Vail Daily editor’s view: The sorrel, unbroken |

Vail Daily editor’s view: The sorrel, unbroken

Don Rogers
Vail, CO, Colorado

Phillip Whiteman taps the grass with a leafy branch that has a red handkerchief attached.

Tap, tap. Then he moves it maybe a foot. Tap, tap. He taps himself a circle inside the ring, just like that.

The horse’s tail bounces with each tap. Don’t ask me why.

My relationship with the horses boarded at our place includes me making rattlesnake sounds if I have business in the pasture and they get too curious. Let’s just say we have our own understanding.

But I’ve brought my wife to Storm King Ranch, a stunning place above the Glenwood fish hatchery and on the way to the Flat Tops, all blue sky and green, green grass, white-rushing creek, an old orchard starting to flower, cabin where I understand Teddy Roosevelt stayed on hunting trips, and this dark swimming pool lined in rough rock, full of fat trout.

Whiteman is leading a two-day workshop, organized by the Sacred Tree integrative healthcare center in Breckenridge, about handling horses based on the medicine wheel.

At first his gentle way seems like horse whisperer stuff, only I notice that mostly he’s working the people. I learn later that the underlying philosophy is very, very different. We missed the instruction the previous day about the concepts that form the foundation of Whiteman’s approach, focusing on circular rather than linear thinking.

He’s sized up the young, unbroken sorrel at the edge of the ring of green metal gating set up for the demonstration. Miked up, he’s pointed out some injuries and/or deformities on its legs, scrapes on its hide, that it’s been castrated very recently.

He’s waved his hat and walked behind the tense, stiff horse to make it move this way and that, long enough to determine it’s “one-sided” rather than centered, as is ideal. Even I can see the horse moves more readily one way around the ring than the other.

As Whiteman pats the ground around him and the horse’s tail twitches, the horse is very stressed. It stands against the railing, back to the 30 or so people sitting in a white tent, watching. I know the horse is tense by how it holds itself tight, but mostly because Whiteman is telling us so, pointing out the signs.

He shakes the branch at the horse, which flinches and trots counterclockwise readily, but in fits and starts when waved clockwise.

Often, Whiteman stands with his back to the horse. Eventually, after he senses the horse has had enough, he moves outside the ring and sits, almost lying down, as he starts to tell a story.

His voice has a different cadence than a native English speaker, and his voice is gentle. The Cheyenne speak a different language than most other Plains tribes, the Algonquian they brought with them from the Great Lakes.

Whiteman tells us about the journey from the Great Lakes, and that rolls into a long tale about Sweet Medicine, a legendary prophet and holy man who taught the Cheyenne how to live and foretold of cattle replacing the buffalo, and the coming hard, hard times brought on by the white man, and after.

A couple in the audience doze. Most definitely everyone is relaxed. I think about how storytelling has to be in the human DNA. Campfire to big screen, stories have framed our lives pretty much as long as we’ve had opposable thumbs, I suspect.

While Whiteman sits, almost lying down, back on the green metal, telling the story of Sweet Medicine, the horse grazes, then moves inside the circle that he had patted with the branch.

Then the horse lies down, first in that more alert way with legs tucked under, but eventually it rolls on its side, stretches out full, and goes to sleep. Right there in the center of the circle in the middle of the ring, while Whiteman tells his tale over a loudspeaker.

It’s a cool story, delivered well to an audience primed to listen. Lots of wisdom and pieces of knowledge about horses, medicine wheel metaphors and such weaved in. Plenty to think about, for sure.

But what strikes me is not so much the story, to which as something of a professional in the business I listen with care and take notes.

No, it’s the damn horse, and how it goes from wild-eyed and skittish to sleeping in the center of the circle. Just like that.

Editor’s note: Whiteman will return Oct. 16-19 to lead “Level I certification: Medicine Wheel Model to Natural Horsemanship.” For more information call 970-390-4227, visit or, the Web site for the Sacred Tree integrative health-care center in Breckenridge with a new location opening in the Roaring Fork Valley. The center presents a variety of events and retreats such as Whiteman’s.

Don Rogers is the editor and publisher of the Vail Daily. He can be reached at or 970-748-2920. He welcomes your comments.

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