• The Horse Whisperer

    Last summer, my wife and I set out to purchase a couple of older horses, the type that won't shy at a barking dog, crow-hop at the sound of a gunshot, or sit their rear end in a ditch because they're lazy. Vermonters, always free with conflicting advice, told us how to inspect the hocks, keep an eye out for strangles (a common infection), listen for respiratory ills, and check the teeth to guess the age, a technique that is akin to inspecting wooly bears to predict the severity of winter. In short, we were easy marks for any half-decent horse trader.

    There is a man called Harry O'Rourke, Jr., whose family owns Pond Hill Ranch in Castleton, Vt. He has more than 500 horses there in the winter on 3,000 acres, the ranch having been cobbled together by his grandfather during the Great Depression. Harry runs rodeos in the summer, selling hot dogs and sodas to the pickup crowd. (My favorite pickup bumper sticker: "Possum-- The other white meat.") The crowd looks on as cowboys barrel-race, rope steers, and ride bucking broncos for a share of the modest prize money. Predictable, perhaps, but nonetheless this mix of rugged individualism and Americana quickly overshadows any thoughts of white-collar sophistication. At rodeos, you laugh at the clown, never at the cowboys.

    Horse traders have a poor but well-deserved reputation (drugging wild horses to calm them during a sale is not uncommon), but I'd heard good things about Harry. He is middle-aged, with time having settled kindly into his face, as if he knows how to turn the years to his advantage, daring them to make something of it. He walks bowlegged, like a determined retriever headed toward a half-gnawed bone. Like any seasoned farmer or horseman, he doesn't waste energy. He speaks plainly, without elaboration, and somehow gets to the point without ever being direct. Harry buys his horses through auctions out West, the sort that feature animals trail-ridden by city-slicker buckaroos at dude ranches in Montana and Wyoming. He leases most of them out in the summer to riding stables in New England but also sells horses when he can for extra cash.

    Now a horse whisperer is a man or woman who talks to horses. They've been known to break a wild horse in under an hour. Their secret is listening. They know that each animal is different, and by looking a horse in the eye, they can sense what a horse wants and fears. Harry is no official whisperer, but watching him around a horse is like watching an old married couple do chores together: They never get in each other's way.

    One Saturday in early August, we drove up to Pond Hill to test-drive some of the stock. It was a hot day, and Pond Hill was dusty owing to a long-standing drought. While our four kids drank grape sodas and played under the only shade tree in sight, my wife and I rode quarter horses, palominos, and an assorted bunch of breeds in between. Both my rear end and my pride were damaged (one pony got the better of me, and we ended up in the barn instead of on the trail), and what had been intended as a quick visit started to turn into an all-day affair. It was hot, the watering hole was covered in green muck, the manure was thick on the ground, the flies were fierce, and by midafternoon the children were restless, picking fights and chucking rocks. Waves of brightly plumed tourists came and went for their one-hour trail rides, sitting upright on their mounts like bankers on tractors. We finally settled on a chestnut and an appaloosa, and Harry and I walked over to his office to do the paperwork.

    A few minutes later, I came out to discover that the family van was locked, thanks to Caroline, my 11-year-old, and the keys were inside. Well, after six hours in the sun I was thirsty, tired, and done in, so I gave her a good tongue-lashing in full view of a bench full of cowboys. Harry walked over, looked me in the eye, smiled, and said he'd call for the gas station guy to come up and slip the lock. He handed out hard candy to each of the kids and then invited us all back to the office for a cold soda. The kids tamely played with the dog, my wife and I took a chair, and Harry spun a few stories about horse trading. The time passed quickly, and, soon enough, the car was fixed, the kids were asleep on the back seat, and we were on our way home.

    I was thinking about how well Harry handled horses, wondering if he could be a real horse whisperer. I turned to my wife and said, "Harry sure does know a lot about horses." She looked at me curiously, laughed to herself, and replied, "Yeah, and a fair amount about people, too."

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