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"If you steal from one author, it's plagiarism; if you steal from many, it's research."  Wilson Mizner, 1876-1933, American Author
(Please use appropriate citations)

Appeared in Horse&Rider Magazine, October, 2004.

A WHISPER AND A PRAYER

by Doré Ripley, ©2004-12

"HELLO, THIS IS DENNIS." The voice on the other end of the line was soft and musical.

          "Dennis the horse trainer?" I snapped, in no mood to be congenial. I'd just had the rodeo ride of my life on a horse named Diesel--as in a semi-truck skittering across 10-foot speed bumps.

          "Yes, that's right." His unassuming manner made me think horse-whisperer-cum-pet-psychic, and frankly that wasn't what I needed. I needed an equine disciplinarian.

          "I have a 13-year-old Quarter Horse that's girthy," I said, summarizing my gelding's most persistent vice.

          "What exactly does he do?" Dennis asked.

          I told Dennis how, when I pulled up the cinch, Diesel bounced his way across the arena like a kamikaze slinky, stopping only when the half-attached saddle came loose. I also described his other foibles, including freaking out at the sight of a longe line or whip, and occasional bucking.

          "He was so good when we first got him," I ended plaintively. "Now he's uncooperative and downright nasty."

          I thought I heard amusement in Dennis' voice. "Well, I'll come take a look and see what we can do."

          He arrived in a white Ford F150 pickup. Fiftyish, tall and paunchy, he had a bushy gray beard that gave him a cowboy-Santa look. He wore the customary long-sleeved Western shirt, boots, and Wranglers, with a silver belt buckle big enough to serve hors-d'oeuvres on.

          He fetched Diesel from the pasture and prepared to saddle him, while I chattered about the precautions necessary to avoid getting stepped on. Then, to my embarrassment, Dennis hefted the saddle casually and plopped it on Diesel's back, just like that. Diesel stood quietly. The trainer had been talking to him the whole time, in a soft, patient, even tone; apparently, the gelding was listening.

          I hired Dennis on the spot, though he charged a bit more than other trainers. He came to our place once a week, and taught my family and I what we needed to know about horses. The more we learned, the better Diesel behaved. Now, he consistently tolerates saddling, and he's more responsive under the saddle. I can pick up a longe whip without setting him off, and send him in pretty circles without getting my arm yanked out of its socket.

          At one point, I remember telling Dennis he'd saved Diesel's life, and I meant it.

          Our association evolved into a family friendship involving holidays, birthdays, and outings. At our last lesson, Dennis and I chatted about his upcoming trips to London and St. Louis. Three days later, I got a call; he'd died of a heart attack.

          At the funeral, his extended horse-family arrived in trucks, dressed in cowboy garb their spurs jingling down the overflowing chapel aisle. When the pastor invited friends to speak, a deluge of happy memories poured out.

          About a month later, a little neighbor girl was amazed at how calm Diesel was after jumping over our back fence and injuring himself. Though traumatized, the gelding stood quietly, nuzzling the girl's hair.

          "You have a really nice horse," she told my husband when he returned with Diesel's halter. "He's giving me kisses."

          Bouquets to you Dennis, for the lessons that allowed Diesel to become the good horse that he is today.

DORÉ RIPLEY lives with her husband and son on a five-acre horse ranch in Clayton, California. The family owns an Arabian and a racetrack-retired Thoroughbred in addition to Diesel, a Native Dancer descendant whose registered name is Kayl Dancer. "We're still relatively new to horses," says Doré, "so we're hoping to find another trainer as experienced and patient as Dennis Funk."

Illustration by June Brigman.