Saturday, March 22, 2014

Eh Capa Queen

She Speaks Horse

A Young Equestrian with a Gift

“Karmel’s a great storyteller,” said my friend, Larie Horsley. As Karmel Laursen began giving a mother’s account of the miracle that had unfolded before her eyes over time, I had to agree. We were at the Sun Valley Wagon Days, because Larie knew of my interest in a group that would be performing there, the EhCapa (“Apache” spelled backwards) Bareback Riders Club. Her daughter, Brandi Horsley Krajnik, is the owner of BK Arena in Nampa, where the club practices. I had come hoping to hear the tale of Karmel’s daughter, a girl named Ecko, who had tamed a wild mustang and was now riding it, two years later, as the EhCapa Queen.

To understand the gravity of becoming an EhCapa Queen, a little history is in order. In 1956, looking for a way for children to benefit from horsemanship without the exorbitant cost of tack, the club was created. With a style reminiscent of American Indians of old, the EhCapa dress the part and paint up their horses as Indians once did. There are no bridles or bits. Control is through voice commands, cues from the riders’ legs, and a one-inch leather tack rein. Riders turn right, left, stop, gallop, and jump their mounts over horizontal poles several feet in the air. Accomplished riders put arms behind their backs, as if flying, and don’t hold on at all. The EhCapa Queen is an extremely good rider with an extremely good horse.

I had pondered all this as I drove up to Sun Valley with my friend Janet to watch the parade, and hopefully to spend a few minutes with Queen Ecko Laursen and her mother. Larie said she would introduce us.

Something about this group of country folk I’ve fallen in with just gets me. When we met up with Larie, right away it was, “Here’s a couple of chairs, have a seat,” and “You should’ve camped with us this weekend,” and “You’ll both have to come to the barbeque.” Always warm and welcoming.

Larie led us to a shady canvas near the parade site, saying the EhCapas would ride past us within thirty minutes. Beneath the canvas was Karmel Laursen, mother of the EhCapa Queen, who offered us camp chairs beneath the cool tent. I set my digital recorder and we all got ready to listen.

Karmel told us of the time Ecko was eight years old, visiting her grandfather in Wyoming during summer vacation. Ecko’s granddad took her up to the Bighorn Crags to see the old mustangs, part of the true Spanish breed, some of the last of their kind.  Looking at the herd from about a mile away was the first time Ecko had seen such animals. When, amazingly, a mustang approached the fence, she reached out her hand and touched its nose. Her brother snapped a picture. That ignited a determined spark in Ecko that some day, somehow, she would get a mustang of her own. Later, when she told her grandpa she’d touched a wild mustang, he didn’t believe her at first, but her brother had the proof. She said to her grandpa, “I’m going to buy a mustang someday, and I’m going to train it, just for you.”

Every year since that summer, Ecko asked her mother to take her to the BLM mustang sales. Year after year she begged, knowing exactly what day and time the sales were held. “Mom, can I have a mustang this year?” she’d ask repeatedly. Her mother always said, “You have a horse. You’ve got two horses. Go take care of them.”

“But I want a mustang,” Echo persisted.

“No,” was the yearly answer.

By age fifteen, she’d worn her mother down. When she said, “Mom, let’s go up to the mustang sale,” she hit pay dirt. Karmel said they could go, but only to look.

There were many mustangs at the sale, and Ecko intended to visit every stall, but at the second one, she came to a stop.

“I really like this one,” she said.

Karmel believes Ecko was drawn to the palomino in the stall because it resembled a former horse of theirs, which had died of colic. The horse they were viewing was by no means a kid’s horse. He was four years old, appeared to have shire or draught horse blood, and had feet the size of dinner plates. Karmel directed her daughter towards the two-year-olds, more appropriately-proportioned horses for a petite girl. She reasoned that a younger, smaller horse could grow up with her, unlike a horse that had been on the range for four years, learning bad habits.

“No, Mom,” said Ecko firmly. “It’s this one.”

She agreed to look over every horse before making a decision, for by now it was clear that the Laursens would be getting a horse. A few more hours were spent looking carefully over each pen, yet Ecko kept returning to the palomino.

“He’s huge,” said Karmel. “He’s almost frightening.”

“Mom,” Ecko insisted, “this is the one.”

Karmel told us she began praying the first of many prayers, such as, “What am I supposed to tell her now, God?” She sighed, turning to her daughter. “Explain just one thing to me. Why is this the one?”

Ecko asked her mother to look at the palomino’s eyes. Karmel stared and stared. Finally, taking a deep breath, she said, “Okay. I understand.”

The horse had the kindest horse eyes she’d ever seen. She just couldn’t say no. She made Ecko call her father, not wanting to be the only one responsible for an enormous horse that, who knows, could possibly end her daughter’s life. Ecko’s father told her, “It’s your horse,” and then asked to speak to Karmel.

“What do you think?” he said.

She replied with a phrase that would soon become common. “He’s huge!”

How huge was he? So huge that it took five or six men to load him while he put up a fuss. Almost too big, too tall for their large stock trailer. Once the horse was in the trailer, a man approached Karmel and asked who the rider would be. Karmel pointed to her tiny daughter. The man handed her a card and told her to call if they had any trouble, he’d come and pick him back up.

“Has this horse been returned?” she asked, and the man admitted that the horse was a “gimme back.” She didn’t share this with Ecko, even when they were driving down the road with the mustang kicking the tar out of the trailer, causing them to swerve and almost run off the road.

When they got home, they soon discovered that the fencing around their pasture was far too short. They borrowed a round, eight-foot tall corral from a lady down the street.

“He’s huge,” Ecko’s father said.

“I told you,” said Ecko’s mother.

Each morning while Ecko was at school, Karmel fed Durango, who stood on the far side of the corral, talking to him so he’d get familiar with her. The dog had another method, running right into the corral, and horse and dog got along fine. When Ecko got home from school each day, she went right to the corral, talking to her new horse. A couple of weeks later, she announced she was going inside the corral. Karmel told her she would stand aside and pray, not able to watch what she feared was her daughter’s demise. When Karmel finally felt brave enough to turn around, she watched Durango as he sniffed, nudged, brushed against Ecko, and walked all around her. The girl acted disinterested. When he put his nose up to her face, she leaned away. Durango got closer and she leaned back even farther, way down, as if doing the limbo. Ecko later admitted she was shaking like a leaf.

Thus began a process of getting to know her horse, slowly reaching hands out, gently talking to him in a low, soothing voice. Never pursuing or pushing him, she let Durango do the initiating. Brief touching graduated to the slight rubbing of his coat. Karmel said he looked like a little kid with oversized snow boots who’d gotten up out of bed in the morning, not bothering to clean himself up. Anxious to brush him, Ecko began taking the brush with her into the pen, but Durango was skittish. So Ecko continued to spend hours with him, just rubbing his coat and talking. This soon turned to a moving motion of walking around, touching ankles, flanks, face, until one day she picked up a foot, still rubbing, and then another.

Durango was smitten with his new “mother.” He’d often lift his head, sniff the air, and know when she was home. While he kept his distance from Karmel, when Ecko was present he was on the closest side of the corral, nearest to her.

We were interrupted from this reverie by shouts of, “They’re coming!” from the surrounding EhCapa parents, who play a critical role in the organization, both moms and dads. Club parents with their children and farm dogs had gathered to watch the Big Hitch Parade. As we all wandered to the curb, I was impressed once more by how quiet horse parades are. No radio music blares, no car horns blast. It’s just laughter and talking and the clip-clopping of hooves. Soon the EhCapas trotted past, regal riders in their leather, feathers, and painted faces, their majestic mounts painted with markings of the riders’ handprints. Queen Ecko led them, in costume and black braided wig. She looked like royalty, sitting straight and proud atop Durango. Knowing a bit of their history made my eyes mist. As the EhCapa Bareback Riders passed by, I could easily see the look of accomplishment on each face. They’d learned to ride bareback, acquiring knowledge not many others had.

We watched more of the parade at the curb, then returned to the cooler seats under the shelter, where Karmel picked up the story.

“Ecko had always been able to do things with horses like no one else”, she said.

They had a high-strung horse named Doc, who also was not made for kids, but Ecko handled Doc more easily than even the horseshoers or vets could do.

“I would have never dreamed of the things she’s done,” Karmel told us. “She just speaks horse.”

With dangerous or spirited horses, the phrase with the Laursens is often “Send Ecko out first.” Even when she was a small eight-year-old and new to EhCapa, Ecko taught Doc to stretch his front legs out, almost as if he were reclining, while she shimmied up his leg, grabbed his neck, and mounted. When club members first saw her unique way of getting on her horse, they asked her to do it again so they could watch. The same patience she had with Doc was the patience she had years later with Durango. Karmel told us she’d had plenty of ideas about how her daughter should do things when it came to the horses, but had learned to keep her mouth shut. She eventually just sat and watched the small steps her daughter took with each animal in her care.

After countless hours with Durango, the day came when Ecko decided to drape her body over the horse, and once again, Karmel prayed. When Ecko asked her mother to take the rope and lead him around the pen while she was lying on him, Karmel prayed harder, knowing how easily this massive beast could crush her child. What happened then was as natural as Ecko and Durango’s relationship had always been. Durango sniffed and licked Ecko in an affable way, as if to say, “Oh, it’s just her. It’s okay, because it’s her.

A few days later, Ecko announced she was going to swing her leg up and sit on Durango. Karmel prayed again. Really, really hard. She heard Ecko become upright on the beast, then Ecko startled her by exclaiming, “Whoa!”

Karmel quickly turned around to see if Ecko was all right, and was immediately told to face forward. She carefully asked what the “Whoa” had been about.

“I can feel the power under me,” Ecko told her mother excitedly.

The parade was winding down, and Karmel ended her story. Our group of city and country women stood up and joined the EhCapa, gathered now near the red Sun Valley barn, sweating under their Indian garb, but looking happy. They’d performed and paraded for large crowds over the weekend, and had been enthusiastically applauded. I turned to Janet and said, “These country friends share stories like this with me all the time. Isn’t that just incredible?”

Janet and I found our way to Echo and her horse, Durango, who was busy slurping water and getting a well-deserved bucket of oats. I touched his golden coat.

I wasn’t sure what a real live horse-whisperer would look or be like. I wondered if, like several animal-lovers I know, Ecko felt more at ease with animals than with people. This was not the case. The EhCapa Club is also involved with 4-H, an organization that emphasizes public speaking and showing animals, as well as excellent training in animal care. Ecko is a 4-H product. She repeated some of the story her mother told us, adding her own perspective, such as what had been going on inside her mind when she first laid eyes on the mustang.

“I looked at his eyes. I saw how calm he was. It was as if he were trying to tell me something, trying to tell me he wanted me. I needed this horse. He spoke to me like no other horse did.”

Although everyone else discouraged her, Ecko had wanted the challenge, wanted to prove to people that she could do it. “So I did,” she said simply. She admitted that she’d been scared out of her mind, and mentioned the moment she first sat up on Durango. “Holy cow, I’m on a mustang,” was her thought, followed by, “and I don’t know if he’s going to buck.”

I asked how she’d done it, this incredible mustang training, and Ecko said, “Baby steps. First of all, I had to build trust. He needed to know I was not going to hurt him.”

Her eyes brightened as she described her feelings for the horse munching hay a few feet away. “Loving and adoring,” was how she put it. “He’s my best friend. If he were to be sold or should die, I don’t know what I would do without him.”
Now seventeen, Ecko plans to be a horse trainer. “There are people that stay on the same horse for years that don’t ever get to experience the challenge of training a new horse. New horse, new challenge.”

She talked a little more about the day she was in the Bighorns with her grandpa. “He was the first person I called when I bought my mustang.” She knew that her grandfather talked about her around Powell, Wyoming, because every time she visited she’d hear, “Oh, so you’re Ecko”’ She had loved sharing stories of Durango with her grandfather, who died early last year before he got to see her as the EhCapa Queen. Or, we both surmised, maybe he did get to see her.

“Actually,” she said, “he did. I know he sees me. I told him I was going to buy a mustang and train it, just for him,” she added, eyes shining. “And I did.”

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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Reynolds Creek

Good and Lost

By nine-thirty, two things were obvious: my friend, Miss Direction, and I had missed the Eagle Scout flag-raising ceremony at Reynolds Cemetery in Owyhee County, and somewhere along the line, we’d missed a turn. The pavement had ended long ago, narrowing and dwindling to gravel before becoming packed dirt. Driving over a hillside into an expansive valley, we gazed out at miles of nothingness, in awe of the beauty and perhaps a little unnerved. Our map was inadequate, we had no GPS system, and we were surrounded by unapologetic mountains. Along the way, we could have taken about a half-dozen roads, and after traveling for more than an hour, we now weren’t as keen on trusting our instincts as we’d once been. Already, we had inadvertently found several muddy dead ends.

“It astounds me that there are even roads out here,” I said. “Why on earth did people make these? Where were they headed, anyway?”

I was getting a little nervous about our gasoline supply, which was still ample, but with another hour or two of driving aimlessly, that could change. I also felt remorse for not having brought any provisions beyond bottled water, which I merely sipped, in the event I’d need the remainder later. This seemed like a region where one could get good and lost.

Rounding a snow-filled corner, we were shocked to encounter a lone runner in matching long-sleeved shirt, running pants, cap, and shoes. I blinked, thinking I was seeing things. He turned, slightly annoyed at the disruption of his ponderings and privacy, gave a half-wave and moved closer to the edge of the road to allow us to pass.

“Okay, that was weird,” I told Miss Direction, “Where would he have come from?”

Neither of us could say; if we had known, we’d probably have been back on a main road.

A few minutes later, we came around another bend and spotted six more runners in full attire, moving in a formation small enough to allow discussion. The next corner revealed two runners. The corner after that yielded a lone athlete.

“It’s a runner’s mecca!” I exclaimed.

The fitness enthusiasts gave way to the occasional cow and, surprisingly, to ranches and farms, each nestled in its own valley. “Why would anyone want to build out here?” said the city in me. My question was answered almost immediately. Near each of these places was a row of telltale trees and saplings, meaning only one thing: water; exactly what the forefathers of the area had been looking for.

Eventually, we found our way back to Highway 78, coming upon what looked like the same road we had taken into the Owyhees. I now suspect that many of the roads out there connect to each other; I just have no idea how. Our search for the cemetery was abandoned, but I was determined to try again the following week.

During the days in between, I did a little research and found that the area where we’d been was actually Wilson Creek, not Reynolds Creek. We were only a couple of mountains off. The Wilson Creek area, I discovered, was indeed a hot spot for Saturday morning and afternoon runners.

Seven days later found me with a full tank of gas in my car, a generous lunch and plenty of snacks and beverages, plus an ample amount of company for moral support in the form of Mr. Larson, son Jared, daughter Erika and Gracie the gray dog. We were going to find that cemetery, no matter what.

“Turn here,” suggested my husband, who chose to act as navigator while I drove. He was looking at instructions we’d gleaned from the Internet.

“Is that Rabbit Creek road?” I asked, mildly concerned. No way did I want to get confused in this area again.

“Yeah, I’m sure it is,” he replied. Still, we traveled mile after mile without seeing a sign that proved the name.

“Do you think we’re heading in the right direction?” I asked.
“I’m sure we are,” Mr. Larson replied, possibly irritated by my apparent lack of trust.

“I’m turning around,” I said finally, and headed back towards Highway 78 and Murphy. Once back on the Highway, I found the local mercantile and pulled in.

“They’re just going to tell you we were on the right road,” Mr. Larson called out knowingly. We’d just see about that.

Like a scene out of a small-town movie, I walked into the practically-empty store to find the proprietor seated at a café table near an older couple, enjoying their company. He rose from his chair and smiled when he saw a new customer.

“We’re trying to find the Reynolds Cemetery,” I breathed, feeling a little silly. “We got lost last weekend trying to find it and I don’t want to get lost again,” I over-shared. “Could you tell me how to get out there?”

“Well,” said the man, “the only way to get there these days is by helicopter.”

“You’re kidding me,” I said, deflated. “Really?”

“No,” he answered, and then smiled. “You go down Old Highway 45, which turns into Rabbit Creek—”

“The one without the sign,” I muttered. “Rats. That means I’ll have to tell my navigator he was right.”

“Not necessarily,” said the man, “You can always go down a couple of roads beyond Rabbit Creek and turn left there. It ties in and will lead you to the exact same spot. He’ll never know the difference.”

I liked the way he thought.

Thirty minutes later our group pulled up to a farm, next to which was the sought-after ancient cemetery, complete with ornate iron gating and looming archway. Headstones were in varying states of tilting and dipping, seeming to undulate without actually moving. Some were only crumbling pieces of antique cement, time-warped wood or metal posts while others were made of intricately carved marble with shrouds, angels and bibles depicted on the alters of loved ones lost.

Wind, sun and rain had combined to wipe clean many of the epitaphs, but a few were still readable:

“Tis a little grave, but Oh! Have care! For cherished hopes are buried there.”

“How much of light, how much of joy, is buried with a darling boy.”

“Sleep, oh dearest babe, and take thy rest. God called thee home and thought it best.”

“Meet me.”

In several cases, children that had only lived to be eighteen months or so had the same size and quality gravestone as the parent they’d been laid beside. It seemed these were people that had valued a soul, no matter the age. I would eventually learn that diphtheria had often been the culprit, causing families to lose more than one member within days’ or weeks’ time. One man, I was later informed, returned home from business in the East to discover that two of his children had already been buried. A third child died the next day, and a fourth child died not long after.

I ran my fingers along the iron gatepost’s cool, smooth lines, curious about the long-gone hands that had fashioned it all. Curling, straight, pointed and exact, whoever created the only physical barrier for stray livestock, dogs and perhaps the coyote did so with care.

“Look over here!” called my daughter. Beyond the cemetery sat an old, abandoned schoolhouse. As we approached it, two farm dogs ran to greet us, joining our gray dog. They escorted us up the dilapidated steps and onto the school’s tired front porch; the setting, no doubt, for plenty of long-ago greetings and departures. The interior sported signs of multiple visits from birds, an olden-day attempt at decorating with a curtain still attached to its rod, and what I guessed was late nineteen-sixties fluorescent lighting and blackboards. 

Catching my attention and holding it hostage were the now glass-less windows, placed side-by-side to create a panoramic view of pastures and hills beyond. Had I attended school here during any era and at any age, I would not have been able to focus on my studies with that landscape calling. 

The basement was nearly as intriguing with its cement walls and high ceiling. I remembered that similar schoolhouses often had their lunch rooms and held plays and recitals downstairs. I wondered if this had been the case here, too. While the others lingered, I found myself drawn back to the cemetery, having an unexplainable desire to somehow connect with the people who had once been a part of this land. The Bernards, Brunzells, Drydens, Hallbergs, McDonalds and a whole lot of Giffords. As I looked around, “Native of Sweden” or “Born in Germany” was a frequent sight. I marveled that these folks could hail from so very far away, and yearned to know their stories. What choices had been placed before them that had brought them to this random, isolated place?

Once again, I was learning the lesson that life has many twists and turns; even more than the ones we’d seen last weekend on these winding Idaho country roads.

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