Photo credit: Kiva Duckworth-Moulton
Six times a month I drive across the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico, heading northeast, to ride and train horses on a few thousand-acre ranch. People call it mesa country, where, on a wet year, the tall grasslands sprawl in every direction. I stay at the ranch for three to four days at a time, depending on how the horses are doing.
When I’m there, I speak with no one except the horses. They rarely make a sound. Their entire language is movement.
The days on the ranch are long, quiet days. No cell phones. No Internet. Bluebirds lightly prop themselves on barbed wire fences, tall native grasses squeak against each other in the wind, the occasional call of a far-off cow: these are the signs and sounds which fill my days. Cow elks call to their young from on top the mesa as I saddle my last horse for the day. I have the overwhelming sensation that the day is made up of light, not time.
In the mornings I bring the horses in from their pastures to groom and clean their hooves. There is nothing but breath in the barn. A deep, blowing, wet breath that drips from their resting nostrils. Hind legs are cocked. Half-asleep warm bodies, with ears that flick in circles, follow me as I rotate from side to side, getting each horse cleaned and ready for saddle.
Each horse has a story to tell. It comes in waves of emotions which pulse through my seat once I swing up. The feeling tingles up through my spine, then sits heavy in my chest. Taking deep breaths, I try to listen. As I ride the horses across the fields, heading to the steep road that leads to the top of the mesa, they tell the stories of the humans who have come before me. The other riders and the worlds they carry in their bodies. Their sorrows, their naughty humor, the constant feeling of urgency and anxiety. The basic stories of our basic lives.
I had to ride horses for many years before I could hear their stories. A teacher once asked me what I was feeling as I rode another woman’s horse around the arena trying to help calm him down. “I feel like he can’t breathe,” I told my teacher. “Why?” he asked back. I circled the arena twice, silent and focused. “Because no one listens to him,” I said, and my teacher shook his head, yes
Trauma halts the flow of time.
Listening to the stories horses tell is similar to the way it feels to shake someone’s hand who really doesn’t want to touch you. It’s cold, or it’s sweaty. They barely squeeze, pulling back quicker then they reach out. Or like a hug that comes in at the top of my collar bone but never touches my chest, my belly. It’s a physical story. The body takes the shape of words.
When I’m not here working on this high-altitude ranch in northern New Mexico, I work with troubled people and their horses at a prison re-sentencing ranch a few miles south of my home, along the Rio Grande. Six years ago, when I started working at the prison, the horses looked and acted a lot like the 100 or so residents living there — pissed off. They lifted their lips and bared their teeth if you approached while they were eating. They chased and then knocked the residents to the ground as they brought out the trash after breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Running off with a crusty old loaf of Wonder Bread hanging from their mouths.
Trapped on a 17-acre ranch, surrounded by 12-foot adobe walls with razor wire along its top — these horses had become aggressive, defensive, abandoned, and captured. They were the exact mirror of the two-legged life that surrounded them. The stories of the residents became lodged inside the bodies of the horses.
The residents' stories get stuck in my body too. I find myself carrying them around. They sneak up on me and the next thing I know, I’m having a silent conversation with them in my car when I’m driving to town. Or when I lay down at night to try and sleep, there they are, their stories becoming movies inside my head.
Trauma halts the flow of time. It takes one minute and makes it the rest of your life. It sits in the body like a heavy boulder: unmovable, stagnant, crippling. Trauma tells the same story, over and over again. A person repeating herself to everyone she knows. Does she not remember she has already told me this?
I wonder to myself, when I speak with one of my clients at the prison. No. It is brand-new to her each time she tells it. That is the stranglehold trauma has on time.
The horses on this high mesa ranch live in the present. Their gift of sight takes in each tiny movement of everything and everyone around them. They have no sense of time. Everything exists in an eternal rolling moment. They don’t know about beginnings and endings. Their whole life is one moment following the next. There is no rushing toward it. There is no running away. There is no fretting over what might happen, or frustration over missed opportunity. These horses exist in a permanent state of existential satisfaction.
“When you ride on another animal’s body,” I tell my clients back at the prison, “when you make the decision to leave the ground, leave the knowledge of your feet behind, you have two choices: try to control the power you are sitting on, or try to become that power. And the only way to be the latter is to follow them.”
I ask them to pay attention to their horses. Try to become them. Let the moment move — don’t try to control it, or hold it, or define it.
Up on the mesa the ranch horses know every detail about their land. They are born into these winters, these winds that gust up to 70 miles per hour. They know the sound of wild turkeys in the bushes way before I can ever detect them. They hear rattlers when I hear nothing but a low buzz. They know where the red tail hawks will perch and eat their prey, dropping body parts of lizards as we walk under the branches. They have seen the kingfisher and night heron swoop across the creek as we splash through, heading on our hour-long ride down from the mesa. Every ride, every day that I am up at this ranch, the ranch horses see the same characters, feel the same wind come across the grasses. The only thing they need from me is to try and notice it all with them. Otherwise, I’m just putting on the brakes. I’m just in the way.
“Hold onto their manes, not the reins,” I tell my clients. I ask them to lean over their horse’s neck and see the world from their point of view. Blow out an audible sigh, I tell them, then listen for the horse to blow out too. Notice how everything has movement. How everything has language. Listen for the pine cones drop from the treetops, as the busy ground squirrels hustle to get their meals ready for winter. Watch the tri-colored clouds fly east, telling us rain or snow is coming. Everything rustles then, everything is still.
But what I want to tell my clients the most, something I know I won’t say, is that nothing can halt the flow of time for them, not ever again. Instead, I’ll leave it to these horses to help them remember.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a top-ranked horse trainer. She received an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, and her work has been published in Tin House
and Utne Reader
. She lives in Velarde, New Mexico. Half Broke
is her first book.