Another cowboy hangs back at the door listening. As I move toward the door to go back outside and wait, the supervisor says “Hey, here’s Manuel now.” I look around, step outside the door, scan about and see nobody prisoner-like to walk toward. And then it strikes me that the clean cut, good-looking young cowboy next to me is my gang member, my horse trainer, Manuel. Embarrassed, I dodge back in and offer my hand. He takes it with a firm dry grasp and, looking me straight in the eyes, says “I’m pleased to meet you, ma’am. Did you see your horse?”
“Yes, I did. But he’s not at all what I was expecting.”
“Is something wrong with him?” he asks with concern, his eyebrows wrinkling in consternation.
“Well, for one thing, he’s really small. And I wanted, actually I’m sure I chose, a bigger horse. And also, he’s sick. He’s got snot coming out of his nose.” I rattle all this off, knowing all the while that I am sounding whingy and ungrateful. I half expect to be told off then and there. But Manuel remains more polite and well-spoken than I.
“We’ve been doctoring him with antibiotics, but it’s hard to break the cycle with these horses when there are so many together. He’s much better though. And the vet says that the snot is just his system clearing things out.” Manuel sounds like he has the little horse’s welfare at heart more than I do.
“So, how’s he doing in the training,” I venture, trying to steer to a positive path.
“He’s slower than the other horses I’ve worked with,” Manuel says, sounding like he’s choosing his words carefully, not wanting to prejudice me further against a horse I already don’t seem to like. “But he tries really hard. I don’t think it’s that he’s stubborn. It’s not that. He wants to do the right thing. It just seems that he doesn’t remember well. So it’s taking him longer to learn things. I think if we’re patient, you’ll have yourself a real nice horse when we’re done.”
That afternoon I watch Manuel work the horse in the a round pen. He’s careful, calm, methodical. And it’s clear that number 6491 is trying to understand what’s being asked of him. Sometimes he gets it and then Manuel heaps him with praise. When 6491 has worked enough, Manuel brings in another horse. It’s impressive, but makes me wonder who’s praising Manuel.
Before leaving, I hear the program director is on the grounds and so I seek him out.
“So, I’ve met Manuel and I think he’s doing a great job. But I was expecting to see a lot more prisoners in this program. All I see are staff. I’m just curious when the other prisoners work with their assigned horses?”The director gives me a puzzled look as he struggles not to show how dimwitted he thinks I am. “These are all prisoners,” he said.
“They’re all prisoners?” I am so stupefied I can’t do anything but repeat his words.
“Yes ma’am. No one else is allowed to work here other than the prisoners enrolled in the program.”
“What about the guy behind the desk, who’s supervising everyone?”
“He’s a prisoner, too, ma’am.”
Two months later I return, this time recognizing Manuel immediately. He is pleased with the horse’s progress, proud of what he’s been able to teach him. He recounts in detail how my horse is the go-to mount for anyone who needs to move other horses around, how he never spooks when trucks or equipment go by, how he nickers whenever Manuel appears. That’s when Manuel tells me that he and the other prisoners agreed that this horse was the best they’d ever worked with. He’s small, but he has a mighty heart.
It takes another three months before Manuel is satisfied with his training and declares my horse ready to go. By then the horse has grown a little more, thanks to regular feedings. And his black winter coat has shed out to reveal the dappled grey that caught my eye back in October. I contract with a Canon City lady to pick him up for me and bring him home. One of the things she tells me is that Manuel loaded 6491 himself. Before closing the trailer gate, he hugged him hard. As she pulled away, she glanced in her outside mirror. Manuel had taught my little horse everything he knew. All that was left for Manuel to do now was to stand still, arms hanging at his side, crying.
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