Last updateFri, 14 Aug 2020 4pm

Off the familiar tracks, finding ways of doing odd things well, learning and earning a living

John Frost (no longer with us) was an impressively talented – and hard working – photographer of all things Mexican. He also had a keen eye for things distinctively rural.

He lived and worked in his Jocotepec studio when that territory was considered déclassé. A careless judgement that made John’s close friends and admirers grin.

His “subjects” were to be found in what often were considered backwater Lake Chapala pueblos. Small places that were firmly considered belonging in poverty-line categories throughout the 1960s and ’70s. Which of course pleased him greatly. He didn’t step daily into the world determined to photograph gringo tourists and upper-class Mexicans shunning their former pasts.   

A well-read, slyly quiet photographer, displaying subdued spurts of intellectual probing, he was in some people’s minds more of a Nelson Algren than anywhere near anyone else. But the side of Algren that enticed readers with “The Man with Golden Arm” and “A Walk on the Wild Side,” rather than “The Neon Wilderness.”    

That meant that when I began buying rough horses, he applauded, for in his judgement that bit of slyness put me in the company of tough cattlemen with little – if any – education, but a lot of mountain-side savvy regarding mean-cattle and crazy-horses. Roughly-inclined cattle were more likely to get cross and slam into good mounts, and to hook into a horseless rider. Cattle had sizable horns in those days, which helped to keep wolves and rustlers at a distance.  

Rough horses and ornery cattle were not things city-reared ladies naturally take to. But my patient wife knew that I had been given a pony, and a job herding livestock – mostly cattle – at the age of eight and a-half.  

The depression hung on for a long time in the Great Plains. And my mother was ahead of her time in the marital line of behavior. She got a divorce from her alcoholic husband about the time I was getting born. As a result, I got “farmed out” at a babyish age to a rural family while she got a job in the state’s capital.           

Someone took a picture of me climbing naked at the age of two across the top of a pile of fire wood stacked for winter time. My wife kept that quaint picture, and recently someone dug it out. Proof, I guess, that I was ahead of my time in strange areas.  

Dealing with livestock was one of those. One morning, when I was still small, I grabbed the tail of a saddled bronc. Carefully, I pulled myself up to where I could reach his hocks with my feet. Barely hanging on, I reached over the horse’s rump to grab the skirting of the saddle. With some hard pulling – and a lot of patience, especially on the part of the bronc – I was finally able to pull myself up to grab the saddle.

It meant that in no time I was “free riding.” It also meant that in no time I was put to work hauling stuff, and that pony and I were a part of the ranch’s crew.   

A new world. The son of the foreman taught me a slew of things about herding, handling cattle as well horses. Throwing a sure-fire loop, I learned, was as important as getting on a horse. For about a year what I did was mostly rope everything I could: stumps, tried to catch the ranch’s fowls – turkey, ducks, chickens, wild rabbits, the ranch dogs. And I sometimes got into trouble. But the foreman’s oldest son showed me I had to learn to rope well to be of any help on a ranch. By the time I was given my own work pony I was eight-and-a-half, and was working on my own. Now and then I was even hired out to other ranches.

Main thing, the foreman’s son said, was not to be a show-off. “Don’t do your work with a lot kid stuff,” he told me. It was the work, not how much noise I made and showing off, that counted.  

I nodded and paid attention to the livestock I was working, especially the touchy horses.

Soon, I was sent alone to a different ranch for a long stretch. There, the owner’s son, Guy, older than me, was a great reader. He had books all over the house. It turned out to be like school, except I got a surprise. I liked it. He knew a ton of stuff just about horses themselves. Stuff I’d never heard about. He’d been to advanced classes in two places: Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

In both places he’d had a teacher who taught him all sorts of amazing stuff about livestock, especially horses, stuff he’d never thought of – some that is just being talked about now. 

We kept in touch for years. And every time some university expert would find out something new about horses, he’d be on it, and send his findings right to me. He’d tell me where to go to find out more stuff that neither of us had ever thought of asking about. Stuff that grown-up ranch folk didn’t know about. Some of them made fun of it because it took place so many years ago.

Today, university “experts” have been talking about some old-time stuff that some other, mostly  independent folks have been examining. Ancient details about horses, for instance. In those days, if it was written about horses anywhere, Guy would find out about it.

The journey, university experts now agree, seems to have started among a pastoral people on the Kazakh steppes. They seem to have been the first to domesticate, bridle and ride horses around 3500 B.C., a millennium earlier than experts previously thought.

Archaeologists have uncovered ample horse bones and artifacts from which they derived “three independent lines of evidence” demonstrating amazing stuff about horses by the semi-sedentary Botai culture, which occupied sites in northern Kazakhstan for six centuries, beginning around 3600 B.C. 

(The first of a series.)  

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