@story MARLA CANTRELL
@images MARK MUNDORFF AND KAREN NOLAND
The sun is sinking low by the time Ted Noland enters the corral in Poteau, Oklahoma. He’s a little action figure of a man, barely five feet six inches, and he slips easily through the railing. Nearby is a filly, unbroken, pawing the dirt to let Ted know she plans to stay that way.
All around, the bleachers are filling. The sound of cowboy boots clang against metal as they volley for seats. They’ve all come to watch this Beggs, Oklahoma man, who claims he can break a horse he’s never seen in about an hour. Some think he’ll fail, others are cheering for a victory. Either way, it’s bound to be quite a show.
The crowd quiets. The air, heavy with the smell of hay, seems to still as well.
If they’re expecting a battle, they’ve come to the wrong place. Ted is a gentle man, nearing sixty, who’s here to show both the 1,000 pound horse and the audience that fear and force aren’t part of the plan.
“When you induce pain,” Ted says, “all learning stops. And if you give a horse more than she’s ready for, she won’t take it.”
With that, the demonstration begins. The filly runs, as close to the railing as she can get. Ted stands his ground, never moving. He’s in charge, and while he’s nowhere near getting a saddle on her, he is making progress.
“She’s getting tired, so now she wants to renegotiate. She’s saying, ‘Can we quit running?’ and I’m saying, ‘I’m not the one running. I’m right where I always was.’
“My goal is to get her to come to me. And when she comes, and I touch her on her hip, she’s off again. Now, she’s learning to move on command.”
Before the thirty minute mark, the filly is walking beside Ted, like a dog on a leash. Only Ted doesn’t have a leash, and still she follows.
Ted walks to the saddle that’s near the center of the ring, and watches as the filly sniffs it. He rubs the pad that he’ll soon put on her back, across her withers.
Soon, the saddle is on. Ted strains to get his foot in the stirrup. He misses; he’s only as tall as the horse’s shoulders, and then she begins to spin, as deftly as any dancer.
Ted stays with her, leaning into her as she turns.
“She won’t do anything she doesn’t want to,” he says. “She’s bigger than me, claustrophobic, and she’ll run full-throttle when she’s afraid. I’m here building a relationship with her. If I ask you to get on the roof without a ladder, could you do it? Probably not. But if I made 100 steps, you could skirt right up there. Right now I’m building the steps.”
He returns to the horse, rubbing her muzzle, and this time gets one foot all the way in the stirrup. But he’s tossed aside, and the horse is now bucking, the dust flying in her wake, her eyes wild.
When she settles down, Ted tries again, and the filly agrees. He sits in the saddle, and then he guides her around the arena, once and then again. The crowd rises, first in the back row, then the next row, until everyone is on their feet. The owner, who’s never once been able to ride her horse, shakes her head in wonder and starts to cheer.
It’s been less than an hour since Ted entered the ring.
As stunning as this performance is, it’s not the real reason Ted’s shown up tonight. In the midst of training this filly, he’s been preaching his Sermon on the Mount, correlating the horse’s stubborn will to man’s, and God’s patience as he waits for his children to see the light.
Back home on the Rocking N Ranch in Beggs, Ted recounts his own story of redemption. “I served in the Navy in Vietnam I got pretty messed up,” he says, and points to his head. “When I came home I was so angry. I’d go in a bar and pick a fight with the biggest guy there. The next Friday I’d be back for more. I thought nobody could save me. My heart was black. My world was dark. I was a terror.”
But his wife Karen saw a good man beneath the trouble. The two met in California, and in the 1980s moved to Tulsa. And then one weekend they decided to go on a cattle drive at a dude ranch.
“It was Ted Allen’s ranch in Bixby,” Ted says. “From that moment on, I was hooked. I ended up getting saved and working for him on the ranch. Great, great man, that Ted Allen.
“Before long, I was preaching and training my own horses. And then one day in 2007, I got a call from Wilburton, asking me if I could train a horse in an hour, while I was preaching.
“It wasn’t going to be the church crowd. There would be cowboys and cowgirls. Cowboys are a tough crowd. They’ve got baling wire in the back of their truck, and they can fix anything. They’re John Wayne, the Old West, invincible.”
About 300 people showed up. The horse was a contrary three-year-old filly. “When I tightened the saddle, she went straight up, and she bucked all around the pen for two minutes.
“I put my head down and I thought, Oh Lord. But in five minutes I was on that horse,” Ted says, and his voice breaks. “I didn’t ride that horse alone. I was held in the hands of God. Since then, I guess I’ve done the sermon more than thirty times, and with God’s help I’ve never once failed.”
As Ted talks, a rooster named Elvis calls out nearby, so loud and so often he stalls mid-crow, his voice shot. And in the nearby pasture, a black mare, half Paint, half Quarter Horse, whose eyes are the color of the sea, watches every move Ted makes.
“It wasn’t the last time God intervened,” he says, and points to the mare. “That’s Blue. She near about killed me in 2010. I had brought in a big horse, half Draft, to train. Blue’s job as lead mare was to show him his place. I was testing his hooves when she spotted us from way out in the pasture, and she thought I was feeding him something she wanted. So here Blue came.
“I kept working, thinking I had time to finish. About the last thing I remember is picking up his foot. Blue kicked me in the face, trying to get to the Draft horse, and down I went.
“My son saw it happen. He gets his brother – they were twelve and sixteen at the time - and they pack my face with ice, call 9-1-1, stay on the phone and direct the ambulance to the house. But I was so bad, almost every bone in my face was broken, that they had to call in a helicopter.
“My right eye socket is Titanium. I have two silicone implants where my cheekbone was. I could have died. I could have bled to death, but God was with me.”
Ted was laid low for six months. Not long after, he was preaching another Sermon on the Mount. “I never thought about quitting. These horses teach me a whole lot more than I teach them.”
Just then, Blue comes up and nudges Ted on the shoulder. The two look like a Western painting, the weathered cowboy and his loyal companion. He turns to walk off into the sunset, and Blue follows, willing to go wherever he leads.For more information, visit rockingn.com