we drove southwest to where the Utes and Navajos lived, the view was thrilling and, to my mind, suitable for viewing from the safety of a car with every single window rolled up. When I saw the people riding horses or herding sheep, my mind filled with the war chants I'd seen in the movies. I stood silently behind my mother as she chatted away with the Natives. I was extremely relieved every time we left the roadside jeweler or Navajo taco vendor and got back in the car. Alive. Spared again.
But here I was, forty-two years old, driving to an Indian reservation with a name so raw it made me shiver the Wind River part of a short procession of Subarus and Toyotas ferrying half a dozen people north from Colorado.We arrived at Stanford's at about midnight under a sky littered with stars. It was much colder here than it had been at home.We rolled out our sleeping bags in a pair of teepees Stanford had had erected for us. The next morning we got up, sniffed the dry, hayscented air, and congregated around a rickety table to eat our cereal, stare at the hulking, glaciated Wind River Range, brew coffee on a Coleman stove, and wait for our teacher to emerge from his house.
Eventually, the battered front door opened and Stanford rolled out in his wheelchair. He passed beneath the front porch light dangling from a single wire and glided down the wooden ramp. He leaned back, his head resting on a padded brace, his body bouncing passively every time his chair hit a rough spot. As he got closer, my gaze skittered to the dirt beneath the wheels, to the sky above his head, to anywhere else, and irresistibly back to him. His motionless feet were covered in bright white ankle socks that had clearly never touched the ground. His legs protruded, sticklike, from nylon shorts. Acne scars dotted his shoulders. His arms tapered to long, graceful hands. His face was pockmarked and thin. A long black braid hung down his back.
I had never seen bad luck heaped so hugely upon a human body. He looked at me, his gaze mild, open, alert, and unblinking. It walloped me just the way beauty would.
Shit, I thought, blushing to the roots of my hair. It felt like he could see every little place in me that had gone hard and rigid and smiling. Shit.
My eyes searched hungrily for something else to look at and seized on the corral and the horses. Mostly young Arabians, they were rounded up just yesterday. They swooped and turned in the corral, as restive and beautiful as caged birds.
Stanford bumped off toward them and pulled up in a square of shade. The Colorado contingent followed him and started pulling up lawn chairs nearby. I followed. Stanford usually had local Arapaho kids work the horses in his corral, but this was an organized clinic for outsiders; it would last four days. I'd been told that participants took turns entering the corral with a horse rounded up fresh off the range, and this was the part that boggled my mind often within a few hours, ride it around the corral. Two of our number were bona fide horsewomen. The rest had come mostly to watch and to be around Stanford.
"I'm not here to ride," I blurted to Stanford. "I had a bad time with a pony when I was little."
"Okay," he said.
We were joined by half a dozen Arapaho kids boys in baggy gangsta jeans and girls in basketball shorts and white T-shirts. I thought Stanford would shoo them away, expecting he'd need everyone to be quiet while he worked. But he didn't. The kids fanned out and perched like a flock of sparrows on corral poles, watching the action. Stanford joked with them, fielded phone calls on a cordless phone, and directed the goings-on in the corral. His presence was large and still and accessible, and I was suddenly, fabulously, at ease.
Paula McCaslin, a solid woman with clear blue eyes and short black hair, stood outside the ring watching the light gray three-yearold mare inside. The mare had led her Arapaho pursuers on a thirtymile chase the day before, and her night in captivity hadn't changed her attitude much. She lunged with the flexibility and passion of a carnivore for the window of air that would lead her back to her known world, away from the two-leggeds with their strong smell and scary eyes, which, like the eyes of all predators, were located on the fronts of their faces. God only knew what would happen now that her main defense the ability to run fast in a straight line had been diminished into running in little circles within a confounding wooden structure, the faces she was trying to escape reappearing every few seconds.
Quiet and still, Paula stood next to Stanford outside the corral rails, watching the mare's antics. Paula was a forty-year-old government cartographer who had grown up with horses in suburban Denver. After attending one of Stanford's demonstrations in Boulder she had tried his technique by herself and broken her arm. This morning she had eaten her breakfast alone in her parked car, staring straight ahead while the rest of us chatted and brewed coffee.
It was time to start. Paula scootched through the corral rails, joining the mare inside.
"Make her run," said Stanford.
"Yah!" Paula hollered. "Yah!"
The mare startled and broke into a trot. After many laps she stopped, looking at Paula with her ears pricked forward.
"That's the kind of look you want," said Stanford. "When she's ready to communicate, she's going to drop her head." Sure enough, the mare's head went down. But when Paula approached, the mare turned away.
"Okay, make her run," said Stanford. As the horse swung into a trot, he said, "I'm making it so the horse can only rest when she's paying attention to Paula." He was satisfied with the mare's progress. "She's seeing that Paula's not in there to hurt her or threaten her," he said. "And she's a smart horse, too; she's in there thinking."
I looked at the mare's still brown eyes. I could see what he meant. Within an hour, Paula was stroking her. It seemed as if the horse were shedding wildness like a tight shoe she'd always wanted to take off.
Paula put a halter on the mare and secured it with a rope to an overhead pulley apparatus. The rope holding the mare had no slack; she could stand comfortably only when she was directly below it. Stanford had us all leave the corral so she wouldn't associate people with this elemental lesson: The only way to endure confinement is to accept it. Stanford called it "finding your center." After an hour of tossing her head and trotting in place with her head in all kinds of awkward positions, the mare calmed down and stood still, as serene and eager as a show horse.
That lovely girl, I thought. That angel.
Paula "tarped" the mare, tossing a strip of blue tarp tied to a pole across her hindquarters, back, neck, and head. It would get the mare used to human-made movement and noise. Then, slowly, Paula took a saddle blanket, throwing it gently over the mare's back and taking it off several times from both sides before saddling and bridling her.Within three hours of entering the corral, Paula mounted the mare, who stood still and blinked, looking surprised at her rapid change in fortune.
I couldn't believe my eyes. I was amazed by how quickly the mare had started to trust Paula, and how clearly she wanted to do so. Paula hadn't been aggressive with the mare, and her gentleness had been repaid in kind. Every license plate in this state depicts the silhouette of a horse with its head down, legs flying, and rider leaning back toward the horse's heaven-bound butt in an effort to stay mounted. This is the Cowboy State, but what I'd just witnessed had been no rodeo. It had unfolded like a love scene or a ballet. The mare had not seemed to take any solace in the fact that she weighed more than five times what Paula did, or that she was far faster and stronger. She knew a predator when she saw one and simply wanted to know what to do to survive.
My own equestrian history bore no resemblance to what I had just seen.When I was about five, my older sister and I decided that ponies were the center of the universe. We became ponies, jumping over stumps in the forest, whinnying and stamping all through the backyard, down the driveway, and along the road. Later, we humbly bowed our heads to receive the invisible Olympic medals we awarded each other: gold for my sister, silver for me. At bedtime we read about horses. We thought the best book ever written was Jill Enjoys Her Ponies.
All this happiness came to an abrupt halt when I was seven and our parents bought us a living, breathing pony. Bobby was four years old, with a dirty white coat, the build of a soccer ball, and the soul of Charles Manson. He had a particular affinity for a holly tree into whose low-hanging, spiky-leaved foliage he deposited us with enough regularity that I still dream about it.When I was nine, we sold him back to the man we'd bought him from. Since then I had ridden half a dozen times always on the oldest, gauntest, safest horse I could find.To me, horses were conniving and dangerous. But they were also the most beautiful creatures on earth.
But here at Stanford's corral, one gray mare, at least, wanted peace. Excited by the possibility that I'd been all wrong about horses, I put my notebook in the dust under my folding chair, counted to three, and asked Stanford if I could break a horse, too.
"Sure," he said.
I walked into the holding corral, Stanford rolling alongside me in his chair. I'd been told that he was a spiritual healer who held sweat lodges twice a week, so I half expected some piercing shamanistic insight on which horse I should choose.
"Which one do you want?" was all he asked.
I pointed to a black stallion who was inseparable from a brown and white pinto. They moved together, running straight at the corral fence and then swooping to one side when it proved once again that it wasn't going to move out of their way. I picked the black stallion because he was beautiful, with fine limbs and a perfect white star on his forehead. I also picked him because he was, as wild stallions go, small.
Some Arapaho boys ran into the holding corral, separating him from his pinto pal and scaring him through the gate into the round corral. I slid through the poles of the fence, not quite able to take a full breath. My horse-breaking career had begun.
I cracked the nylon lead rope to make him run around the little round corral, and he sauntered over to the fence, put his head through the poles, and whinnied to his pinto friend, who practically shrieked back. The stallion could read my past perfectly. His disrespect for me was total. I didn't have the nerve to do what I'd seen the Arapaho kids do simply walk up to the horse's butt and push it until it started moving.
Stanford was quiet until the horse presented me with his gleaming hindquarters for approximately the twenty-seventh time. "You're being too accommodating with him," he said.
"Of course I'm being too accommodating!" I barked back, embarrassed. "He's a wild stallion!"
"Still, you're being too accommodating," Stanford said, dragging on a cigarette from one of the two packs of KOOL Filter Kings he would smoke that day.
"I'm an American woman!" I blurted. "We're taught to be this way!"
My half-joke failed miserably. Stanford sat silent. I tried again to get the horse trotting and failed. I looked to Stanford for help, but he was on the phone, his back to me.
Hey, buddy, I thought miserably. I could freaking die out here.
Boulderites with water bottles, Indians with cigarettes maybe fifteen people in all watched from outside the corral. The horse walked, stopped, and occasionally broke into a desultory trot. I waved my arms at him, yelped, and wished the ground would open and swallow me whole. The Boulderites looked sympathetic. The Arapahos laughed. The little boys on the corral fence shouted, "Just git on him!"
"He's training you to run," said Stanford, who had ended his phone call.
I wished Stanford, or the horse, or I, would drop dead. "I'm scared,"I rasped back, fear and anger catching in my throat.
Stanford sat, imperturbable. At last he spoke. "You'll do okay," he said.
At the side of the corral sat a rangy, silver-haired woman named JeannieAsh. She had moved from rural Nevada to Boulder after a car accident ended her thirty-year career training horses. After watching me flail for about an hour, she stood up with an air of grave finality.
"Yeah, let Jeannie give it a try," Stanford said.
Jeannie wiped her hands on her jeans, climbed through the fence, drew herself to her full five-feet-eleven height, and slapped the ground with the lead rope as if she were Zeus and the rope her lightning bolt. All of us, including the stallion, jumped a little bit. I hurried to the side of the corral and hoisted myself onto the pole fence. Jeannie whacked the horse over the butt with the rope, and he stepped into a fine, sustained trot. Within a few minutes he was looking at Jeannie, ears pricked forward with anticipation while she stroked his nose.
"Your turn," said Stan.
I climbed into the corral. The stallion seemed to regard me with considerably less enthusiasm than he had Jeannie, but he let me stroke the gleaming, bony length of his face. Miraculously, I managed to put the halter on without dropping it.We adjourned for the night. I fell into an exhausted sleep.
The next day I woke up with the conviction that if persistence was all I had going for me, then dammit, I was going to persist. And I remembered something from white-water kayaking, a sport I'd practiced and loved for years:To begin a scary task is to be close to finishing it. In fact, beginning takes more courage than anything else, because once you make contact with the forces of nature, your most practical and clear-eyed self emerges.
In the corral, the stallion let me stroke him, lean against him, and even jump up and lie over his bare back, my arms on one side and my legs on the other.
Stanford's directions took on the repetitive nature of a chant. "Do it again," he said every time the stallion flinched or spun. "Get back on," he said every time I slithered off.
The sun climbed in the sky.The heat ticked through the dust. Someone mentioned that the temperature was 97. After I'd hoisted myself onto the stallion's back time after time, my arms felt like noodles. My worries and internal arguments bled away. I felt disembodied, calm, unencumbered by free will.
Slowly, I put a saddle blanket and a saddle on the horse.
"Mount him," said Stanford.
At my zombie's pace, I did, settling in the saddle. I inhaled. I exhaled. Then the stallion flicked his ears back, and the next thing I knew, I was standing in the dirt, the horse was in the dirt on his back kicking around below me like an overturned turtle, and I was pointing to his writhing form and announcing, "I'm not afraid of you anymore."
"You looked like the Bionic Woman!" Stanford yelled excitedly. "That was cool!"
I registered that his tone of voice had changed from the gentle monotone he had used since we began, and as the stallion scrambled to his feet, I walked over to Stanford and Jeannie. They told me what had happened: The horse had reared up and I'd kicked myself out of the saddle, floated next to his head, grabbed him by the neck, and thrown him on his back.
I bent over laughing. I wasn't exactly the horse-throwing type, I assured them. But I couldn't remember what had happened. All I knew was I mounted the horse, then I was standing up, the horse was on his back in the dust, and Stanford was shouting.
I leaned on the fence, waiting for them to tell me they were kidding and let me in on what really happened. They didn't.
"Get back on him," said Stanford.
He suggested I lie down on the stallion's back with my head on his rump, and I did it, even though when I'd seen it done earlier in the day, I swore I'd never do it in a million years. A few minutes later, I rode the stallion around the ring. We progressed as slowly as if we were crossing a pond of glue.
After I let the stallion go in the holding corral, I walked over to the teepee and sank to its floor, feeling the strength drain from my body. About an hour later, I heard the whir of Stanford's wheelchair outside the teepee.
"Your horse needs to be petted around and reassured some," he said.
The horse. My horse. Feeling sheepish, I labored to my feet and went to the corral. The stallion's head hung.His eyes stared dully.He looked exactly the way I felt. Only then did I realize how exhausted he was, how terrified he'd been. He hadn't been trying to hurt me; he just hadn't known what I was doing, so he'd tried every trick he had to get me to leave him alone. But I'd been too afraid, and then too detached, to recognize that he had any emotional life at all.Now my heart fairly cramped with love. I brushed him and hugged him and petted him.
Jeannie joined me, and together we stroked the little black stallion back to life. I joked that the horse reminded me of other studs I'd encountered in life when the going got rough, I got scared and didn't realize until later that they were scared, too. Oh, the men I wished I'd had a chance to brush back to life!
Jeannie laughed. She said she'd never seen anything like what she saw in the corral that day.
What happened? I asked her.
"These horses will bring up every fear that you ever had about everything," she said. "And Stanford can look at the fear, he can look at the courage that sits there behind the fear."
I could easily recall my fears: I was scared of ridicule and pity; I was scared of being disrespected by horses and little boys on fences; I was scared of being pounded to death by eggbeater hooves; I was scared of having my kneecap blasted sideways in a collision with a corral pole. I was scared of being a weak, out-of-shape, no-longer-young woman. I wanted everyone to think of me as strong and brave the stallion, the onlookers, Stanford.
But as for the courage that sat behind all that fear, that had eluded me. I'd gone into some zombie fugue state and missed the fact that I had knocked the horse down in the dirt. All I could remember was that Stanford never once ran out of patience or pushed or criticized. Later, he told me he'd spent a good amount of time praying for the horse and me.His gentleness was so foreign to my system that it took me a while to figure out what it was. And he wasn't gentle only with me and the stallion. He was gentle with the dogs, the children, and the other spectators.
The thing Stanford said that weekend that stuck in my mind most was something he called out to his four-year-old grandnephew A.J. The little boy was trotting around among horses whose knees nearly came up to his butt. Most uncles would either not see A.J. weaving among the giant creatures, or start yelling at the sight.
"Hey, A.J., be careful," Stanford called gently. "Those horses are huge, and you're real tiny."
He gentled us. All of us. He gentled us along.
Copyright © 2009 by Lisa Jones