by Christine Hamilton
Just after dawn last Tuesday, at a horse farm near Newell, South Dakota, I stood looking at a big bay Thoroughbred gelding standing tied to a tree next to a wood barn. He stood still while his eyelids drifted half-closed, although he didn’t cock a hind leg.
The morning light was glorious on his hide against the brick-red color of the barn, and I waited for something to get his attention, to get that eye open and get those ears to gently prick forward so I could snap a photo.
He looked like a pretty steady citizen. But apparently he hadn’t always been that way.
I was there with Katie Frank, Western Horseman’s associate editor, to capture a story about Dale Simanton and the off-track Thoroughbreds he repurposes as ranch horses. According to Dale, when the bay racehorse first arrived, he simply could not stand still at that tree—weaving, bellowing, bumping his head, and acting the same whether he was alone or with a buddy.
It was hard for me to imagine that as I waited for the gelding to react to something in the cool morning light.
But Dale transforms horses just by changing expectations of them. And he knows when to turn a horse out to think, which is one of the things he finally did with this horse. Horseman Marty Marten calls it “soak time:” time to stop and take in new experiences.
Of course, people need it, too.
Since moving to Fort Worth, one of the bucket list items I decided to pick up was to learn to rope. Once a week, the Cowtown Cowboy Church has “Roping 101” sessions on Wednesday nights, so I started showing up.
And I have been really, really bad at it. I mean, bad standing on the ground just trying to swing. At every session, someone would give me a different metaphor for how to get my arm to learn some kind of muscle memory that would result in a loop that didn’t figure-8 in three swings.
Finally, one night, Pastor Sonny Williams got down on his knees to rope so I could get an overhead view of the shape his hand drew in the air as he swung. I roped the dummy that night. I did it once more and quit, wanting to stop on a positive note.
All I could think about on the way home was that travel would keep me away for two weeks and how terrible I’d be when I came back.
But at the next session three weeks later I built a loop, swung, threw and caught, first try! And then I did it again. I missed the next one because I got excited and threw too hard, but I was a changed roper. Suddenly it looked like I really might do this horseback.
I just needed soak time: Take a break, and give my head time to process something without thinking about it. I know it’s important to do when I’m out listening to people and snapping photos—take time to let what I need to share come together on its own. It’s funny how easy it is to forget to do.
Ah, rats. Dale walked out of the barn and the gelding looked up with eyes and ears, but I missed the shot with my mind wandering. He went right back to where he had been, soaking in the sun.