Thursday, April 26, 2012

Eighty Dollar Champion

Jan saw this sign in a catalog the other day: “I want to be the man my horse thinks I am.” A very, very, worthy ambition.

This true story  of a horse named Snowman was recommended by friends Trice and Pat Lawrence and Terry Mathews. I probably would not have read it without their suggestion because I knew nothing about show jumping (I know quite a bit now).

This book, however, is about more than an equestrian event that a lot of us think is the province of the elite. It’s about triumph over adversity against all odds. It’s about the unique and unusual bond that can be formed between man and animal. 

I knew I was in for a treat when author Elizabeth Letts painted a vivid image of a dirty, flea-bitten nag looking through the board slats of a truck bound for the slaughter house at a man with only eighty dollars in his pocket—a man who needed a horse to train students to ride and jump horses at an all-girls school. The horse and man saw something in each other’s eyes.

Sound overdone? Romanticized? Too sentimental? By the time I reached the part where Snowman shows up in his former owner’s yard dragging an old tire and a piece of board fence, I was hooked on this story and this horse.

Maybe it’s because my grandfather’s horse returned in a similar fashion. I’ll never forget the day he came back more than a month after being sold and taken more than a hundred miles away. But that’s another story. That was Buddy. This is about Snowman.

I have always been fascinated by theories about an animal’s ability to reason and to love their human masters. I am still just a wannabe cowboy, but I was raised around horses and there have been only short periods in my life when I did not own at least one (I still own one today).

As a boy, I remember trying to connect with my horse the way that Gene Autry connected with Champion, but I just didn’t know how to train my little mare to do all those tricks. I thought it was her fault, but it was mine, of course. 

Then there was the time I was summarily stopped and thoroughly chastised by my father when he caught me trying to teach her to rear (we called it rare-up) on her hind legs.

Most of the stories we hear about humans bonding with animals have been romanticized to the point of becoming pure fiction. Letts is careful not to do that. By sticking to the facts and careful detail of how this relationship develops, readers can believe in something that we all want to believe (and most of us want to achieve).

It is one of the ironies of life (at least mine) that we often learn how things should be done after it is too late (or we are too old). Also, I find it fascinating that we all have aha moments when we are trying to master a skill, a subject, or a relationship—those moments when we read or hear the exact words that explain something that has been confusing before. 

Even the best of teachers don’t always speak to all students.Some of us listen and absorb in different ways. I have had many aha moments with horses. 

One was when I read that a woman’s heart rate will match a horse’s within sixty seconds after putting a hand on the horse. That simple revelation spoke volumes to me.

I discovered by trial and error that my horse Rowdy would do just about what I expected of him. If I expected bad behavior when we team-roped, I got it and vice-versa. Even though there were many hits and misses, the discovery came in an “aha!” moment.

I concluded at first that the horse was just reacting to my physical movements—the way I sat in the saddle, the way my legs relaxed or tensed, the way my hands held the reins. However, I came to believe that it was also a mental thing.

When you ride and train a horse almost every day, he learns your moods, can read the expression on your face, and can correctly analyze every gesture. People generally know that about dogs and smaller pets, but not so much about horses. I now think that animals communicate on a much higher mental and emotional level than I first thought. 

I have been to a lot of horse training clinics and watched a lot of videos where the trainer tries to get this point across. But few ever come right out and say how they are communicating on a silent, mental level with the horse in addition to sounds and physical movements. 

Some are just not articulate enough, but most are doing something that comes natural to them.Or maybe they figure that nobody would believe them. This mental connection can be learned by most. Snowman  proves the point.

Although the bonding between Harry le Feyer and Snowman develops through trial and error, failure and success, this is not a clinical description of training.  There is definitely something intangible working between Snowman and Harry (a mental, emotional thing).  

A survivor of Nazi-occupied Holland of WWII, this immigrant farmer, husband and father has a background that also makes the story more believable and more emotional. The pair develops what we all want to feel and share. You will soar inside the head of Harry and Snowman as well as over the jumps as they achieve the near-impossible.

Remember—launch party for Go Down Looking is Wednesday, May 9 from five to eight PM at A&M-Commerce Alumni Center, 1706 Stonewall in Commerce. Invitations to be mailed no later than Friday, April 27. Be there. Download invitation details here.


ArtsJunkie said...

Loved the blog, Jim. Loved the book, too.

Doc Turner said...

There is often a bond that develops between a human and their horse. For the last 23 years, I brought my mares to the stalls at the house to foal. I practiced imprinting the day they were born, handling them all over and breathing my breath into their nostrils. The were in a tiny halter by three days and dragging a rope by two weeks. At a month, I would loop a long lead rope under their rumps while I gently pulled on the headstall. All of them were leading quickly. I kept the trailer parked in the corral with a bale of hay far in the front. the foals would follow their mothers up into the trailer without hesitation. At that point, they returned to the ranch with their mothers and only got handled once a week, but I would handle them all over, pick up their feet, put their halter back on for a little while, and brush them.
When they were yearlings, I would introduce them to a blanket and a saddle, but no rider until age two. I think I raised some of the easiest to handle, quietest foals around. My trainer said "they's plum spoilt." Guess he was right. But they were like giant pets and I loved them and they loved me.
My best mare liked to steal my hat, run in a big circle with it and drop it just out of reach. She would grab it and take off again; ruined some straw hats. But there was a bond there and she wanted to please me.
This same mare, Snicker, had an onery streak. She would hump up and try me out if i wasn't wearing spurs. She would dump me in a pile and then stand over me and nug me with her nose to see if I was ok. I put jingle bobs on my spurs. When Snicker heard them, she knew the boss was wearing iron and was real good.
I rode her many a mile before my riding days were over last summer from a neck injury (not from a horse.) I raised lots of foals from her that I still see around. They recognize me and come running.
I had a very promising coming two year old that my tenant accidentally shut up in the wrong pasture, across the fence from the other horses. There was no water where he was; I cried when I found him dead. I lost a mare and newborn to lightening and cried over them.
If you're a horse person, you know how some of them just get to you. There have been a few, mostly bought horses that never bonded with me. Sometimes they were good working stock that didn't give me any trouble, but no attention or affection either. They are not the ones I remember or get sentimental about. There will be some readers who know exactly what I mean. The rest of you just won't get it and think I'm soft in the head. I'll guarantee you it must be plenty hard that it never burst open like an over-ripe melon all the times I've landed on it! Guess ribs aren't that tough...

Charlotte Hilliard said...

Knowing all this how could you sell Rowdy? He probably thought/thinks you didn't love him any more. sob

Also, Jim, those were not aha moments. That was the Flow.

Just had to comment about Rowdy. That still brings tears to my eyes. ha