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A New Novel Breaks Horses — and Stereotypes

by Ketzel Levine
Feb 28, 2008 (Morning Edition)

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In those days, even before the war had swept up all the young men from the ranches, there were girls who came through the country breaking horses.

The first sentence from author Molly Gloss's latest work, The Hearts of Horses, sets the scene for a novel that busts some classic Wild West myths. It's the story of Martha Lessen, a 19-year-old female broncobuster who uses gentle methods to tame and train wild horses in a fictional county that borrows its name and landscape from eastern Oregon's Wallowa Mountains.

The concept of gentle training, or "horse whispering" as it's now known, has been knocking around for a few thousand years. Gentle methods were praised by the Greek philosopher Xenophon, embraced by centuries of Native Americans and reached cult status among 19th century Scots horsemen.

Though the female horse gentlers of the American West have largely gone unsung, Gloss says they definitely existed.

"Lots of daughters," Gloss says, "were the ones designated for the job. 'We're too busy doing the men's work,' the men would say. 'You break the horses.' And I think the women were doing it the gentle way."

When we first meet Martha, Gloss's heroine, she is a big-boned girl wearing fringed chaps and a platter of a hat, riding solo along eastern Oregon's undulating hills, looking for a cowboy way of life. The year is 1917, and young men have enlisted to fight in World War I, which is why Martha's able to find work breaking horses to saddle her own way, without brute strength.

"When I began to work on the book," Gloss says, "I actually thought I'd have to have my girl Martha bucking them out, the way you see in the movies and the way you think was pretty common in the 1910s."

But the Oregon-born Gloss is an author with a reputation as a Western myth buster, particularly since the publication of her novel, The Jump-Off Creek. Hers is a trusted voice in the Pacific Northwest, and in her characteristically intense research, she found stories about eastern Oregon traveling horsemen, gamblers who rode the ranchlands betting townsfolk that they could break the wildest horse without any bucking.

"Then I knew I could have my girl in 1917 use some of those methods," Gloss explains.

Rancher Lesley Neuman hasn't read much about the history of horse-gentling; she's all hands-on and self-taught. The two women met while Neuman was demonstrating "whispering" techniques while breaking mustangs for the Bureau of Land Management, and Neuman served as a consultant when Gloss was writing the book.

During her first chance to talk to Gloss since the book's publication, Neuman asked the author whether she wrote her book with an ending in mind.

"Yeah, I did," Gloss said. "Do I always know where I'm going with a book? I don't have a specific idea, but I usually know roughly."

The rancher immediately saw the similarity in her own work. "It's like getting in the pen with a horse! A process of discovery. Because you don't know what the next moment's going to be."

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