I first learned of Mike a few years ago when my pals and I traveled to Elko, Nevada, to attend the Cowboy Poetry and Music Gathering. Mike was one of the performers at the gathering. I found him to be an inspiring singer/songwriter and a captivating storyteller. Learn more about Mike here. We have since stayed in touch through social media. A few days ago, Mike shared a story about an experience he had with a horse during one of the Horse Clinics he has conducted over the years. This one took place in Norway. I asked Mike if I could share this on my website. He generously agreed. Here is the story in his words. Read this to the end and then, read it again. There is a lot to ponder in Mike’s words. Here you go.
There Was This One…
It seems like there’s got to be some way to be able to forget about some horses, to be able to let go, and to stay somewhat sane in this crazy horse thing I got myself involved in. I’ve done pretty good, well, kinda…. But, there was this one horse. One horse that I can’t seem to forget, that I can’t let go of.
It happened at a place that I worked several times in Norway. This lady had a facility that wasn’t too bad. She had hosted a couple of clinics for me there before. She had a pretty good arena and a round corral that her husband had built for her, to keep her happy, I’m sure.
This particular time, it had been arranged for me to get in there and help one horse and rider at a time. I was just working with individual horses and their riders, and this day was filled up. It was raining like hell that day. Pouring down, typical Norway, raining all the time.
Then, here they come over the hill, this little Icelandic horse coming down the road with a young girl on his back. And the girl’s mother was leading, or more like dragging, the horse down the road. It looked like quite a struggle, the lady was holding the horse close up by the snaffle bit, jerking on it all the way down the road. This little horse was struggling hard and slinging his head to the left and right, just doing his best to survive. The mother led the young girl into the round corral, then the girl hopped off the horse. All three of them looked really wiped out, I think it was 4 or 5 miles of this shit the entire way.
There are a lot of things lost in translation when you’re on the other side of the world, (if there is ever any translation), so often I don’t get the full story, but maybe it’s better that way. I prefer to get it from the horse, anyway.
When I stepped into the round corral, this little guy put the bead on me. He just pinned his ears and came charging right at me. So I just worked him loose at first, got him feeling of me that way. It took some time, but that approach fit him well.
When I put my halter on him, he would just get rigid through his whole body and want to just take off and try to drag me away. That’s all he knew, survival. He knew nothing about stepping over behind, or following a feel. He was a classic example of a horse that had never been offered anything of real quality, he was just doing his best to survive, and I didn’t blame him one bit.
I just started off by asking so little of him, just simple stuff, and I rubbed him a BUNCH. After some time, he started to take me in, started to look me up a little. Everything he had up to that point was so unfitting to him I don’t blame him for never looking the human up. He dared not do it, I’m sure it never had worked out too good for him if he had tried. His whole day, I’m sure, was just about surviving. Man, what a shitty way to live.
It wasn’t too long before we started to get somewhere, me and him. We were starting to find each other, and he started feeling good to me, and I believe it started feeling really good to him. He was getting so light on the end of that lead rope, and his expression was beginning to get real nice. He became so available for something better, and it was fun to see. It seemed like I could just take him anywhere, and he was just right with me. Me and him were having more and more fun together.
I’ve often found that with these horses that are so troubled, when they meet me and we get together, it seems they can’t believe that they found me. They can’t believe that it could feel this good, they can’t believe that they could be a winner, and not always be in the wrong. They can’t believe that they get to still be themselves, that I don’t want to take anything away from them, but just build on all the good stuff that’s inside of them and bring that out.
Use that. Don’t destroy it, put it to work for you.
He started to look really good, so I thought, “Now’s a good time to bring the girl into the picture.” I asked her to come in to the round corral, so maybe I could get her on the end of the lead rope and she can feel some of this good stuff. But man, as soon as she walks into that corral, that horse fell apart. He got really built-up and really troubled with her in there. This really surprised me, but it was real. I was thinking to myself, “How can a 13-year-old girl get a horse so troubled, enough where just the sight of her makes him fall apart?” I was thinking that it’s really not in the nature of a 13-year-old girl to be cruel, but the expression on the horse told me quite a bit.
The whole time this girl’s family were standing on the outside of the fence watching. The aunt and uncle were there, and maybe more family. The girl looked really confused and her face showed quite a bit of trouble, and just then the aunt yelled something to her in Norwegian.
I asked somebody right away, “What is it that the lady just said?” Someone translated and said that the aunt had yelled at the girl, “I told you not to be kicking that horse!”
“I told you!”, she yelled again.
This poor girl looked pretty sad.
“Have you been kicking your horse?” I asked her. Her eyes were getting a little watered up at that point, and that sad look on her face was getting sadder. She nodded her head up and down and said a barely audible “yes”.
I felt pretty bad for her, so I asked her, quietly,
“Why have you been kicking him?”
“Because people have told me that I need to be the boss, I need to show him I’m in charge.”
“Who are these people who tell you this?”
“My family, the adults at the barn where I keep my horse, they told me to kick him in the belly when I’m saddling him, so I can show him I’m the boss. So he’ll behave.”
“Well, how’s it been working so far?”
And she let ‘er go, I mean the tears started flowing.
This whole scene was getting dimmer and dimmer for me. Not only has the horse been treated to so much of this shit from the human, but the little girl has been getting quite a dose of it herself. That was really troubling to me, because it’s so unlike a little girl to kick a horse, or to be cruel to an animal. It was very clear to me that these adults that were around her were a sorry bunch, whose personal lives were also surely a horid mess.
I got the horse up close to me. I tried to get the girl in a safe place where she wouldn’t get struck by this horse, because he did NOT like her, and if he got half a chance he’d take a swat at her. After some time, it got where she could pet him and rub him on the neck. He only just tolerated it, and this was the just a beginning, this was gonna take some time. She was going to have to invest some of her own time to undo the damage that was put in there. But I told the girl that this could be something she could do on her own…make some time and go rub on him, get him thinking about you in a different way. You can change him, I told her, “but you’re going to have to earn it”.
Just then the mother yelled, “Let’s go!!! It’s time to go! I won’t tolerate this. You! (meaning yours truly) YOU embarrassing us like this. We’re going now!!”
So, now it was about me being a bad guy. Me, the BAD guy….
Then the mother shoved the snaffle bit back in the horses mouth, you could hear it bouncing off his teeth, and threw the girl up on the back of the Icelandic horse. The mother took her place right up there on the snaffle bit, jerking on the little guys mouth with each step, and they started their long walk back up the hill, heading another 4 or 5 miles back home.
The horse was raising his head and slinging it back and forth again and was looking at me through the corner of his eye. It’s like he was saying to me,
“Please. Please take me with you, don’t leave me with these people. Please. Take me back to your side of the world, where I can trot out through the sagebrush behind some cows and be a horse, where I can do a real job, where I can have a purpose and a meaning to my life. I’ll try so hard, you’ll see, I’ll do a good job for you…. don’t leave me.”
As they walked back up the hill I saw him stop several times and turn right around and look right at me, his feet would just get stuck. Then the mother would yell at him, her face contorted in anger, anger in herself, anger with the whole world, and jerk again, until finally they were out of sight. I stood for a long time looking that way, hoping he had jerked away, and would come running back my way…but it didn’t happen.
Often I have this certain dream. I’m sneaking into his barn at night. He’s been waiting for me to come, to come and undo the gate latch, and we escape and ride off together under some scary ass fucking Norwegian moon. We trot all the way back to Montana. I love that dream.
It wasn’t too long after that I was playing a gig in West Yellowstone, Montana, with a band. I woke up before everybody else did, and went down to get some coffee at a local bookstore. I started talking to this guy that was sitting there, drinking his coffee. I struck up a conversation with him, and he started telling me his story.
It seems he used to work out there in Yellowstone Park in the summertime when he was young. Now he’s a brain surgeon back east, working mostly on kids. He still comes out every summer for two weeks and fly fishes. He said, “it’s a tradition” for him.
As we were both drinking our coffee I thought of asking him more. I asked him if he ever gets attached to some of those kids that are his patients.
“Yes, of course.”
“Do any of them ever die on you, under your care, under your watch?”
“Yes, sometimes it happens.”
“How do you ever deal with that, that must be pretty tough. Have you found a way to get through all that, how to survive all that?”
“Well…. I have a little routine. At the end of the day, I get in my car and turn up the stereo, really loud, maybe like Zepplin’s Houses of The Holy, that seems to work good…and I try to let all that go behind me. I try to leave it all back at the hospital, so that I can come back the next day and start in again. Close the door on that day, let it all go, so that I can return and do my work another day.”…then he added…
“Sure, it saddens me when one of these kids dies, but what am I supposed to do? Quit?? Give up, and not be there to come back in and help another kid, just because I couldn’t take it? I have to come back and do my best, it’s what I do!”
There was a long pause. We both sipped our coffee as the rising sun started to warm the chilly Montana mountain air. And I quietly asked, “Yeah….but is there ever just ONE case you’ve had, one that’s hard to let go of…?” Another pause.
“Well” he slowly said, “…there was this one time…”
Below is my note I wrote to Mike after reading his story:
I read your “There Was This One” post yesterday. Twice. Both times clinching my jaw and swallowing hard as the words fought to be seen through the tears. It was those parts about the horse looking back to you and your dream of him. Your story was beautifully written and told the truth about life.
The human condition is a shitty thing, and it is a damn shame that we mere mortals often lack the courage to manage our demons and fears without taking them out on children and horses while all along making sorry ass excuses for our actions. It is obvious that your encounter with the horse changed you and the horse. You will both hold the brief encounter and deep knowing of one another in your hearts for a lifetime. And with any luck at all, maybe, just maybe the young girl went home and started loving and rubbing and caring for this precious horse the way you had shown her. You have a sweet and tender heart. I hope that you know that you are making a difference: one horse, one song, one person and one day at a time.
As for the doctor; I admire his willingness and devotion to keep showing up. I have always said that God takes his angels when he needs them. This has given me a bit of solace more than once in my life. Because ‘there will always be this one’…
Please don’t be that person who holds so much anger or fear inside of you that you mistreat another. Please be brave enough to work out the demons, past regrets, grudges, or shitty stories you have concocted that keep you stuck in the anger. Take responsibility for your life; what it feels like and looks like is up to you.