All the King's Horses
It begins with a poem, a haiku: "Hard work with horses in a beautiful setting. Write for more info." When it arrives, the response is typed on two pages of yellow stationery with the letterhead KINGDOM OF BRECKENRIDGE STABLES. The letter is signed by the owner, Laurie Kaye. I fill out the attached application, trying to sound clean and prompt and positive. I include a short essay addressing Miss Kaye and I salt it with quotes from Buddha and Jerusalem Slim, passages that proclaim, "Attachment is the cause of all suffering," and, "Work can save your soul."
I wait. In two weeks, another yellow envelope arrives. The note inside reads "Come on out. Laurie (I'm a man)."
I drive 1,100 miles across Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and part of Colorado. I have come to start a new life. And so, Breckenridge.
It is morning. I have my cowboy boots and hat, thrift-store denim and new gloves. At the convenience store across the street from the stables, I wash down donuts with Styrofoam coffee. I have everything, it seems, but the first idea of what I am doing here and why I thought I could do this work: guiding tourists on horseback through the mountains of Colorado. I take a deep breath, hold it in, and walk across the street to my first day on the job.
Manu, the boss's teenage son, is behind the barn, helping me saddle a horse named Spirit. Manu has shaggy black hair and wears a baggy, acid-washed denim jacket. The horse is brown with a bald white face and one eye gone blue. Manu shows me how to buckle the halter around the back of the horse's head. He teaches me how to tie the lead -- a thick cotton rope that snaps to the halter -- to the metal ring that is nailed into the side of the barn. It is a slipknot that pulls free from the loose end but will not come undone if the horse pulls back. I tie the horse to the side of the barn and go and get a scoop of grain, like Manu showed me, but by the time I get back, the horse is walking away. Manu takes the rope and leads the horse back to the barn.
"I thought I had it," I say.
Manu reties the horse, forming the knot slowly. I can tell he is showing me again, without making a big deal out of it. He says, "Some of these horses know how to untie the rope by pulling on the loose end with their teeth." I appreciate his generosity.
I call the halter a harness. I call the bridle the halter. I do not know hay from straw, gelding from mare, roan from bay. Out in the lot, a line of people on horseback winds its way out of the yard toward the trail. Laurie comes around the side of the barn and says to Manu, "Have Tom get in the back and tag along."
I manage to get mounted, and by the time Manu has adjusted the stirrups to the correct length, the other horses are out of sight. Spirit won't move. Manu says, "He'll go better when he sees the others." He grips the halter and leads me toward the trail. I can tell the horses are just up ahead by the dust settling back to the ground, and Manu lets go and I kick the horse forward. Spirit takes five steps down the trail, then stops. When I kick him in the ribs again, he pitches me to the ground. I land in a heap. The horse takes off at a run, back to the stables, reins trailing in the dirt. I get up and put my hat back on my head. Manu is jogging toward me, asking, "You okay?" I tell him that I am.
"My dad isn't going to be happy when he sees Spear-shit come running into the lot without anyone on him. And if the reins get broken, we're both in trouble," he says. We walk back toward the stables. Manu must see the disappointment on my face. He is trying not to smile as he says, "At least your hat isn't so clean anymore."
Laurie doesn't look mad, but he could be hiding it somewhere. He is short, his skin dark from the sun. He has curly black hair and wears a black denim shirt and black jeans. Even his voice is blackened, by cigarettes. He says, "Watch the office for me, Manu." There is an air of the unspoken about him, something coiled and relaxed at the same time. He motions for me to follow him behind the barn, where Spirit is standing, waiting. Laurie ties up the horse, then grabs a halter and lead rope from the barn and we go to the corral together. He stands next to a small brown horse with a raven mane and tail. "This is Bandanna," he says. "This is your horse." He takes the halter and the lead rope and says, "Hey, Bandanna. Hey, girl," as he drapes the rope over the top of her mane and pulls the loose end under her neck. Then he slips the halter over Bandanna's nose and buckles it behind her ears.
"She is a mustang," Laurie says. I do not know what this means. "She was a wild horse once," he explains. He shows me the freeze brand that is hidden under her mane, where the hair has been frozen and has grown in white. The brand is a code of bleached triangles and dashes that tells where she was captured and when.
Laurie leads the horse behind the barn and ties her next to Spirit. He brushes her down, puts a saddle pad and blanket on her back, then a saddle. He says to me, "Don't worry. I will give you a thousand and one chances to screw up around here." He lifts the bridle from the saddle horn and gets Bandanna to take the bit. He fastens the throatlatch and says, "Everything will be all right." And then he undoes everything, takes off the saddle, the blanket, the pad. Laurie leads Bandanna back to the corral. He unfastens the halter, and Bandanna walks off and stands with the other horses.
Laurie turns to me and says, "I went to college and took all the classes I had to take. After I graduated, someone told me, 'Now that you have learned by rote, you are ready to learn by magic.' " He holds the halter and the lead rope out to me and says, "Now you do it."
And I do.
I learn about horses by shoveling manure into a wheelbarrow and dumping it in a pile on the far side of the lot, away from the tourists' boots and eyes and noses. I learn about saddles and blankets, halters and lead ropes, bridles and reins. I even take a taste of the sweet feed that the horses eat while they are being saddled: cracked corn and rolled oats coated in molasses, horsey granola. I tag along at the back of the trail rides, as many as I can, in order to learn the routes. There are breakfast rides that leave the stables at seven each morning. There are any number of one- or two-hour rides throughout the day, and some nights there are steak rides, which return to the stables at seven-thirty. I spend eight or ten hours a day in the saddle, learning about horses and people.
Each morning, I wake up at four-thirty. Jeans, shirt, jacket, hat, boots. Drive to the convenience store across the street from the stables and get coffee and donuts.
After the first week, the guy behind the counter starts to say, "Here comes the Donut Freak of Summit County," and it makes me feel as if I am a part of something. I like to be the first one at the stables, the right-left-right of the combination lock opening the door on the day. A scoop of sweet feed into each of the eight wooden boxes that are nailed to the side of the barn. Run the horses into the holding corral. By now, Kirk is here. He is a cowboy in his late forties, with silver hair under his straw cowboy hat, a flash of white teeth. Kirk has driven a truck for a living, run a farm in Iowa, roped at rodeos. Now he guides rides and shoes the horses at the stables. Kirk has an armful of halters and lead ropes, and we start haltering the horses. There's Beth and Wes. They keep their own company and don't have much to say to the rest of us. Beth is the daughter of Kirk's girlfriend. Next there are the Steves -- Nebraska and Steamboat. They both know about horses and I can ask them anything. Nebraska Steve drives a Jeep and reads his Bible every night. Steamboat is silly, always ready with an obvious joke. He is fond of putting words in the horses' mouths: "Maya says 'lose some weight, Mr. Dude,' " or, "Arapaho says 'I gotta pee.' " And here comes Manu, rubbing sleep from his eyes. Laurie is his father, Monique is his mother, and the horses are his brothers and sisters.
We bring two horses at a time to the barn and tie the lead ropes to the rings that are nailed above the feed boxes. Currycomb and brush. Pad and blanket. Find the right saddle, with its bridle draped over the horn and tied with the saddle strings. I get good at throwing the saddle over the horse without banging the stirrups around. Cinch the saddle loosely and walk the horse to the hitching rail. Once in a while, a horse will finish its grain before we are done saddling and will turn sideways and start kicking the horse next to it. The kicked horse will rear back and tear the ring from the wall, and all of the horses will blow up and scatter. I just stand there in the midst of the kicking hooves and the cracked yellow teeth, and the other employees think I'm cool under pressure. In reality, I don't know enough to be afraid.
The tourists are arriving. They shiver in their shorts and T-shirts. They watch as we bring the horses out to the hitching rail, two at a time. We look away, turning back to the barn for more horses. Laurie's at the gate now, giving the people a short lesson on how to control their horses. Reins in one hand, left to go left, right to go right, pull back to stop. The wranglers untie the bridles from the saddles and start putting bits into whiskered mouths, buckling the throatlatches and looping the reins over saddle horns. Laurie escorts the dudes out in ones and twos, matching riders to horses. He studies the people, their height and weight, looking for clues as to what kind of person he is dealing with. Laurie puts his arm around a nervous housewife in shorts and a new Breckenridge T-shirt and says, "You are going to be riding Powdered Sugar today." A little girl gets Ranger, and her cocky-looking father gets Presley. The wranglers pull each horse from the rail and tie the lead rope around the horse's neck where it will be out of the way. Tighten the cinch, hold the stirrup in place, and give the rider a boost. No one ever takes the reins, preferring instead to concentrate on getting up and over. So you take the reins as an unsteady foot reaches up, and keep that hand on the saddle horn, holding the stirrup in the other hand. The rider grabs the saddle horn and pulls mightily, so you push the horn the other way, touching their hands sometimes, and you have to use your other arm and often your shoulder to boost them into the saddle. Once the rider is mounted, you hand over the reins and adjust the stirrups, left and right. "Stand up for me and see how it feels. Do the stirrups feel even?" If not, you adjust them again.
If there is going to be a wreck, it will happen now. When things are going good, there is already a wrangler mounted and heading out toward the trail. You take the horses over to the line that is forming and get them going or there will be trouble.
You will never forget the man with the toddler and the video camera. The little boy fits perfectly between his father and the saddle horn. But then Dad decides to get some video footage of his older kids. He moves Crow, the big black horse he is riding, behind Sugar, who always goes at the end of the string because she can't stand to have anything or anyone behind her. Sugar kicks Crow, Crow rears back, and the man falls from the saddle, clutching at the small boy in his lap. The man lies in the dirt and manure. He is broken, like an egg or a promise or a heart. The toddler is scared but unharmed. The older kids cry. The wife cries. The camcorder continues to tape. The man's shoulder is dislocated, his clothes are ruined. You remember this and you get the people going as soon as they are up.
Once the string of riders is moving toward the highway, I grab my horse and take a shortcut and trot ahead so I can stop traffic where the trail crosses the pavement. Sometimes there are joggers who refuse to stop for the riders. For some reason, jogging in place will not do. One jogger looks at the watch on his slim wrist and frowns and bobs in place. He looks as if he is about to cut through the line of plodding horses. I turn my horse so that all he sees is the horse's backside, and I trust the message has been delivered.
After the last horse clops across the pavement, I cut into the line behind a teenage boy. He wears a Dallas Cowboys mesh jersey and he has been yanking on the reins ever since he got mounted. He may be trouble.
The narrow trail leads up into the foothills of the Rockies, and the trees grow up the sides of the mountains like unhusked ears of corn. A half hour into the ride, the trail descends into a meadow. There is a huge stand of aspens here, their leaves shimmering, and it sounds like a thousand paper coins are dropping in the breeze. The sun is high and the people seem to glow in the light. Their plastic sunglasses reflect the perfection of mountains and trees. The exotic colors of their shirts -- declaring allegiance to professional sports teams -- are so out of place, so strangely beautiful. If it is a breakfast or a steak ride, Laurie and Monique are in the meadow, their pale blue station wagon parked out of sight. Laurie stands over the big stone grill as the first smoke rises from the fire into the morning. There are hay bales for the people to sit on, a hitching rail for the horses. But it's not time to stop yet. There is another hour of riding before we circle back for the meal. Since Laurie will like it and it needs to be done, I pull Bandanna out of the line and trot up and down, saying loudly, "Don't let your horses eat, folks. Keep their heads up." If I don't do this, we will never make it through the meadow. Someone's horse will lower its head and take a bite of grass, pulling the reins from the rider's grasp. People will begin to trot their horses, switching places in line, and everything will go to hell.
At the edge of the meadow, we pass the tiny cabin where a blind man lives with his Seeing Eye dog. I've watched them walking along the highway on their way into town. Once in a while, a pickup truck will stop and give the man and his dog a lift to the health club for a shower, or to the post office for mail. Someone told me the man is an artist, and I wonder how he can live in such a beautiful place and not be able to see it. As we pass the cabin, the Saint Bernard lifts its head to watch the horses, then goes back to sleep.
On the other side of the meadow, the trail picks up in the timber. There are excavations scattered throughout the woods, glory holes dug by the government a few years back in an attempt to locate gold. They look like open graves. There are abandoned mines in these hills, their entrances welded shut. Someone once told me that every square inch of these hills has been gone over, picked through by the prospectors and placer miners a hundred years ago; that there is nothing left of value in this country, nothing left to discover here. But I am not convinced.
Now we are back at the meadow and Laurie is banging away on a heavy iron triangle. He is ready. The wranglers trot ahead and tie up horses and help people dismount. The dudes waddle around, rubbing their legs, remembering how to walk. There is loud Cuban music playing from Laurie's portable stereo. The splashy cymbals and the bright horns sound to me like music about love, but the lyrics, sung in a minor key, remind me of loss. Laurie is shouting, "Who wants pancakes? I need some pancake eaters!" He flips the pancakes high into the air, and the people have to catch them on tin plates. Monique piles on scrambled eggs and sausage links. There is coffee and juice. The people sit on hay bales, balancing the plates in their laps. They look overwhelmed, struck by beauty or happiness or love.
After the meal, as we help people remount, Kirk has problems. There is Maya, a good-natured gelding, and there is a hatchet-faced woman in a tennis visor. Kirk pulls the horse from the hitching rail, flips up the left stirrup, and heaves on the latigo. As the cinch tightens, Maya steps back and plants a hoof on the woman's sandaled foot. The woman's toes turn the same color as her vermilion nail polish. And it might not be so bad, except that Kirk says, "Lady, we have retarded kids that come out here to ride and even they know enough not to stand where you were standing." The woman screams her husband's name. Laurie comes over. Kirk holds the horse. The woman hobbles over to a hay bale, sobbing. Her husband gives Laurie an earful about negligence and breach of contract. Laurie and Monique end up driving the woman back to the stables in the station wagon, and Kirk trails Maya back, holding the horse's lead rope. Kirk tells me, "I just lost my job." He has a half-hour ride back to the stables to wonder what he is going to do with his life.
But Laurie does not fire Kirk. He just says, "Pendejo." Asshole. Meaning the woman, her husband, the world they come from.
Everyone has an excuse for their failings. Bum knees, bad backs. We find tree stumps for these people to stand on as they mount the horses. We extend the stirrups on the saddles as low as they can go. Once in a great while, Laurie will tell people they are too big to ride, or he'll turn someone away if he thinks they are going to give us trouble. If Laurie merely has doubts about someone, he will point the dude out with a nod of his head and whisper, "Pendejo." Watch out for this one.
The tourists who decide they want to trot are the worst. Some hold their horses back on the trail so a gap develops in the line. Then they kick the horse in the ribs and give it some rein. The horse is more than willing to trot ahead and close the gap. And then every other horse in line follows, whether the person they carry wants to trot or not. Butts slap against saddles, and sometimes, as the riders trot down the trail, you can see them start to lean to one side. You can see the wreck about to happen and there is nothing you can do or say to prevent it. Slowly they lean, the saddle starts going over, and soon enough the person is on the ground. It isn't the rider you feel bad for, it's the horse.
You protect the animals. The horses work hard, but they are well cared for. There is no abuse of any kind, no harsh words or acts. Often when people trot, a horse will get sore withers where their neck meets their spine, blisters and scabs that can only be healed with time off. This makes it hard on the other horses that are forced to take on the extra work. So you tell the teenager in the Dallas Cowboys jersey, "Don't hold your horse back, sir." When he keeps doing it, you crowd his horse to keep it moving ahead, slap your reins on his horse's rear. Maybe you say softly, "Keep it up, sir, and you're walking back."
Once something starts to go wrong, it is too late to fix it. Out of necessity, you develop the ability to see ahead. The guy who is about to drop his reins. The sunglasses slipping from the old lady's pocket. The kid with his foot through the stirrup. The tourists think I am being a wet rag, telling them not to trot, telling them to stay in line, but I am only saving them from a world of misery.
I wonder about the people who come to the stables to ride for an hour or two. Many of them don't seem to be having fun. They do not want to learn anything about the horses, or the mountains, or the history of the area. Most of the parents look miserable and it seems as if they are riding just so their kids can see them doing it. "Look at your old man, Jimmy. I'm trotting." For some of the riders, it's such a huge production. There are cameras, sunglasses and cowboy hats, bandannas, and fringed leather jackets. One man brings his own saddle for a one-hour ride. The saddle doesn't fit the first three horses we try. Crow is finally a match.
One woman wears jeans tucked into some high-dollar suede boots. It starts drizzling while we are riding, and by the time we return to the stables there are mud puddles everywhere. Kirk walks up to the woman and says, "My name is Kirk J. Moody and I am here to assist you in the dismounting process."
She says, "My boots will get ruined if I have to walk through the mud."
Kirk replies, "It's not all mud. There's some manure down here, too." He leads the horse through the muck to the woman's car, where she can step down onto the clean gravel of the parking lot.
It's not all bad. One day, after I help a frail man wearing Velcro sneakers and an orange Tennessee Volunteers sweatshirt dismount from his horse, he thanks me and shakes my hand. He presses a necklace of green and white plastic beads into my palm, saying simply, "Be safe." He walks off. After I help the rest of the dudes off their horses, I take the gift from my pocket. In the center of the necklace, a silver Jesus hangs on a silver cross. I was raised a Presbyterian. I am not sure what the significance of the plastic necklace is. It might be a rosary. It might not even be a Catholic thing. It is not important. What matters is that the man gave it to me. He shared a piece of himself and walked away. It was a beautiful gesture, a gift. Be safe.
Like the dudes, I have my own weaknesses, my own excuses for my failings, my own reasons for having come here. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. My dad was a CPA, my mother a housewife. My brother is three years older than me. When I was eight, our family went to a dude ranch outside of Colorado Springs, sixty crow miles from Breckenridge, for a weeklong vacation. There were morning rides where we would stop for breakfast, evening rides with steaks and bonfires. I rode a gray plug named Peter Pork Chop. There was another family at the ranch, and the mother was always complaining about the insects or the food or the accommodations. My dad called her Fancy Pants, because of the tight designer jeans she wore. One day, the wranglers convinced my dad to get on a fast horse. They let him run a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels in the corral. My dad, an accountant who drove into the city six days a week before the morning rush hour. The horse was blowing, snorting, sweat glossing its hide. I will never forget the way my dad leaned with the horse, deep in the saddle, as they rounded the barrels, dust rising into the powder-blue sky.
After I graduated from college, my parents sold the house where my brother and I had spent our childhood. They bought a forty-foot motor home and began traveling around the country, exploring new places, visiting old friends. I felt nothing for the loss of the house. My brother was in California getting his Ph.D. in organic chemistry. I was still in Illinois, an English major unsure of what to do with myself. I graduated. I stalled out. I met a girl. Jennifer. I wondered what her story was, what our story might be together. But I was sick of myself and couldn't imagine that I had much to offer anyone. I had to do something big and dramatic and drastic to break the force field of the couch and the glow of the television set and the way the top of a beer can had begun to look like a face to me.
I saw an ad in the back of the Utne Reader: "Hard work with horses in a beautiful setting." I gave away a few of my favorite record albums and tapes -- Louis Prima and Elvis Costello and Guns N' Roses -- then put the rest in boxes. I packed my favorite books -- the illustrated collection of Shakespeare and a book on Hitchcock by Truffaut -- into more boxes and I hauled all of the boxes downtown to the bookstore and the record store. I took what they offered, $140. I convinced Jennifer to hack off my long hair at the nape of my neck. Together we drove to a Western wear store at the edge of Urbana, away from the university. We laughed at some of the clothes, the beaded shirts and buckskin jackets. "You should wear these," she said, holding up a pair of fringed gloves. But something shadowed our playfulness. I was leaving and we hadn't really talked about what that meant.
I tried on hats, hat after hat after cowboy hat, until I finally found one I liked. It was a dark brown felt hat the color of bittersweet chocolate. The salesman asked, "You want me to box that up for you?" But I'd had my fill of cardboard boxes. At the register, I set the hat on the counter while I got the cash out of my pocket, and the clerk scolded me, "You'll ruin it." He turned the hat over gently and placed it down on its crown, open to the ceiling, as empty and as brown as a beggar's hand.
The horses are a mixed bunch. They are mutts and misfits from the huge Sombrero Ranch outside of Denver, which leases the horses to Laurie for the summer. Horses like these might bring sixty cents a pound at the cannery, $600 worth of dog food and gelatin and glue. But the horse can earn that much money in two weeks of trail rides. Kirk says, "They have one hoof in the cannery and the other in the gold mine."
Bandanna, my horse, has become priceless to me. She is not the most beautiful animal; she is on the small side, a brown bay with a tangled black mane and tail. But I can ask her to do anything. I can ask her to walk up to some mountain biker on the trail -- he's got on wraparound sunglasses and a yellow helmet, and tinny music is pouring from the headphones of his Walkman -- and she will. She trusts that I won't do anything to hurt her. And if she asks me to follow her lead, I do. I know that at the drop of some tourist's tennis visor, she can flip over and break me against a rock, but she wouldn't. In the boundary between what we can do and what we actually do is where it happens. There, in that margin of trust, is where I fall in love with horses.
I inhale horses. They fuel my heart and my head and my whole self. It is all new to me. Waking up at four in the morning and wanting to go to work, to sweat, to labor, to ache. Each horse, even the lowliest plug, teaches me how to use my heart, teaches me how to share it. I am learning how the horses think, what matters to them, the silent ways they communicate. Ears laid back means they are mad. A cocked ear, alert and swiveling, means they are listening. They stand nose to tail, close, swatting each other's flies. It is so simple and it is enough.
And slowly, surely, I am falling in love with Jennifer, the girl I left behind in Illinois. She has one year of school left. We write to each other, sharing things in our letters that would be hard to talk about out loud. Once in a while we call each other, but it is the written word that ties us together, the silent thoughts we exchange through the mail. I am in love with a girl who is hundreds of miles away, and I am in love with a horse I can never have. It must be obvious. Kirk asks me, "You got a girl?" and I nod. "Are you in love?" And when I smile he says, "You'll get over it."
Some nights I return to the stables after everyone else has left. There is the office, with the plywood cut and hinged on one side so that Laurie can swing the piece down and it becomes the window to the office. A ledger, a cash box, a phone, a clipboard holding the liability release form in tiny legal print. Page after page of past customers, their names printed and signed, their hometowns and the date they rode. Beyond the office, through a small gate, there is an open lot with log bunks as tall as your knee, for the hay, and hitching posts and a small corral where the horses are kept between rides. A small plywood barn stores the saddles for the horses.
I put my hand on a saddle that is hanging in the barn, hoping to feel something more than leather. There is a stack of saddle blankets, red and black, brown and green. They smell of sweat and sun. A poster board thumbtacked to the wall lists the names of the horses: Sugar, Powdered Sugar, Apple Jack, Scout, Ruby, Presley, and seventy more. I stand in the doorway of the tiny barn and look over to the lot, where a few horses stand dozing in the moonlight. Their heads hang, tails switch, hooves lift and fall as they stomp flies in their sleep. They are so incredibly sad and beautiful. They look as if they have been here forever. A little half-yawn catches in the back of my throat and no matter how much I sigh, no matter how deeply I breathe, it will not go away. My heart bangs inside my chest like a fist. I am done waiting. I am finally starting my life. I fall asleep in the barn, on a pile of saddle pads, gathering all of the horse thoughts and all of the dude dreams. Little kids and their parents and grandparents are following me, all riding horses, all plodding along the narrow line of the trail. It all comes together in my sleep, and finally I dream of nothing.