Michael's Monthly Column "Throwing My Loop"

A SOFT SHINE…

Do you believe in love at first sight? Happened to me once with a big gray horse. The first time I saw Shine, I loved him. He was standing in a stall lost in thought, and when he sensed my presence, he slowly and gently turned to look back over his left shoulder. Fixing one big soft black eye on me, he stared for the longest time. He didn’t say anything, he just looked at me. I stared back at a creature the Lord had obviously taken His own sweet time to create. The big gray was just short of 16 hands, weighed 1200 lbs, and had a body like Adonis. He was the color of a row of silver dollars laid out in the late afternoon sun. Looking down at the black stockings casing his powerful legs, I said, “And how much is this one?”

“Oh, him?” the ranch owner said. “I don’t know if you would like him or not. This horse was raised in a ten-acre patch by a man and a woman who fed him treats. He’s only been ridden 30 days in his life, and he’s five years old now. I don’t know much about him.”

“How much?” I repeated. And then I took a deep breath, because I knew no matter what he said, my next move would be to reach for the halter hanging on the barn door, and whatever the man said, I would say, “Fine, I’ll take him.” And that’s what happened.

And Shine came to our farm, and in five minutes after unloading him, my wife, kids, the other horses, and big Poochie dog stared open mouthed at the big gray prancing nervously back and forth along the corral fence. Even the barn kittens peered around the corner with awe dripping from their whiskers.

Me, being the big time cowboy, expert horse trainer I was in those days, planned on sixty, maybe ninety days at the most training time and bingo, big time rope horse for Miguel. Nothing to it, I figured, just show him a few things and hit the rodeo trail. Do I have to tell you things didn’t quite work out that way? Like most fools who fail to understand horses, I forgot one little detail. I forgot to ask Shine what he thought about the whole thing.

First day I rode him, I touched him with my right spur very gently in his side. In less than an eye-blink, Shine politely stepped out from under me, and just stood there. I was seventeen years old the last time that happened on a good cuttin’ horse that was too much for me. I looked around to make sure no one saw this expert horse training move, and slowly stepped back up on Shine. A firm tug on his right rein intended to produce a slow turn to the right, resulted in a 360-degree violent whirl spin that almost unseated me again. That was when I voluntarily stepped off and considered the possibility I might need to rethink things here. And then I heard this voice. It was the first time Shine ever spoke to me. He was looking right at me, and he said, “You have no idea what you are doing, do you?"  From that point on, I began to make some changes. Those changes have been far reaching, and deeper than I imagined. Now as I look into the heart of horses, the pool has become deeper, and the deep calls to me.

I took my spurs off. That broke my heart ‘cause I love my spurs. But I realized two kinds of people wore spurs. Damn fools who think they know about horses, and true horsemen who know about horses. Since I didn’t want to be the first, and obviously was a long way from the second, I took them off, and hung them up. I look at them sometimes and dream of the day when I might be worthy to wear them.

Shine became better immediately. Where before I had tugged on Shine’s reins, I now pulled with the weight of a fly. Then and only then, did he begin to make smooth turns. I began to learn what was “light” to me wasn’t “light” to him. The lighter I became, the better he became. When I took the bit out of his mouth, and replaced it with a noseband, the improvement startled me. I knew I was riding something special here. This was a Cadillac with hyper steering. And I also knew there was something wrong. There was something wrong with Shine.

At first, the feeling crept slowly around the corners of my mind. There was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. He was afraid, and I was not the one who had made him afraid. That’s the best way I can describe it. Even though he handled like a dream, I felt he was responding for the wrong reasons. Instead of a relaxed smoothness in his body, there was a hard glass-like feel filled with fear, as if Shine were so very worried he might do something wrong. Every move he made seemed designed to ward off punishment and avoid ‘getting into trouble.’ He tried too hard to please.

I handled this puzzling predicament like we do most thorny problems in life by ignoring it; by pretending it wasn’t happening. I told myself I was being silly, the horse was fine - after all he was just a horse. As the days wore on, we progressed to the point of roping slower cattle without much difficulty, but on faster stock, Shine became so nervous, and it seemed to me, far more nervous than the situation warranted. Several well-meaning friends offered advice. “You’re being too easy on him, wet-saddle blankets are what he needs.” Others suggested more forceful methods, and while all meant well, somehow I knew those remedies that my daddy and uncles always espoused, wouldn’t save old Shine. You could lope this horse ten miles, (I did it many times) only to have him turn and look at you and say, “Did I do okay? Can I go back to the barn now? Don’t make me do this any more, I don’t like this.” For two years I rode him, and never did he ever relax. I never remember him taking a breath or exhaling in relief.

At last, I called noted horse trainer, Craig Hamilton for help. I had read a remarkable article written by this former several time National Finals team roper about ‘chargey’ horses. Craig offered a number of helpful suggestions, and with time and patience, Shine moved a bit farther down the path. But still something was wrong. Something inside the big gray was leaking fear.

Some months later, Craig called and invited us both to a roping clinic he was holding at the Crow Ranch in Chattanooga, Oklahoma. After solving a number of logistical problems with the Crow family’s help, we arrived. An old cowboy with a horse who looked like a shooting star, but inside was really a small scared eight-year old boy. A little boy who had the power to tear your head off, but nonetheless a frightened child - but what a man-child he was. This horse could run, he could face better than any animal I ever sat astride, and he had the grace of Nureyev and the fluid style of Joe DiMaggio. More than anything I wanted to save this horse.

We arrived at the Crow ranch on Friday afternoon. Hosts Rob and Penny and their sons, Clancy and Casey charmed each and every guest, and kept a steady supply of ‘stick to your ribs’ delicious meal-time fare available all weekend. Twenty men and women, ranging from physicians and college professors to teachers and skilled trades and crafts artisans, threw loops, worked on horsemanship skills, and hung on every word spoken by the master, Craig Hamilton. “Rope a few on Old Shine, Michael,” Craig said on Friday afternoon, “I want to see him work.”

I felt like a nervous parent at a recital. I so badly wanted my partner to do good and look good in front of all these people, and to my great relief, Shine didn’t do too badly. He was a bit nervous, but managed to get to the cattle, and we roped perhaps a half-dozen without falling down a single time. Craig nodded approvingly, “Not bad, not too bad.” I felt like a dad looking my son’s report card filled with straight A’s.

On Saturday, Craig had me saddle my war horse, Buddy. “I’ll ride Shine,” he said. At first, Shine performed as he had the day before, but as the roping runs increased, and the master asked more and more from the big gray, the house of cards began to fall. Shine became highly agitated, and shook with fear, his anger spiked and at last, Craig rode him to a prancing, skittish halt. He looked at me…

“Something’s wrong,” he said quietly. His words pierced my heart. I knew this great horseman had felt the fear down inside my friend.
“Yes, something’s wrong,” I said, my voice betraying my emotion. At that moment, the horseman knew he had two patients, a scared child inside the body of a warrior, and a heartbroken old cowboy who didn’t know how to help his friend. Craig smiled down at me.

“Don’t be discouraged, you and Rebecca have helped him a great deal.
I know what he needs. We can help him.” I can never remember hearing sweeter words.

Craig called all ropers around him in a circle. “I need your help,” he said. “I know you came to rope, but what we’re about to do may help you more than roping. I want all of you to form a line across the arena, each rider about ten feet apart. I’m going to track a lead steer on Shine. I’m not going to hurt him, or be angry with him. I am going to show him a better way to live.” All the riders turned immediately to take up their positions. I didn’t know what was about to happen, all I knew was emotion swelled inside me like an ocean wave.

Craig began to coax Shine to track the steer. Sitting on horseback, I was struck by the beauty of the moment. White arena sand, blue Oklahoma sky, and riders all in a row, watching, ready to help in way they could. But there was one thing not beautiful, one thing sad and wrenching. The big horse wanted no part of it. Each trotting step seemed to raise his anxiety to even higher levels. It was apparent that what he was being asked to do should not have caused such terror, but the task wasn’t causing Shine to be afraid. More like some old memory inside him haunted his consciousness, and the memory was too painful to bear. His conditioned worsened, and when he looked at me for help, I almost couldn’t bear it. “Don’t make me do this, I don’t know these people, Can we go to the barn? Please don’t make me do this,” he said. His big black eyes seemed on the verge of spilling tears.

The master continued to work. Craig played the big horse like a violin. Pushing and pulling gently one moment, then firmly the next, all the while, steady tracking the black steer, and talking, always talking to the frightened animal. For over an hour, he whispered, listened, and encouraged Shine to not be afraid, to trot behind this steer, and over and over, I heard him say in low voice, “Don’t be afraid, you can do this, you are more than this, you have no idea what you are, no…no…yes! Yes!” He talked both to Shine, the warrior, and to the child inside. And suddenly…

Shine stopped and stood stone still. He looked around at all the riders, and directly at me. He seemed to be waking from a dream. I didn’t know if he was puzzled or lost or…Shine dropped his head almost to the ground, and emitted a low moan. A deep groan came from inside him, and the wave of emotion ripped through my body and almost knocked me off Buddy. Tears sprang from my eyes, I just felt so damn sorry for him.
And in a soft voice, the master horseman said,
“There! You see? Surrender! He’s considering trusting man again."
Joy ripped through me like lightening and the tears came hard now.

Naturally, I didn’t want the others to see me, so I hid my face.
Peeking over my sunglasses to see if I had been found out, I saw my tears were not the only ones in the line. All the riders had been deeply affected by what was happening. We were witnessing something moving and profound, and something healing.

“He’s thinking, can you see it?” whispered Craig. “He’s thinking about
coming back to our world. Something happened to him long ago, maybe something bad, or not so bad, but the horse thought it was bad. He has fear in him, but the fear is less now. Now we will see the ‘softening.’ ”
And on his own, Shine looked at the steer, as if he was seeing him for the first time. He began to amble toward him, trotting loose and easy, with his head down now in a easy athletic position, Craig was right. Suddenly, this horse was soft from head to toe. He loped easily in tight circles giving Craig the perfect shot with his rope time after time. Smiles began to show on each face up and down the line. Soft laughter came as well.
Shine flipped his head happily, and breathed a huge sigh of released tension. So clearly now, the horse was doing what the Lord made him to do in the first place…to help man catch an old cow, and you could see in his face the thing called joy. The child inside was laughing.

Then, that gentle Oklahoma wind blew through me, and took every desire I ever had to rope on Shine, and carried them to the far blue mountains visible in the north. “I don’t need to rope on him, Lord,” I said to the wind. “I trade all my tomorrows with this horse if You will just keep him like this. I just don’t want him to be afraid anymore.”

Craig pulled him to an easy stop, and Shine exhaled again.
“We’re done for the day, and Shine and I thank you for your help,” he said smiling. Shine fell into an easy stride with the other horses as the riders filed out of the arena, and everyone headed for the supper table. I felt like a father who didn’t care how his child did at the recital, or what kind of grades were made. I felt love.

We’re home now, and last night, I went to the barn and stood in the stall while Shine ate. “How you doin’?” I asked.
He looked at me for a time, chewing. Then he took a deep breath, and sighed, “I’m better. That man helped me.”
“Me too,” I said, burying my nose in his neck, smelling his clean smell.
“Me too.”

Check out Craig Hamilton at his web site www.craighamiltonhorsemanship.com

See all Michael’s books, tapes and CDs at michaeljohnsonbooks.com.
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