RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Before it became a book, a movie and a marketing cliché, the concept of horse whispering had been knocking around for a few thousand years. Gentle methods were praised by Greek philosophers, embraced by Native Americans, and even reached cult status among 19th century Scotsmen. But until now one story about the horse gentlers of the American West has not been told.
NPR's senior correspondent Ketzel Levine takes us to eastern Oregon and into the hearts of horses.
Ms. LESLEY NEUMAN (Rancher, Blue Mule Ranch): Mack. Get back. Come on, Sheldon. Come on.
KETZEL LEVINE: She's a small woman with a long blond braid and a killer cowboy hat.
Ms. NEUMAN: Mandy, get out.
LEVINE: She lives on 320 acres of oh my gosh. That's how Lesley Neuman describes her own Blue Mule Ranch, a luminous daydream of rolling ranch lands and mountains of blinding white snow.
Ms. MOLLY GLOSS (Author, "Hearts of Horses"): It's freezing out here.
Ms. NEUMAN: It's freezing. OK. Well, I'm…
LEVINE: And that's how author Molly Gloss describes this bracing start to our day unfolding in the same landscape as her latest novel, "The Hearts of Horses." It's a story set in 1917, about a teenage bronco buster who is painfully shy with people but resolute among horses.
Ms. GLOSS: (Reading) In those days, even before the war had swept up all the young men from the ranches, there were girls who came through the country breaking horses. They were usually alone, those girls, but it wasn't like in the moving pictures or the gunslinger novels, the female always in peril. If they were in peril, it was from the usual things that can happen with ranch work - breaking bones, freezing your fingers off.
Ms. NEUMAN: Love it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LEVINE: That wow came from rancher Lesley Neuman, who has yet to read the book but whose skills as a horse gentler influenced the author. This is the first time the women have gotten together since the book's publication. We stand around stamping our feet, the three of us plus the six in the coral as the conversation settles on the horses.
Ms. NEUMAN: You don't ride pretty, you know. You ride the mind more than anything. If you don't have a good mind, you know, you could have the prettiest horse in the world, but if it doesn't want to do what you want it to do it's no fun.
LEVINE: Now, did that term make it into your book? Ride pretty.
Ms. GLOSS: In a sense it does, because Martha is riding a scarred and earless mare who's not very pretty at all. And she gets some flak for that. Why would she want to ride a horse that's so badly scarred? And she says, But she's a real good horse. She's a real good horse.
LEVINE: When we first meet Martha Lessen, a big-boned girl wearing fringed chaps and a platter of a hat, she's riding solo along these undulating hills, looking for a cowboy way of life. It's almost too late. Many of those cowboys are off fighting World War I, which is why Martha finds ample work breaking horses and her own way, no brute strength.
Ms. GLOSS: When I began to work on the book. I actually thought I might have to have my girl bucking them out, the way you see in the movies and the way you think was pretty common in the 1910s.
LEVINE: But as a skilled Western myth buster, Molly Gloss unearthed stories of traveling horsemen, gents who rode the ranch lands betting townsfolk they could break their wildest horses without any bucking.
Ms. GLOSS: So then I knew I could have my girl in 1917 using some of those methods.
(Reading) George Bliss climbed part way up the high fence and rested his arms on the top rail. She whispered to the bay, Don't be scared now, he's just the boss, and then began to hum softly "Hinky Dinky," which was a song everybody was singing that winter. She expected George Bliss to ask her a question or make a remark about the way she was going about things, but he watched her quietly, a cigarette dangling from his chapped lips and then lowered himself off the rail and walked away.
LEVINE: Meanwhile - I can't believe I get to say this - back at the ranch…
Ms. NEUMAN: Well, run.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LEVINE: Rancher Lesley Neuman does demos for the BLM, that's Bureau of Land Management, whispering to mustangs. That's when Molly Gloss first saw her at work, reading the body language of these often panicked wild animals and improving her responses.
Ms. NEUMAN: Bring him back around, Molly, and just - now ask him to back up. Back his feet up.
LEVINE: Molly Gloss did some one-on-one training with the rancher. The kinds of hands-on research her readers have expected since her tale of a female pioneer in the book, The Jump-Off Creek, more of a leap really across the gender divide.
Ms. GLOSS: In most of the Western literature, especially in the cowboy lit -you know, the Louis L'Amour, Zane Grey world - you don't see much about the women. They're not the ones who are out with the horses or working the land. And I think that's a whole missing part of the history of the ranching west, because clearly the women were involved and yet their stories are untold in Western literature for the most part.
LEVINE: Did you know anything about that Lesley?
Ms. NEUMAN: I think - I think the cowgirl is underestimated plenty.
Ms. GLOSS: Lots of daughters were the ones designated, okay, you break the horses. We're too busy doing the men's work. And I think they were doing it the gentle way.
LEVINE; Gentle or not, making a living breaking horses was high risk work. Though young Martha Lessen blames only herself when, traumatized by an automobile, the horse she's riding pitches the both of them into a ditch.
Ms. GLOSS (Reading): Brownie was trembling from fear and shock, his hide covered with lather and sweat, plastered over with rock dust. His head hung almost to his knees and a yellow froth had dried around his mouth. Martha said quietly to the horse, Hey there, Big Brownie, and took her time easing up to him. But when she could, she rubbed her face tenderly against his cheek and breathed into his nostrils and he breathed into hers. She sobbed two or three times. I'm sorry, she said, which could've been meant for just about anybody but was meant for the horse.
(Soundbite of horse neighing)
LEVINE: Sipping quietly from troughs, the late morning sun warming their rumps, Lesley Neuman's beasts linger at the fence and occasionally mug for attention as the rancher takes the conversation by the reins?
Ms. NEUMAN: Did you have a finish in mind?
Ms. GLOSS: Yeah, I did.
Ms. NEUMAN: OK.
Ms. GLOSS: Do I always know where I'm going with a book? I usually have a rough idea. I don't always have a specific idea, but I usually know roughly.
Ms. NEUMAN: Like getting in the pen with the horse. It's the same.
Ms. GLOSS: There you go. Yeah. It's a process of discovery and that is the same when you're with a horse.
Ms. NEUMANN: Yeah. Yeah, because you don't know what the next moment's going to be.
LEVINE: If I were a betting woman, I'd wager the rest of the morning on the art and heart of horses.
Ms. NEUMAN: What are you doing? You're being a mean mule. Don't.
LEVINE: Ketzel Levine, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: You can read an excerpt from The Heart of Horses, just go to npr.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
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