My horse Confia En Mi and my buddy Roy left the next day. He had to get back to work and so we spent the better part of a half hour trying to get the horse in the trailer.
I’d like to think the difficulty of the task was because Confia didn’t want to leave me, but truth is probably that she didn’t fancy being stuck in a hot, suffocating box for the rest of the day. We finally got her in the trailer, after a lot of team effort and some uncomfortable pushing.
When Roy pulled out and waved goodbye, I thought about how you can learn a lot about someone by traveling with them for a period of time. I’d only known Roy for a couple of days, but I felt like I knew him well. For example, I know that the Little Prince and the Chronicles of Narnia are his favorite books. I know he can be jealous even when he knows it’s unjustified. I know he’s a romantic and I know he is adamant about self-improvement. Roy works hard to rein in the parts of himself that he feels need work. He’s a gentleman and a good man and I’ll miss him, in my own non-committal way.
As the truck disappeared around the bend in the road, Julian turned to me and said, “Let’s go train some horses.” I agreed. I wanted to watch Julian, the horse whisperer, work his craft. We walked out past his small home next to the baby blue convenient store and hitched a ride in the first pick-up truck headed in the direction we wanted to go.
Julian doesn’t have a car. He doesn’t need one with friends in town who will always give him a lift. Plus, he has plenty of horses in the barn to get around out in the countryside.
We jumped into the bed of a truck with three other hard-looking men, one of whom had a hook for a hand. I looked him over and wondered how he lost his hand and how the hook actually works, but I didn’t dare ask. Instead, we rode in silence until we jumped out of the truck at a place called “Rancho Rojo”— a fair ground with stables where rodeos are held.
Julian and his son train the horses at Rancho Rojo. We arrived expecting Julian Jr. to be there working with Christopher, his partner-in-crime. But the boys weren’t around. Julian was perplexed and called Jr.’s phone several times, but never got an answer. I could see Julian was upset by this as he saddled up the first horse, so I left him alone and just watched him work with the troublesome gelding.
I could see two distinct battles taking place: on one hand, Julian seemed to be working out an issue with his son in his head, and on the other hand he was externalizing his struggle against a young horse that would not listen. I wondered if Julian’s own disappointment in his son’s shirking of responsibility was affecting his handling of the horse, which acted up in every way imaginable.
Perhaps the horse could read Julian and sensed the struggle, which he seemed to rise to rebelliously. Horses are like people in that sense, if they sense you are troubled, they will just give you more trouble just to see what they can get away with. Bipeds and quadrupeds are not that different when it comes to folly, but the exceptions that you meet in life—both animals and people—well, those are the ones that are worth keeping around.
I watched to see how Julian handled this and, true to form, he kept his emotions in check and talked the horse down and brought him under his control. I watched this subtle power play act itself out as Julian circled around (see Youtube clip here) as I leaned against a tree seeking solace from the sun in a small bit of shade.
A few minutes later, Julian started to talk out loud, seemingly to me, but I think mostly to himself and to the horse and perhaps to the ether.
“I need to show him he doesn’t need to fight. I need him to understand that he has the capacity to do well. He can do well and do right. This is the struggle you are watching right now. I’m showing him he can be good.“
“How do you do that?” I asked.
“By letting him know I’ll stay on him all day. I’m here for him, but he has to give me what I want. I will not quit on him, but he can’t quit on me. You see this horse was mistreated. He was trained by someone who didn’t understand his rebellious nature, and he was beaten and taught to fight. He’s dangerous this way, to himself and to others. I can show him there’s a better way, a way that feels good. That it feels good to do good and when he does good, he gets a carinoso (gentle pat) and we enjoy each other. Then when he does bad, he just gets more work until I get it my way. There can be no other way—that is what he needs to understand.”
I nodded and watched as the horse visibly settled underneath him. They began to move together and it was beautiful to see the dance start. Julian is a gran maestro and watching him bring this troublesome horse to this point of agreement was like watching any artist do what they do best. Everything is a fine art when done well, and when one gives oneself over to that moment. Life is full of such beautifully artistic moments, we just don’t see them most of the time.
“This is only for a horse that already knows,” Julian told me. “You can’t use this approach with a horse that knows nothing, because it’s not his fault if he makes mistakes; he has not been taught yet. I can only expect this from him, because I know he’s capable. We can never ask something from someone that they are not capable of doing, nor can we expect the impossible of people. Never punish someone who doesn’t understand.”
The horse sensed Julian’s attention drift as he talked to me, and he bucked a bit under him. Julian shifted his focus back to the horse and brought him back under full control.
“You see, he wants to show me he has balls, well I will show him I have more.” Always remember that with a horse. “Si vos tenes huevos, yo tengo más!” He shouted out with gusto. I laughed. It was the first light moment we had had all morning and it led me to think how Julian’s lessons apply beyond horses.
We moved back over to the stable and Julian dismounted and began to take the saddle and gear off the horse. The brief moment of gusto was gone, and he seemed tired again. His shoulders were rounded a bit forward, but it didn’t seem like a physical tiredness. This man is a block of iron. It was a spiritual tiredness. He swung the saddle off the horse and set it down in front of me. As he stood there he looked me in the face and carried on a conversation I could tell he had already started in his head, and was bringing me in midstream.
“He has a defect you know. This defect he has always had. He means well, but he can’t not be irresponsible. I don’t know how to fix him.” It was his son he was referring to now and I just looked at him and nodded. I watched this mountain of a man, the self-proclaimed “Cowboy Poet of Camoapa,” the man who always fixes other people’s problems, turn to me and express a problem that he felt he couldn’t fix; and it was one of the most important problems he had faced.
I didn’t respond. I knew it was a statement that didn’t require response. Julian simply wanted to share his inner dialogue. He wanted someone who would listen to him, as he constantly listens to countless others. The man who always helps others, needed some help of his own. His son hurts him and Julian reacts to pain by digging into his work even deeper, losing himself in his responsibilities and his horses. He suffers nobly and I am in awe of him.
And I was happy to be, at least for a brief moment, the person who listens to him.
Scott Stevens, from Shreveport, Louisiana, has spent the past 10 years living abroad in Thailand, Indonesia, Switzerland, and, most recently, Nicaragua. He traded the boardroom for the outdoors after the 2008 financial crisis and has been exploring ever since. Follow his stories on his blog, www.coolerthanafan.com