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The Woman Horses Whisper To

October 11, 1998|DEANNE STILLMAN

I met my first horse when I was a toddler, and my mother hoisted me aboard Evita (yes, long before Madonna, my mom knew that Ms. Peron was worthy of tribute).

The view from up there was pretty good, as I recall, and I liked being carried around on so large and powerful a creature. Maybe it would help me meet the cowboys and Indians who populated my inner landscape, fulfill what I now know is that most basic of American desires--to escape, start over.

A few years later, horses did indeed rescue me--and my mother and sister--from what otherwise would have been a life of abject poverty. My parents had divorced and my mother, now horse-less and money-free, had to get a job immediately. Having ridden for several years on the show-horse circuit in Cleveland and being disinclined to work as a waitress, she headed to the local race track and persuaded a trainer to give her a crack as an "exercise boy." In 1958, this was a rare occurrence. After her quick six-furlong breeze on Lord Fleet, he agreed, and Mom became one of the first women in the country to ride thoroughbreds for a living.

Many mornings for the next few years, the Thistledown track was my second home. The horses were always breathing great, comforting puffs of steam. I liked hanging around with the grooms and hotwalkers and assorted characters who ate breakfast with us in the track kitchen, where everything had gravy and where all the people from broken families made a new one: My world had been rocked, and Thistledown helped put it right.

Since then, I have experienced some of my best hours on horseback. But I am careful about where I ride and steer clear of stables that do not treat horses well.

Alas, although horses have helped us win wars, plow fields, tame the West and have lots of fun, they are more often than not abused in one way or another. How would you like to spend every day of your life carrying fat drunks with spurs through Griffith Park on one of those crowded nose-to-tail trail rides where some "Bonanza" freak always yells, "Hey, pardner, when can we gallop?" And so it was with great delight that, after living in Los Angeles for years and finding nary a suitable equine lessor, I met Talley Willmont and the 26 horses in her Malibu stable.

Willmont also was saved by horses. As a child in San Diego, she had a natural affinity for them; her grandfather took her on pony rides and it felt like coming home. At the age of 11, she began spending summers at the Rawhide Ranch in Bonsall, a western riding camp for kids. She filled her room with horse stuff, and her fantasies were populated with them as well. At 16, she moved out: "My father had been abusing me for years," she says. Although she had survived by disappearing into the world of horses, it was now time for flight.

The destination was eventually Malibu--college at Pepperdine because there was a stable on campus and courses of interest ("The History of Horses and Horsemen" in the political science department), then years of riding for "anyone who wanted their horse exercised and would let me ride," Willmont recalls.

But over time, the experience became hollow, and she decided to give up riding. "It was mostly about me being seen on a horse," she says. Horses had taken her as far as they could. "Then I went to a clinic in horsemanship run by Pat Parelli," Willmont says. "I was blown away." Parelli's philosophy was not unlike that of Monty Roberts or Buck Brannaman, two of several people in Southern California spreading the so-called horse-whispering gospel of a partnership, a conversation between rider and horse that had nothing to do with pain and fear and everything to do with hearing what the horse had to say and responding in kind (send the "Whoa, Wilbur" jokes to the editor, if you must).

"For the first time," Willmont says, "I could see both sides of a relationship and began to understand how the cycle of dominance and submission plays out. Horses were so forgiving. I related to horses who were abused and kept showing up to do their jobs. Suddenly I knew I wanted them back in my life. And I wanted to teach people what horses had taught me."

Willmont bought her first horse for a dollar. She named him Promise.Today, 12 years later, Promise is 17 and still available for rides at Willmont's stable near Zuma Beach (she calls him "the moving couch"), along with Jasmine and Prego and J.R. and other well-cared-for residents. For $45 for an hour and a half, they will take you up and down the trails of the Santa Monica Mountains that even now, urged on by the spring rains, are lush with canyon sunflowers and sage.

The experience is a comfortable one, for rider and horse: You are atop an Ortho-flex saddle, which is custom-made to bend with the horse's back (Willmont bought 10 with a $20,000 win in Las Vegas). Along the way, you can smell the wild thyme and fennel, see red-tailed hawks, escape, start over. "Look to your future," Willmont says if she catches you looking down or sideways during the ride. "Look to where you want to go."


Patt Morrison is on assignment. Her column returns next month.

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