THE TRIALS OF
JOE BEN BLACK
“Sabe usted la palabra mas
importante por su caballo, Miguel?” asked the old Mexican
I grew so close to him for a time in my life - his
name was Lupe Rodriguez. Lupe lived in a hovel along a
pretty little oil-top lane in Oklahoma. He came to this
country to find work and after being here for a time came to
believe he had found not only work…but heaven as well. Lupe
was a happy man. He had his wife and children and a young
red-roan colt that would do anything he asked. We were
riding in the mountains that day, Lupe and that roan colt
dancing like a cat on those huge boulders under his feet,
and Shine and I trembling behind, both scared to death going
up 60-degree slopes one minute and down another even steeper
the next. Both of us could hardly breathe. But Lupe and
the roan were calm as could be ambling along looking for all
the world like they were in the produce section at the
“Tu sabes la palabra mas importante por su caballo,
Miguel?” he repeated.
“No, Lupe,” I said. “What is the most important word
for my horse?”
“I’ll tell you, Miguel,” he said. “I’ll tell you…”
I was thinking about him the other day. I learned a
lot from that old fellow and like we all tend to do, I
forgot the most important thing he ever said. My friend,
Baru Spiller reminded me the other day. Someone told her
the same word once. Like my wife says, we all need
I had been realizing a dream lately. After a move back
to Texas and performing what seemed endless tasks of
building fences, barns, and a rodeo arena, we were finally
ready to start our young colt, Joe Ben Black. Since the day
he was born, I repeated the words hundreds of times… “I’ll
do right by him. I want to develop one horse
correctly in my life. Just one time, I want to do it
right.” I’m sixty now and after all these years and all
the horses in my life, surely this would be the best of
experiences. I promised myself – and Joe Ben – I wouldn’t
pull on him, that I would never lose patience, and that he
would have the most fair treatment any horse ever received
from a rider. After numerous conversations with old
horsemen, countless articles, and videos, and more
ground-work than I’ve ever done, my plan was ready. All
that previous experience would pay off now, buddy. Dawn
came on that first day – the day I knew would be on his
plaque when they inducted him in the Rope Horse Hall of Fame
– and I swung up on him to begin the best effort I had ever
given a horse.
It was a disaster.
Shine and Blue immediately started running and
squealing saying, “Daddy’s got Joe Ben! Daddy has
kidnapped Joe Ben! Call 911! Call DHS!” Joe Ben is
petrified with fear he will never again be in the same
pasture with his two friends, then he sees the steers.
Starts jumping around bucking.
“You’re bucking?” I asked him, not believing it.
“Buck him off, Joe,” yelled Shine from the
pasture. “Buck his John Wayne looking butt off!”
It went downhill from there.
“He wasn’t bucking. Joe Ben crow-hopped a time or
two and that was it. Miguel always exaggerates! As usual,
he’s making himself look like the cowboy, bronc-rider hero.”
And farther down the hill the next day and the
next. No matter how patient I was, no matter how softly I
sat down in the saddle with a soft “Whooaaa,” to teach him
this beautiful stop I had planned, his response was, “Oh
boy, Daddy’s relaxed now…I got him!” Then he
would bolt…and of course, then I had to pull on him, go in a
circle and go in a circle some more. Stupid-idiot horse.
Ruined all my plans. Ruined them the next day and the
next…and the next. Stupid-idiot horse. At this point, I
began to have fantasies about choking him to death…very
slowly. And we fought like parents and children do when one
is trying to make the other behave. Then something
Sherry insists I go to the doctor. I have tried to
explain to her I am not a responsible person, don’t take
care of myself, never have, never will. Her response is
always the same. “Your appointment is at 1:30. Be there.”
So I’m there and naturally the doctor is late. I’m
fuming. “I have things to do. Where is this guy?”
Then this thought comes from…somewhere. Not from me.
Inside me, but from somewhere else.
“See how you are? Mad ‘cause the doctor is late.
Impatient because the horse is not ready in fourteen days,
for goodness’ sake. You dreamed of the time when you could
begin with him. Now it’s here and you’re steaming ‘cause
things are not going according to your timetable. That’s
what’s the matter with the horse! It’s not him. It’s you!”
And I began to
remember. With every horse in my life, the same pattern is
repeated. I always make wonderful plans. Then, I find and
learn the hard way the horse has no idea about my plans.
How could he? No one told him. So I started over with Joe
Beginning again, I left all my expectations in the
house when I went to the barn. I mounted him with patience
and a sense of humor. He responded in kind. As the day
wore on, I sensed something about him I had missed. He had
feet like his momma.
Joe Ben’s mother is a chestnut sorrel who looks like
Jennifer O’Neill. She walks like a woman wearing high heels
two sizes too small. Joe Ben moves his feet just like his
momma. Shine can run like the wind and with that statement,
we have exhausted his gifts. Blue has the best attitude in
the galaxy, and that’s about all he has. Yet those two
horses are among the most precious gifts the Lord has given
me, and now He has given us another. Shine and Blue can’t
move like this black colt. As I began to become more aware
of Joe’s talent, he responded even more. My patience grew –
which proves there are still modern day miracles, and while
every day has not been euphoric…some have. All that caused
me to remember Lupe.
“The most important word for your horse, Miguel is not
‘today,’ ” he said. “Don’t get mad at him today. Don’t
expect much from him today. But if you will just remember
this word, he will be the best he can be. The most
important word for your horse – and for you, Miguel – is the
it going?” asked Shine, as
Joe Ben walked into the pasture after practice.
“I don’t know what he wants,”
answered a frustrated Joe Ben. “I thought he wanted
me to run, but I guess he doesn’t. I can’t anyway.
He pulls on me all the time. Hackamore hurts
Makes me mad. That’s why I bucked.”
“Shoulda’ bucked him off,”
snorted Shine. “It was the only chance we had.”
Note – Coming soon – Michael’s latest release,
The Trials of Joe Ben Black – Confessions of a Rope Horse
available at michaeljohnsonbooks.com.