Horse Mavericks

Green Horse on Red Trails
June 23, 2009, 6:32 pm
Filed under: Horse Training | Tags: , , ,

The sky expanded overhead in an endless display of blue.  Hills covered in dry grass rolled into the distance and eventually rose into snow-capped mountains.  I sat on Gambler in the shade of a live oak watching Lanny West.  He rode Tucker, a seasoned sorrel horse, while he lunged a buckskin colt around them.   Lanny wanted to put a lot of pressure on the green horse to make make sure he was safe before letting Dee, the colt’s owner, get on his back and ride down the trail.  “When I take my colts for their first few rides, I like to keep them moving,” Lanny West said.

Lanny West and Tucker lunging the coltThe sound of horse hooves fell hard on the earth in rhythmic thuds.  Dry grass rustled.  Small rocks and dirt clogs crunched.  Tucker’s ears drew back, his eyes widened and he tossed his head making the mane stick straight up.  “See right there?”  Lanny said.  “I am putting too much energy into Tucker.  I’m gonna send my energy to the colt.”

I looked down at Dee who stood in the shade next to Gambler and me.  “How do you send energy to the horse you’re driving and not the horse you’re riding?”  

Dee just shrugged.  

Lanny West directing his energy at the coltI don’t know how he did it, but I know what I saw.  I could feel the assertiveness of his presence decrease. Tucker’s ears came forward, the muscles in his jaw and neck relaxed, and his eyes calmed.  Tucker seemed to understand that the ordeal wasn’t about him.  He walked and turned while Lanny asked the colt to move his feet and trot.  

“OK, Dee.  Get on.”

Dee approached her horse and stepped into the stirrup.  As soon as her seat touched the saddle, Lanny led them down the red dirt road at a trot. The sound of pounding hooves grew quiet as they disappeared.  The air stilled.  Silence engulfed us.  There wasn’t even the sound of a fly buzzing or the rustle of leaves in the breeze.  Gambler licked his lips.  I blinked a few times and thought, Shoot!  I better catch up.

Loosen That Cinch!
June 17, 2009, 5:18 am
Filed under: Horse Training | Tags: , , ,

Dee riding the colt and Lanny on Tucker.  The buckskin colt trotted counter clockwise around the round pen.  His ears stiffened, his back arched.  The colt was getting ready to crow-hop.  Lanny West stood tall, shoulders wide and relaxed, his gaze focused on the colt’s girth.  He was driving him forward to keep his feet moving.  “Don’t do it,” he said.  He slid his right hand up the lead rope and tilted the nose to the right.  Dirt exploded beneath the horse’s hooves when he changed directions.  

Tucker, a sorrel gelding, stood quietly by the fence inside the round-pen licking his lips.  Dee, a tall lean woman with brown hair rested her forearms on a crossbar and watched her colt respond to Lanny.  I stood on the outside videoing the entire thing.  This was going to be the colt’s first ride and Dee wanted the event documented.  

Lanny lunged the colt back and forth.  He pulled on the halter to make sure the colt would give in to the pressure and turn his head.  He turned the colt the other way.  

After a while, the colt’s head dropped and the muscles in his neck, shoulders and rump relaxed.  The colt’s inside ear faced Lanny and he trotted calmly around the pen.  Lanny crouched and stepped toward the horse’s rump.  He shifted his hind end around, faced Lanny and stopped.  They both stood quietly for a few breaths.  Then he picked up a slicker which was hanging on the fence.  He rustled it around the horse’s feet and over his body. He placed the coat on the horse’s back and let it sit for a few moments before he pulled it down to the ground. 

As soon as the buckskin’s head dropped, Lanny stopped.  “A lot of people think sacking out a horse deadens him,” he said.  “I’ve never had a problem with it.  The main thing is you don’t irritate them.  As soon as they start working, stop.  Over-doing it deadens them.”

“Tucker,” Lanny said.  The horse stood there.  “Hey Tucker,” Lanny said louder.  The gelding blinked a few times, turned his head and approached Lanny.

Lanny held onto the colt’s lead rope and got onto Tucker.  He lead the colt around and went through the same exercises as he did on the ground.  He kept colt’s feet moving, he put pressure on the head with the halter to make sure he gave in and he sacked him out.  He whacked colt’s the saddle, leaned the weight of his body onto the seat of the saddle and then hit it some more.  

“Ok, Dee,” he said.  She entered the round pen and went to her colt.  She slapped the seat of the saddle. Lanny studied the horse’s reaction.  The colt didn’t seem bothered.   “Get on,” Lanny said.  She put the toe of her boot into the stirrup and swung her leg over.  As soon as she settled, Lanny led the horse around the pen.  He held his head high, his ears worked back and forth, but they didn’t stiffen.  He wasn’t threatening to crow-hop.    

“Some people like to sneak their first ride.  I don’t sneak around my horses,” he said.

Dee smacked the saddle, petted his neck and kept up one sort of ruckus or another.  Lanny lead the horse, put pressure on the halter and released as soon as the horse gave.  He changed directions often, anything to hold onto the horse’s mind whenever his attention seemed to drift.  

As soon as the colt settled into the new experience, Lanny stopped.  “That’s enough for the day.”  Dee got down and loosened the cinch.  Lanny got off Tucker and they stood quietly for a few moments letting the dust settle in the pen.  Then Dee led both horses out.  

“There’s a lot of different methods people use to start a colt.  I don’t care what kind of method you use.  The main thing is you have to make sure the horse understands what you are telling them, and when they start working, leave them alone.  Don’t over do it.”

I led my gentle, well-trained gelding into the round pen and it struck me.  The principles Lanny West used to start the two-year old colt were the same principles he taught me to get along with my horse.  Make sure Gambler understood what I was communicating.  Don’t irritate him.  When he started to work, stop.  Don’t over do it.”

I lunged Gambler back and forth.  Then I got on a rode.  Lanny sat in the shade of a tree playing with his grandson and talking to his wife.  Dee stood on a hill videoing me.  After a while Gambler I started to get along better.  

Lanny shouted.  “Get off.  Loosen that cinch.”

The Life of a Roping Mommy

Sage Riding the Dummy“You’re chopping it.  You don’t want to chop.  You want to deliver,” Lanny West said.  He was sitting on a stump in his barn.

Ok, so I’m chopping it, I thought.  But what did he mean?

A loop hung from my right hand and the coils in the left.  My arms dangled at my sides.  The roping dummy, a lifeless and, I might add, poor imitation of a real steer, seemed to be mocking me.  

“You’re not watching the video.  You have to watch the video,” he said.   

He was right.  Months ago I had filmed Lanny roping, so I could take it home to study.  Back then I had watched it several times, but I hadn’t seen it recently.  

“You’re not practicing,” he said.

Again, he was right, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.  Every afternoon I picked up my rope, put on my gloves and set the dummy in the driveway while the kids played.  Inevitably Daisy, my four-year-old, would trip and skin her knee.  Sage, my 22-month-old, would ask for help to put on her bike helmet.  When that was done, Daisy would start climbing a slippery, rattlesnake-infested, dirt bank and fall.  After I got her smiling again, Sage would need a diaper-change.  Then they would both be hungry, and, sure enough, I would look at the clock and it would be dinnertime.  Then we would all take a grand exodus inside to find food.  

All told, I would have thrown maybe ten loops and that’s it.  So yeah, Lanny’s right.  I haven’t been practicing much.  The bottom line:  I choose to put my kids first.  

Still if I could just figure out what he meant by “chopping it” at the very least, I might take an incremental step toward improvement.

“I’ll tell you what,” I said.  “I’ll watch your video everyday for a week.”  I knew if I told him I would do it, I could pull it off.  

The first night I came home, I watched it.  I didn’t pick up on anything new.  The second night, I didn’t watch it.  The third night, I watched it twice to make up for the previous night.  I took the time to slow it down studying the way his hand rotated for the delivery and how his arm crossed in front of his body for the follow through.  

And then it dawned on me.  I was “chopping it.”  My hand was coming down like a sledgehammer.  Lanny’s hand floated parallel over the horns.  

The next day, I went through the usual routine.  I pulled on my gloves, placed the dummy in the middle of the driveway and threw the rope.  The kids were in a good mood and entertained themselves while I tossed loop after loop without interruption.  Out of 45 tries, I missed five times.  An 88% average.  Not too bad.  Not professional standards by any means, but not too bad.

I coiled the rope, gathered the girls in my arms and jumped on the trampoline which sat on our front lawn.  We steam-rolled each other, bounced high and performed gravity-defying tricks.  After all our giggles and laughs were spent, Daisy decided she wanted to go back to riding her bike and Sage wanted to get down to pick dandelions.  I went back to roping.  

On Monday, I’ll take the two-hour trek to Lanny’s house to listen to his advice and try again.  There is something valuable in pursuing an activity which requires a little discipline.  I hope my girls will learn through watching me that effort for the sake of effort is valuable.

Moment in the Desert

photo by ChuckthePhotographerIt has been two weeks since I have seen Lanny West.  I have been waking up every morning trying to think of something to write about, but my mind is as dry as the Mojave Desert.

Lanny has a way of putting things so that they stick in my head.  I can almost hear him saying, “There are no excuses.  There’s no such thing as hot or cold or tired. If you’re gonna make it, you have to do it.”

Nonetheless, the excuses pile, one on top of the other.  Now it is Tuesday morning.  I’m just now writing something down, but the vast desert in my head seems to be extending its borders and there is no water in sight.

What does making it mean, anyway?  For me, it is writing Lanny’s biography.  It starts with research, then a rough draft of a manuscript.  To make it means gathering over a 1000 readers for this blog and publishing the book.  

Whenever I think about what I want to accomplish, a hunger rises and nags me.  It’s old and obnoxious.  I want this project to get done.  When I feel like this, one of Lanny’s stories haunts me.  

He had practiced and worked for years in order to win the Oakdale roping in 1987.  When he finally won it, he thought he would be happy.  He thought his drive would be quenched and his hunger satisfed.  Instead, when he got home and the adrenaline of the event ran dry, he lay in his bed and felt sick to his stomach.  The purpose of his life had been stripped and now what was he supposed to do with his time.

Lanny is telling the truth when he says there is no such thing as excuses if I want to make it.  Excuses are like pissing in the dry desert wind.  I am just gonna get all wet.

But when I make it and the book is published, if my experience with success will be anything like Lanny’s, there will be nothing but this same desert of emptiness to negotiate–the same desert I am in right now.

It begs the question:  Is all this striving and trying worth it?  After all, once I reach the goal, get paid and the glow of prestige fades, then what?  More of the same?  So why continue?  Why keep trying?

A vision of Lanny pops into my mind:  He is in his barn with a loop dangling from his right hand the coils in his left.  He has a faraway look in his eyes, but he is staring at the horns of a roping dummy a few feet away from him.  Energy gathers in his muscles, he takes a deep breath and the loop slices through the air with each rotation.  He delivers it.  It catches the right horn, swings under the left and I can hear the sound of a snap and the friction of rope sliding through the hondo as he pulls it taut.  A smile brightens his face.  

“When you rope,” he says, “you have to learn to stay in the moment.”  In other words, be focused.  Don’t think about anything else, concentrate.  “There is no better feeling in the world than staying in the moment.”

“What you’re good at,” I say, “isn’t just how to rope.  What you are good at is getting in the moment.  That’s what makes the difference between a good roper and an exceptional roper.”

“That’s exactly right,” he says.

In the end, the state-of-mind, which helps us reach our goals and be great at whatever it is we do, is the same state-of-mind which helps us be content.  We must learn to concentrate and enjoy what the moment has to offer.  

Suddenly the desert, which is dominating my imagination, comes alive.  I can see the contorted cacti; the roadrunners and the lizards scurrying across the sand.  Then I think about how beautiful the landscape is after a wet thunderstorm.  Flowers peek through the sand.  Cacti bloom in bright reds and yellows.  Joshua Trees display a bouquet of white.

Lanny West is right once again.  There is no better feeling in the world than staying the moment.  The reason I keep writing is because it just feels good.

Photo by ChuckthePhotographer

Cast Your Vote
May 26, 2009, 5:40 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , has been up and running since October.  You have had the chance to get to know me.  Now, I want a chance to get to know you. Cast your vote. Let me know which topics you like.  I will use the information to bring you stories you want to read.

Winning and Loosing


photo by kretyen

photo by kretyen

It was Mother’s day and the Mother Lode Round-up in Sonora, California was halfway finished.  At 8:30am the bleachers were empty except for Lanny West and his entourage.  Friends occupied a bench that extended to his left and right.  He held his one-year-old grandson in his lap and his wife watched the other two grandchildren play on the grass that bordered the arena.  A corgi lounged at her feet, panting. 

We were there to watch his daughter, Tammy West White, and her husband, Ryan, compete as team ropers in the slack, an event for participants who were not randomly selected to be in the public rodeo show, but who were competitors anyway. 

“This is the first time Tammy has roped in four years,” Lanny said to me.  Just then a steer broke loose from the chute in the arena and two horses and their riders chased after it.  The header delivered his loop and missed.  The scoreboard read NT, no time.

While the next team backed into the boxes I continued the discussion. “How come?” I said. 

Lanny adjusted his grandson on his lap.  “First she had Trey, then she got pregnant again and then it was one thing after another.” 

I understood the one-thing-after-another phenomenon.  I had two children of my own.  Having kids slows a woman down for a few years.  “What got her back into it?” I said.

“Ryan asked her if she was ready to rope again now that the kids were older.  She’s a good partner,” said Lanny.  

There was another pause in the conversation as the second steer charged out.  This time the header managed to catch the horns, but the heeler missed.  NT flashed on the scoreboard. 

While Tammy and Ryan backed their horses into the boxes, I said,  “Why is everybody missing the steers?” 

“There are good ropers here, but the steers are running hard,” Lanny said.

The gate of the chute clanked opened and another steer charged.  Tammy swung the lariat over her head and caught the horns.  Ryan delivered his rope, the steer stepped into the loop and Ryan dallied. They were in the lead for the time being.

This would have been the moment most fathers would have bragged about how much money and how many saddles his daughter had won through the years.  This would have been the moment when most fathers would have mentioned how his daughter was the first girl to win several prestigious ropings, but not Lanny. 

Instead he said, “I’ve seen her miss a steer for $45,000 and afterwards you would have never known it.  She’s amazing.”   

As he watched his daughter walk her horse out of the arena, Lanny’s face radiated in pride.  He admired her for her ability to remain even-tempered regardless of what might happen in the competition.  All that stuff, the winning and the loosing . . . well . . . it just came and went.  Tammy would remain who she was, Lanny’s little girl, Ryan’s wife, and the mother of two little boys and that’s that.

Photo by kretyen

May 12, 2009, 9:53 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , ,


Ron Butler of Butlers Saddle Shop

“We’re gonna get you a bit, today,” Lanny West said when I stepped onto his porch.  An old saddle sat at his feet, the stirrups splayed on either side.  “I can’t sell it to you and I can’t give it to you, but you can use it for as long as you like.”

He pointed to an insignia stamped into the leather just below the saddle horn.  “What does that say?”

“Garcia.  Salinas, California,” I said.

“They didn’t make many of these.  People consider this to be a collector’s item.  Just needs a cinch and a few straps, that’s all.”

I didn’t know what to say.  The entire scene felt surreal.  It seemed that if I breathed wrong, the saddle would disappear, Lanny would evaporate, and the horse–the one grazing the pasture adjacent to the porch–wasn’t really mine, but the neighbor’s.

I checked myself, reviewing everything that had happened up until the moment I stood looking down at that saddle.  I needed to be sure I wasn’t dreaming.  My parents paid a buck for the horse and then gave it to me.  Lanny corrected Gambler’s bad habits for very little money and now there was this saddle sitting there at my feet.  Nobody gets into horses for this cheap.  And if they did, they wouldn’t have a trainer like Lanny or a horse as gentle as Gambler with a saddle thrown in.  Nevertheless, this was reality and I was living it.

“You might have to spend $200 for a bit,” Lanny said apologetically.

I shook my head in disbelief.  “It’s not a big deal,” I said.

We got into his truck and drove to Hurst Ranch in Jamestown, California.  A shack stood perpendicular to the main building with a sign over the door that read, Butler’s Saddle Shop.  Inside it smelled like brand new leather.  Harnesses, bits, ropes and spurs hung on the walls.  A workbench was covered with pieces of unblemished cowhide.

I wanted to take advantage of my good fortune and learn everything I could, but my ignorance blindsided me.  I gave up and relaxed.  I leaned against a table and watched Lanny spend my money.  It would be impossible for me to leave that shop as clueless as I was when I walked in even if I felt overwhelmed.  All I had to do was watch and listen.  

Ron Butler stood over a saddletree sewing leather onto the horn.  All around him workbenches were covered in tools and scraps. 

Lanny introduced himself.  They seemed pleased to shake hands.  “I’ve been in here a lot, but I’ve never actually met you,” Lanny said.  Later he told me they had mutual friends and had heard about each other. 

Lanny studied the bits on the wall.  He picked out a shank bit with silver etching on the sides.  “That’s a pretty one.”  He turned it over in his hand and fingered the joints.  Lanny asked questions and Ron answered.  Before long they were reminiscing about the days when they liked riding colts no matter how sensitive they might have been.  

Then the conversation drifted to the color of horses and Lanny talked about how he didn’t know the proper names because he was raised by an old horse trader.  He never got a formal equine education, but he described himself as street smart–learning his lessons from the horses themselves.  

Ron said, “I had an old friend who called me from the hospital and asked me what the prettiest color on a horse was.  I told him I didn’t know.  He said, ‘Gentle, you sun-of-a-gun.’”

The two men chuckled deep in their throats.  It wasn’t a jolly laugh, but a knowing laugh rooted deep in a lifetime of hard-knocked experience. 

Lanny pointed at the joint of the bit and said, “That might pinch.”  He hung it back on its hook and picked out a plain iron bit.  Satisfied, he perused the harnesses and reins. 

I took the opportunity to ask a few quesitons about the saddle Ron had been sewing when we first entered the shop.  The saddle tree was formed from douglas fir lumber that had been aged for 5 or 6 years.  The tree-makers covered it with rawhide and now it sat on a stand for Ron to attach the leather.  He said he would add extra padding here or there depending on a customer’s preference.    

I ran my finger over the stitching on top of the saddle horn.  The cowhide was only halfway sewn on and a long thread of rawhide dangled to the side.  As soon as Lanny and I left, Ron would finish sewing the leather to the horn by hand. 

Lanny placed a pile of tack next to one of those big calculators with a roll of printing tape and a credit card reader–the most advance technology in the shop.  A way of life was slipping away with this generation of men.  Once again I felt as if I were in a dream standing in the company of  the kind of people who had inspired Western literature. 

My ignorance was enormous, but my resolve deepened to write Lanny’s story and to get it right.  I owed it to him in gratitude for his tremendous kindness and also to the next generation of horses and their owners.  I want to peel away the glamour Hollywood has attributed to these folks, and re-create them as who they really are–hard working and pragmatic people with deep equestrian insights and well-lived lives.

After we left Ron’s place, Lanny and I stopped by a drive-thru coffee shop and ordered two iced chai teas.  I chuckled and said, “I don’t know how I am going to write you up.  You don’t live up to the image of a cowboy.” 

Could I capture this character who straddles a place in time between the real life horsemen, cowmen and ranchers of the pass–legends in modern day minds–and the eccentricities of the present?  While I sipped my tea through a straw, I decided not to think about it too much.  I’ll just enjoy my horse, the saddle and Lanny’s company, and do my best to record his legacy and the way-of-life he represents.


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