Canon City, Colorado: After getting briefed on prison protocol and loading into vans, cameras, cell phones, and pocket knives left safely in the BLM office in town, we went inside. Only “inside” this part of the federal pen is actually outside, eighty acres of large corrals, barns, arenas, round pens, tack rooms, and office, many of the buildings made by women prisoners in the last century. The only women present on this day was one of the office staff, and us. But we weren’t there to look at people, anyway–we were there to see horses.
And we did. Crammed together in the vans like livestock in a cattle truck, we first toured the most distant pens, learning that these housed the older ladies and gents waiting their lives out for sanctuary space, like our human elders waiting to get into assisted living. Because of their age–seven and upwards–they are deemed by the government to be the least popular pick of the public, and so are kept at the outskirts.
Sadly leaving them behind, we moved to pens nearer the main alleyway and training facilities. Walking as a band up the alley, looking at these younger mustangs, we listened to our hosts talk about the horses’ pasts and hopeful futures, the halves of my broken heart aching. We saw hundreds of horses. Actually we saw thousands–2,901 that day, the number on the board in the office said.
Out of that many horses, how do you pick only one? Especially when you’re not there to pick at all, but to observe and learn. Many individual horses stood out to me–dozens, in fact; maybe even a hundred–as we moved from pen to pen. They were beautiful: bays, grays, buckskins, duns, pintos. Mares and geldings, yearlings to ten-year-olds (no foals born in the pen last year). Wild-maned, searching eyes, some completely indifferent, others coming to the fence to investigate us as we examined them, many in between.
Onward to the next pen, our hearts hanging like heavy brooches on our collective bosom. “Three year olds,” we were told. “The big butts,” another man added. I don’t remember if these were deliberately sorted by size, for I missed whatever talking came next. I was focused on him.
And, I swear, he looked at me.
Other young geldings crowded to the fence. He stayed back, watching us. Watching me. “May I go in?” I asked.
“Sure.” I was over the fence as fast as it was said, though careful to move easily, trying to find the liquid motion of my human body. Some of the horses spooked anyway, while the geldings that had initially crowded the fence now crowded me. Hands up to their eyes to push them back, I watched the big bay behind them. White star under his shaggy forelock, two white rear pasterns, a bit of white on the front right, and the rest of him was dark–a brown almost as dark as his black mane and tail. Only his muzzle and around his eyes showed a soft tan–even his eyebrows, like a Doberman. But he wasn’t built like a Doberman–sleek–or hyper. He was built like a . . . Quarter Horse! Of course he was, big butt and all.
He watched as I moved away from the nagging three-year-olds. I moved toward him. He stood his ground warily, allowing my presence as I quieted my heart to take another step without startling him. My hand reached out, relaxed at the wrist, palm down, submissive yet inquiring. He sniffed it, neck reaching, nose stretched ahead of his stout body. When he tensed, I dropped my hand slowly and took a half-step backward: I will not harm you. He reached toward me then, with nose and spirit, and my hand lifted again. I could see him relaxing. My hand moved slowly, turning so my fingers could greet his soft muzzle. He allowed the touch. And when I moved away, he followed. He had hooked on. Even with the other geldings intervening, he followed as I stepped slowly here and there, TJ and Tif noticing, commenting from outside the fence.
I don’t know how long I danced with him. Too long, for we were people on tour and needed to move on. I could have stayed in that pen for the next several hours–all night, but for the cold. TJ would have stayed, too, watching. Watching horses is what she does. Watching horses is the best medicine, like watching a river, or flames of a campfire burning into the night.