American Pharoah (hors kant spel?) won the Belmont Stakes and completed the triple crown, and my wife was recently in Kentucky, oddly enough, and even dropping down a ‘fecta or two at Churchill Downs. That was plenty enough inspiration for me to casually look up the venerable James Wyllie.
Wyllie was many things before a cowboy and he was not young when I took several of his equestrian classes at Pepperdine University in the 1990’s,1 so I half expected Google to tell me that he had already ridden some phantom quarter horse into the great unknown. I was delighted to read instead that he is not only still kicking, but also still providing equestrian instruction at the spritely young age of 96.
Physical Education classes are jokes, right? Some are but there are notable exceptions. Joe Nickerson’s Physical Education class at the now defunct Chatham High School was a case study in Darwinism on a level not often seen in today’s litigation-targeted public schools. I carry a reverse dent in my skull from my freshman year indoor soccer campaign. Patti Bright’s2 5:45AM Aerobics and Lifetime Fitness required impressive kickboarding next to early morning Division I water polo practices, and her final was the famous timed mile run. Finish in time or take the class again. Fly, fat ass, fly! And Jim Wyllie’s EQ 1, 2, and 3 were no joke. I witnessed supposed adults crying real tears, horses throwing off riders, and even a rather significant injury requiring an ambulance. It wasn’t for everyone and that’s part of what made it great.3
Wyllie eyeballed my class on the first day, introduced himself as Jim (though no one I knew called him anything but “Mr. Wyllie”), said we should probably follow him now, and proceeded to lead us through the stable as he dropped bombs of excellent advice and biographical tidbits on us. Which horses bite? All horses bite. Some bite harder or more frequently, but they all will bite. Which horses kick? All horses kick. Some kick with the front legs more, but they all will kick.4 What’s more dangerous, riding a horse up a narrow trail on a mountain or riding a horse across an open field? It’s the field. You’ll learn why. Put on a helmet. Get a crop. Pretend the crop is a tennis racket when you swing it. Don’t wear shorts. Consider a jockstrap if you have any balls you like. Ronald Reagan was my neighbor and remains my friend; he is not all that smart, but he’s a great horseman. He can point a horse in a direction and keep it there. If you don’t think for the horse, the horse will think for itself and that seldom ends well for either of you. I used to fly planes in WWII; you don’t fall as far from a horse. All excellent advice. All excellent stories. Never a dull class.
He then assigned us our particular horses for the duration of the course, apparently by our weight. I’m still not sure. I got Cosack (one s), a white half something and half something else I think… maybe Arabian, maybe quarter horse, or maybe donkey. I asked Wyllie whether the beast’s name was pronounced Ko-sack or Coss-ack. Wyllie said I should defer to the horse’s preference, but that I shouldn’t waste too much time talking to the horse as it was perhaps the least effective means of communication. Horses respond well to touch and life is a contact sport. You’ll find that humans often do as well. Invariably you’ll be in a wonderful or a terrible situation with a person where you have no idea what to say. Touch them instead of saying something stupid.
Some horses are unlucky. Sham, son of Pretense… forever second to Secretariat… was cursed. Great name, great speed, great looks, but born the wrong year; he died alone in his stall. Some even claim his head ended up in someone’s bed to make a point. Racing today, Sham had the times to beat ANY horse running; one year either way, Sham is a household horse name. Pepperdine had great horses because people (well… rich people) often buy great horses, can’t figure them out, get pissed4.5 when the horse kicks them or throws their kid in the cactus, and then put them down (the horse!) if the horse is unlucky, or sell or donate them to someone else if the horse is less unlucky. Cosack had several cracked teeth, I assume from a previous owner. Rescued by Wyllie rather than turned into glue, he now had a second career carrying amateur cow-people up into the Santa Monica Mountains or down into Malibu Canyon. Not a bad gig if you can get it.
All horses bite. Knowing this did not inspire confidence in the freshman trying to put a curb bit in Cosack’s mouth. To put in a bit, you have to jam your fingers into the side of a large animal’s mouth and open its jaws by grabbing its tongue, so you can then lay the bit in the space between the sharp front teeth and the crushing back teeth. Like installing Linux before Ubuntu, it’s not particularly hard once you’ve done it, but it’s decidedly character building your first time.
Riding a horse up the rocky Santa Monica mountain trails behind Pepperdine or across Alumni Park with the Pacific Ocean and Point Dume in the distance is a decidedly cool one credit class. Wild fires routinely burn down the arid underbrush and every 5 years or so the clouds open and the mountains sport more flowers than dried sticks. Tarantula holes are just off the path. There are probably rattlesnakes, but I never saw one. Catalina pokes out at times in the distance when the Santa Ana winds blow enough smog away. There’s a one hole golf course in Alumni Park (better than many 18 hole courses), and it’s the only fairway I know that you can ride a horse down without getting yelled at. With a horse in a canter (I never learned to gallop), I thought more than once that maybe it would be cool to become the world’s biggest jockey. Hey everybody! It’s the Shaq of jockeys (actually it would probably be more like the Greg Kite of jockeys); what an incredibly unlucky horse that would have been. If you get the chance to do any of this, I highly recommend it.
Horses are powerful but like most powerful things, they’re inevitably dying of something vaguely foul and apparently incurable.5 There are, of course, the catastrophic impacts and broken, shattered limbs from slips or poor placements at speed, but if you spend any time at all around a stable, you’ll meet up with the slower, more insidious miasma of illnesses… foul feet, foul lips, foul skin, intestinal disorders of any magnitude. Horses are impossibly hard to keep healthy, and until recently, the most successful means to combat this miserable fact basically reduced down to having a stable full of horses at various ages and stages of broken. One of the saddest things I ever saw was one of Wyllie’s favorite horses laying down in its final days on a pile of straw. The horse had carried Wyllie in a long, famous endurance land race through the night out of Tahoe and won him a silver buckle or something. A marathon running horse he was, only it was much farther than a marathon and this runner ran the race carrying someone on his back. Now he might get up and take another step. He might not. Eventually he didn’t.
Learned a lot in that class.
1I guess they shuttered the stable and discontinued the equestrian classes at Pepperdine in 2001. That’s an absolute fucking shame.
2Patti Brite’s “Aerobics and Lifetime Fitness” was no joke either, but that’s for another time. Died in 2004. Another absolute fucking shame.
3Yet Wyllie used to also run a program for handicapped children to ride horses. He had an ability to discern what someone was capable of doing, and then he made that person do it. It sounds so simple; it isn’t.
4Where can you stand that a horse can’t kick you? Basically nowhere near it, but on its back is the best, or really close, or really far. Horses can kick forwards, to the side, and to the rear. They can also crush you against a wall or a tree. If you’re on the back of a horse, you can get kicked by another horse. Being around horses is fun as hell, but it’s probably dumb.
4.5All horses also piss. The first time I saw Cosack, Wyllie basically said words to the effect of, “here’s a blanket and a shit load of leather; tack your horse.” I’ve been able to tack a sailboat if necessary, but never a horse. I screwed it up. I put the blanket pad (really a spacer for the horse’s comfort, not heat) on, put the saddle on, cinched the belt, and then stopped as the horse pissed down my leg. If you’ve never been pissed on by a gelding, don’t go out of your way to experience it, but if you have, welcome to a club with few admitted members.
5The drugs, the cheating, the perpetuating of weak genes masked by performance enhancing chemicals. Horse racing and the NFL are a mess. Horses and professional football players nod at each other as they pass in the halls of a crooked doctor’s practice. Offensive lineman die younger than most; race horses die younger than most.
6Camp David Gonzales