excerpt from Lynn R. Miller’s Art of Working Horses
I’d been plowing for a couple of hours and had, on one end of that field, a narrow headland, I tried to maintain it as narrow as possible because I just wanted remaining an unplowed strip about wide enough to make a roadway along the vegetables I was going to plant. The opposite end of that plowed ground opened onto yet another field and there was no fence so I had plenty of room there to come around with the hitch. I was enjoying letting Bobbie help me on the narrow fence end of that plowed ground. We’d get down there to where we’d be just about to pull the plow out of the ground and I’d have to turn those leaders at the headland and still keep the plow going ahead straight; with the wheelers having to take the majority of the draft as I was swinging those leaders.
There wasn’t enough room in that narrow headland for all six of those horses and the plow to come out of the ground so I had to fold the hitch. Bobbie made that job easy, she’d bring them on around. She wouldn’t start to make her turn until I told her to. She’d turn “gee” or “haw” on command and she seemed to enjoy being in that furrow. We made this particular pass and I noticed that there was a white Cadillac that had pulled out into the field and parked off at the corner. There were two old gentlemen there watching me and I guess maybe I was showing off a bit, spoke to the horses a little louder than I needed to. We went on down and made that next round and got to the end. Normally I might have stopped there, where the horses had just pulled the plow out of the ground, and let them breath but I swung them on around to get them into position and, as will sometimes happen when you are showing off, I didn’t get the leaders quite where they belonged, Bobbie had come around a little bit too far from the line pressure and she was standing on plowed ground.
One of the men I recognized, his name was Ernie and he started talking to me, so I instantly just transferred my attention to the men and we talked for a little bit. Ernie, complimenting in an indirect way, was telling me some horse stories and I looked up at my horses and noticed Bobbie was standing on that plowed ground and not in the furrow where she belonged. Also I noticed that Bobbie’s ears were turned and she was listening to Ernie talk. She was picking and choosing who she was listening too and there was a new voice out there. She was paying it a lot of attention.
Soon I was ignoring Ernie and, frustrated, I was thinking to myself, “Well, doggone it, I wish you were down in that furrow where you belong, Bobbie, because it doesn’t look very good if, now that I’m showing off, there you are standing on that plowed ground instead of in the furrow” Ernie kept talking. She couldn’t see me but I directed my attention at her, stared at the back of her head and thought, “Bobbie you need to be on over there in that furrow, you know that” and I watched her ears rotate. I hadn’t said anything but her ears now were rotating around like she was looking for a different source, a different sound, and remembering the experiences I’d had with Bud and Dick (see last chapter) I just concentrated on Bobbie. Ernie kept talking about this and that horseman and last Saturday’s pull in Yakima. He went on and on. I was paying half attention or less and really concentrated on Bobbie and I thought, “step over into that furrow, girl.” I was saying that to myself silently. “You know where to go, get down into that furrow.”
And her head came up just about two inches and she very slowly stepped over to the left and down into that furrow, just as clean as a whistle. Ernie noticed that I was looking at the mare and directed his gaze at her catching her as she was stepping into that furrow. He looked over at me and smiled and said, “that Mare, she likes to be in that furrow doesn’t she?” What that mare liked, what she enjoyed for her entire long wonderful life, was being trusted. And the fact that we were both open to communicating with each other in different ways – kind of like a dance.
review by Paul Hunter
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 hard-won 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 Farmer’s 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.
review by William Reynolds
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.
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. www.wcreynolds.com