Nobody knows who first made this statement, but it’s been repeated thousands of times by people who have felt truth in it. I can be unsentimental about such touchy-feely things but I know exactly what this old adage is getting at. Who among us has not stood captivated at a pasture gate and watched a horse move on the other side of the fence? It comes upon me strongly at this time of year, when the horses come in from their winter pasture and stand close to the house like visiting gods with winter hair beginning to shed, and wild, winter-deep eyes staring back into mine.
Today I laid hands on my young horse, Camo, for the first time since last November. He’s just four years old. If he were human he would be a teenager – the kind that stays up all night, drives cars too fast, and attracts us in spite of ourselves. He makes me corner him before he’ll let me slide a halter over his head. His eyes roll with uncertainty as I run my hands over his back, withers, rump, legs, and finally his neck and face. He’s put on a hundred pounds over the winter. He has scabs and is missing hair from where he battled his pasture mates. Over the winter he has fought his way to the top of the pecking order. After he had been tied to the corral fence for a half hour I picked up his feet and saddle him. The tension was draining out of him and soon he moved at the end of a lunge line just as he did last fall. I am at the center of his circles and feeling better than I have felt for weeks. That kind of proximity to a moving horse would make anyone feel good, and it makes me wonder why.
The quote about the outside of a horse being good for the inside of a man has been attributed to ancient Greece, the British Empire – in the personage of Winston Churchill, and to the United States by Ronald Reagan, but any common man who had ever been around horses would likely understand the sentiment. For most of modern times, horses were common enough that any person could take a quiet moment to study them. Other animals were rarer and few people were in situations to know them, but all animals have the potential to calm us.
For the last week we have been gathering buffalo from their huge winter pasture. This time of year we bring small bands of buffalo back to the west side of the Cheyenne River from miles away. Like the horses, they have been scattered all winter in very rough country where they have found good grazing in the hills and canyons along Big Corral Draw and Indian Creek. Some of them have not seen, or been seen, by a human for five months. This year, I have been helped by Colton Jones, my soon to be son-in-law. He’s a twenty-five-year-old college senior who works on the ranch whenever he has time. He is learning the lay of the land, how to get home from six miles out in the badlands, and how best to steer a group of twenty buffalo the entire distance.
Colton and I found two dozen buffalo in almost the same place I had found a group the day before. Jill’s son, Lucas, drove us the twenty-five miles around to unload our ATV on the edge of the Badlands National Park, from where we could make a sweep back to the ranch house. We located the buffalo on a rugged hillside miles from the nearest road or building, and pointed them toward the west. There was no racing around, hollering, or waiving of arms. We idled back and forth on the opposite side of the buffalo from where we wanted them to go. After a while they moved away and we followed. When the buffalo went into country too rough for the ATV, Colton got off and walked behind them while I swung around the rough spot to where I could pick him up behind the buffalo. For three miles we moved like that, through nearly impossible, crumbling cliffs, relieved by charming basins of grass where the buffalo stopped to graze. We turned the ATV off and let the calm of the ancient scene soak into our over-stressed, modern minds. The sun was warm and we could hear the buffalo chewing as they have done for many centuries. Most of the day, we experienced scenes and sensations that have seldom been witnessed since before White men came into that country.
The day before, it had taken me eight hours to bring a similar herd back to the ranch and this group followed a similar path. We saw antelope mix in and out of the herd; eagles flew overhead, prairie dogs barked at us from the lips of their mounds, burrowing owls bobbed their heads. Hour upon hour we watched the buffalo and, all the time, I watched Colton. Finals week was drawing near for him, the whole family is planning a blow-out wedding in June, he and Jilian were settling into a new home, he’d been doing double duty – landscaping and building a yard fence, all while helping me every spare moment. He would get off the ATV and push the buffalo through the tough spots, but mostly he road beside me. He looked tired, but the landscape and the moving buffalo drew his attention and his instincts seemed to sharpen.
I told him what I could about the buffalo and the land. I showed him how a herd of buffalo could be moved from a hundred yards away if you moved slowly. We plucked grasses as we idled along and held the seed heads up between us to identify them. We saw no men and no sign of men. Most of the day we were within a few yards of the grazing buffalo and we came to know each one by its shape or personality. Granny was usually in the lead. I had known her since she was a calf and she knew where she was going. Behind her came a string of younger cows that could have been her daughters. There were a few yellow-tagged yearling bulls and heifers that we had bought from the Pine Ridge Reservation. Last year’s calves ran around, playing with whoever was friendly and staying out of the way of those who were grumpy. The last buffalo in line we nicknamed mud-face. Her forehead was covered with white, crusted badlands mud that dried to a powder by the time we were three quarters of the way home.
Colton is a big, handsome kid with blue eyes that can be piecing. He can light things up when he smiles. But sometimes his forehead wrinkles, he looks older than his years, and the internal tension is so obvious that you want to do something to relieve it. The wrinkles eased as we followed the buffalo to the last hill before the ranch house came into view. It dawned on me that I had passed this way the day before and that on the slope a quarter mile ahead I had stumbled onto something that Colton needed to see. The buffalo seemed to read my mind and altered their path just enough to find the hillside where, on the day before, I had found grass that was grazed oddly short and the ground was strewn with bird dropping and feathers. It was a large mating ground for sharp-tailed grouse where the males gather from miles around, in the early morning and late afternoons, to try to attract a mate. Their little feet pound the prairie tens of thousands of times in a dance that is intense enough to flatten the vegetation. It was late in the day so I didn’t expect to find any grouse but I wanted to see if, as we passed over the dancing ground, Colton would notice that this hilltop was a special place.
The buffalo went right to the spot. They lowered their heads and began to graze on the short grass that was responding to the touch of feathered grouse feet. We moved very slowly into the buffalo and Colton’s eyes went to the ground below us. “Feathers,” he said. The world went silent when I stopped the ATV and turned to watch him. He could feel that something was different and I saw a transformation through the blue eyes. As if on cue, a male sharp-tail fluttered in from nowhere and settled at the edge of the dancing ground, between two buffalo. Colton did not look at me. He was looking out over the Cheyenne River. “This is a dancing ground,” he said.
There was no reason for me to respond. I glanced sideways at his smooth, young face, and then followed his gaze out through the buffalo. They were beginning to lie down and roll on the dancing ground. The single grouse was not disturbed. He stretched his wings out and practiced a little two-step, in preparation for when the females would show up.