July 1, 2008
The sun put in a long shift last Friday in the Heber Valley. It rose early and took its own sweet time in a lazy arc across the sky. With the days supposedly getting shorter, it didn’t seem to have gotten the memo.
The shade gods were invoked early on. They had their work cut out for them, however. Three separate versions of "That Lucky Old Sun" played continually in random sequence upon the turntable of my mind. Although Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and Ray Charles were as cool as all get out, the temperature hung tough.
Up in the five-acre horse properties on the northeast edge of the Heber foothills, Mona and Tim had brought in celebrated trainer Ricky Quinn for a three-day "colt starting" and "horsemanship" clinic.
Keeping the sun at bay in those parts involved mostly cowboy hats and the occasional tarp set up next to the corrals. As a highly interested observer but not a registered participant, I had earlier exchanged shorts and sandals for Levis and cowboy boots so as to better blend in with the surroundings.
Deciding my "Panama" wouldn’t lend itself to inclusion, I opted for a ball cap, and, with toothpick poking out of my mouth, lounged against the tailgate of a nearby truck. The poses ranged from crossed legs to the right boot heel hooked on the bumper. You could almost hear the collective "who does this guy think he’s kidding?"
Ricky, who calls Libby, Montana, home, had a couple of colts in the small corral, one saddled and the one he was working. The horses and their owners were there to absorb his technique. If not, there was a sense that they had better get onboard prior to the stage pulling out of town.
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It was apparent that the learning curve would get steeper as the day wore on and that any loss of focus during this first clinic would not bode well later on. It wasn’t that Ricky was threatening. It was just that he wanted to impart as much as he could to those giving up their weekend in order to achieve harmony and balance within themselves and their horse.
As the dust settled, the tension rose. Questions were sought and drills repeated. They had to have this part down before they entered the big corral for the afternoon session. This was all about the trainers working their horses. The afternoon would have them on the ground and in the saddle.
For some reason, I flashed upon that "look" my high school calculus teacher would send my way when he caught me "spacing out," a not infrequent scenario. In the beginning, the mathematical possibility of "dividing by zero" was definitely a burr in my saddle blanket. Rick has that look, only oftentimes a smile is attached.
Not to say that horse training has become almost "Montessori" in nature, but Charlie Russell and Fredrick Remington would be hard pressed to recognize the current discipline. They don’t "break broncs" as they once did out on the range after capturing a herd of mustangs.
Now, they "gentle" them. "Starting" a colt is a much quicker and more non-invasive process. But that’s old news. It’s just quite impressive to see these "horse whisperers" ply their trade up close and personal. Well, not too close. I wouldn’t want to get that "look."
During the sun-drenched morning, while colts and owners were learning the new shorthand, tents and teepees were being raised at the opposite end of the valley as Soldier Hollow began its annual transformation into the "sacred ground" of powwow. When the appointed hour for the "grand entrance" came around, the vendors would be all set up and the arena blessed in the proper fashion.
And, hopefully, the sun would have gotten the memo and moved into that part of the day where long shadows sketch the land. Although disrespect for powwow etiquette can cause one to get that "look" at these tribal gatherings, it is usually the long-time attendees that handle the policing chores and a good glare most often works wonders.
The landscape is of Senecas and Northern Utes and Mandan-Hidatsas and Standing Rock Sioux and their traditional music, dance, and regalia. Exquisite pottery and jewelry from the Navajos and Hopis and the Pueblos of what is now New Mexico also provide eye candy and fine art for the faithful.
As with the horse clinic, the powwow is also about achieving harmony and balance. There’s something about the circle of singers and drums and the rhythmic jingle of the dancers that has its spiritual way with you. Even the methodical slaloms among the vendors brings peace. And laughter, of course. Powwows are quite often a humor-rich zone.
But seriousness has a place at this table, too. Just try bringing up Leonard Peltier. These days it’s an uncomfortable topic. It would appear the Emperor has no clothes. Or as John Trudell put it a few years ago at Sundance, the "Free Leonard" movement has "lost its momentum." But that’s another story.
This one concerns getting in on the ground floor at the opening sessions of a most intriguing horse clinic high on the northeast bench and, from there, moseying across the alluvial plain to the annual Heber Valley Powwow high on the southwest bench at Soldier Hollow. What a valley! What a day!
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.