Thursday, June 10, 2010
July 16, 2004
By VERLYN KLINKENBORG
I cleaned my saddle on a hot afternoon in Wyoming recently.
It's a Western saddle, made for me nearly a decade ago by a
saddle maker in Billings, Mont. At the time, I was spending
part of every summer in the West, trying to learn as much
as I could about horses and horsemanship. The days spent on
horseback were always a strange tangle of joy and nervous
anticipation. The horses were mostly strangers to me, and I
was supposed to be imparting something to them, not merely
taking what they had to offer. I rode, I learned a lot
about horses, and the saddle darkened with use.
In Wyoming I took off the cinches and stirrups. I removed
the breast collar and laid it in the sun. I brushed away
the dust and oiled the latigos, then worked over the fine
tooling on the skirts and fenders with a soft rag. I
removed a plywood splinter wedged between the oak frame of
the stirrup and its leather lining - the result of a
collision in a Colorado round pen. I even spent a couple of
hours polishing the nickel-silver bindings on the stirrups,
trying to restore the mirrored shine they had when they
were new. They began to gleam, but they'd been nicked and
dinged too often to look new again.
I'd spent part of that week in the saddle again, for the
first time in several years. I was riding with old friends,
including a trainer named Buck Brannaman, and once again I
was riding an unfamiliar horse, feeling in the way he moved
how all the riders before me had responded to him. The
horse's name was Eddie. He'd spent part of his life trying
to decide just what his numerous riders were trying to
teach him. But since he rarely had the same rider twice,
Eddie decided to stick with what he already knew. That's
why he felt a little stubborn, a little sluggish, but not
unwilling. I spent three days getting him soft in the mouth
again, easy to bend, light in my hands. In return, he
reminded me how much I had once learned from horses. Eddie
made me want to clean my saddle and come home and ride my
own good horse, a quarter horse named Remedy, who has had
plenty of time off lately.
You'd think that a man with his own horse and saddle would
ride every day. But you'd be wrong. I took a job - this one
- that has made it hard to haul the horses to the West for
the summer. And somehow the East has seemed too full of
excuses and inhibitions. Too much work to do. Not enough
skywide spaces or antelope. Even the pleasure of watching
the horses grazing became an excuse not to interrupt them.
And in the end, I lost track of the time. My saddle sat in
the horse trailer. The stirrups tarnished in the damp
Eastern climate. Mold began to turn up on the cinches. And
Remedy, who was 19 when I bought him, slowly turned 26.
So I discovered when I got home from Wyoming last week. I
put my newly clean saddle in the horse trailer and brought
the horses to the barnyard. Remedy usually leads the way,
head high, a straight-up walk toward the feed and the hay.
But this time he came last - stiff and visibly thinner than
he'd been two weeks earlier. At his age, a horse that loses
mobility begins to lose flesh as well, and he'd begun to
lose both while I was gone. The vet thinks it's a matter of
sore feet - a chronic condition with some aging horses - so
we'll do everything we can to ease his pain and build his
muscles again. That will mean lots of riding on my part.
Horses live a long time, long enough for owners to believe
they'll always be there. I don't know whether horses are
conscious of time. But I know that in his pain, Remedy
seems, as my wife put it, to be deep within himself. That's
not his way. In full health he is pure awareness, boldly
alert. He can make you feel like an adjunct of his
presence, as if he were somehow vouching for you with the
pasture gods. Now it's my turn to vouch for him, to get him
healthy and to learn, before it's too late, all the things
he knows once more.