Friday, May 02, 2008

Mr. Brown, The Horse That Cried

Mr. Brown, The horse that cried
By Craig Hamilton

The phone call was like so many others I had heard, the voice said "I am having trouble with my horse and I have heard that you are the one I need to go to". I had no way of knowing that this horse would present me with one of my most significant growth moments as a human, and as a horseman.

He arrived and he stepped down from the trailer with his head held high and almost an air of arrogance about him, a big brown non-descript kind of horse, that would stand out nowhere in a crowd.

He was polite on the lead, respectful through the gate, yet when I tried to ask him to lower the head that had been so intently studying the surroundings it was if I had placed my hand upon stone. Little things were being absorbed by my horseman's brain and were being weighed against past experience to begin the process of finding out who this fellow was.

I told the owner that I was too busy today to formally begin with him but in the morning he would be first out. Early morning found me at his gate with a halter, I noticed that he had seen me coming and stepping away from the fence he had taken a stance in the direct center of the pen, facing me with his head up exactly as I had left him the evening before. I had seen this look many times over the years, I call it the wooden Indian. It always reminds me of the cigar store Indians out front, enduring, stoic, solemn, hiding, the face becomes a mask and personality has fled. It is the first sign of serious abuse.

I walked in and haltered him, he never moved so much as a hair, his eye was not mad or mean but it was as hard as pond ice in January. A stone would have skipped off with not a chip left behind to mark its path.

Out the gate to the tack shed as polite yet as stiff as a perfect facsimile of a horse, I might as well have been leading a robot. About ten feet from the tie rail is where I actually finally felt the horse inside, there was just a slight hesitation in his motion and the float in the lead started to go away. My antennae are always up around horses, and something had already triggered them up even higher with this fellow so I instantly noticed the change. I remember thinking, "Do we have a set back problem?" And as I hesitated just a moment to allow him to either show me, or to give him the time he needed to decide, as quickly as it had come it was gone.

I tied him to the iron pipe rail in front of my barn and stepped through the porch to grab a brush, as I stepped back out and towards him I instantly noticed something else interesting. There was water running down the side of his face from his eye to his chin and dripping off his whiskers.

I thought what in the world has happened here? Was I inside longer than I thought? Did one of our special little desert whirlwinds blow through without me noticing and smack you in the eye with a piece of straw or a pebble?

I lifted his eyelid and looked for the offending object, yet there was none that I could see so I wrote it off to one more of those things that cowboys wonder about yet can't find an answer to. I saddled him and he stood like a trooper, led him off and there was absolutely no hump, no short steps, no attitude, no tail swishing, absolutely nothing to indicate trouble ahead. Except, perhaps, that there was so absolutely nothing.

I stepped aboard and attempted to direct him towards the arena, we went everywhere but there. I could not remember when I had been on a horse that felt more disconnected from me, the world, or even himself, in my life. We went everywhere but down, or over backwards, the only thing that he didn't do was run away with me or buck. I finally jumped off before he got his feet tangled with something or each other.

I led him back to the barn thinking that the single most strange part of the whole episode was that no matter how I had tried I had been unable to reach him mentally even one tiny bit during all of this. I had felt horses come apart at the seams many, many times in my life and yet never, not once, had I ever felt such a total lack of connection, even negative connection in my life.

He had slammed the door shut on his mind and had locked all the ugliness outside for me to deal with. I didn't know exactly what to do so I put him away, so we both could sleep on it.

The next morning came all too soon for someone with no answers, yet I am getting paid to train horses and my father taught me to give a day's work for a day's pay so I pick up a halter and head towards the brown. My Grandfather used to have a saying, "We are going to do something, even if it's wrong"

It's hard to understand the wisdom in that saying sometimes, yet I do, my Grandfather is a doer, life is not built upon perfection, it is built upon effort, and the mistakes of the brave pave the path for the rest.

I walked in the pen, same wooden Indian, same ice eye, only today I notice the vacant sign hanging in the window of his mind. We start towards the tack room and there is the same hesitation before I tie. I am seriously thinking, "Craig what in the hell are you going to do different today? Yesterday was not good and you are fixing to repeat it you idiot." And yet the other part of me, the hard headed, ignorant, by damned we are going to get'r done somehow won't let me quit going forward putting one step in front of the other until something happens or breaks.

As I step out of the tack room with a brush there was something however that did stop me, there was water running out of his eye, down his face to his chin and dripping off his whiskers!

WHOA! What in the hell is going on here? Yesterday I wasn't sure how long I had been inside and even though I didn't find anything in his eye I was somehow sorta convinced that it must have been.

Today was different, I stepped up and reached through the door for the brush and turned around, no more than a few seconds had passed and I know for a fact no dust devils had blown by, so what is going on here?

For some reason I don't know exactly why, I did something different from yesterday, I stepped over and looked on the other side of his face, and by danged there it is running down there as well.

What is this... he is standing there not moving a muscle, the line is slack, he is the perfect robotic horse and yet he is leaking, what in the hell is going on? Something in the back of my mind is starting to tickle at me, I remember now the little tiny voices in the back of my mind that were so faint and so foreign that the cowboy in me was shutting them down before they could even be heard.

I knew somehow, someway though that what I was looking at, and for, was significant yet it was like when I first saw the smoking towers in New York on TV, The disconnected feeling that won't allow you to accept it as real.

As I stood there I moved my eyes towards his shoulder, and I saw it. It was exactly like those drawings of swirls and nothings that force you to un-focus your eyes and to look through the picture instead of at it, and so then dolphins, palm trees, or whatever, become apparent. It was exactly like that.

He was crying. My God, I am not supposed to see this! It felt like a twelve pound brick had just flipped over in my belly, I wanted to vomit it was such a dull sick hurt. I didn't know what to do. But I knew this was indeed over the top of anything I had ever experienced in life. So I put him away.

My mind was a blank, what I had just seen was so far out of my realm of possibility that I knew without a doubt I was out of not just my league , but out of anyone else's league that I had ever heard of. Where do you go to find help on horses that cry?

I put him away and sat down on my tack steps, where to begin? I have no idea, yet I did have a feeling start to come over me that I knew I was going to have to honor. If this fellow that brought this horse to me is the same person that has done this thing to him, then there is no way in hell I am going to take one step towards removing one ounce of his armor.

I am not going to help this horse trust again, help him open up and be vulnerable again, and listening again, so that some jerk can stab him in the back again.

No! I will call this fellow and if I determine that he is the one, then I will tell him to come get his horse and I will send this guy home with all his defenses still in place, as braced as he came. And so I got up and walked to the house to make the call, he picked up at the first ring and I said, "John, I want to visit with you about your horse."

"Sure" he said, "What can I tell you?" "Well John I have been working with him a bit and was wondering if you could tell me a few things such as how long you have owned him, and what you are wanting to do with him?" "Sure" he said, "I have owned him about a year, bought him from a horse trader near here and was just hoping to be able to start trail riding with my wife and perhaps to start someday roping a little, I have watched some of that and it looks like it might be fun."

That was all I needed to hear, this was not the person who had done this to Mr. Brown. John like so many horse buyers had simply inherited someone else's problems. I said "thank you John, was just curious" and without another word I hung up and walked to the barn thinking now what? Where do I begin with something so troubled as this? Trail horse? Roping Horse? I can't even ride him to the arena! Then it hit me.

Not one single part of that is important at this moment... the only thing that matters now is to help this fellow stop crying. Yet, how? Until thirty minutes ago I had no conception that such a thing could even be possible, and now I need to try and figure out an answer? What techniques do I use? What tools? Where is there help for this problem? I realized that there were no tools, no techniques, and as far as I knew there was no one who could help me, and him. Help him stop crying, help him stop crying. How? I did not have one single clue where to begin. I left him in his pen and decided to sleep on it, and in the night I awoke with one clear thought in my mind, he does not want to be this way and yet I cannot fix it for him, he has to find it within himself first.

My job is going to be to try to help the little horse inside that is hiding in the closet grow to fill out the hair that we have been looking at. By helping him to believe in himself, to believe again and to have faith again that if he will only look that he can find answers, and that the looking is really and truly the answer itself.

Trust does not matter at this moment, faith is what we are looking for, faith in himself, faith in the human race, faith in life. I gave up any and all goals with this horse, I said I have no goals, instead we have a direction, perhaps he will be able to see through to that.

My direction was to build the inner horse.

For three weeks I walked to his pen at least twice a day, haltered him and took him to the round corral. From that point I tore down the walls of everything I ever thought I knew about horses and horsemanship. It was a totally clean slate. I discovered how to communicate, how there are three steps to communication without words, and three steps only.

What I do, what he does, and what I do back, 1,2,3. Sometimes it is 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 3. Yet that is fine, he taught me that with an abused horse that we often times must wait for them to see the question, or else their fear makes them braced and blind.

I worked with him several times a day, catching him, taking him to the round pen and only working with him from the ground. Doing the best I could figure out to do to try and show him that there was actually sense in the world again. That if he would look he could find it, that there was some consistency and that someone was there to say "thanks" for trying.

Try... He had been so lost for so long, and it had been so long since this guy had tried that he had forgotten what it even looked like. I felt like a boy scout in the woods trying to light a fire with a tiny bit of moss and some damp wood.

I tried, and tried and offered and offered again until I began to doubt if he would ever see my reaching out. Until I one day saw what looked like a tiny little bit of smoke... I gently blew on it with the most careful of breaths, I knew too hard and it would go out and not enough it would die. Day after day I would walk into his stall and there would be the wooden Indian standing in the exact center of his stall, facing the gate with his head up looking over my shoulder at a horizon a million miles away.

I kept gently blowing at the glow, hoping. Three weeks, several times a day this never changed. Some days were better than others, I started to understand the ebb and flow of brace and softness. Far more ebb than flow, yet if I could even trick myself into imagining that I felt some softness often times that would be enough and I would tell him thanks and put him away with a scratch.

Three weeks without any real change, until one morning I am walking with a halter down the line of stalls to actually go catch another horse when I saw something I couldn't believe.

There sticking out over his gate is a big brown head looking at me with a soft eye as if to say "Where ya been all morning?" It was Mr. Brown. I was absolutely stunned to a stop, what had happened to the wooden Indian with the frozen vacant eye? This eye looked sticky as bubble gum it was so soft. So instantly my plans changed, I instead just stopped at the gate and with his head hanging over I haltered him. Perhaps it was my imagination but it felt like he actually lowered his head into the halter a bit as well.

I led him to the tack room, not allowing myself to get ahead of the moment, but also noticing what was and wasn't happening. No hesitation, no slight holding back just before I could reach the tie rail. I tied him and went inside for a brush, as I turned around I noticed his hip cocked and a foot resting on a toe. His head and neck were level with his shoulders and his eye, his eye was quiet, no tears.

I knew then that something great had happened in my life, I didn't know exactly what but I could feel that it was taking place in front of my eyes and I only hoped that I was going to be big enough to accept it.

I saddled Mr. Brown, and stepped on right there in front of the barn, he walked off like an old pro. I rode him to the arena, past the steers, and on out into the desert beyond. It was simply awe inspiring to me. I only had this fellow for another couple of weeks of training yet in that short time I started him on cattle and roping well enough that I felt John could possibly take it from there.

There is a strangeness about this story that strikes me even now years after it happened, I never actually knew the horses name, I simply started calling him Mr. Brown and have thought of him that way ever since. I have never had any follow up reports, and have never spoken to John since, nor would I know how to contact him. I mention this because I have told versions of this story several times before at my clinics, and people invariably ask me with some wonder "you mean you never found out his name?"

No, I did not, and it has never mattered to me at all... You see, in my heart whatever his name was before I met him did not matter, that was simply what the horse was called that was crying.

The horse I got to know startled me with his courage, the courage to be vulnerable again, to open up and trust again, to believe in himself and in humans again. The horse I got to know showed me something that I had never considered possible in a horse, and he showed me how I could use some of the bricks around my heart to build a foundation under his. This horse without a name showed a pretty tough cowboy that he could be softer, and be stronger for doing so.

I don't need to know what they called him when he came, in my mind, and in my heart he will always be Mr. Brown.

Craig Hamilton
See Craig's Horsemanship website.