In Memoriam – And now I am truly Clueless

I no longer have a Clue.

The horse I couldn’t train. Or, the horse that trained me.

Last Saturday I got a phone call from California to Germany, where I live, from my friend Joell. 

“We lost Clue this morning.”

That was a week before I sat down to write this. 

Let me tell you a story.

It’s 2007. I’m about to take the journey of a lifetime. The journey of my lifetime. I voyage on horseback across the north of Mongolia from shaman to shaman in search of healing for my autistic son Rowan.

Shortly before leaving Texas, where I lived at the time, for Asia, I bought a horse. His name was Clue. A quarter horse gelding. Handsome bright bay with a broad white blaze. A horse with a certain presence, a certain charisma. l I bought him from a friend who was a competitive barrel racer. I suspect, in retrospect, he didn’t want to do the barrels. My friend knew I intended to start a therapy program – a thing that subsequently became a worldwide movement called Horse Boy Method, which targets the nervous system and the brain. he’ll be perfect, she said.

The journey across Mongolia lasted into early Fall. I did indeed find healing for my son Rowan, and that story became a book and a film, both titled The Horse Boy. Those that know the story know that another bay quarter horse, a mare called Betsy, began that story. That the extraordinary relationship forged between my son and her was what launched the whole Horse Boy thing.

My son became verbal from nonverbal on Betsy. Then other autistic children had a similar reaction. We realized after a time that the key was the rhythmic rocking motion of the hips that the children experience when riding in soft collection on her back, which created oxytocin – the communication hormone – in their systems, and which also simultaneously calmed their over sensitive nervous systems and also their brains’ fear response. It was neuroscientists from several different universities who explained this to us. Suddenly we had a method that could be replicated. So, we started a therapeutic riding center – New Trails Ranch – and from there the program  – Horse Boy Method – has grown to be global because it gets results.

I like to think that I, and my wife Iliane, came up with Horse Boy Method.

But really it was Clue.

Betsy was the pioneer but Clue, Clue was the horse that, above all, perfected it.

The problem was, he wasn’t trainable. Like zero, zilch, not at all. 

He wasn’t bad at training people, however.

He certainly trained me.

You see, to get the oxytocin effect I wrote about earlier, the horse has to be trained to put its hind legs under the point of gravity and – in horse parlance “collect”; which is dressage, and looks to non horsy people like horses dancing.

Clue didn’t want to dance. Except when he did. Clue didn’t do anything at all. Except when he wanted to. Luckily, he did often want to. But it was always on his terms.

Clue liked to trail ride. Clue liked to run. He once ran away with me so completely – me, a lifelong horse trainer – that I had to bail out and busted my knee. he liked to jump. he used to jump out over his fence, if he couldn’t find other ways to open or break it. Stable doors were no problem either, and he could then go unlock everyone else’s. 

Dressage? Forget it. He’d become a hard little grunting ball of tension. 

But certain things he liked. He liked to jump – he would routinely take me over four-foot solid fences any time I pointed him at one. He decided he liked Spanish Walk and would goose step for hours. When he felt like it. He liked to bow in a way that made him plough the earth with his head because, well, because he was Clue. He would empty water troughs on hot days and then taught ever other horse to do the same so that you would have to go out every hour in the Texas heat and refill the buggers. With all these tricks I thought maybe trick training might be his thing. I sent him to the man who is probably still today the leading trick trainer in the USA. He sent me Clue and my money back. Untrainable, he said. My friend who sold him to me grudgingly admitted later that, well, she hadn’t been able to train him at all.

Yet provide him with a challenge…and suddenly you had a composite professional on your hands, Clue had to be interested, but when he was…

Some snapshots. Riding into a department store to talk to the shoppers about autism. Riding into a heavy metal festival to do the same. Spanish walking up on stage in a sound studio then bowing for the audience. Riding into a packed nightclub dance floor with a band playing and then having to back out through a narrow door without damaging the nightclub owners’ milk white, ten-thousand-dollar Harley Davidson parked right there. Riding down Sixth Street in Austin Texas at night, with the street full of drunken revelers. All to raise awareness for autism.

And the children. As soon as one was on his back Clue became soft, dancing, light – an oxytocin producing machine. Because he wanted to, Not because I told him to.

Sometimes he would choose a particular child to heal. Once walking all the way across the field to a child who had suffered terrible brain damage after a drowning accident that left him so brain damaged that he was effectively a vegetable. Clue first sniffed and then, to our astonishment, began to lick the boy all over. the boy responded. the first meaningful response of reaching out that he had shown since the accident had happened.

Another time – a non verbal boy who wouldn’t leave the house and only watched, obsessively, the same endlessly repeated loop of a certain segment of the movie Monsters Inc. Clue came into the living room and watched it with him. Then when Clue left the kid got up and followed him. Into the saddle, into the forest, into contact with the world.

Clue taught me to listen to what gave delight to him, and to approach horses that way, not as a trainer. Clue used to steal my beers, knocking them over and then drinking them from the ground. My sandwiches too. Clue taught me to listen more closely to the children I served, to my gut, to let a horse lead, to let a child lead, to risk the loss of control and reap the reward of wonder.

‘Texas is brutal in summer. Eventually the heat and humidity and the flies caught up with him and he began to lose all his hair and get skin lesions. We moved him to a friend’s program -Remount  – in Colorado Springs where the climate was milder, and his coat grew back. I missed him, but I couldn’t watch him suffer any more. Then he moved from there to become the grand old man of the legendary Square Peg Foundation in California, perhaps the West Coast’s most innovative neuro-diversity service program.

“Yup,” said Joell Dunlap, whose brainchild Square Peg is, after Clue had been there a couple of months: “he’s untrainable. but he’s the best therapy horse we have.’

Eventually, in his mid twenties, ringbone caught up with him, and Clue retired in style to a broad pasture with other horses to boss, overlooking the Pacific.

When I give Horse Boy Method trainings, it’s always Clue in the PowerPoint pictures showing the best work. The horse who taught me to listen, to follow, to get out of my way and let a child and a horse lead.

Last week he was found dead in his pasture.

Its the best end we can imagine for our horses – somewhere pushing thirty or so, just lie down, close the eyes and not get up again ever. No vets, no injections, no agonized decision. Just sleep. Nature’s way.

Clue taught me that I haven’t a Clue. 

Now he’s gone, I really don’t have a Clue.

The older I get the less I know. Clue taught me that. And that has become my superpower, because it forces me to listen, to follow, to look for clues.

And now I am truly Clueless.

What freedom there is in that.


2 thoughts on “In Memoriam – And now I am truly Clueless”

  1. When Rupert mentioned: “We moved him to a friend’s program -Remount – in Colorado Springs where the climate was milder, and his coat grew back.” Many memories kicked in!
    I met Clue when I first went to Texas in 2017- My first back-riding experiences with Rupert’s and Iliane’s kiddos with David Doyle (Liskennett Farm, Ireland) as a sidewalker. One of Joell’s folks described ‘Clue as the glue who connected everybody’- so so true.
    When he came to Remount at the Air Force Academy it was late and I was at a baseball game with my family because the driver was delayed. When he arrived, I welcomed him and realized he spoke with such a heavy Texan accent that I could hardly communicate- but we got Clue out and settled.
    He served on so so many playdates being the best Horseboy program horse we ever had.
    He also got me through all my evaluations, especially enjoying the cross-country jumping. We went on hour-long trail rides and he was the first horse who felt like mine for the short time I had him.
    The first independent piaffe I ever felt was on him- not because he was teachable and I trained him but because there was a cliff on the right, a lake on the left, and a moving train in front- boy could he move!!!
    My son helped me to feed him and take care of him for a while and one day he called me- ‘Mom, I was too slow feeding him, he got restless and stepped on the woodshop bag, now he does not want to come down’…;-) You did not want to upset him, he would come up with trick you could not even imagine.
    And his smile…he could smile but it was the funniest thing you would ever see, his lip would wiggle and his eyes would look at you like ‘this is what I got’…
    He helped many veterans, families, juveniles, and children with challenges to heal, grow, and connect. He was in the monument 4th of July parade, leisurely walking over highway bridges and entertaining the crowd with a constant Spanish walk. He came to our hometown pub and was loved by everybody there- what a character! And when he ran, you better roll with it- he flew!
    I am sure he is flying over green pasture now, looking down on us with his wise eyes, encouraging us in spirit to continue the work we started and he mentored us in!
    Enjoy life Clue!!

  2. carolina lockwood

    Ruperts writing made me cry, and gave me goose bumps. I met Clue in texas, together with Hope, they were always together, and Betsy was there too. He was the best horse, taught us all so much,
    fly high Clue,, you will be always part of your tribe!

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