What he loved in horses is what he loved in men,
the blood and the heat of the blood that ran in them.
From: All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
The kid slouches over a plate of stew, eyes glued to an i-phone, a storm of red hair billows beneath his cap. I unfold my napkin and glance at his dad.
“Zeke,” he says. “Put the phone away.”
The fifteen-year-old slips the phone into his shirt pocket.
His mother is seated across from me.
“Would you bless the food, Father?”
“In the name of the Father, and of the Son….”
The boy touches his left fingers to his forehead while the right hand guards his phone. A verse from Psalms comes to mind: Be not like the horse or mule who need bit and bridle to hold them in check.
Zeke’s parents have invited me to their farm to observe their son’s progress with breaking a mustang. This is Zeke’s first attempt to gentle a colt, his interest having been sparked by a classmate whose father, a ranch foreman, is teaching his son to train horses.
Both boys, from what I’ve been told, are back-row kids when it comes to school work. And neither of them shows much interest in sports. Their parents hope that working with horses might pry them out of the virtual world and back into the real one.
After dinner, we head to a round pen behind the barn.
Inside the ring with the horse, Zeke puts the colt through a series of exercises. Self-conscious at first, the boy soon warms to his element. His voice, confident and steady, floats in the air, mingling with dust kicked up by the colt.
The second phase begins with the horse standing at attention in the center of the pen. Zeke lifts the saddle and lowers it on the back. When he tightens the cinch, the mustang lurches forward, kicking and bucking beneath the empty saddle. Zeke’s dad and I back away as the horse rams into the panels. In a few minutes, the boy regains control using nothing more than soft words and subtle gestures.
When it’s time to mount, Zeke stands next to the horse stroking the neck. He dandles the halter in front of the face. The colt, like a teenager making the Sign of the Cross, hesitates, then lowers his head.
Stepping into the stirrup, Zeke settles into the seat and leans forward. He pulls the left rein in a wide arc. The horse moves off in a slow walk. They make two passes around the pen.
Zeke’s mother joins us.
“He’s got the touch,” I tell her.
She nods, but her eyes disagree.
Zeke pulls the horse to a stop. “He’s ready to trot.”
I lean toward his dad. “First attempt?” I whisper.
“Say a prayer,” he whispers back.
The boy clicks his tongue and bumps the colt’s flanks with his heels. The effect is like an electrical shock: the horse’s head jerks up, then drops. The mustang leaps high and hard–once, twice–flinging Zeke like a rag doll. The boy hangs on, manages to pull the colt into a tight circle.
When the bucking stops, the colt stands nervous but steady.
“Easy, pal.” Zeke pats the neck. After a few moments of rest, he nudges the horse back into a walk. They take two more passes around the pen. Zeke makes the clicking sound, then presses his heels to the flanks. This time, the horse transitions from the walk into a wobbly but sustained trot.
Zeke’s mother breathes a sigh of relief. “He does have the touch.”
The young trainer pulls the horse to a stop and glances at his folks. His grin as wide as the hair beneath his cap.