Art of Working Horses – A Review
The Gate and the Way In, First and Last
by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA
Sometimes the way into the heart of a subject is a magic word, that acts like a key to open locked doors at a touch. Such a word is “art” when applied to working horses. There is something to the work with these animals, a resonant expectation that is undeniably intuitive, subtle, aesthetically pleasing, and all-of-a-piece with one’s feelings and character. Hence an art. Over 40 years Lynn Miller has written a whole library of valuable and indispensable books about the craft of working horses. He has helped beginners acquire the basics of harnessing and working around horses, and has led those further along to focus on the specific demands of plowing, mowing, haying and related subjects. But, in a fitting culmination, his latest book, Art of Working Horses, raises its sights and openly ponders secrets at the heart of the work that may over time elevate it to an art.
It is an artful book in more ways than one, lavishly graced with many fine color photographs by Kristi Gilman-Miller, alongside Lynn Miller’s own strong, centered paintings and drawings. These visual counterparts surround and conjure a vision of the partnership that is working horses. In effect they open its world, drawing the reader to the emotional center, the teamwork, where he or she will sense the presence and depth of that mindful, purposeful existence that includes working horses to get things done. We stand and move with horses in the field, in the barn. Study horses leaning into their collars to take the load. Watch others before and after work run free. Here is a living ideal, that engages the senses, that girds together the language and images of a lifelong learning process into an artistic whole.
Yet the art Miller speaks of and embodies in the writing can be hard. It is built on a platform of sound practice, yet exists beyond rules, exceptions and warnings, in the intuition that can outstrip logic in its mastery. As Lynn Miller points out, horses benefit by knowing what they’re going to do, by expectations and repetitions that keep them focused and calm, ready for what the teamster wants and needs them to do next. As always he insists upon close observation, of the horse’s health and stance, on examining the feet, checking the collar, the mouth, fingering everywhere the harness touches. There are no trivial matters, no irrelevant steps to achieving the artful ease he seeks. In this culmination full of stories that his Preface calls “wonderful contradictions,” he admits to idiosyncrasies, to ways of doing he has gathered over a lifetime, and points to how others did and do things differently. And the art can appear without warning, often in small, unexpected turns that can seem obvious yet may be anything but.
So in the end it’s neither pictures nor lessons but the stories that bear the load. In an understated but definite way, without fanfare, explanations or excuses, Lynn Miller sets his stories free to tell themselves. These are memorable moments. Not every teamster will have so many, nor will they be so strong. But these are the wages of a lifetime in harness, of close observation, thought and feeling, doing the work he loves.
So let’s look at a few. Often there will be a wry edge and twist to his description, in lieu of any final lessons learned. The effect is to smarten the reader, as he does his horses, with challenges and encouragements. Listen to this potential disaster disarmed, as the bridle falls off his mare Lana, and gets tangled around her knees:
Matter-of-fact, I just walked up and fixed the bridle. I knew this team, I knew Lana. I knew what she was capable of. And that’s what I mean about that trusting relationship. That’s the kind of relationship you can and should have with these horses. But you MUST earn it. It takes time and an open mind. They’ll give it to you but you have to ask them for it, and if you’ll forgive a little cheekiness, you have to hold your mouth just so. (p. 211)
The tone to this conclusion is playful yet earnest. And in some of these stories there is a beauty and art to even the terrible. Miller has a young stallion, Abe, who has been beaten by a caretaker and run away. When they get the outlaw horse back, Miller struggles to be present to this abused and damaged animal, somehow managing to remind the animal of their connection, all the while he never confronts or challenges the horse. Averting his gaze and distracting his own mind from the animal’s menacing actions, he wins the stallion over with patience and a superb sense of timing, that over many months comes to see and offer each next step as the horse is ready for it. Their interactions are minute—a handful of straw scattered in his stall, a little mucking with a pitchfork, a halter unlatched and slipped off, a piece of binder twine draped a moment over the stallion’s neck, then pulled away. Yet in what seems a powerful, potentially lethal dance, they end up finding quiet answers for both man and horse, a healing that feels complete.
The real payoff of the book unfolds in the telling of these stories, that are understated and wise. Miller is never the outright hero, more the modest, patient observer willing to try practically anything to alleviate the situation. Often in a critical moment he has to recall and act on his own or others’ advice from years past; he has to summon the understanding and ability to act, without making a risky situation worse.
Is there beauty to this? I venture to say there must be. Miller has a notion that every moment with his horses in harness is either a teaching moment or an unwinding, a potential unraveling, a step forward as a team or a step back. So on p.172-73, while mowing a field he notices how his horses are anticipating a turn, wanting to move on their own initiative rather than awaiting his signal. These intelligent animals sense and know a lot, but they can’t see everything, and there are hidden dangers apparent to the eye of experience, that make it better that they be reminded to always await his command. The veteran teamster insists that they be patient, and reinforces their acceptance of his lead.
By the end of the book the reader may feel quietly blessed by this gathering of stories about interactions with horses, that can’t help but be not just about matters of training and command, but about self-knowledge and self-worth. With so many years of work with so many horses, Lynn Miller might be forgiven if he kept to that high ground, sure of our understanding and respect. But the book is intended not as decoration for the wise teamster’s shelf, but as understanding for the reader that will support both everyday actions and lifelong choices. That might lead to the attainment of another’s hardwon art. And to that end, there are also a few stories here that show the author as beginner, as rank amateur, as unseasoned, given to careless or thoughtless oversights that might affect any of us starting out, still unaware of potentially lethal effects. And we could be forgiven for calling them doubly courageous.
So consider his story of Bud and Dick, a seasoned team pulling an Oliver riding plow borrowed from Ray Drongesen, back in 1975. Lynn Miller was young, but had been working horses going on half a dozen years, and he may have been forming or about to form the thought that would become the Small Farmers Journal, that first appeared to modest acclaim in 1976. He’d been warned by Ray that the seat was loose, not to be trusted. But he tested then trusted it anyhow, sharpened the rolling coulter to a razor’s edge, then got into the field and got plowing. This was in part practice for a competition, and he was lulled, perhaps distracted by the steadiness of the seasoned team and the precision of the plow’s controls. Then the seat broke and he was tossed forward under the plow, under the feet of his horses and the tongue of the plow, with one thigh up against that sharpened coulter, a steel disc meant to bite deep into sod. The horses had stopped in an instant. Then he says:
I tried to regain my presence of mind. I concentrated as hard as I could. I didn’t say anything for fear that they would take the sound of my voice to mean that I wanted them to step ahead. I didn’t say anything at all.
I concentrated and I thought, “Oh, please, dear God, if you do anything, Bud, Dick, if you do anything at all, please just back up. Just back up.” And I concentrated and looked up at them. (p. 325)
The reader is present at a miracle. A private one, but a miracle nonetheless. Those two good, smart horses looked at him, sensed their predicament, and read his mind. I don’t need to go on. What is offered in this final story of the book is the kind of blessing that tells even a beginner that he’s doing something right, and that maybe he should keep on keeping on.
In the author’s note at the end, Lynn Miller calls himself “a work in progress,” that may be a nod to the hallmark of his style, a strangely linked ambition and humility. But we shouldn’t be misled. Art of Working Horses is an attempt to seize and offer up an ineffable, ineluctable and inexpressible drive that carries some fine men and women to make working horses the center of their character and purpose, a cornerstone to a lifetime of accomplishment. The art that awaits them (you, gentle reader) may be an affection and embrace wider than one’s species, far wider than one’s arms. With exactly 365 pages to this book, precious little gab and gush to it anywhere, and art on every page, perhaps the reader will settle into a patient rhythm, find deepening satisfaction in poring over one page a day for a year, for all the gems in plain sight, rough and polished, hidden here. This is one to live with, and carry on.