We are standing in the open-air arena—temperamental spring sky above us, a shower of gropple still clinging to mane and hair. There is no snow between sole and earth.

I took my time putting his string halter on today—crouching against the wall of his stall, chattering away while his comical lips nibbled at me and I stretched.  I pretended that I moved my arms solely to indulge my body, not because I wanted him to stop the nibbling.

I am here with Smoke at this moment, because I need to be. This is the first time I have felt this need. I am overwhelmed with angst as I try to extract myself from an accidental career and immerse myself in an intentional career—one that I’ve dreamed of, my whole life. I am making it happen, but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy.

Straddling the line between the old and the new, I find myself stressed about money and time. I also know that stress, if not kept in check, will become it’s own entity—a parasite ready to eat me from the inside out. So, I pretend that I wield this great whip and skillfully keep stress sequestered in the far corner of my life, along with that little nugget of fear that wants me to fail.

For me, Montana is about choosing a way of life, not a secure life. I piece things together, so that I can stay here in this place, among these people, this land and all the wild creatures. I may never see some of these creatures, but I can relish the succulent freedom of their existence. And still, others will stand in front of me and reflect back all of my intentions.

“Okay, move those back feet.  Just one step to the right.”

I think these words, my eyes focused on Smoke’s left hindquarter, my torso bent towards him, a 12-foot lead rope attached to his string halter and tangled up in my awkward hands.


Smoke has one eye on me. We face each other, but he is several feet to my left.  The sun has punctured the sky and I feel heat on my back.

“Okay, Smoke.  How else do I make this happen?”

I could bore holes in his side, with my superhuman eyeballs.

He’s not moving. I resist the urge to move closer and use my whole body. I could push my index finger into his muscular haunch, but that would be cheating.

I unhook the lead rope from his chin and turn my back to him. He doesn’t move. I start drawing a coil into my hands and tossing it out away from both of us, just to get used to the rope. I switch hands and feel thankful that I am ambidextrous. It’s not that much harder to toss it with my right hand, but my aim is a little skewed.  Moving in a circle, I slowly begin tossing the end of the rope closer to his back feet. When I get there, I toss it, reel it in; toss it again. Smoke doesn’t move.

I suppose this could frustrate me, but instead, I feel patient. I have time to learn this. Smoke doesn’t have much use for time, so it makes little difference to him, as long as my energy for it is maintained and he’s not missing an opportunity to eat.

At times, I feel frustrated with my slow pace of progress towards my goals.

But now, as I toss the rope, over and over in the same place, and this horse’s feet don’t move, I have no regard for time. This is patience and persistence. I know it will change something.

I’ve been told that true progress with a horse is incremental.  Therefore, I celebrate each tiny victory.

Eventually, Smoke begins to move around me, in the arena.  I turn my body, like I am the center gear on a clock face.  Arms move steadily. Time speeds up.

All progress is incremental.

After a couple of laps, I casually move a little closer, increasing pressure, until he trots, in some massive form of grace.  Sometimes he wants to turn and go the other way, but I stall him by turning my body to drive his haunches. I want him to turn towards me, but I can’t make it happen.  I don’t know how to speak to his shoulders in that way, yet. So, we move swiftly in one direction, until I relax my frame and let myself be quiet in the sun, under an osprey nest and next to a chestnut horse.

Smoke follows me with both of his eyes. When I step towards him, scratch his velvet chin and turn my back, he waits.  When I walk away, he follows me.  We travel around the ring, horse breath barely coiling around my shoulders. I walk diagonally across the arena, cutting diamonds in the space. He is focused on me. I have focused on him and nothing else, for less than an hour, yet I believe that everything has changed.


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Danielle Lattuga is a novice horsewoman, frequently found guilty of confusing hoof beats with heartbeats. She believes that riding and writing are not so different: both part poetry, part sweat.  Follow her into Montana’s horse country, and find out if she’s right.