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Borderland

Written by Constance Brown

Last week in the pasture along the creek by the dying cottonwood thicket, I stood on my horse’s off side combing brambles from his tattered mane. Looking forward toward his head I saw the back of his right ear. Silhouetted against the blue Wyoming sky, it formed a perfect crescent. The curving line of the ear continued down to the smooth soft point of his jaw. Horses with the distinctive look of my Arabian gelding, Cadence, are carved in the walls of the Egyptian pyramids, pulling the chariots of the pharaohs. Their foreheads have a pronounced bump and their muzzles curve into a slight indentation, a jibbah in Arabic. While the heads of some other light horse breeds keep to a straighter line, the Arab’s muzzle is slim and its nostrils are large and flared. When Allah created the horse, he said to the wind, “I will that a creature proceed from thee.” And the wind condensed itself.

When Cadence and I ride around the ranch in open pastures or along the pine ridges, he sees predators everywhere. Far out along a two-track last summer we approached an electric fence where a solar collector jutted out emitting a steady clicking along the wire. He panicked. We crossed in front of it many times, looking, listening, until he determined it would not attack, then continued on. In a neighbor’s pasture on another day we came upon a windmill with a 15-foot tall holding tank set up beside it. We spent time walking between the two structures, passing fore and aft, insuring that the creature was an inert boulder and not a fierce dragon. Each new sight, each new sound trigger alarm and a flight response in my horse who is, after all, prey.

These days I think of Afghan rebels galloping toward army tanks. I see dust rising from aerial cluster bombs, and through that haze I see horses, running. I envision cavalry charges through the eons-from the sand of the Arabian Peninsula to the sage of America’s Great Plains. Horses and soldiers together stampede toward the enemy, then away from the enemy’s onslaught. I think of the ancestors of all our horses, domesticated in Ukraine more than 6,000 years ago on the forest steppes north of the Black Sea, in the vast plain between the Danube and the Don. Centuries later small swift horses coming from Arabia and North Africa made the first warhorses. More centuries passed and those Arabian mounts were one of Mohammed’s lethal weapons in the Holy Wars. Like my horse today, those horses’ lungs were large so they could run great distances, their feet strong as flint steel.

After moving some cattle early last fall Cadence and I were heading east toward home and our pace had quickened. He was walking out like a cavalry horse on an Afghan march. As we walked forward I picked up the reins, asking for a soft feel. We halted and I gently pulled on each side of the mecate rein to bring his head around, bending it back to me so I could touch his forehead and pet him. The bending releases tension in his neck and softens his mind. We turned off the two-track and jogged around clumps of sage, using up some of his endless stamina. Then back to a walking pace: One-two-three-four. One-two-three-four. I saw the shadow of the long curving mecate hanging down by Cade’s front legs. That mecate and his respect for me are all that keep him in my service. In between the world of the wild and the world of the tame lies a borderland of immigrants, visitors, and day laborers. Save for the shadow of the mecate, Cadence could have been walking alone, wild and free.

One recent Sunday Cadence strayed from the other horses through a downed fence into the creek pasture. He had grazed his way around the dry bottom of the bass pond and through its outlet clogged with cattails and dead Canadian thistles. Realizing at some point that he was separated from the herd, he panicked but could not find his way back through the hole in the fence. To a herd animal, safety lies within the herd. As I called the other horses into the corral for oats in their food pans, Cade’s screams caught my ear.

Running up and down a stretch of distant barbwire fence, his neck was arched and his tail was raised. Afraid he might crash through the fence and rip apart his legs, I ran from the barn with a green halter to fetch him. His coat was caked with streaks of mud made by sweat, his head was high in fear. I signaled safety to him, and so he stopped prancing as I approached. We walked with the fence between us for 50 yards toward the hilltop pasture gate. I unchained the gate and stepped through to comfort him, reaching my hand out to his forehead. He pulled back slightly but let me near. I gently rubbed his ears and pressed down on his poll, asking him to lower his head. We stood still for some time, and I felt him let down inside. Haltered, Cadence stepped away from me at the gate, and with a flip of my wrist on the halter rope I asked him to circle me. He circled left, then right, becoming light as air. Then we walked through the gate together and down to the corrals.

Later, grooming Cadence in the barnyard, for a few seconds he focused his ethereal attention on me, watching me with his left eye. The long spare lashes on the bottom lid looked like cats’ whiskers. Feelers for the night. A full lush row of shorter lashes arced around the upper lid. A thick black line rimmed all the way around the large brown eye, looking almost cosmetic, like eyeliner. It was his black skin. All the rest of him was covered with a coat of chestnut hair, shedding from the winter season. Again his gaze shifted, away from me to a far ridge.

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