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 V.19 No.17 | April 29 - May 5, 2010 

From the Foxhole

How Cowboys Tame the Blues

Equine therapy for veterans

Gus Jolley, program director of Listening Horse Therapeutic Riding
Alex E. Limkin
Gus Jolley, program director of Listening Horse Therapeutic Riding

I meet Gus and his two horses at an empty dirt arena in Santa Fe. It’s a cold morning but the sun is bright. The nearby mountains are capped with snow. There are rows of vacant stables alongside the arena. I move slowly, wrapped in a cloudy haze from lack of sleep. The horses look sleepy as well, tethered to their trailer nodding off. When they yawn, they seem on the verge of speaking. “Get away from me,” I imagine them saying. “What's that, an apple? Give it here.” Such teeth. Such manners.

“Wake up,” Gus tells them. It comes out curt and gruff, but beneath the gravel is unmistakable affection. His silver hair hangs loose and long and unkempt around his shoulders. He is a genuine cowboy: humble, modest, without the need to be noticed. It’s as though, to his benefit, the last two centuries have yet to take place, have yet to create the gun-happy “George W.” cowboys of our time, emasculated, bitter, cruel.

There had been nightmares. Images of bullet-riddled cars and murals and vending machines and blown-up buildings. Fallen bridges. Towering palm trees folded over like fractured limbs. A landscape of blunt force trauma—without people, without animals, without sounds, without life. I woke up several times and sat in my backyard in the darkness, rolling my head from side to side the same way you try to clear your ears after swimming, or to dislodge something rotten from inside you, something trying to gain a foothold there.

There had been nightmares. Images of bullet-riddled cars and murals and vending machines and blown-up buildings. Fallen bridges. Towering palm trees folded over like fractured limbs.

I reassured myself by thinking about my neighbors sleeping quietly next door, safe in their beds, their little boy. I swallowed down the anxiety with short breaths. “The world is not yet ended. You are safe. You're OK,” I whispered.

Gus tells me how the horses live in the present, not thinking of anything else but the here and now. “They’re not thinking about what they’re going to do this afternoon, or something that bothered them last night. When you’re around a horse, you have to understand that.” I take up a brush and start grooming Promise, a brown horse still wearing her winter shag. I try to empty my mind, try to sense the unfolding day, the unfolding moment, through her. I feel myself relaxing, watching her breathe, feeling her sides expand and contract evenly beneath my hand.

I have an impulse to crawl inside her belly and fall asleep.

I pull clumps of hair off the brush and let the wind take them. Now a tail swishes, now a foot lifts and lowers; I relax some more. The muzzle, which I know is velvety soft, flares. I have an impulse to crawl inside her belly and fall asleep. Gus tells me that when she licks her lips, and her chin and mouth tremble, it's a sign that she is content. But, he adds, Promise is a biter. “Don’t turn your back on her,” he cautions.

Gus rescued Promise from abusive owners. “They beat this old girl with whatever they could get a hold of. She’s still fidgety around children, doesn’t care for them. She’s a lot better about the biting now, but about once a year she lays into me real good. What I do is I—you can’t wait—I give her a hard punch in the nose, and then I set back and let her take it in. About a minute later I’ll pat her and let her know it’s all right.”

The story of Promise makes me appreciate her more, makes me love her. She bends her head down toward me as I’m brushing her. She nuzzles my waist and I tense up at the prospect of being bitten. But I don’t shy away. “I’m not going to hurt you, old girl,” I murmur. Is she convinced? It’s hard to say, but she doesn’t bite—just nibbles the edge of my coat with her lips and goes back to standing still in the sun. Then, brushing her warm flanks, I see her lick her lips. I see her mouth and chin tremble, quiver slightly, like the face of a child about to cry.

For some reason, the sight of this moves me unexpectedly. I turn away from Gus to hide my sudden emotion, my tears. Promise trusts me. In the moment she inhabits, breathing easily with her eyes closed, I am not a threat to her. I am not a threat to her, and the world is not a threat to me. I am safe. I am not going to die.

At the edge of the arena is a tree and some shade. The sun has risen and the air is warming. I feel like I can sleep beneath the tree for a while, stretched out there with Promise close by. I feel like I can lie down and find dreams of snowcapped mountains and green pastures and blue skies again, before the world was broken.

Gus Jolley is the program director of Listening Horse Therapeutic Riding of Northern New Mexico, a charitable organization dedicated to assisting veterans. He can be reached at

Alex Escué Limkin served in Iraq from 2004 to 2005. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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