Art of Working Horses – Another Review
by William Reynolds
Historian and writer, William Reynolds has worked to celebrate the culture of the American West for over forty-years. He has written for and published western journals such as Cowboys & Indians, Western Horseman, The Cowboy Way and Ranch & Reata. He has written five books including “The Art of the Western Saddle” and “The Faraway Horses” with his friend Buck Brannaman. Reynolds is currently finishing a book on the artist Joe DeYong.
I have been around horses for over fifty years and I am certainly no expert. Call me a passionate amateur, but one thing I have found over all that time is that horses thrive when they have a job to do. It is easy to see the change in them when they get focused on doing work; they simply come alive. It was fascinating reading through Lynn Miller’s, “Art of Working Horses,” in all of its 365 pages of glory. It’s important to note from the start that the book is made up of stories, musings and ponderings Miller has experienced over a lifetime of working around and with horses. He is a lifelong student of the teamster’s craft and has compiled his stories, with those he has met and worked with along the way who were also consumed with horses in harness. Miller is a celebrated artist, painter, writer, as well as a farmer. How he finds time to do all that and publish the legacy tabloid Small Farmer’s Journal is a continuing wonder.
One could loosely say this is a “how-to” book but it is more of an “existential” how-to: how to get yourself into a way of thinking about the world of working horses. Maybe we need to explain what a working horse is. A working horse is one, in harness, given to a specific task. So, in that context, the book illustrates the many ways Miller has worked with his equine partners over the years – helping them understand what he wants them to do, as both work together to create relationships that help achieve desired goals — it’s very much about creating win-win relationships between the human and the horse(s) directed at a task. And like any grand relationship, each is filled with nuance and subtlety. Patience, here, is truly a virtue, as most trust-sensitive tasks are, and Miller explains through his own passion and patience for the subject by saying in effect, right from the beginning, “Folks, if you like what you’re seeing, it’s going to take some time.” As like any artful skill, investment of time and practice is key, and success is not achieved overnight.
So one should not look at this book as an A-Z primer, rather it enables the reader to ride alongside Miller and the folks he has met along the way. It is filled with a lifetime of learning and working with horses — and people — that will help you, dear reader, feel what he felt, see what he saw, and help all of us understand the gentle yet purposeful approach he takes to be successful with horses. It is a journey, and one filled with challenges as well as rewards. It is a journey of commitment: to one’s self and to the glorious living things doing the work.
The book itself is arranged so that one is swept up from Chapter One as Miller introduces us to an earnest young man filled with exuberance, a bit of arrogance, and a vitality that made him feel as if nothing was out of his reach. We watch him grow and learn from those around him, and the chapters begin to fly by with stories of success and frustration, but always directed at building a basis of understanding. Growth through experience. We meet and work with horses long gone — and people too — that have “headed on up the trail ahead of us,” but not before leaving lasting impressions.
We learn about harnesses and harnessing, about bits and biting, and of course about the nature of horses. Did you know that horses eyes have many fixed lenses around the retina? And that horses look out of the top of their eye to see close, and the bottom to see far, and these lenses rotate to focus from close to mid-range? In speaking of man’s potential relationship with horses, Mr. Miller writes, “One way I choose to understand man’s relationship with horses is in terms of electrical current. Horses absorb electricity from everywhere and they give it up only when circumstance or teams connect. When I work my horses I feel an unexplainable difference in myself that I understand as hum without sound. I see the energy of the natural world coming to me through my working partners. When I truly believe in this connection, as I work, my relationship with the horses and our performance together is balanced and effective.”
Ask yourself, do I look for this kind of connection with the people I work with everyday? Do I work to achieve that level of harmony and connection with my spouse or with those important in my life? About half way through the book it begins to transcend its specific subject and move into a greater realm. It reminds one of the wonderful writer Thomas McGuane — no stranger himself to writing great horse stories — who wrote in his short story, titled simply Horses, “Those who love horses are impelled by an ever-receding vision, some enchanted transformation through which the horse and the rider become a third, much greater thing.” I am sure Mr. McGuane would agree that the same transformation, as Mr. Miller describes, is the game changer whether one is riding in the saddle or working horses in harness.
The book is filled with photos and artwork by Miller, his wife Kristi, and others, as well as historic drawings and diagrams — all lovingly accessible in chapters that could all be titled with the first word being “Adventure:” Adventure – 1, Adventure – 2 and so on through the book’s twenty-one chapters. Horses and people are discussed with equal weight, as of course they would be by one who loves them both. Forward-thinking topics are also presented — such as the future of working with horses and the practicality of animal powered-agriculture in the twenty-first century. I won’t be giving anything away if I tell you that Mr. Miller is very positive on that subject and its ability to not only continue but thrive — which is shown by many — actually most — of the images in the book because they were taken recently. I will let you read through his perspective on the subject but suffice it to say that more than ever, the use of animals on small family farms fits perfectly with the kind of quality, diverse and mixed crop efforts being undertaken and truly appreciated by the consuming public as seen by the huge growth of local, farmers’ markets all over the country.
When we get towards the end of the book, we know it must happen. Things we love will die, no matter what we do and Mr. Miller handles those moments with grace and respect, that has us look to the horizon and know that there will be more horses, and more fields to work — together. That said, those that came before and gave their all, will never be forgotten.
This is a book for anyone who loves horses, and stories about horses, and stories about horse people. This is a book written by a man consumed with horses, who simply can’t get enough of them. Frankly I can’t get enough of Lynn Miller’s writing. 365 pages simply aren’t enough.