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    Can a horse have regrets?

    If this one did, this muscled black stallion with the dreadlocked tail dragging the sandy ground, it would be that day in December 2017, that day he did what he knew was wrong. Had it been any mare other than Chocolate, had it been Julia, say, or Little Filly, he would have stayed put. But his weakness led to the mistake of a lifetime.

    Karen Slone, the woman with a ponytail that frizzes into a halo behind her head in the summer humidity, could tell you. She would drive up from her house in Floyd County, rattling over the rutted road to the mountaintop in eastern Kentucky. She and her husband, Dwight, could tell you that this stallion was never so careless before, never so frivolous. He was always watchful, head up, alert, ears rotating like satellite dishes, sensitive to the slightest sounds, his nearly 360 degrees of vision sweeping all horizons, all the time. In the three years Karen and Dwight had come up the mountain to feed the often scrawny herd that ranged on this grassy rolling plain — an artifact of the Wolverine Coal Company and the strip mine it once worked there — the black stallion had never come near them, never let himself be turned into a pet, a creature. It took months for this dominant stallion to even let the mares near. Even in February, when the pickings were lean and so was his herd, he held back. A car door closed and they flew, the stallion pushing his mares and their babies away, up onto the knoll where he could see everything: the couple’s blue truck, the treetops waving below, the hills rolling away into bruised blue smudges along the horizon, the mountains of clouds pressing across the valley toward them.

    In time, he let his mares graze the hay the Slones brought. The mares would clop forward, babies shyly watching from behind their mothers who, tentatively at first, began to eat. But the stallion would only stand and watch. The other stallions on the mountain and their little bands lacked his caution. They ate. They let their babies wander up to the humans. And the colts were foolish, stretching their necks until the long sensitive hairs on their noses sized up the warm human hands, letting those hands stroke their necks, rub their faces. So careless had the others become that sometimes another stallion would wander away from his own band and approach the big black stallion’s, drawing first the larger stallion’s sharp gaze, then his trotting approach, and finally, if they hadn’t the sense to turn tail, his attack, reared on hind legs. It never lasted long. They all backed away. Some 70 horses occupied this restored strip mine — a “strip job” in eastern Kentucky parlance, this one dubbed Ruff-N-Tuff — a mixture of abandoned pets and wild-borns like the black stallion. And he held sway over them all. Karen, who named all the horses, called him Rocky for the movie prizefighter when, week after week, she’d find him on his knoll, like Sylvester Stallone atop the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, ready for all comers.

    Then came the December day that, if Rocky had regrets, he would ponder on restless nights. There were people. More than usual, but that happened sometimes. There was the hay, just like always. But one thing was different. He saw it. Julia saw it. But Chocolate didn’t think twice, if she even noticed the temporary corral. And in she walked behind Julia’s baby, Blaze, followed by her own little one, April. Julia was so frightened, not even her baby could entice her to feed. But there was Chocolate, head down, munching away; Chocolate, who Karen called Rocky’s main squeeze, always the first mare on the mountain to have a baby each year. Rocky couldn’t let her go. He couldn’t leave her. And while little Blaze tiptoed back out to his mother, the stallion stepped into the corral. Then the gate closed. It held firm against his pushing and jumping. He was trapped.

    Now he cannot see the horizon. He can only see the sullen gray bowl of sky above Shelbyville. He cannot see more than treetops above the horizontal slats of the tall fence encircling him. He sees the woman in the center. He watches her warily from beneath his long, tangled fringe of mane. His every muscle tenses as he waits to learn what happens next in a life suddenly notable for its losses. Julia and Blaze were left behind. Chocolate has vanished. The baby, April, has too. For the first time in his life, he is alone. He trembles. He peers at the woman in the center of the round pen. She holds a long pole that ends in an orange triangle of cloth, wet from a constant drizzle only slightly more substantial than fog. She flicks her wrist, the flag snaps like a rifle shot, and Rocky runs.

    “This is a little bit showing him how I’m in charge,” Mary Rose Cissell says as she stands beneath a white sky, her black cowboy hat sheltering the dark curls of her ponytail from the misty drizzle. Mary Rose clicks her tongue. The stallion startles, shuffling his feet in panic before trotting away. But his trot doesn’t last, and he soon slows and stops. This time, she snaps the orange flag; he trots faster in the confines of the round pen, moving longer before slowing. Now she takes a few steps in his direction, and he’s off again and trotting. She’s talking nonstop as she urges him on, explaining her process, keeping him moving.

    For most of his life, Rocky has been in charge. When he brought his mares and babies through the crowd of 70 horses on Ruff-N-Tuff, the other horse bands moved aside. Mary Rose says with horses, it’s all about which horse can get the others to move. Now she’s moving him. “I want to show him I’m the dominant one in this situation and earn his trust through that leadership.”

    The nanoparticle drizzle turns every hard edge on the Antioch Road farm fuzzy and vague. Barns, houses and trees lie behind a gauzy veil. Mary Rose, 24 on this day in December 2017, is tall and lean, in cowgirl regalia, except, perhaps, for the maroon-red nail polish. She wears a green neckerchief held in place by a shiny scarf slide bigger than an old silver dollar. Embossed on its surface — the brightest thing for miles — is a cowgirl riding a bucking horse. She does not want to be that cowgirl. It’s exactly what she’s hoping to avoid as she brings Rocky under her influence.

     

    Although Mary Rose and her closest friend, April Harvey, captured the black stallion nine days earlier, it was only yesterday that she brought him to Allday Farm, where her business, Dark Horse Training Center, leases barns and paddock space. Rocky spent his first eight days off the mountain in makeshift quarantine at a Kentucky Humane Society facility near Simpsonville. Now he must learn to live with humans. Mary Rose has experience training feral horses, twice taking on wild mustangs for a challenge in which trainers have 100 days to make a Western horse from federal Bureau of Land Management lands rideable. But the Kentucky mountain horses are different, she says. She has already invested a year training another feral Kentucky mountain stallion (now gelding) named Dante, this one from a strip job in Knott County in eastern Kentucky. And she often talks about what she views as the mistakes she made working with that crafty blue-roan horse. She’s still figuring out how to best help a horse trust a species that has proven itself so damnably untrustworthy.

    Up on the mountain, the horses saw the best and the worst of humans. When the horses on the Ruff-N-Tuff strip job in Floyd County were starving, Dwight Slone made a plea on Facebook, asking anyone who had ever enjoyed watching the mountain horses to come to their rescue. Many responded and made donations, Karen Slone says. The Slones had been feeding the horses out of their own pocket and with their own hay. That was humans behaving well. But too often, humans behave badly.

    There was the guy who came up the mountain and urged 16 of the tamest horses into a trailer, carting them away. “He sold them to somebody,” Karen says. Where they went, no one knows. “They were some nice horses. It was done before anybody knew anything about it. That got us started trying to keep an eye on them, make sure nothing bad happened.”

    But bad things kept happening to the 54 remaining. They found one tame mare dead. They don’t know what killed her. It could have been natural causes. The Sunday before they found her body, she was fine. Someone shot another horse — one of the many abandoned pets — in the shoulder; the Slones engineered her rescue, but the shoulder proved so shattered, she was euthanized. Karen named one of the sweetest colts Leroy. He was a copper-red horse with a white star blaze on his face, maybe two years old. “You can love on him,” she says. “You can pet him all over. My husband could even pick up his feet. I was actually starting to work with him with a halter.” Leroy would follow them around. One day, a drunk tried to sell Leroy to her for $300. “Show me proof he’s yours,” she told him. Not long after, they found Leroy had been lassoed. The loop was stuck up near his ears, and the rope dragged along behind him so that other horses stepped on it. The once friendly colt was now flighty and frightened.

    It took the Slones months to get Leroy to approach again. When he finally came near, it took two more weeks and the enticement of a salt block to get the rope off. “We would hold food in one hand and try to rub his face up to his ears to get the rope. If you touched the rope, he would run,” Karen says.

    “We went every day trying to get that rope off.”

    Another time, they found a bay gelding with a dog leash fastened tightly around his neck. The leash was so swollen from rain, they couldn’t unbuckle it. They were finally able to work it off after they got him to eat out of their hands.

    The Slones were relieved when the Kentucky Humane Society removed the last of the horses from Ruff-N-Tuff in early December 2018. Lori Kane Redmon, CEO of KHS, says keeping track of feral horses in eastern Kentucky is complicated. In 2017, KHS counted 500. “I suspect there’s many more than that,” she says, mentioning the possibility of an aerial survey.

    Karen keeps telling owners that this has to stop. She’s frustrated. “I’m not doing this no more,” Slone says. “There is a stud horse up there. The person (who released it) has been told several times. I told people, ‘This is going to come to an end.’” The next horse she sees, she’s going to put it under a “stray hold” — an order beginning the 15-day period a stray horse must be kept before it is re-homed. It’s the first step toward having a horse legally removed. “They’re not gonna stay up there,” she says.

     

    In the round pen that first day of training in Shelbyville, Mary Rose takes Rocky’s interest in her as a good sign. “I love how he’s looking at me. He’s kind of licking and chewing, and he’s thinking. Sometimes these wild ones, they immediately turn their head from you. They don’t want anything to do with you,” she says. Many horse trainers watch for licking and chewing as a sign of progress. Like Mary Rose, they associate it with thinking or learning. But animal behaviorist Sue McDonnell, who founded and leads the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, says that’s not what’s going on. Studies show that licking and chewing is what mammals do when a stressful moment ends, she says. Imagine you’re speeding down I-64 and, suddenly, blue-red police lights bloom in your rearview. You take your foot off the gas, preparing a defense. The moment the patrol car flies past, that moment of relief — that’s the lick-and-chew, she says. In the moment of fear, your mouth went dry; when you’re no longer in trouble, saliva flows. That’s what happens to the horse when fear abates: saliva flows, they lick, they chew.

    Rocky stands quietly until Mary Rose raises the flag again, sending the stallion trotting in the opposite direction. When he glances her way, she drops her arms, relaxes her posture and Rocky stops, still watching her every move. Step by slow step, she’s building a connection with the frightened stallion, teaching him a language he can count on, a way to know what’s expected, a way to find a link to her — the scariest thing around right now.

    Mary Rose’s ultimate goal is to bond with this nine-year-old horse who has ample reason to mistrust humans. Working in her favor is biology, says Wendy Williams, author The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion, a fascinating exploration of horse behavior and evolution. Horses have a strong propensity to bond, Williams says in a phone interview from her home in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. “That’s biologically driven. It doesn’t seem strange to me at all that the propensity to bond would be transferred to humans. Why wouldn’t it be? It is with us the other way around. We don’t feel comfortable without having other beings around, not just humans but dogs, cats, horses,” she says.

    Rather than the old idea that humans selectively bred wolves or horses, shaping them into pet-able docility, research suggests it probably worked the other way. Dog ancestors were attracted to our rubbish piles, then turned on the charm. Humans might have created conditions that made horses see some advantage in our company, too. “Maybe humans harvested grasses that provided food in winter,” Williams says.

    It’s impossible to say exactly when or how that happened. The earliest evidence of horse domestication comes from Central Asia, she says. In 2009, researchers discovered mare’s milk residue in 5,500-year-old pot shards in Kazakhstan. But chances are, humans and horses found common interest much earlier. “If you look at the French cave paintings…some 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, you can see human beings had an intimate knowledge of horse behavior,” Williams says. “Who knows if they were riding them.” But what’s indisputable is the connection painted in sensitive lines on cave walls: Even that early, horses had captured humans.

    The sprawling collection of misaligned pages in a three-ring binder lands on the glass-top table with a slap. “You can’t make fun of me,” Mary Rose says as she offers what she calls “her manifesto.” It’s a scrapbook bulging with pictures. The cover is a photograph cut into the shape of a floppy heart. It shows two horses nuzzling. Inside are artifacts in the life of little Mary Rose: an armband from the Shelbyville Horse Show, a family outing that birthed an obsession; a photograph of her dad with swept-back dark hair, holding a toddler with chubby legs atop a pony. In the image, Mary Rose looks skeptical, and the horse in the fairgrounds attraction looks miserable. A second photo shows another pony ride and a bigger girl with brown hair tumbling down her back. Her legs — no longer chubby — don’t reach the stirrups, and she holds the saddle horn, not the reins. But she beams at the camera like she’s on the parade ground passing the judges. On every page, anonymous horses strike supermodel poses, heads held high, manes tousled in the wind. It’s little-girl horse porn.

    For a few years, young Mary Rose carried that scrapbook everywhere. “I just wanted to be able to look at it any time. I would just stare at all those pictures, wish I was all the people in those pictures,” she says. Lots of little girls catch horse fever, and Mary Rose was a little girl of intense interests to begin with. One more couldn’t possibly matter, her mother, Sandra Sawicki, thought. “She loved space at one point. She had a big space notebook,” Sawicki says. “She didn’t end up being an astronaut.”

    After the family attended the horse show, Mary Rose’s father found a riding teacher for her and her younger sister. It was like scratching chicken pox: It only got worse. The lessons weren’t enough. As soon as Mary Rose was able, she helped in people’s barns to get more horse time. “It was a way to learn without paying for lessons,” she says. When she was 15, a friend invited her to work with Phyllis and John Tate’s horses, about halfway between Crestwood and Simpsonville. Even as a 15-year-old, Mary Rose exuded poise and self-confidence, Phyllis says. “She knew where she wanted to go in five years, 10 years. She was very goal-oriented, with a work ethic that was just absolutely incredible,” Phyllis says. Plus, Mary Rose knew horses. “Any horse in my barn was putty in her hands,” Phyllis says.

    Any horse except Callie. Callie is a Paso Fino mare with a fair dose of what Paso Fino people call “brio.” She likes to be the boss. The breed association brags that Paso Finos are “the smoothest riding horse in the world.” They move like giant windup toys. But you had to earn that from Callie; you had to be able to stay onboard. After watching the stubborn teenager hit the dirt with every try, Phyllis finally called the guy who had trained Callie. Could Brett Cissell give the teen some pointers? “Brett is as close to a horse whisperer as anyone I’ve ever seen,” Phyllis says. “When Brett trained Callie, the first couple times he came, he walked into the stall, leaned against the wall, pulled down his hat and crossed his arms and waited.” Phyllis thought, “I’m paying this guy to stand here?” He was waiting for the horse to be ready for him.

    Brett calls Callie “very light,” which means it doesn’t take much to get a reaction from her, for good or ill. In general, Paso Finos “are geared a little hot,” he says. When Phyllis called about Mary Rose, Brett wasn’t keen on the project. In his experience, giving lessons is babysitting accompanied by horses. He asked Phyllis, “Is she pretty into it? Because I don’t wanna just sit out there.” While he chatted with Phyllis, he could see the young girl trying to work with Callie. “She thought she was pretty hot stuff, I could tell that right away,” he says. “I kind of look out of the corner of my eye, and here’s the horse rearing up, and her sliding off the back. I laughed. She jumped back on and tried to act like it didn’t happen.” He liked that grit. But with the grit came attitude once the lessons began. “I’m saying, ‘Lighten up,’ and of course I’m getting, ‘I am!’” Brett says.

    Then Brett rode Callie. “It was like somebody flipped a switch,” Mary Rose says. “The horse was all of a sudden light and calm.” To rub salt in the wound, he had Callie spin, barely touching her reins as she executed one difficult maneuver after another.

    A decade later, Mary Rose still sounds a little indignant. “I was like, OK, I don’t know what this dick wad’s doing, but I want to know what he knows, because it was like night and day. I was just positive that horse was going to buck (him) off. I was positive! And then (he) got on and it was perfect.”

    Brett was a seasoned horseman by the time he was recruited to teach Mary Rose. His parents put him on a horse for the first time when he was two or three. As a kid growing up in Fern Creek, he often rode bareback because he was too little to saddle his pony. “So I would just pull him over to the fence and jump on his back,” he says. He got into competitive barrel racing in high school and college, before traveling all over the country cowboying, training horses, running farms. When he returned to Kentucky around 2004, he was in his early 30s. “Back then, I was kind of like: have saddle, will travel,” Brett says. “I was going places and training here and training there. I liked it because it kept me a little bit freer. The money was OK, and I didn’t have to clean stalls. I didn’t have to take care of horses. I just kind of show up, ride the horse, and go.”

    Then came the call about the kid and Callie. Brett gave Mary Rose lessons for the rest of that summer. There was immediate tension, Phyllis says. “Mary was brought to tears several times because he would yell at her,” she says. “I think Brett was much harder on her than he would have been with anybody else because he recognized her potential.” The following spring, he began taking 16-year-old Mary Rose with him to start young horses under saddle. He’d pick her up at Phyllis’ — as far from her Crestwood home as Mary Rose was allowed to drive, about 10 miles. They’d work horses all day, and he’d throw her five or ten dollars from whatever he was paid. That way, while he taught, he got the second pair of hands he sometimes needed.

    To Brett, she was just a kid — a kid who told him about her dates. And then, suddenly, she wasn’t. It hit him the night of her high school graduation. He was a guest at her parents’ home after the Highlands Latin School graduation ceremony, and Mary Rose was heading off to prom, which took place on graduation night. “I remember having this sinking feeling,” he says. “She got dressed up to go to the prom. She had on this black dress, and everybody was kind of joking around saying, ‘You should wear your hat.’ So she put on her black cowboy hat and this dress, and I remember I was like, ‘Oh, no, you can’t.’” They started dating in 2011, after she turned 18. They married in 2016.

    Back then, her parents didn’t like her dating somebody 22 years her senior. What her parents didn’t know was how bad she was doing in school. “I knew from the time I was 15 years old I didn’t need to be in college,” she says. So she cut classes to ride horses. The deception went further. “It was so horrible. I forged transcripts to keep them off my butt so I could continue faking my way through college. And they were just that trusting. It’s very sad that I used them that way.” But at the time, she thought, “I was doing what I thought I had to do.”

    Finally, at the start of her junior year, she says her parents gave her an ultimatum: straighten up or get out. She packed her car, the car she ended up sleeping in some nights.

    “I think the longest stretch was probably four or five days. I would just go shower at the YMCA in Buckner,” she says. It wasn’t easy finding a place to park. Sometimes she’d go over to Phyllis and John Tate’s house after they were in bed and park in their driveway. But she never told them she was in trouble. “I didn’t want to stress them out with it,” she says. Instead, she adopted an adult pit bull mix named Carlos as her protector. He still is.

    It’s a cold day at Dark Horse Training in December 2017, and Carlos is anxious. The black-and-white dog wears a blue coat and stands unmoving, staring into Rocky’s stall. Yesterday, the cold weather induced Mary Rose to work indoors with Rocky, and Carlos didn’t like it. It’s even colder today, so she’s in the stall again with the frightened horse. His eyes are rolling, flashing white. Carlos is beside himself. His ears are down and back, the worry in his brown eyes heart wrenching. He cries as Mary Rose approaches the stallion. She wants the horse to become accustomed to her touch. Mary Rose’s face is luminous in the Arctic chill, only slightly less pink than the ear-warmer headband that encircles her face.

    For all Carlos’ anxiety, the session starts out well. When Mary Rose extends the flag, Rocky easily agrees to touch it. Just a few days ago, he wouldn’t even look at it. Mary Rose wants to touch Rocky’s shoulder with the flag. First, she holds it to his nose, then rubs it along his shoulder. No problem. “It’s just a huge difference from yesterday,” she says. But Rocky isn’t happy. He’s trembling. Still, he licks and chews.

    She expands the area she’s touching with the flag, rubbing from his shoulder to his rear. The horse seems OK, but Carlos isn’t. He’s crying. Over the next 26 minutes as Mary Rose approaches and withdraws, Rocky grows nosier, snorting with increasing frequency. One reason horses snort, some experts say, is to express alarm or to communicate that they’re feeling threatened.

    By moving to the other side of the stall, Mary Rose gets Rocky to turn so that his left side faces her. He doesn’t like anyone on his left. But she doesn’t back down. His eyes show white again, and Mary Rose worries about how his neck is arched. “That could be a tiny, tiny bit of a threat,” she says. That’s clearly how Carlos sees it.

    She extends her gloved hand to the stallion. Twice, Rocky noses it lightly. She gets the horse to turn and face the other way; he’s obviously calmer having her on his right side. This time, he rubs his nose against her hand.

    The trouble starts when he cannot see her hand. He tilts his head to see it and then bobs his head up and down. “I feel like the head bobbing is him trying to read me,” Mary Rose says. “Sometimes that can be threatening. Two stallions getting ready to fight will do a lot of head tossing.” Still, she reaches out to touch his mane close to his shoulder and then rubs his neck. She talks to Rocky with a teasing, singsong voice. “I touched your neck! Yes I did!”

    When she has him turn again to show his left side and extends a gloved hand to his neck, his mouth is near her hand. “Don’t bite me,” she says, reaching to touch his neck and shoulder. He flinches but doesn’t move his feet. At this point, Mary Rose isn’t sure what he’s doing. “I’m not really good enough to read if he’s trying to figure me out, or if he’s being confrontational,” she says. “Is he really threatening me?” The whites of his eyes show, but she continues to touch him. He sniffs down her arm and bobs his head. “As long as he doesn’t bite me, I’m completely fine with him bobbing his head around like that. We’re kind of reaching a new level of thinking here.” But just what is he thinking?

    Once again, she’s working on his right side and reaching out with her left arm. He shakes his head, snorting. His eyes flash white. This time, he opens his mouth to bite, a little tentatively, and she whacks him on the face. It startles him. He backs up, his hooves striking a loud tattoo on the stall walls. Carlos rushes back and forth, crying. When the horse stands still, Mary Rose once again holds out the flag to Rocky, who is now very jumpy, but he does nose it. Carlos is still crying.

    The dog runs over to me and jumps up, looking into my eyes as if begging me to do something. When I push him down, he bites me in his fear. Fortunately for Carlos and Rocky, Mary Rose is only in the stall a little longer. “I just have to touch him one more time,” she says. She reaches out, touches the horse’s nose, gives his neck a quick rub and leaves the stall. “Some of those moments, we’re going to have those,” she says. “That was great. This was a great day.” The quadrupeds clearly don’t agree.

     

    Mary Rose applies a training technique called natural horsemanship, associated with trainers like Dan “Buck” Brannaman, an inspiration for the main character in The Horse Whisperer. Its practitioners consider the methods gentle, a way to domesticate a horse without breaking its spirit. “We simply do not use fear or pain to motivate the animal, nor do we force the animal into submission,” a natural horsemanship website explains. The basis of the approach is the operant conditioning, which relies on reward and punishment — or in the case of natural horsemanship, pressure. For the horse, the reward is the release of pressure; Rocky’s release comes when he no longer has to run in circles or when no one is trying to touch him.

    But natural horsemanship is not without its detractors, including the University of Pennsylvania’s McDonnell. Remember her assessment of licking and chewing? McDonnell and others criticize natural horsemanship for what they say is its reliance on inducing fear. Rather than forming a bond, she says, “It’s counter-productive to learning. In order to get that licking and chewing, something bad has to happen to the animal first. It has to either have a sudden startle, or it has to have pressure to the point of fear and confusion.”

    She advocates, instead, something called protected contact, in which there’s a barrier between trainer and horse. In this approach, the horse is always in its comfort zone. McDonnell says the method works faster than other approaches and produces a consistent bond between horse and rider.

    Sarah Low, a past practitioner of natural horsemanship, began using protected contact Oct. 19 to train two mustangs she bought from the Bureau of Land Management. The Blacksburg, Virginia, veterinarian says they’re not feral — and she knows feral horses, having trapped more than 150 of them in Hawaii and working with quite a few. But she wouldn’t call the mustangs gentle either. “I’m just so amazed at how quickly” they’ve come along, Low says. She was able to ride one of the horses just two and a half months after she began training. The biggest challenge so far has been dealing with a filly’s biting. “I was taught as a kid: They bite you, you pop ’em. That’s what most people learn,” she says. Now, she tries to ignore the horse’s mouthiness, hoping that only rewarding her for good behavior will extinguish the misbehavior.

    On Jan. 11, 2018, everything is frozen. When she got in, Mary Rose discovered an electrical outlet in the barn had failed, so the bubbler failed, and now three water troughs are frozen solid. “I had like a foot of ice I had to get through,” she says. “It was just miserable. Absolutely miserable.”

    Everything takes longer in this weather. “By the time we’re doing feeding in the morning, you have your lunch break, and you have to start feeding in the afternoon,” she says. Up and down the barn, restless horses stir as Spanky, a square-built yellow dog, makes his way down the barn, looking in at each, his afternoon check-in. As a puppy, Spanky would grab ropes and lead young colts around. When Mary Rose fosters puppies, which she does frequently, Spanky plays wrangler, tumbling the babies in the hay and lolling with a big open mouth as pup after pup crawls over his face and around his belly. But today there’s only one puppy, Whispers, a sleek black female more intent on human attention than dog wrestling.

    Mary Rose touches Rocky’s shoulder with her fingertips. He startles at first, then settles down. Mary Rose expects Rocky will continue to startle for a while. “You’re trying to subdue the instincts that have kept him alive his entire life. … I don’t expect that to happen in days, weeks or months. It could be years. The reason he’s stayed alive and survived out there is because he has these heightened instincts.” But overall, the session is quiet. He seldom snorts. His eyes stay mostly brown.

    Two days later, she and the stallion are working in the round pen again. Fat, lazy snowflakes fall as Mary Rose walks up to the horse. He could easily run off, but as she approaches with the flag extended, he leans out to nose it. On her next approach, she touches the flag to both his shoulders. Although he watches her intently, he makes no attempt to run. Mary Rose walks away, grinning. “That was great!” she says. “That was completely his choice right there. … I know 100 percent he chose to stand there, 100 percent. There was no forcing. There’s no kind of coercion. That was him completely choosing to stand there.”

    In fact, through the entire session, he moves closer to Mary Rose than he ever has before, although he occasionally takes a step or two back. Mary Rose thinks she’s seeing his natural curiosity win over his fear. When she walks back and touches his shoulder with her hand instead of the flag, he leans away from her, all his legs canted backwards like a wobbly toy. But he doesn’t run. Noting his tilt, she walks away. “That was about all he can handle of that,” she says. Next time, she’ll touch his face first, which is their usual routine. It works, and as she moves to touch his left shoulder, his nose rubs lightly on her back before she walks away.

    On the next approach, a raucous flock of geese fly over, honking noisily. She reaches to Rocky’s neck and scratches along his mane. A light snow falls around them as he lowers his head and turns toward her. The two stand in a quiet trance, his head now lower than hers, his nose gently pressing her jacket as the honking fades. They stand this way for 19 seconds. Then Rocky lifts his head like waking from a dream, does a quick double take and trots off.

     

    By May, Rocky is ready for his first ride. With minimal drama, he has grown accustomed to wearing a halter. He learned to walk on a lead. With some practice, he stopped bucking off a horse blanket. He learned to wear a saddle and, after a few attempts, gave up on trying to buck it off. He easily tolerated Mary Rose’s weight when she stood in the stirrup. He’s worn a plastic tarp wrapped around him like a cloak to desensitize him to things touching him. He has walked around while Mary Rose let a rope drop down around his butt — that took some getting used to. Today, she’s going to ride him and her other feral horse, Dante. (It’s hard to find somebody to take on the costs of owning a horse they can’t ride.)

    Mary Rose brought Dante home from a Knott County strip job the year before she rescued Rocky. But the then-five-year-old stallion proved a far tougher customer than any horse she’d trained before or since. Dante wasn’t afraid of her. “I don’t know if Dante has any white in his eyes. Dante was never scared. He was mostly just mean. … Other stallions would move away. Dante would come at me.”

    She tried to work with him in a stall. Once. “He’d try to climb the wall. He would just go up, just go straight up,” she says. “He actually got his front leg hooked on a wall.”

    He fought everything. He charged her. He bit her. In fact, after weeks without progress, she wondered if she was going to have to have him euthanized. He didn’t realize he’d been rescued from near certain death already. On the strip job where he had lived, there was talk of euthanizing the wild young stallion. Mary Rose is still amazed she was able to catch him. She hadn’t been so lucky with his father. That wily stallion still roams the Knot County strip job with his little donkey friend. Two or three times she had him surrounded in the makeshift corrals they use to catch feral horses. “He’d jump out and push a panel down, and the little donkey would dart out after him,” Mary Rose says.

    But a year ago, she was able to saddle Dante. She was able to groom him. “He was like, I don’t care what you put on my back, as long as you don’t try to do something with you and me, as long as you don’t actually try to get on me,” Mary Rose says.

    Today, she’s going to get on him. One thing she has going for her: Dante doesn’t buck. He runs, and she can stay on a running horse. The striking white horse with blue-gray splotches stands snorting in the round pen, looking out the partly open door. Horses snort when they’re alarmed, but they also snort in anticipation and excitement, horse experts say. Dante always snorts.

    Mary Rose walks into the round pen with a saddle, and Dante snorts again. “He’s like a dragon!” Mary Rose says as she fastens the saddle’s many straps. She’s wearing a neon-yellow tank top with University of Louisville in pink letters. Her hair is piled atop her head. “I love this horse because he’s just so ridiculous,” she says.

    But getting onboard is anticlimactic. No drama. No running. She lets him decide where he wants to go while she flips the lead rope back and forth over his head. He spends most of his 20-minute ride pacing around in the shady part of the round pen. He’s no dummy. “That horse frustrated me so much that I love him,” she says after her ride. “I absolutely love that horse.”

    Rocky is Dante’s foil. Dante is wiggly, Rocky is stolid. Dante snorts, Rocky stands. Today, Rocky’s mane is in several long braids. His tail is long and silky. Even his forelock is braided. When Mary Rose climbs on and pets his neck, he’s a statue. She flips the lead rope over his head. He doesn’t flinch. She pulls his head gently to one side and then the other, and he’s completely docile. But he won’t move his feet. After about two minutes, she gets him to pivot in a circle. “His back is very, very tight right now,” she says. “He’s nervous about this. But he’s OK. He’s keeping it together, but he’s definitely pretty nervous about having me on his back.” For 20 minutes, they pivot in occasional lazy circles, Rocky as expressive as wood.

    Sometime in early summer 2018, Mary Rose starts thinking more about the larger problem of feral horses in eastern Kentucky. She has been to many of the strip jobs where horses struggle to make it through the winter. She knows how some wander into the road to lick minerals, hazards to drivers and themselves. She has helped capture some and failed to capture others that have become nuisances. Over a frustrating series of trips, she and April Harvey tried and failed to bring in one herd that a landowner is promising to shoot if someone doesn’t get them. Bringing food to feral horses isn’t always an answer, because feeding accustoms the horses to humans, making the animals prey to the kind of people who lassoed Leroy in Floyd County. While the Kentucky Humane Society has been involved with the problem for several years, Mary Rose saw a need for more help.

    “What if we just started our own deal?” Mary Rose asked Brett. One weekend, they had a long, serious conversation about the possibilities. “Then I pitched the idea to April and she was like, ‘I think you could do it,’” Mary Rose says. Brett came up with a name, Horsemen Helping Horses, and they were on their way.

    Mary Rose has a habit of adopting people as surrogate parents. One of those pairs is Brooks and Beth May, a couple with a 36-acre farm between Shelbyville and Simpsonville. The started out as clients who were relatively new to horse ownership and riding. “We put our horses in training with her,” Brooks says. “It was as much training for us as it was for our horses.” Over time they grew close with Mary Rose, and she would ask their advice, eventually coming to them about plans for a nonprofit. “She asked a lot of questions about what she should and shouldn’t do,” Brooks says. “I don’t have any experience with any equine nonprofits, but I’ve been on the board of several nonprofits, so I have little bit of knowledge.” He was planning to retire from the insurance business by the end of 2018. He and his wife both decided to play some role in Horsemen Helping Horses.

    Her other surrogate parents, Phyllis and John Tate, are also onboard. John, an attorney, told her what she needed to read. “I want you to understand what a 501(c)(3) is, what your responsibilities are, and then you can come back and talk about it,” he says. “I didn’t want there to be stars in her eyes and think that it was something different from what it is.”

    Mary Rose and Brett live on a 1,000-acre farm between Taylorsville and Finchville. Brett, the farm manager, introduced Mary Rose to the guy who owns the farm across the street from their ranch home. Retired Army Maj. Gen. Michael W. Davidson, a former assistant chairman to the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the Department of Defense and a former senior adviser at the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security, thought he might be able to help the nonprofit. “This sounds egotistical,” he says, “but people almost always return my phone calls. I’ve been exploiting that to Mary Rose’s benefit and the horses’ benefit, trying to get her with the right folks in county government in eastern Kentucky.

    “There’s a lot of good reasons to do this,” he says, “and no good reason not to do this.”

    On a snowy Sunday in March, Horsemen Helping Horses held its official launch party in the barn on Antioch Road in Shelbyville, where Mary Rose leases space from equine veterinarian Steve Allday and his wife Kim. The group is still waiting for the final paperwork for its 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.

     

    Dante the wild stallion is wild no more. Last summer, he represented Kentucky Mountain Horses at the Bluegrass Fair at Masterson Station Park in Lexington, walking around carnival rides and tolerating the attention of strangers. Then, on March 10 this year, he rode with the hounds in his first fox hunt. (They don’t actually chase foxes.)

    “He was so good!” Mary Rose crows the afternoon of the fox hunt. “He was a little confused at first, but he stayed calm.” The only trouble? He wanted to be the leader. “Once he learned what his job was, he was really good,” she says. “I was almost in tears today riding Dante. I was just so fucking proud of this horse!”

    Rocky will take a bit longer to catch up to Dante’s accomplishments. Mary Rose walks him down to the arena on the Allday farm one day in mid-March. She lets him loose and Rocky bolts, kicking up dirt, until he reaches the gate at the far end. The gate is closed, so he wanders around a bit. Mary Rose joins him, takes his face in her hands and gives him an affectionate rub. Then he walks to the front of the arena, and for only the second time in more than a year, he looks at me with no sign of fear. When Mary Rose climbs into the saddle moments later, he moves away smoothly. He’s a gaited horse, which means he has a gait between a walk and a trot. He lifts both legs on one side and then both on the other, a movement some riders prefer for its smoothness.

    He’s come so far.

    In December 2018, he got away from Mary Rose and raced down the road. A stranger was able to grab his lead rope and bring him home. Different people take turns grooming him now. He let me brush him and was fine — uninterested, even. He’s been on his first trail ride. It was uneventful.

    He and Dante spend all their spare time together. They are best buds in the field. They will always be different than the barn-born horses. Rocky’s dad wasn’t born feral, Karen Slone says, but he was out on the mountain so long, he might as well been. He’s dead now, but his grandbabies are all over the place. Karen has one of Rocky’s babies. She named the filly GaDara, which is Armenian for “from the top of the mountain.” The filly is black, just like Rocky. Neither Rocky nor Dante will be making any more babies.

    I wonder what Rocky remembers of the mountain where he was born, of Chocolate, his favorite mare, of the lady and man in the blue truck who used to come to feed his family, of the green sweet grass and the blue smudge of mountains in the distance. You have to wonder, don’t you? Does a horse have regrets?

    This originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "From the Top of the Mountain." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Mickie Winters, mickiewinters.com

    Jenni Laidman's picture

    About Jenni Laidman

    I'm a freelance writer who specializes in science and medicine but is passionate about art. I'm a hell of a cook. I think of white wine as training wheels for people who will graduate to red. I love U of L women's basketball. The best bargain in town is the $3 admission to U of L volleyball. Really exciting stuff.

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