Some Horsesby Thomas McGuane
Tom McGuane loves horses. Nowhere is that more evident than in his deft and utterly fascinating essays about some of the more remarkable horses and horsemen he has known. The horse that most intrigues him is the cutting horse-the essence of the sport that pits horse against cow, where the horse demonstrates his athleticism and intuitive sense of bovine mentality.… See more details below
Tom McGuane loves horses. Nowhere is that more evident than in his deft and utterly fascinating essays about some of the more remarkable horses and horsemen he has known. The horse that most intrigues him is the cutting horse-the essence of the sport that pits horse against cow, where the horse demonstrates his athleticism and intuitive sense of bovine mentality. Among the cast of these memorable characters are the near mythical trainer Buster Welch, who defined the modern cutting horse, and the no less mythic Chink's Benjibaby, a horse that had too much "cow" for her own good.
In these eight essays, some published here for the first time, McGuane taps the literary wellspring of his own personal passion. He examines the relationship between horses and humans: what it is about horses that reveals so much about ourselves, what we see in them, why they respond to us, and the symbiosis that can result from such a match. Whether writing about cutting horses, hunting with horses, learning to rope, or the birth of a foal, McGuane's extraordinary talent shines.
Thomas McGuane is the author of ten books, among them several highly acclaimed novels including The Sporting Club, The Bushwhacked Piano, Ninety-two in the Shade, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and Nothing But Blue Skies. His stories and essays have been selected for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Essays, and The Best American Sporting Essays. He lives on a ranch in Sweet Grass County, Montana, with his family.
New York Times Book Review
The New York Times Book Review
I found it a delight." --Larry McMurtry
"McGuane characterizes the alliance between humans and horses as a 'burst of poetry.'. . . Tom illuminates that truth beautifully, giving us the gift of his own poetry in the process." --Robert Redford
"Breathtaking. . . . McGuane display[s] his characteristically muscular prose and a wry sense of humor." --USA Today
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Those who love horses are impelled by an ever-receding vision, some enchanted transformation through which the horse and the rider become a third, much greater thing. No such image haunts the dreams of the motorist. Becoming one with your car is the subject of perhaps unforeseen comedy. The dream of animals is counterpoised by the nightmare that our inventions will turn on us. This is the age of the machine and all things of flesh are imperiled by it, especially that terrible machine of transportation the automobile, which has ruined our towns, our countryside, and perhaps our families. The geopolitics of oil, the murderous disquiet of the oil-producing regions owe their unhappiness to the need to fuel that thing that replaced the horse. The humblest horse owner with a cherished animal in the backyard is doing his or her part to help the spirit travel in a more bountiful way.
Somehow, in the last thirty years, my life has filled up with horses and with other animals as well, dogs certainly, numerous barn cats, several wonderful cockatiels, the wild animals we live among, some of whom have become habituated to us. We are particularly aware of nearby annual nesters, the red-tailed hawks, the golden eagles, the all-knowing ravens, and the bird for whom Montanans have an ironic and amused affection, the magpie. Animals seem to belong to a family from which only man is estranged.
I bought a small ranch in the 1960s and over the last several decades it has moved and enlarged. Living on a ranch was my choice but my four children simplygrew up that way, going from one-room schools to the state university. Horses were always around, always, in the view of others, too many of them. Now the children are grown and gone but my wife and I are not alone. The horses are still here.
Horses occupy a special place because they require so much care, and because they are curiously fragile, possess the prey species' excessive faith in the value of flight. A friend of mine in Oklahoma said to me, "God made a perfect world but he would like one chance to redesign the horse." Certainly, some work could be done with feet, hocks, suspensory tendons, navicular bones, all of which seem far too delicate for the speed and weight of the horse. And too often, the fifty feet of unsupported intestine acquires a simple loop and kills the horse. If the horse were a Ford, the species would vanish beneath lawsuits engendered by consumer-protection laws.
I've sometimes wondered why I've spent so much time with horses. In the past, I was quite happy with mice. I had several lovely ones. I see nearly as much in their pert whiskers and beady eyes as I do in million-dollar Northern Dancer yearlings. But because of its size, the horse imposes its moods and ways upon us. My wife and I have occasionally considered bringing our horses into the house so that they could see exactly where we live but have declined out of concern that they would find some of our more doubtful possessions, our television, say, or the telephone, so alarming that they would express their disapproval by destroying furniture and walls. Who would blame them?
Size doesn't tell the whole story but I've occasionally envied the East Indians whose lives are given to the care of elephants, whose size says something about the consent by animals to the very existence of the fast-breeding turbo-monkey called man. If you think of animals as humanity and mankind as the lawyers, you get my picture.
We have saturated the horse with our emotions. In silent movies, the hero was identified by having him give a lump of sugar to a horse. The horse provided the only genuineness in the film and was used to certify the actors. The Amish Standardbreds who pull carriages in Central Park have learned what most humans cannot: parallel parking. Their quiet obedience exists in eerie contrast to the agitated city. The horses I saw in the BLM mustang corrals at Rock Springs, Wyoming, whirling, running with every muscle, every vein in sculptural exaggeration, were so alarmed at being swept from the mountain hiding places by government helicopters they seemed bent on mass suicide. But we humans, hanging from the woven wire fence surrounding them, just wanted to be closer to them. My uncles joined the Boston mounted police because it was the only way they could afford to have a horse. Brendan Behan contemptuously defined the Anglo-Irishman as "a Protestant with a horse."
To some people, horses have wings. Horses took the Sioux out of the Minnesota woods. In Montana's Pryor Mountains, they've found horse skeletons with the extra vertebrae of the Spaniards' Moorish steeds, reproachful bones in the hills above the oil refineries. The U.S. Cavalry lost control of the confiscated hunting horses of the Plains Indians whenever buffalo appeared on the horizon: the horses struck free and surrounded the bison though their riders had vanished from their backs forever. The great scholar of the Northern Plains Indians Vern Deusenberry said that the principal point of the Battle of the Little Big Horn was that it was the end of the buffalo culture. It was also the end of the completely free-roaming horsemen of North America, and maybe of the world.
In the American West, the horse is considered part of a sacred birthright even though the native westerner is no more likely to be a horseman than is an Ohioan or a New Yorker. In the case of populous western states like Texas, he is perhaps less likely. Here in Montana, the most effete native condo dweller will chuckle at an out-of-stater on a horse. But a lover of horses has nothing to prove and no expertise to reveal. It is important that we find animals to love, and that is the end of the story.
It is bootless to argue for the horse in terms of his usefulness. By modern pragmatic standards, the Sarmations of the ancient Hungarian plains are the only people to have utilized horses fully: they rode them, ate them, drank their blood, made armor out of their hooves, and sacrificed them to their gods.
It is not the duty of the horse to be a biofeedback mechanism for yearning humans; yet it is remarkable how consistently people with horses claim to have learned much about themselves through them. Certainly, the management of a horse will give you a rapid evaluation of your patience, your powers of concentration, and your ability to hold on to delicate ideas for sustained periods of time.
My own horsemanship is peculiar to the country I ride in and the technical limitations of my riding. I can only respect, ignorantly and from afar, the refinements of English riding, fox hunting, jumping, dressage. I know nothing important about them beyond that they must not be easy to master. I will go a long way to watch real stadium jumpers and, because my daughter Annie rides them, reining horses. I am particularly interested in the bridle horses of California. Theirs is an ancient art conveyed from the time of Spanish rule and there is a solemn romance about these horses with their swan necks, their Santa Barbara Spanish bridles, their lightning quickness, and the steady whir of the rollers in their bits.
The country available to me permits me to ride farther than anyone is likely to wish to take a horse. I can go to Wyoming from my home in Montana without crossing a road and I have hundreds of square miles of easily accessed wild foothills. I am a wanderer in any case but I prefer inarticulate companionship. Horses and dogs are ideal and I often go with both. The biggest limitation for dogs in my region is the prevalence of rattlesnakes in the warm months. Despite precaution, all of my dogs have been bitten by them and all have recovered. The greatest safety for a dog in snake country at the 45th parallel is to be larger than forty pounds; beyond this size it is nearly impossible for a snake to kill one. Actually, horses are in greater danger, as they are sometimes bitten in the nose while grazing: when their passages close, they suffocate because they are unable to breathe through their mouths. Native horses are alert to snakes and I have several times had them abruptly sidepass in the backcountry; it is only when I looked behind us and saw the coiled reptile that I understood the meaning of the sudden movement. My wonderful old mare Sunday Bomb could see a snake from a half mile. The horses we haven't raised have come from Texas and they are well up on snake. They always see them before I do.
I have gone up a mountain trail on a horse, after a year's absence, and had the horse snort and stare in suspicion at a place where a tree has been removed since the horse's last visit, a tree among millions. The phenomenal alertness to space, shape, smell, and light amount to a kind of capacity, if you are unwilling to call it intelligence, beyond the human.
Forty years ago I came off a wild, stormy mountain in the middle of the night in Wyoming. I had no idea where I was, could not even see the ground. The horse took me home. The only thing I can remember was the sense of complete isolation, the horse's shoes sparking beneath me on the granite rocks and the quiet arrival without a stumble to disturb our passage.
Training a horse then becomes an exploration of the horse's capacity for logic and muscle memory, logic being little more than doing this to avoid that. Trained performance horses are frequently loped for hours before the competition so that all they have left is muscle memory and they are unlikely to get chaotic personal ideas that send them off pattern, at least in human terms. For example, we require cutting horses to stop and turn on their haunches. It is our theory that this is the best way to hold and turn with a cow. It's probably not true. Buffalo and other wild cattle throw their rear quarters around and turn on their front ends. A model of speed and efficiency, the Argentine polo horse turns on his front end. The old "Texas style" polo horse that turns on his hindquarters is a thing of the past: his method of turning around was judged inefficient. A cutting horse under pressure or otherwise anxious is liable to forget the enforcement of the human idea and turn on his front end; therefore, he is galloped to a state of weariness, whereupon such big ideas do not occur. It is well to understand that this sort of turnaround simply looks right to us. More legitimately, a horse turning on its rear end is far easier to ride and less likely to spill with its rider. But we compel the horse see it our way.
The quiet, circumspect horseman makes every movement and even every thought around a green horse a building block of restraint and confidence. The best horsemen are quiet and consistent, firmly kind, and, from the horse's point of view, good listeners. An even temper is essential. Horses are capable of doing repetitious, annoying things, all of which can be corrected by a knowledgeable horseman who is patient enough to know that the correction may have to go on in very thin layers, like good varnish. Once when I watched Buster Welch, a cutting-horse trainer of whom I will have more to say, schooling my horse Sugar, I was surprised to see him let her drop her shoulder into her turn on the right side, producing a lunging and ineffective turnaround. "Aren't you going to ask her to quit that?" I asked. "Yes," said Buster, "but not all at once."
He knew how much she could absorb. Asking a horse to absorb more than it is capable of results in the excess being translated into anxiety. Anxiety in a horse can spread like a virus. Once it has, it sets the training back severely. Every trainer of dogs and horses knows that a year's work can be lost in a single moment of anger. It is decidedly better to err on the side of asking too little. The greatest error in training horses lies in not showing up for work often enough and trying to accomplish too much when you do.
In his disquisition on horsemanship, Xenophon, the Greek soldier-historian, emphasized patience and kindness in training the horse"Never deal with him when you are in a fit of passion"as the only approach that produces a finished and reliable horse, by which he meant a war horse, intended to carry a cuirassed rider into the chaos of armed strife. A horse trained for this was treated with the careful feeding and groomingincluding the provision of a special sandbox in which to rollof the most pampered 4-H pony and all toward a mount upon whom one's life must depend. Xenophon's advice has not lost its usefulness in twenty-four hundred years. What he knew was based on long hours horseback; in one war, he traveled three thousand miles on his horse, fighting much of the way. Under such circumstances horse and rider would have few secrets from each other and it is heartening that Xenophon's conviction was one of deep respect.
For everyday riding, I require a surefooted horse. Some otherwise good horses, and frequently arena horses, are not particularly surefooted in the hills. They can improve but it is better if they grew up running in rough country. Surefootedness is important to me because I often ride alone, I get into some pinched spots, and I don't wear a helmet. Moreover, it is not a pleasure to ride a stumbling, woodenfooted horse who threatens life and limb in hard country. Ideally, a ranch horse ought to do a job but I ride far more than ranch work requires. Buster Welch feels that a horse should always be ridden with a purpose and if there isn't one then the rider should make one up: pick out a windmill on the horizon and ride straight to it. I'm not always successful in remembering this and sometimes go where the horse feels like going or just wander around looking for birds. However, horses definitely respond to this purposeful riding. I have ridden both field-trial dog horses and mustanging horses, and their drive to meet their objectives, to follow the hunt or to surmount a far hill to improve the view of the action, is something that comes right up through the seat of the rider's pants. Those who have not experienced a horse urgently going somewhere are unaware of their real physical capacity. That is why runaways are so blinding, so explosive. A runaway is far more dangerous than a downright bucking bronc as he becomes intoxicated by his speed and his adrenaline is transformed to rocket fuel.
If you ride in the backcountry alone, you also want a horse that will not come undone if a two-hundred-pound mule deer sails out from under you when you are pushing through the brush. Or, worse, a ten-bird covey of noisy little partridges. I have had some nastily thrilling experiences on arena-contest horses making their first rural rides, experiences that make the hyperbole about sitting on a keg of dynamite seem plausible. A good country horse should let you hang all sorts of things on the saddlebinoculars, a check cord for your dog, a slickerand should not have any obvious fears, like that of moving water. Some young horses will break in two when the wind blows their tails up under them; some boil over with fear at the sight of anything new. A friend of mine who suffered a stroke and spent a couple of months in northern Montana at a rehabilitation center said the place was full of head-injured horsemen. Riding horses is not the place for baseless courage or heroism. A kind of earned confidence is what is required though it may run against the institutional inanity that validates foolhardy behavior. I have often noticed that good horsemen are like good sailors, meticulously and quietly tending to one detail after another, all to keep things running smoothly and safely. Once when I was watching Buster train horses, I sat crossways on my saddle, my knee crooked over the saddle horn, as was my habit. Buster stopped his training, rode over to me, and said, "Don't sit that way. It's dangerous." I don't do it anymore.
It is a pleasant thing to have a horse that will ground-tie, though the adage that a ground-tied horse is a loose horse is probably best kept firmly in mind. Some very fine horses will not stay with you if turned loose; they go home to their friends. Herd instinct is a constant magnetism, the early stages of what in, its more annoying form, is called "barn sour." My young mare Sass is the sort that will stay with me. She has no insecurity and is happy to be with me on an adventure. She loves to graze and, so far, it appears that when I drop the reins, she will stay near. Most, however, will step on the reins and break them, sooner or later, then wander off. I hate losing nice, broken-in, pliant reins and prefer to let the horse drag a halter rope, which will usually cause a departing horse to stumble enough that it can be caught; but smart older horses learn to drag the rope to one side and can even lope that way. I have seen southern horsemen tie a cotton scale weight to their lead shank, a weight they must carry on the saddle betweentimesusually a trooper's saddle with all sorts of handy ringsand this works quiet well. Another method is to put a snap on one rein so that the horse's head can be pulled around and snapped to the D-ring on the back cinch, causing the horse to circle. I have never tried this but I am aware that the horse eventually makes it clear to the rider that it is ready to be trusted and the snap can be dispensed with. There are lots of ways to try these things but it's important to imagine the consequences of the horse leaving and plan for them.
General tolerance is a great trait in a saddle horse. Our border collie Ella was a sweet and useful dog, usually out of shape for our fall cattle drive, and it was often necessary to pick her up when she got overheated or exhausted and throw her over the neck of my horse. Ella was quite unabashed when worn out and would come up to my stirrup and stand on her hind legs to be picked straight up from the ground and onto the horse, where she amiably took in the cattle drive from a moving and elevated point of observation. My horses went along with this even when she dug in with her claws to keep from toppling over the side. I ride a big, solid gelding named Zip, a great horse to ranch on, and he has had many miles of it. One day my neighbor came over with his three-year-old boy and the little boy demanded to sit on Zip. I lifted him aboard and Zip panicked, snorting, running backward, and preparing to bolt. I was lucky to snatch the child out of the saddle before a disaster occurred. There was a side of Zip I didn't know after hundreds of saddlings.
As between people, there is chemistry, good and bad, between the horse and its rider. We have a ranch gelding named Jack who regards me with anxious suspicion; he slings his head willfully when my wife rides and would prefer going to the barn. The last time I saw my daughter Annie riding him, she was standing on his bare back sailing along under the willow trees, both of them pictures of contented absorption. They have treated each other with benign mutual acceptance from the first moment they met. It happens.
As I have gotten older I have grown less interested in contests for horses and more interested in horses in general. I am very interested in untrained horses, such as yearlings and two-year-olds. There are few things more exciting than releasing a band of young horses from a corral where they have been confined for some time into open space and watching the explosion of movement as these meteors take on open country. This is sufficiently intoxicating to them that one must anticipate the collisions that they, in their understandable euphoria, sometimes fail to take into account. In Montana, wire cuts are called "education marks" but many a good horse has caused its own death in barbed wire and it must be watched vigilantly where horses are held.
On our somewhat marginal cattle ranch, the greatest pleasure is in moving cattle horseback at spring turnout, changing pastures throughout the grass season and the fall roundup. Some horses have a special aptitude for this work, moving steadily, anticipating herd quitters, willing to plunge into bad places to flush out cattle. When cattle are strung out in front of the horses for a long move, some of the drover sorcery can be felt, some of the enchantment I feel driving home from town when I pass the sign to the west of my ranch, OPEN RANGE. There's little of that left in the West but it may still account for most of the interest. There is an almost Homeric quality about the open-range books, Andy Adams's, Log of a Cowboy and Teddy "Blue" Abbott's We Pointed Them North, that is absent in the literature of the ranch. The avalanche of farm-and-ranch memoirs that pour, because of lack of general interest in them, from tax-supported university presses are mostly dull. The story possibilities of enclosed land are limited. The open range, the open sea, the open sky, the open wounds of the heart, that's where writers shine.
William Cobbett's Rural Rides wouldn't have its charm and power without the horse. The little stallion in Tolstoy's Master and Man is one of the best characters in the story and the greatest sacrifice to Tolstoy's tragic art. The boys that take the band of horses to the country during fly season in Turgenev's immortal Bhezin Meadow share the companionship and destiny of their charges. The mastery of Beryl Markham's horsemanship is the capacity that gives the flight and exploration of West with the Night its resonance. Hemingway's curious lack of interest in the horse, his insouciance at the goring of the picadors' horses and the replacement of their bowels with sawdust that they may continue the job cause me to wonder at him anew. Perhaps, he might have taken a lesson from Faulkner, who kept a few apples in his old coat for his horses and mules.
Indeed, to go forth with an animal, a dowager with her poodle, a hunter with his setter, a falconer with his hawk, a pirate with his parrot, is to enlarge one's affect such that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Poor horsemanship consists in suggesting that man and horse are separate. A horseman afoot is a wingless, broken thing, tyrannized by gravity. I have often been astounded after a great performance by horse and rider to encounter the rider afterward, a crumpled figure, negligible in every discernible way, a defeated, aging little man; or a crone, where moments ago a demon or a fire queen filled us with obsessive attention. And even the horses are turned into weary pensioners as, with empty saddles and lowered heads, they are led to their stalls to rest. For that burst of poetry, horse and rider have one another to thank.
Men's achievements have been enlarged by horses almost as if the animals' plangent silence implied what could never be merely said. Napoleon's famous horse Marengo, George Washington's gray Arab Magnolia, Grant's horse Cincinnati, Lee's horse Traveller, and Comanche, the one horse to survive the Battle of the Little Big Horn, were regarded with awe because horses, even the bones of horses, remember everything. Nothing focused the nation's mourning like the riderless black horse in the funeral cortege of John Kennedy.
At the Battle of Waterloo, men formed squares into which the wounded were brought for medical care. At the height of the battle, in the madness of the cannonading and death, the riderless horses of the cavalry, the caisson horses of the slaughtered gun crews attempted to penetrate the squares to be saved by the humans. And in the First World War, men subjected to unparalleled mayhem were stricken more by the plight of the horses than anything else. There is a special grief for the innocent caught up in mankind's murderous follies. The idea of horses with their self-absorbed innocence imbroiled in war is deeply disquieting. In Andrei Makine's memoir of Siberian life, Dreams of My Russian Summers, images of riderless but completely equipped White Russian cavalry horses, some with sabers swinging from the points at which they were plunged, running wild through a depopulated landscape suggest the fury of human conflict that has surpassed human control.
Hunting on horseback, following bird dogs through an oak forest, which I have done with indescribable pleasure and a hint of self-satisfaction perhaps at the very picture I imagined myself conveying, seems a coherent activity in which man and horse and dogs, birds and forest coalesce into something of duration. Add one motor scooter to this picture, or even the man trotting along on his inadequate legs, and you get something much reduced and thoroughly unbeautiful. From the time of the Greeks and, unrecorded, certainly before, it has been an explicit matter that mankind must have beauty to live.
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