It was the second week of my 500-mile horseback trip the summer of 2012, and I was in the depths of my endurance—the only way I know to put it. We were approaching a couple’s home in rural Vernon County, Missouri. Harmon and Lanie would graciously put us up for the night, one of only two prearranged stops on our 29-day ride during the hottest summer on record in Missouri, in 2012. Harmon was known as one of the best cutting horse trainers in the Midwest.

(An excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Big Quiet–A Ride Home. I had to cut this section for length, so I wanted to share it with you here. Names are changed to respect privacy.)

After the shock of my first 95-degree day earlier that week, I was reminded of the endurance this trip would demand. Notwithstanding the cutting cold and brilliant heat of my 3,000-mile trip 30 years ago with my former husband, Len, we never had to face the Midwest’s humid heat. I’d grown up in it, but there was a big difference between gathering cattle half a day (followed by an air-conditioned lunch) and riding from point A to point B eight hours with only the radiator of an overheated pasture for reward. So, I formed a plan:

  • Start early and stop no later than 3:00, if I could find a place.
  • Whenever I watered Chief, saturate my hair with cold water from a faucet or hose.
  • Look how pretty everything is.
  • Brush my teeth often.
  • Look forward to my bath (taken from Chief’s bucket) first thing when I stopped.
  • Make as many miles as quickly as possible the first four hours. Tough it out the last four. I wouldn’t die of the heat as long as I could drink and stay damp.
  • Remain alert for exploding deer or turkey (hence, exploding horse).
  • Buck up.
  • Look how pretty everything is.
  • Talk to strangers. Everyone is a genius at something. (Jerry, near Drexel, built antique tractors and collected model ones. The Schmidts’ were farmers, missionaries, built churches. John Ness knew more about training coon hounds than maybe anyone. Marilyn Ness showed me the patience of a daughter corralling her father on the farm he built, while his wandering mind took him off on unexpected forays on heavy equipment.)
  •  If I let the heat beat me, I wouldn’t get to meet the next person who would crack open my world a little wider.

I felt silly and insane sometimes and inexplicably mesmerized by the next beautiful scene, the rock of my horse between my legs, the grunting effort at the close of day. I was learning to endure. Armies had ridden a thousand miles to battle, three horses to a man, switching from horse to horse, sleeping astride. I had a plan—to make my own miles, in my own time, see what was over that rise. My body could do more. My mind could handle more. My horse needed more. I craved more of this mystery. Soon enough, I would be back in my office, staring at another federal grant. The heat and fatigue hurt as much as they ever did, but with my plan, they didn’t have to bother me.

So, Chief and I dug deeper when we reached a barricade blocking our road and a detour around a bridge that was out. We must ride four miles out of our way, a heartbreak, knowing otherwise we were only one mile from a home where people expected us, and cold water, and a stall for Chief. The woods and fields on what I sensed was the backside of Harmon and Lanie’s property hummed with three or more layers of bird sounds and bugs sounds. We were absorbed into these sounds, and the crunch of Chief’s hooves, and puffs of dust rising and coating his road-hardened hooves, when not eight feet away from us in the ditch a full-grown doe jumped up from her nap. Chief dropped into a crouch. My heart emptied itself. The doe took two leaps in front of us and sailed into the dark of the woods. Her smashing and crashing stopped. Then silence (a relative term in nature). She blasted her nose twice. Chief was glued in place. He shot back a blast of air. She crashed away. The snapping and breaking faded to nothing. For the next ten minutes, Chief peered into the woods, and every so often an electric shock would go up one of his legs and put a momentary hitch in his gait.

Chief and I at last strode into Harmon and Lanie’s drive between their arena and barns (that turned my Chief from Don Quixote’s toe-dragging Rosinante to Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh). All I wanted was to get him rinsed and fly-doped, me clean, wolf some tuna and dried fruit, and lie down in my tent. I released Chief to the custody of Lanie and Harmon’s grandson who placed him in a stall in a darkened barn, open on the ends for air flow with aid of a fan. Dustin seemed not to know I was coming. He was a handsome, sandy-haired, grown young man whose cheeks I wanted to squeeze, because he seemed to be my own son’s age, and just as kind. He lived here and took care of the horses and drove 50 miles, one way, to Joplin to work in construction. The barn in which Chief stood was mostly arena. Running the length of the long side was a mechanical calf that zipped back and forth along the wall to teach a cutting horse to match its ducks and rolls.

Lanie met me in the drive before I could unload and insisted I take a real shower, which I did, as always breaking the manners I was raised with not to every put anyone out. Lanie’s hair reached below her bottom in a slender ponytail gathered into colorful stretchy hair bands every four inches or so. Her gray was beginning to mix evenly throughout. She wore bangs. She must be 10 or 15 years younger than Harmon, but I am a bad judge of age. He must be near 70 and walked like a man who had broken hundreds of colts and trained them up, which is to say, he walked with arthritis. He and Lanie both had round, clear, blue eyes.

At last, I crawled into my tent. I lay flat, far more tired than justified by riding only 17.5 miles. I had by chance positioned my tent so I could turn my head and look out the screen toward the barn. In time, I recognized a black outline against the light coming in the far side of the barn. A rise, a gentle dip, a rise and a straight line—Chief’s topline. It was motionless. He was sound asleep. My tent breathed in and out. My freshly washed panties and bra hung from wires on the arena fence. I hoped they wouldn’t fall in the dirt. The home, barns, buildings reminded me of construction workers standing around, muscular and trim, waiting for the foreman. A well-drained arena of deep-sand footing said a professional trainer works here. A voluptuous stallion paced a large paddock beside the barn where an open doorway gave the monarch access to his roomy stall.

I awoke myself a dozen times with loud snores for the first time in my life. I felt paralyzed, I was so luxuriously trapped between waking and dreaming. I could not move, but I heard a horse’s hooves thud the ground beneath my pad.

An hour or more later, I was able to get up and check on Chief. Lanie caught me and invited me to dinner. I mourned that I had already eaten some of my own food, instead of saving it. I was still hungry.

Their large, oak, oblong dining table sat in front of a bank of windows in this open-concept space. Lanie had Harmon wore horseshoe rings studded with nice-sized diamonds. Their vehicles were well-coated with dust and for the most part, new. The home was outfitted with furnishings the quality of their horses. Accoutrements included metal stars, patriotic paraphernalia, Indian wind catchers, geometric patterns, horseshoes made into useful things, everything western that reflected the lives of real horse people, not wannabes. They had just lost their best brood mare. She wasn’t old, didn’t colic. Heart attack they think. I’d come at a hard time. Horses die. It’s usually more an emotional than financial hole they leave, and this time, it was both.

It’s hard-to-impossible to make money with horses, unless you’re as good and honest as Harmon and Lanie. You buy the right horses, build the right herd of mares, and keep the stallion that can throw colts built to win. Then you have to teach them the moves, stay in the business long enough, produce winners year after year, stay healthy, always treat everyone right, and don’t let anyone take you for a ride. That’s all you have to do to be successful raising horses.

Lanie passed between her kitchen counters and table with the efficiency of a woman who daily alternated between feeding horses and peeling potatoes; between riding and taking the casserole out of the oven.

At dinner, Harmon didn’t ask me much about my ride other than saying he nearly rode over me in my tent. News of my arrival here must not have spread like wildfire. Obviously my trip was a bigger deal to me than anyone else, and I knew this, which is why I suffered bouts of embarrassment over riding into people’s lives sweaty and hot for no good reason. Or maybe Harmon just didn’t know where I’d pitched my tent until he came around the corner of the outbuilding.

I had overheard Lanie say to Dustin outside, “He looks good,” referring to Chief. A higher compliment could not be earned from people like this. “Look how muscled he is,” Dustin said. Was he serious? I began to feel proud of my horse.

I wanted Harmon’s advice. Was I babying Chief too much, and that’s why he was still so spooky?

“A big, strong gelding like that can hurt you.”

I was stunned. Harmon thought Chief was big and strong? Chief was shorter than nearly every horse I ever owned. He was leaner than the Pettits’ Quarter Horses.

“I know,” I said, pointing to my bandaged arm. On the second day of my trip, I had received my first stitches ever when I was dismounting at the same time a horned bull rushed the fence at us and Chief blasted off. “I don’t know if I should be trying to force him more. So far, I’ve been letting him look at things, but I make him go where I want. I don’t think he’s the kind of horse you can thump on. It just makes him worse.”

“The right rider can get him over that.”

“What would the wrong rider do?”

“People who think they have to get off and lead them.”

Was Harmon psychic?

“I used to be a lot harder on horses,” Harmon said. “They had to do exactly what I said, right when I said. I’ve eased up.”

I remembered Jan, a mutual friend I stayed with earlier on my ride, telling me about Harmon and Lanie, from whom they’d bought many horses. Jan told me a story about a horse Harmon trained. Harmon hated it when a horse screamed at other horses while he was riding it, she said. The horse in question was particularly prone to inappropriate vocals. When he did it, Harmon would gig it with his spurs and spin it as a way of spanking the horse. “After that, every time the horse whinnied, he’d spank himself—he’d spin around and wring his tail, no matter who was riding him,” she laughed.

What I heard from Harmon (whether I heard it right or not) was to keep doing what I was doing: be persistent, let him look at what he’s scared of, but make him go where he’s supposed to, and never, ever, get off again.

“He looks like he could do 50 miles tomorrow,” Harmon said. “Be good for him.” Another compliment for Chief and a word to the wise for me: Wear him down.

After dinner, we spread my maps on their table. They suggested I spend the next night on Bill Garrett’s place who bales hay for everyone in the country (“the country” meaning within reasonable driving distance; “everyone” meaning the majority).

“It’s 25, 26 miles,” Harmon said, glancing up for my response.

“Sounds good,” I said. Chief needed a 26-mile day. It would be our sixth day of travel this week. I’d arbitrarily decided we would ride six days straight, rest one day, and repeat until my trip was done. Maybe Mr. Garrett would let us stay two nights.

After dinner, Lanie carried an extra coffee pot from the house to the tack room that doubled as an office in the barn. “We don’t get up that early,” she said when I told her I’d be up at 5:30. She prepped it and showed me how to turn it on. Lanie returned with sugar, creamer, and stir sticks, as if she’d done this many times, which I realized she had, hosting folks who came to buy horses, or bring their mares to be bred, or train with Harmon. After I hugged her svelte frame and was reassured by her casual smile, she left. I wandered around the silent tack room. The desk appeared to be used only occasionally. Saddles too numerous to ride, some dusty from disuse, some trophy saddles, some clearly ridden every week if not every day, lined two walls on saddle racks bolted into the studs. Bridles hung from brackets the shape of a horse’s poll holding bits of varying widths, some aluminum, some copper, grazing curb bits, broken bits, bitless headstalls, high-port spades—whatever might be needed for a particular horse at a given point in its training that only an experienced trainer could divine.

Kids grow up with parents who train horses. Some ride and learn the craft; others hate horses. Those who stay learn by osmosis how to feel where a horse’s feet are; how to position its shoulders and hips so it can roll back and follow a calf. People like Lanie and Harmon have more knowledge about horses in their thumb nails than I will ever learn. I may have ridden since I was eight, had dozens of precious lessons, read lots of books, and travelled 3,000 miles across the country, but I’m a novice for life. At 54, there’s no way to catch up, any more than I can catch up with Bob’s or his colleagues’ knowledge of literature. They’ve all been teaching for 25 years what I have yet to learn.

Writing, riding, and literature always have been my first loves, equally impractical, to my mind. I have published more magazine articles (if not literary works) than any of Bob’s colleagues at the university. I have been memorizing great poems since high school. I thought if I got them inside me, their rhythm and syntax and tone would show up in my writing. I memorized horses by riding long distance. I hoped such familiarity would count for something when I mounted up. Chief couldn’t wait to see me each morning, no matter how hard I worked him the day before. That must count for something.

I shut out the 9 p.m. daylight with my satin eye mask. The earth seemed to try to drag me into itself. A thought brought me back to the surface. I chuckled to myself. The white five-gallon buckets I had noticed earlier, rolling around the grounds, must be for Harmon. He could turn them over and more easily step in the stirrup from an overturned bucket. He was retired. He didn’t have to ride any more, but he mounted up every day. He wanted to learn what the next horse had for him. We’re all a novice to next new horse. Or poem. Or book. Or day.