Thursday, January 26, 2012

Cultures and Cowboys

A vital capability for most writers is to develop an understanding of other cultures and how they operate. Unless you only ever write stories set in your own home country and time (a perfectly legitimate course of action if that's what you want to do), you need to learn about how other people live.

One of the things I've dabbled in is writing westerns - my story 'Ellis Ridge' is in the zombie western anthology Zombist and I'm about to start working on another one.

However, as a horse lover, I've always hesitated about cowboy culture. I grew up in the old fashioned English hunt school of riding - which is also pretty harsh and one of the things I learned very quickly was that abuse, fear and beatings don't really achieve anything.

But I was also told that cowboys abused their horses. When I heard about bronc busting, I was horrified. (Colt starting classes still horrify me...they seem entirely too rushed and dangerous). I heard that cowboys use harsh bits, sharp spurs and even will put a horse on the ground to cow it and break its spirit. The impression I got was that cowboys were all about 'breaking' horses and only a few understood how to 'start' them. Even though I'd been around people who used harsh methods including turning a crop over and beating a horse overhand (something I have never done as an adult), I believed it was completely wrong to break a horse's spirit...and I knew what beatings could do to a horse. I knew they could create a machine.

Then I rode with a cowboy type who took riders into the wilderness. His horses were not machines, but I figured, well, obviously he isn't the type to beat them into submission. He wore spurs, but seldom seemed to actually use them.

So I kept to the thought that 'putting a horse down' was only ever abuse, that bronc busting was about creating cattle chasing machines...

Then I met G. I've mentioned him before - a tough, foundation-bred ranch type Quarter Horse. He's one of the soundest horses I've ever handled. G is, to be blunt, a stubborn, dominant brat. I rapidly realized that the only way to deal with him and stay safe was to be the Boss Mare. (And despite that, he still threw me...quite deliberately and simply because he was mad with me about something). He would try to scrape me off on the arena wall. He would throw mini-tantrums in which he'd balk...he'd be trotting along apparently happily then just stop dead. For no reason. He would deliberately refuse to canter on the correct lead just to make a battle out of things.

I learned to be the boss mare...to be the assertive leader with that horse. To stare him down when he was in one of his dominant moods. To never let him step out of line...until I needed him to.

And I worked something out. You can't chase cows with a submissive horse. You need a dominant one. You need a horse that if a pissed off steer comes at it will stand its ground.

The reason cowboys used the techniques they did was not because they were cruel, but because their horses were all like G! And far from being 'broken' or 'ruined' by his handler and rider being dominant...G thrived on it. All of his spirit was still there, but when handled correctly...that is to say firmly, with immediate correction and immediate reward...he would use it for you, not against you.

The incredible horse-human partnership of the cowboy was and is built out of correctly applied dominance and assertive leadership...not to break the horse's spirit, but to build partnership so that when the time came, all of that dominance and stubbornness in the horse could be unleashed in a controlled manner to get that dang steer into the pen.

The point is that sometimes we misunderstand other cultures, and sometimes what seems to us to be 'wrong' is actually 'right' - for them. Now, I don't condone torture, mutilation, infanticide, etc. But when writing, even those wrongs have to be understood and worked with because they can, after all, become part of a good story.