Learning Soft Hands

I remember one of my favorite things about Shady Hollow was the nights that Laurel gave me a ride home in her little black and silver truck with the Navajo blanket draped over the bench seats.  The seats were filled with horse hay and granola bar wrappers.  I took these precious times to ask her as many questions as possible.  Her and her sister had lived the life I had only read about in books.

Shady Hollow sat in the middle of desert; a horse stable nestled between the Quechan Indian Reservation and the Mexican Border. It was a dusty land, home to the immigrants who laid the bricks for the barn floor. It was endless, cloudless skies, no pavement, no rocks. Pure, hard desert and sand surrounded and protected the property. Large mesquite trees housed the locusts and shaded the barn. The stable smelled like hay, manure, cedar shavings and dirt. If you’ve never smelled a horse, it’s very much like dusty hay, or straw.  Old horse smell, which sits on your jeans in the laundry basket for a long time is to most people as potent as wet dog.  To me, it is aromatherapy, like a good smelling shampoo while it rinses through the hair down my back in my evening shower, splashing off the ride.

Laurel lived in town, though.  A town where old cowboys still exist on the outer skirts, and the local County Sheriffs Posse still rides horses; Yuma, Arizona was a historic town.  It housed the Yuma Territorial Prison and the famous Ocean-to-Ocean Bridge, the only link between Arizona and California during the Depression. Her living in town worked out well for me though, Shady Hollow was a half hour drive from town. I was able to ride home with her when I stayed late at the barn.  On those nights in the benign breeze after dark, sometimes my Mom left early and Laurel and I put the lesson horses away listening to orchestra of the locusts while we tossed horses their dinner. Laurel would cruise her little truck across the property up to her sister Sharon’s house, where the best conversations took place.  The house perched at the entrance of the property, guarding the little horse haven. For a double wide, it was classy, western. The inside of the house was filled with old cowboy art, dusty couches, old boots, leather bridles and an old wooden boob tube in the living room.

A patio full of birds adorned the entrance to the house, doves and parrots, specifically. Her grey parrot took special pride in sounding the alarm, imitating Sharon’s voice to the effect that I couldn’t tell if it was she or the bird yelling.  Her famous yell reached the far depths of the ten-acre property. “LAUREL!” the parrot would scream, in replica Sharon fashion.  It was what the parrot heard most often, so he took pride in repeating it.  By the time I left Shady Hollow at the age of seventeen, the parrot had obtained an assortment of curse words to shout as well.

The sisters were ten years apart, one in her sixties and one in her fifties; both thick haired and thick headed like the horses. They were withered from horse accidents and rough sun. Their skin was as tough as tanned leather, and their most striking quality was their large, rough sand-paper like hands. They were strong, and hard as the ground they grew up on.  Laurel’s last name was Sands, like she was whipped up from the sand dunes and Indian land itself. She always seemed to be figment of my imagination.

Sharon’s daughter lived in a trailer beside Sharon’s house, and knew a lot about horses.  I heard she stopped riding after a bad riding accident.  She scared me a little,  I was never sure what she was so angry about, or what she’d be angry about next.  Her whispy blonde hair always collected dirt in its ponytail, stacked high up on her head.  It was worse when she let the straw like hair fly free, poking out as if caught by static electricity.  She was a rough woman too, in her thirties.  She walked with a limp like John Wayne. He never liked horses. If she had to work with a horse, she didn’t ride them. Whatever she did was with a rough hand and yelling at Sharon’s students from the corner of her mouth. She yelled at the horses too.

My horse showed up with a soft lump on her back leg one day, I assumed it was from one of her scrambles into the horse trailer. Although it wasn’t causing her any trouble, it was just a bump I wanted to remedy.  Laurel said to ask Molly about it, because she was the knowledgeable leg expert.

“Can you look at my horse’s leg?” I asked her.

“Alright go get her,” she snarled with a piece of straw sticking out of the corner of her mouth.

I led my horse in front of her and walked her around in a few circles.  She proceeded to run her hands up and down the back leg.

“It’s not causing her any troubles, I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“I was just wondering if there was any way to make it go down a bit,” I replied.

“How long ago did it happen?”  She asked.

I told her it had been awhile, and she creased her big connected eyebrows at me.

Whack.  She smacked my forehead with her palm. Hard, knocking me backwards.  An adult had never hit me before.

“Why didn’t you do anything about it sooner?”

My eyes grew wide and I shrugged my shoulders at her, pretending to be tough and glaring back like I didn’t really care.  I was unable to answer the question.  She rambled on about legs and horse problems and catching it early, but I didn’t hear much. She noticed. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to whack you so hard,” she said.  I led my horse away without a word.  I’d never been spanked growing up.  We never fixed that leg, but the bump went away on its own eventually.

This was where Laurel differed.  Laurel was stern, but kind.  She instructed me on the general skills of riding and becoming one with the horse.  In my first lesson with her, at the age of eleven, she set me up bareback on a large spotted horse.  I felt as if I was riding an oversized Dalmatian. My very first lesson, Laurel let me figure out much of what to do on my own.  I sat up silently, feeling his thick skin and hair and large breaths under my pants and weaved my fingers through his mane. I wasn’t allowed to use a saddle, yet. That had to be earned. The horse was as wide as a couch and I was beaming.  I hadn’t realized before, just how allergic to horses I was.  During my first lesson I had an asthma attack, went through an entire box of tissues, and at the end of it all I could barely see through my puffy red eyes.  I learned later that it was mostly the hay, dust and dander that accumulates up in horse’s coats. I was inhaling my inhaler and all Laurel could do was chuckle at me, determined to push through my allergies and ride on. I began to be a pathetic site, sneezing and puffing my inhaler, she really couldn’t  help but laugh. She emitted a large horse sized snicker,  more like a whinny than a human sound.  It was that same chuckle that was the first thing I heard when my rear-end crashed into that sand on my first fall off a horse too almost a year later. She saw it coming.

Sharon was the older of the two with a deeper voice.  She taught students how to show.  Sharon instructed on elocution, poise, presentation and proper form and technique; the showy stuff. Things that girls needed for proper riding that eventually led to the overall image and form of a true lady.  Sharon had been a rodeo queen in the fifties, bringing all that was lady-like into the rough rodeo world. I wanted nothing to do with that. I stuck with Laurel, who could do all the same things, but chose not to.  A real cowgirl, I thought, rough. And perhaps with no patience for the show ring, like me. The subject of horse showing was a political event in the small town, as are most things in a small town. Filled with so many rich farmers and doctors,  it revolved around whose daughter had the prettiest and most expensive horse, prettiest hair, and won the most money.

I got a working cattle horse at thirteen, a practical speed horse for my own. I wanted to compete in a different kind of competition; with dirt, cowboys, and cattle.  After two years with Laurel, I became her sidekick, helping her train and working my hardest to accomplish with horses what she did, with soft hands and a calm voice.  By fifteen I was riding almost every horse on the place; even occasionally the show ponies. Preferably though, I took off to the desert rather than the arena, and disappeared often in the mornings not to return until dinnertime.

As often as I was at the barn, I got blamed for most things.  Sharon’s daughter would whine that I was out leaving gates open, purposely causing problems and making horses lame.  Sharon always thought I was rearranging her trail course obstacles in the arena and Laurel was always sticking up for me.

Laurel became my mentor, my idol. The woman that I decided I wanted to be as I got older.  She didn’t care what people thought about her, didn’t need a man. She said I reminded her of herself when she was young.  She had piercing Native American eyes and her wild black hair and high cheekbones were reminiscent of characters in old western paintings. That thick hair acquired many more gray strands, chunks perhaps, throughout the course of our relationship.  Sharon and Laurel would argue about me sometimes, about what I should do or be doing. “You’re growing into such a fine young woman,” Laurel would say on occasion while her and my mother perched on the railing of the arena. They noted how the issues I had with riding were directly correlated with my mood, school, and personal tensions.

After a bad day, my hands tugged harder in the horse’s pink gums, my back tensed up causing my posture to go rigid and jarred at faster speeds.  She could pin point my every emotion to how I rode those horses. She could read their minds by their body language, and mine.

“Damnit get over here, and stop yanking on that horse’s mouth!” she yelled at me one night.

She told me to get off the horse, and turn around in front of her.  Her big hands grabbed my hair into two large pieces. She clucked at me from the side of her mouth, as if telling a horse to walk forward.  So I walked. The angry Laurel trailed behind me with my hair between her fingers like reins, two steps behind me as we walked across the arena.

Whoa,” she commanded.

I stopped.

“Good” she replied.

Then she clucked between her teeth again, asking me to walk forward, faster than before. She yanked back on my hair, jerking my head back.  “Ya see? If I ask you to stop before pulling back, you still would have stopped.  You ask the question first, before expecting an answer.  You can’t come out of nowhere and jerk on his face!”

I nodded, rather startled.  My mom laughed.  It wasn’t that lesson that taught me to have, “softer hands,” but it was a beginning. Good riders have soft hands; the ability to slip the thin leather reins between the ring and pinky fingers on both hands and gently wiggle the contact to the horse’s mouth, a gentle conversation between horse and rider.

One day Laurel told me to ride a new horse, a towering black horse with white spots over her rump, it had been Sharon’s daughters old competition horse.  Her back stood high above my head; she had been a jumping horse.  Although feisty, she had a soft mouth, and needed ridden mostly from leg commands.  I learned that was cowboy for, “if you yank too hard on her face, she’ll throw you off.”  She demanded respect and patience.  Sure enough, I rode her around the arena a couple of times getting to know her, and as she would gather speed I shortened the reins.  The moment I pulled too hard on her bit she reared up, slapping her front legs at the dry air. She tried that more than once in our relationship. I never fell off. Patience was an acquired talent for me.  I remember Laurel telling me once, if your horse doesn’t do what you want, either you asked him the question wrong or you asked him the wrong question.

One particular balmy day I was sitting next to Laurel on the bench seat of her pickup, sipping my iced tea, feeling the oven-like heat outside my window, it made waves ripple off the hood. It was mid-day and she didn’t have air conditioning. I’d been helping her with her evening lesson with one of her unruly younger students.

“So you’re going to college,” she said.

I nodded.

“Well what are you going to do with your horse?”

“Take her with me,” I said matter-of-factly.

“Mmmhmmm.” She responded and her eyebrow rose as she gave me her taunting look. That’s what all little girls say.

What else would I do with my horse? I wondered.

“You’ll have to keep in touch you know. Invite me to your wedding; send me pictures of your babies.”

What a silly comment, I thought then.  “Don’t you ever marry a cowboy,” she warned me.  I fidgeted awkwardly in the scratchy seat of her truck. There was horsehair in the blankets, and the hay was shoving down my pants. I gave her a lopsided grin.


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