The Liberty Act

The Liberty Act

“If you get up the courage to begin, you have the courage to succeed.”

David Viscott

Opening Time

The daily routine of liberty pony training in winter quarters at the fairgrounds in Hugo, Oklahoma had progressed to my being in the ring working the three ponies proficiently. I had just a few weeks until the time arrived to go open with a circus. The final step, prior to this deadline was to get the ponies crowd broke, or used to the noise, music and the applause they would experience in the show.  During our training sessions Bob clanged trashcan lids, played a record player and created other distractions in the barn while I took them through their paces. This introduced them to working amidst chaos and disruption but nothing would get them used to the real thing.

As the new season loomed, Bob did his best to prepare me mentally for what to expect when I began performing in an actual ring on a real show. As I continued accumulating my understanding, Bob explained to me that the horse trainer actually wants the animal to make every conceivable mistake. It is during guiding the pony through these mistakes into the behavior that is desired, that the pony learns thoroughly.  

He told me that the first time a colored circus balloon would land in the ring the ponies would probably be terrified and may bolt out of the ring.  He went on to tell me that I would have to remain calm and guide them through all these circumstances because every conceivable thing that can go wrong will go wrong. With each episode I had an opportunity to teach my steeds again. Little did I know that all this coaching and the encouragement would not completely prepare me for what was actually going to happen. As a perfectionist dealing with the immense variety of combinations of mistakes possible, I had created a future with a cacophony of confusion, blunder opportunities and a performing career that would provide industrial strength frustration.

I made a deal with Jimmy Silverlake to present my 3-pony act on his circus. He had left the family and launched a show called Lewis Bros circus with a partner the previous year. Now as the sole proprietor of his own circus, he was willing to give me a position where I could present my unproven act. Typically, special consideration is given to a rookie animal act due to the training that will continue as the animals settle into their routine.  With a green act and no truck to haul the ponies, I also needed a situation where I could expose these rookie ponies to the pandemonium of working in front of an audience and also have a place for them to ride. Jimmy had room in one of the show trucks for my livestock. Additional preparations were taking place at winter quarters for the upcoming season and he appreciated my painting talents being available prior to opening.

In the spring I moved my camper, ponies and calliope trailer from Hugo to Medora. I was welcomed again to the familiar Silverlake family winter quarters from my Clark & Walters and Fisher Bros Circus days. My ability as sign painter kicked into high gear, as he made other preparations.

The Barnes & Daily Circus opened in the spring of the year in a nearby small town in southern Indiana. I put up the small tent purchased from Buzz Barton as my stable. I provided many skills for the two inaugural performances. Perhaps, as a hint of the unpredictability to come, I had a rude awakening the next morning. Although the show was torn down and loaded, the location where I had the ponies stabled was in a low-lying area on the lot. After a late-night rain and resulting flash flood, my ponies were standing in knee deep water. After sloshing through the water to rescue and load the ponies in the elephant trailer and tear down my little tent, our 1974 season began.

 The series of one day stands began their relentless rhythm and each day ran a little smoother. Our tour opened in southern Indiana and the route took us north through farm country to Michigan. This show was a testimony of efficiency, designed by a man who knew how to move a circus. Traveling on three trucks and trailers, the big top was a bale ring top, as opposed to the push pole tents of previous shows. That meant the poles went up first and the canvas was hoisted up the poles. This method of handling the canvas makes it last much longer. This circus was conceived, built and created by the brother of my original mentor. This was clearly an efficient, attractive, and in my opinion, neatest little circus anywhere.

Each day on a new grass lot, I put the ponies out on the picket line and would turn frail little Teddy loose. He would just hang around. Little children gravitated to his peaceful presence and enjoyed petting him. Although too weak for any other role, Teddy remained loved as our mascot.  Three green liberty ponies were a manageable size group for a novice to handle.

Having my ponies on display in their little stable tent on the midway, along with my Calliope, added to the visual appearance on the lot. I played the calliope before each show as a preamble to the performance and for the blow off, or when the patrons leave after the show. I played old time tunes like “Daisy Daisy” and “Bicycle Built for Two” in the afternoon prior to and between shows.  While the ponies were on display, I observed their magnetism and the kind air that the children enjoyed. Through this exposure to the public, the ponies developed acceptance, tolerance and love for people.

Inside the big top, my drum bandstand went alongside another calliope. Bobby Green provided the music for the show having migrated from the defunct Clark & Walters. Dot and Sonny Burdett added a touch of class to the show with their presence. Sonny always dressed to the tee assisting his tall, lovely wife with her rolling globe act. Billy Griffin worked in the office and dressed as a clown for the performances. Jim’s wife Marilyn performed aerial web and ladder.

Even an ideal social environment is complicated. This is especially complicated around a circus. Egos get fed by the approval of the crowd. The narcissistic tendency that is inside all of us sometimes gets inflated far beyond its intended purpose. Blind to the origins, sometimes tension develops between personalities. Egos clash. Without interruption or intervention, the caustic condition infects others. Sides are taken and chaos reigns.

I had been on circus seasons when the personnel combined seamlessly to form a team that worked well together and the experience along the entire route was heavenly. Then there are seasons where individual agendas take precedence over what is best for the show. Bickering and back stabbing took on a life of their own, resulting in an unhealthy experience.

Jim Silverlake radiated a sincere regard for everyone present. His pleasant, altruistic mindset influenced others and regard prevailed on his show. That season came close to qualifying as heaven on earth. 

At the beginning of this tour, I went through a major learning curve.  The pony act was pretty. The animals had the color of a new penny with contrasting red leather harness and feather plumes. But the act suffered visually when a mistake occurred and I became frustrated and it showed. I would learn to develop skills in my new role as an animal trainer. I had to mix acting along with training as I guided the ponies through each mistake.  Visible frustration was not received well by the audience. The procedure of correcting an animal in the public eye needed a fixed smile. With some encouragement from the circus owner I began to learn finesse.  I became quick to maintain my smile and keep my discipline discreet. As the weeks went by, the ponies caught on becoming more consistent each time we performed. That freed me up to concentrate on acting, the presentation and connecting with the audience during the act.

A few weeks into the season we had a major calamity. The dreaded balloon I had been forewarned about drifted into the ring during the act.  I watched in horror as the lead pony “Buttons” went up to it. He sniffed it.  He then jumped over it and continued the routine.  I was surprised and so proud of him.  The other two ponies “Buster” and “Tex” concentrated their attention on following and doing whatever “Buttons” did. So, although they shied away, they didn’t think much of the balloon either. What a relief.

The circus wandered north, crisscrossing the Great Lakes state.  I was already familiar with this territory due to my first two seasons on the road. In a very picturesque town on Lake Michigan called Harbor Springs, I took a walk into town to enjoy the splendor of the quaint old vacation homes. I enjoyed the tree and streetlight lined avenues and the beautiful natural setting overlooking the water.  On the return hike through utopia, I found a path that went through the woods.  The natural beauty of these surroundings elevated my emotions to an unprecedented height of gratitude. Around each turn on the path, my feelings took flight.

The quiet nature walk among fernish greenery and chirping wildlife allowed me to find a secret place within that promoted oneness and joy. As if in a dream, around the final turn that lead out of the woods, I found a lush grassy field with a pretty little circus set up in the middle.  This lovely picture remains unforgettable in my mind. The one ring, two pole big top with flags flying, an appropriate sized marquee to welcome the patrons in front of it, and the highly decorated trucks and travel trailers efficiently arranged around the lot made a pretty picture. I walked into this scene and four little yellow ponies looked up at me and nickered from their picket line in the grass.

This was a jewel of a show, the masterpiece of a man who, not only knew the logistics of how to properly put a show up and down each day, but how to load equipment efficiently on a minimum of trucks. As a finishing touch on the lot and to add an interesting feature, my calliope trailer and ponies were situated at the outside edge of the midway to greet the patrons as they arrived each day. As the rhythm of up and down each day combined seamlessly with the pleasant attitudes of the personnel, a feeling of oneness grew inside me.  I was truly proud to be part of this show while simultaneously entering a new chapter in my life. Some of the best artwork created to date was on this fleet. I felt that this must be what is referred to as the piece de resistance or quite possibly the “magnum opus” of circusdom.  As the season progressed, I thought; what could go wrong?

Lake Winnepesauka

Lake Winnepesaukah

I left that curious mix of animal trainers and ventured east. With my livestock on board and the orange bus in tow, I headed toward my role as show painter at an amusement park to help them get ready prior to their annual opening in the spring. After the final bend in the road, I found the entrance to the quiet park.

Being familiar with the components of a working carnival, what I found at this amusement park expanded my understanding of this unique business. First, I found Glen Bergathon who was not only the manager but a gracious host. He gave me a tour of the quiet park and pointed out several projects for me to work on. He also found a place for me to keep the livestock. I housed the horses in one of the many picnic shelters.

Lake Winnie, as the locals lovingly refer to her, was a quaint, folksy place. A regional favorite, the park had many permanent attractions in buildings. The park had both features that did not exist on a traveling carnival and old favorites found on every midway.

Among the permanent attractions at the park were a flume ride alongside the lake, a large dark ride in a building with two roller coaster-like dips across the front, an elaborate forty-horse carousel and the wooden roller coaster. Portable rides and park-model rides were set up all around that made an impressive line-up.

Off the main thoroughfare was a road that went behind the attractions and up to several large metal buildings with a variety of equipment, park components, trucks and trailers all parked haphazard.

The shop in the middle was where the work took place. The men handled projects for both the park and the working carnival that were parts of the Floyd and Baxter operation. Although I never painted on their traveling show – called Cumberland Valley Shows – I did decorate rides that came to the park for rejuvenation and repaint. When these were complete they resumed their role on the road.

Inside the dark shop building the crew accomplished various tasks. One old man had a comfortable work station in the corner. Old George rebuilt bumper car motors full-time. Floyd and Baxter had several bumper car rides touring and in stationery locations besides the large one here at the park. All the worn motors were sent here to old George to rebuild. They usually needed brushes and bearings. A friendly fellow, as he worked I heard colorful stories of when he was a young ride man around the Olsen Shows.

I found an area in the shop to make patterns, create designs, cut out fancy shaped sign boards and plaques. I coated-out these boards and decorated them to give the attractions personality. I studied old time advertising examples and created period looking signs for the old-time railroad station, the carousel, rides in Kiddie Land and created an Alpine themed sign for the Sky Ride that took passengers across the lake.

I also airbrushed scenery on several spectacular rides. The Himalaya was one.  I painted snowy mountain scenes with skiers in abundance on all the panels. The Rotor had been renamed the Black Hole. That ride received my painterly touch with images of the galaxy and dimensional lettering.

Over the years the park provided me with a great place to break up the jump from Florida back to Michigan. I left eighty-degree tropical weather each year and found the chilly spring time in Tennessee. Because of the permanent situation here, my signs lasted a long time compared to the beating my art received on a traveling show.

Mary joined me that spring in Chattanooga. We had a plan. She would help out and when the sign work was complete here at the park our T-shirt painting service would resume on the carnival midway in Michigan. 

We entered into our rhythm of horse care, sign making and living our lives together. We were very much alike. I was a workaholic who found satisfaction with my accomplishments. I aspired greatness with my horses. Mary wanted to belong more. When my work was over she wanted me to teach her how to ride Bingo.

The process of learning to ride a horse involves correction before the student starts to produce commendable behavior. I learned the hard way that my attempt to teach the skills of horsemanship to my love interest was not always a good thing to do. After listening to me point out flaws and make demands for her to comply with, Mary became sullen and retaliatory. All I could see was the goal she wanted and what was needed to get there. Those sessions contributed to our not getting along. Apparently, I was suffering from compound ignorance; I didn’t know that I didn’t know. I was not effective with cheerful support. Encouragement and reassurance would have been helpful. We also became aware that our drinking may contribute to the unrest. We had the pattern of drinking every day.

In the midst of this tension we actually agreed that our beer consumption was what interfered with our finding harmony. So, we agreed to not drink but we did not know how to not drink. Regular consumption had a stronghold.

As we attempted to be with each other and not drink, tension mounted. We did not know what to do. After several hours of this tension, we relented and went to get a six pack. Then we experienced an immediate sense of relief. The tension melted away as the amber beverage did its magic. Years later we learned about the typical symptoms that exist with alcoholism. This was one of them. We must have been in an embryonic stage back then. 

As Memorial Day loomed, the park prepared to open. We moved the horses out of the picnic shelter to an area where the public did not go. I moved the horse trailer behind the roller coaster and set up my canvas awning on the side to rig up a stable. This placed the horses near an area filled with grass. The coaster ride was silent most of the time I was there.

Because my two animals had bonded, I simply tied one of them up and let the other wander around to munch grass. They stayed in proximity of each other all day while I worked elsewhere.

As opening time for the park grew near, Jack and the coaster crew had to get their ride ready. The steel track had a thick coat of rust from lack of use all winter. Jack explained to me that when the train went around for the first time each year the rusty track slowed it down. If the train was too slow to make it over one of the hills, he had to climb up with a come-along and winch it over each hill. During the first coaster run of each year, Jack always kept his fingers crossed.

In preparation for the first run of the coaster train, I tied Bingo along the coaster fence and let Sassy walk free. At first, the roaring sound of the coaster train going down the first hill terrified them.  Bingo strained at his tether and Sassy ran away. A moment later the sound came from the other side. Jack was glad. The train made it all the way around. The horses resumed their grazing. As the days went by, the horses actually got used to the noise. They remained calm in the midst of this unusual racket.

I finished up all the sign work about the same time as the park opened. Lake Winnie turned into a bustling center of activity. Busloads of kids and cars filled the parking areas opening weekend. I enjoyed seeing my finished work adding to the fun. I enjoyed this time at the park and all too soon, it was time to go.  We bid adieu to our friends and loaded out. We headed toward my parents in Arkansas prior to going to the next work situation. The concessionaire in Kansas wanted me to create graphic paint jobs on his ice cream trailers and get his fleet ready to go.

Hugo, Oklahoma

Hugo, Oklahoma

During the winter of 1973/74 I was in Hugo, Oklahoma the understudy of Bob Grubb, who had a background of performing with circus liberty horses for many years. Now he was teaching me while training my pony liberty act. Out of the original ponies purchased the year before, four matched up nicely. Once introduced to this group of palominos, Bob began to observe minute distinctions that existed between them and comment about what he saw. He began to name them, talk as he handled them to find out about their temperament, and began to visualize a logical sequence for them to assume.

He named “Buster” first, who had the most handsome conformation of the whole group. I named “Buttons,” who had the color of a new penny after my beloved first grade teacher. “Tex” had a long back and Bob had a concern about his being juggy, whatever that meant. “Teddy” was a willing animal but seemed frail compared to the rest.

We rigged tie-stalls for the comfort of the ponies along one side of the ring barn and parked my camper and trailer nearby. Anticipating this project, Bob had his ring curb already installed in the central area of the barn. He was eager to begin training. We quickly adopted a routine. After chores and breakfast every morning, training took place.

The universal attitude among the community of animal trainers around the circus is that animals always come first.  As I woke each morning, the first thing I did was go into the barn, grab a foot tub, fill it with water and offer each pony a drink.  When they had their fill, it was time to feed. Nose bags received a scoop of feed each, a blend of oats and sweet feed. The ponies anxiously nickered and cavorted in anticipation while I slipped the strap of each nose bag over their ears. The animated scene transformed as each pony became content to chew the sustenance that now hung conveniently under their lips.

Now I could retreat and fix myself something to eat.  In the interest of efficiency, I developed a way to fix a Hearty Breakfast and only have to wash four items when complete.  First, I would boil a potato in the coffeepot.  When cooked, I would mash it in a frying pan and move it out to the edges. In the middle I put a few strips of bacon. A pot of coffee would then get prepared in the coffeepot and I would break two eggs on top of the mess in the frying pan.  When the food was ready I would eat it right out of the pan.  After my meal I only had to wash the coffeepot, one coffee cup, a fork and the frying pan.  Then it was time to get the chores done before Bob arrived to begin training.

Bob arrived each morning with an agenda that was clear to him. As I watched, one at a time, Bob would gently coax each young pony into a sequence of actions at the end of a tether rope or lunge line.  The pony was first encouraged to walk around the ring out against the curb.  Bob constantly talked to them with a gentle demeanor that proved to be very effective.  “Walk,” “git up,” “there now,” “whoa,” “come in line,” “good boy,” were all soon part of each ponies understanding and my verbal repertoire.

The whip was used to communicate with each animal as an extension of his arm and was only used gently as an aide to help push or suppress forward motion when needed. Introducing each animal to the whip involved letting them get acquainted with it. He touched them with it and let them sniff it. While in the ring he used a variety of specific body gestures like pseudo semaphore signals that became part of communicating and asking for responses from each pony.  Bob was careful to not scare the animal needlessly and was quick with a verbal reward or a lump of sugar when any youngster responded willingly to his cue. As the days went by, each pony began to grasp what Bob was teaching and the lunge line was discarded.  Soon, two ponies were working together in the ring. Only three weeks into the process he had the whole group of four in the ring.

Repetition teaches.  The sessions were at the same time each day, every day of the week except Sunday.  The result of this consistency was a tremendous amount of progress in a short time. The correct response was also fortified with another form of reward. When they did a great job, he would often simply end the session.  The understanding each equine accumulated soon proved Bob’s technique as being effective. Those hours of observing the tedious training process would prove valuable when my turn came to do the training.

The most important concept for any liberty horse to grasp is something that is not visible when the audience watches them perform and that is to stay in the ring.  This is taught by never allowing them to have the experience of being outside of the ring or, when they do jump over the curb and get out of the ring, make sure they have a negative experience while on the outside to cause them to desperately want to get back into the ring.  Bob had a rope barrier elevated around the outside of the curb, at shoulder level to a pony, for them to run into if they did jump out of the ring. I was outside of the ring. My job was to be the bad guy. During one point in the training, one of the ponies got the notion planted in his head that he was going to go somewhere else and jumped out over the ring curb at the same place in the routine every time we rehearsed. I was on the outside of the ring with a whip in my hand. I would yell, chase and swish the whip in an effort to strike terror into the heart of this cute but misbehaving equine. The moment the pony jumped back in the ring, I stopped with my terrible animation and Bob was quick with an assuring word. He appreciated the fact that I was there and he didn’t have to be the bad guy. I was learning how these little guys became predictable and how important it was to interrupt negative behavior as it happened before it became established.

Another important response to establish with each animal is to halt whenever asked.  This is especially important if the horse should become rattled, because from a halt, the trainer has a chance to personally connect, calm down and reassure the horse. Sometimes I couldn’t believe it. Here I was in a dusty ring barn with aspirations of glamour and excitement, taking Functional Relations 101 from an old cowboy. Learning these functional strategies would prove helpful in other arenas later in life.

The circus ring is a special, highly regarded, almost holy place. In my role as drummer for the circus, I served in a capacity that complimented the other performer’s efforts.  Now, as I assisted the training of my ponies from outside of the ring, I looked forward to the time that a rite of passage would occur placing me in the limelight for the first time. Not only would the duties as the trainer of the ponies be passed to me but also the transition of contributing to the show from the bandstand to graduating as a performer and working in this revered circus ring. I still recall the moment when Bob had me join him in the center of the ring. At first, I stayed behind him, as he demonstrated how to encourage them through their paces, simply allowing the ponies to get used to me. Then the time came for me to hold the whips while Bob instructed me, first from standing behind me in the center of the ring, and later from outside the ring. This was the beginning of what became a long, rigorous and rewarding experience.

As I look back, I realize the ponies were God sent, and an opportunity for this teenager to become functionally relational in the midst of being intensely emotional, perfectionistic and self-sufficient. Ponies don’t understand anger and erratic behavior. Representational communication means nothing to them. Progress was made with kindness. The ponies forced me to become functional, aware and consistent with my behavior. This must be the source of the term having horse sense.  The animals learn through intentional repetition and functional consistency. For the sake of becoming a good horseman, I modified my behavior around them. Even though with people I remained reluctant, isolated and often frustrated and angry. Over time, my role as a pony trainer became a segue that facilitated finding connectedness with others.

Season Two of the Circus

Season Two of the Circus

The plan for the second season was to spend another summer in Michigan, and then pursue a route that would take us to Texas where we would winter in the sunshine of the Rio Grande Valley. The season opening meant that I changed roles, morphing from fabricator and decorator into assuming the set-up and tear down of the side show on the one day stand routine that brought circus entertainment to small towns. During the Fisher Bros Circus season of 1972, I was moving a 30’x60’ tent, had eighteen animals on foot, eighteen animals in cages with two men working for me. Soon a hippopotamus would be among the component of animals.        

The second season also introduced twin bandstand trucks to flank the back door of the big top. Marie Loter was on organ and myself as drummer and announcer.

Another attraction was added to the concessions for the second season of Fisher Bros Circus.  Jim Kernan brought his small Wienie Wagon concession stand. Jim’s presence offered candy apples and hot dogs to the audience in the seats. Each afternoon Jim would sing in a pleasant baritone while he made the candy apples.

Jackie also showed up from the rodeo scene with her tight and bright metallic looking western wardrobe. She presented a whip cracking act and commanded a lot of favorable attention. Jackie was a good-looking lady and her traveling companion was a large white dog.

During the first season, our show had no water wagon.  Raymond Duke was the show’s agent who always booked the show on a lot with a water access. One of the new pieces of equipment in season two was a water tanker. In order for my camper/bandstand pickup to qualify for paid fuel on the show, I was recruited to pull the water wagon. The wagon was made from a pickup truck frame with an elongated square tank resembling a box. Towing the water wagon required that I stop prior to coming onto the lot to fill it each morning. I quickly learned how to divine water from unfamiliar towns and counties.  

I discovered that getting water for the circus would get bogged down in red tape if I sought permission. I figured out how to speed things up. During the week, all churches were mostly vacant. To find a church with a hose bib on the outside of the building provided fast and easy access to water. Weekends, when church was busy, I would look for a school to get water in the same manner. But filling up a several hundred-gallon tank with a water hose took time. So to not hang around looking suspicious while the water filled the tank, I began to take early morning walks once the tap had been turned on. This allowed me to enjoy exploring the new town while not arousing suspicion that water stealing was going on. On the walks I discovered old remnants of feed mills, thriving downtowns and lunch counters in the local drug stores. Neighborhoods provided an endless variety of visual wonder for me to observe. I found I could enjoy olfactory stimulation while the water tank was filling.

Circus entertainment in the early seventies still had influences that lingered from the day of horse and carriage. Famous jungle explorers had brought exotic animals to the forefront of the imagination of every child. The exploration of the world brought many live attractions for touring entertainment productions.

Northern Ohio contained the winter quarters and farm of exotic animal showman Tony Diano. The opportunity to purchase his hippopotamus included a large animal cage semi-truck that sported a large water pool and a platform for the feeding and comfort of Ava the hippo. She was named after a popular movie star of that era.

Ava the hippo needed a change of water in her pool daily. I received more cherry pie with the support duties of Ava. Every morning the swampy water had to be dumped on the edge of the lot to lighten the load before the jump to the next town. Once at the next lot, I began the erection of the side show tent and one of my men scooped the hippo cage clean. Then, I took the hippo semi downtown to the fire department and asked them to hose down the hippo and fill the tank. This task was always met with enthusiasm and drew a local crowd. When the tank was full, the heavy rig was carefully driven back to the lot and positioned adjacent to the side show for the paying patrons. 

 Animal presentations with various creatures accomplishing all manner of feats were part of traditional circus performances during the golden era and they were appreciated because the general population still had horse sense, due to their connection with horses.  People revered and cherished the special gifts of a trainer who coaxed his animals to accomplish amazing feats.  I developed a passionate interest observing the unique skills of the trainer of circus animals while drumming for these acts during the show. Discussions between shows and particularly at the cookhouse with trainers reflected this.

Billie Grubb was our cook. She was plump, short and her perpetual smile accompanied plain cotton clothes. She had a sprout of short grey hair. Her country accent radiated from the kitchen in a converted white school bus with red lettering and scrollwork down the sides. A small tent with portable tables was set up beside this galley each day. Breakfast was a challenge sometimes, depending on the lay of the land. The largest and flattest area on the lot was primarily used for the big top and seats, and the show cookhouse tent was sometimes set up on a hill. Because of this, the dining tables were often slightly tilted, creating a challenge when eating pancakes. Instead of pouring syrup onto the stack and having it run off the side of the paper plate, we learned how to first cut a square hole in the middle of the pancake stack and pour the syrup into the hole.

A peek at my future occurred while standing in line at the cookhouse. Billie always graced us with encouraging conversation. She noticed my interest in trained animal presentations. As I inched toward the kitchen window, I heard an innocent enough observation about my interest with performing livestock.

“Hey Drummer Boy, you ought to have a pony act of your own” suggested Billie the cook as she dished up my meal.

The others on the show observed my fascination with Liberty Horses. The harmony between the trainer and a group of horses performing At Liberty, or without any tethers or restraints of any type. This is traditionally regarded as being the most elite of the circus performing arts.  From the bandstand, I observed these liberty routines at every show and in the backlot, interacted with the same animals as I helped the trainer with his chores.

“My husband could train them for you,” Billie continued as I left her proximity with my meal and sought a seat.

Our cook was from Hugo, Oklahoma. She was the wife of Bob Grubb, an old-time cowboy and horse trainer. Together they had a liberty horse acts and other performing horses in many shows over the years. She suggested that I might want to meet her husband Bob someday and see if he could help me train an act of my own. This invitation prompted a new flood of ideas.

What do I know about love

What do I know about love?

How do I begin to describe the longest lasting love affair of my whole life? And how do I reveal the surprising sequence of events that brought about an unlikely segue for this concept to finally happen and impact my life? And how do I tell the story of how the depth of that love influenced my life? I guess I shall start at the beginning.

My search began as a teen but I wouldn’t find true love for years. I had relational frustrations at home and was too shy to talk to girls. Thank goodness I joined the circus. I was set upon a golden path. What an improvement.

Although I started painting festive decorations on the equipment and playing the drums in the circus band, I fell right into tending for the animals. I found a place where I fit. Relationships with animals weren’t so complicated as with the people in my life. I found a plain honesty that worked. I was admired by these simple beings by providing food and water, protection and affection and they loved me back.

While drumming, I became fascinated with what I saw the animals do in the show every day. I saw how the trainers used psychology to enroll the animal to provide the desired response. This symbiosis of performing together was truly an art form. I saw love, regard and mutual respect in action. I was amazed. I still am when I see a group of beautiful performing horses prancing through a precision drill that validates hours of practice, patience and mutual regard.

I began to learn from the animal trainers. After receiving their encouragement, I started a six-pony liberty act of my own. My first teacher was an old cowboy/circus horse trainer who was kind. I watched the lengthy process he used with my ponies. He was patient, soothing and encouraging. He occasionally scolded yet quickly returned to kindness. He was gentle and humane to the animals and they loved him. Progress took place as the result of consistent repetition.

The animals understood his simple honesty. There was no room for the interpersonal chaos that takes place in society. I found the segue to understanding love while training this bunch of ponies into a circus liberty act back in the seventies. I learned my first priority was to not startle them but to be gentle as I introduce them to new things.

Learning circus horsemanship became my passion. I remain fascinated with what it takes to make horses as skillful as they possibly can for the sake of amazing an audience. I appreciate all of the traditional performing art forms of the circus. My devotion took me to the doorsteps of many accomplished horse and animal training masters across this country. Everywhere I went the message was the same; be kind, ask often and praise generously. My demeanor of kindness was established by then. I credit the circus with my foundation of love and regard that began years ago. I applied what I learned in the creative way of an artist; to develop and choreograph a sequence of developed skills in an interesting way to entertain an audience.

I experienced love at first sight while pursuing this passion over three decades ago. I saw a pony-sized jet-black baby mule with an animated trot and a pretty head. Soon Betty was mine. I have had Betty since she was a baby. I began the lengthy process of gentle encouragement and discovered her to be a willing animal. Then, as she began to grasp what I was trying to teach her and I patted her on the neck; she melted; oh, I get a pat on the neck? This wonderful animals’ personality and willing temperament combined with mine and validated all I had learned during my first decade of training animals; we enroll the desired response from our charge with love.

Another plus was that Betty joined me at the beginning of my sobriety. Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. Betty has never been exposed to any harsh or tragic treatment such as would influence a sour attitude. The recovery process required I look at the history of my moral behavior and make apropos changes. Finding out what was at my core prepared my proactive response for my life ahead. I became intentional about living a life based on integrity and noble behavior.

As a freshly sober man, I was introduced to a design for living built on honest morals, consistent, productive and kind behavior – exactly what I learned from my circus horsemanship mentors. In my pure state of awareness, not altered by alcohol, situations with prestigious horsemanship masters materialized. Opportunities for further growth in the relational realm opened up to me.

I acquired a young Saddlebred horse. My awareness and abilities expanded while working with supervision with my new horse and this wonderful mule. Relational challenges took place. I had a place to grow.

Betty was bright, willing and a quick study. But being bright, she was just as quick to realize she could cheat. I had to be on my toes with her all the time because I didn’t dare allow her to learn anything but good work ethics.

Good ole Betty. Can you imagine what was going through her mind? She started her life with this tall, creative guy who had dreams of grandeur and began to coax her to do all kinds of behavior. Betty especially enjoyed her reward; a simple pet on the neck, a soothing word or a carrot. She recognized love. I discovered a wonderful animal who responded to what I discovered was my love.

Betty responded to my kindness with kindness. She learned to run around a ring and responded to my soothing voice. She caught on quick with our lessons as I encouraged her. She learned how to take a bow, pull a towel off her back, turn head-to-tail in a 360-degree circle, lift her front feet to mount a pedestal or the ring curb among many other things. Soon Betty learned all aspects of the liberty training from my repertoire learned from when I had my pony act – plus all the tricks of the ménage horse. She learned to do much more than any of my other performing horses.

My ambition to create an act that showcased all my training skills in a comedy format filled my imagination. The format of an animal seemingly outwitting the trainer is irresistible to most children. The theme of a prospector and his mule companion seemed to fit. I put together a specific sequence for all these tasks. She proved to be an incredible student. I named our act “Gol’Dust and the Old Cuss.” I had ideas and patter for our skit and would teach her things to support my demeanor as a grumpy old guy.

At this time my career as a motorhome artist was taking off like a rocket. Mule and horse training became my hobby for the off-time. As the years went by, just to stay in the game, I booked an occasional tour on a circus. A five to eight-week engagement made sense as a destination for my ambition. During these performing tours, Betty and Souveran willingly went into hockey arenas, convention centers and armory gymnasiums. We performed in front of grandstands, on theater stages and in auditoriums. We continued to make progress although Betty had to stay flexible, not staying in any stable situation (sic) for long. In our years together, we three grew. While I trained them to do even more, credible mentors influenced my ability with my animals. We experienced connection. We had bonded.

We spent each winter in Florida. We practiced before and after my winter season serving RVers. When I was busy as a motorhome artist, she enjoyed leisure time at a boarding farm nearby. Her abilities grew. Our combination of stagecraft became a developed act. We performed together until the bug to perform went away.

She spent the summers in Michigan at a farm with other horses. She was a big hit with kids. One of the first times I saw a little hand offer her a carrot, I noticed her lips carefully feeling around for little fingers before she took a bite. In that instant, I knew I had a really nice animal.

Over the years she learned to let a kid ride on her back, pull a cart, run barrels at the rodeo and go from room to room at an old folks’ home. Betty accepted each new situation and willingly met others along the way.

I am not of the current mainstream opinion that animals are abused in the company of the circus, as is being perpetrated by a powerful movement in this country – and that the socially engineered masses are buying. My experience working alongside men and women of the circus has been the discovery of capable, sensitive people who love their animals and want only the best for them. From them I learned functional discipline and reverence for others while becoming an animal trainer. The process of living with and guiding another member of the circus family through these art forms, both animal and human, keeps these healthy relational qualities alive.

These qualities seem to be watered down between many people in this era of expanding worldwide insanity. At one time children were taught simple honesty and to respect authority. Now they are being brainwashed into a blind conclusion with no foundation in truth. I fear another agenda is behind those lies.

Bettys willingness and regard for others inspired my growth through recovery and vice versa. I had a home by this time and entered into contemporary life as part of the community. I became inspired to contribute to society using wholesome moral behavior and to be relationally functional. I am inspired to write, speak up and demonstrate with my behavior – living in love.

Betty became a lawn ornament, happy to spend leisure with her companion of two decades: Souveran the horse. When his condition deteriorated and the time came to put him down, Betty was heartbroken. She grieved for her big friend for weeks. My painting career resumed covering the country during the summer as a motorcycle artist. Betty moved next door where another horse would have a companion. She outlived him too.

As she entered into her thirties, my pretty jet-black mule developed tinges of gray that hinted at her age. I was busy. I was gone all summer. The relentless Florida humidity, heat and fungus took a toll. Her feet softened and wore away. When I was home, I attempted to sterilize and restore her feet. She began the era of moving stiff and showing her age. I became aware of my responsibility. I called my animal loving friends and admitted what was going on and the responsibility I had become present to. They provided comfort along with stern advice.

Brenda, a family friend with Arabians and Whippets told me, “look into her eyes and ask her to tell you when it is time.”

Kathy my long-time riding instructor said, “You don’t have to go through this alone, I will come and spend the day with you.”

Anne, my friend of performing high school horse fame announced, “I’d rather put them down too early than too late.”

They knew part of having animals involved going through the emotional spectrum – from incredible joy to immense grief. Having their advice and these affirmations kept my responsibility at the forefront. With my season looming, I knew what I had to do. I called my Vet Sally. She would meet me on Thursday.

I called my sponsor and revealed all that was going on. I told him what Kathy said about spending the day with me.

He said, “you are going to let her come and be with you, aren’t you?”

I hadn’t thought it necessary. He pointed out that this is how we bless others, by sharing our time with them. When I allow her to provide me with comfort at my time of need, she gets to be a blessing. We set a date. I had a Tesla to stripe the day Kathy arrived.

The next morning, Kathy and I met Betty prior to Sally arriving. Betty was happy to get petted and eat our carrots. I was emotional at the brink of losing this wonderful animal. She had been my companion for thirty-two years. Betty taught me a lot. We had been through much together.

We three stood in the shade of a grandfather oak at the edge of the pasture. Sally arrived. She gently introduced us to the procedure as Betty trusted us. My fingers made affectionate shapes in the fur of her neck while Sally talked. Soon the time to begin arrived.

Sally took the first needle and inserted it into her neck. Soon we saw droop come to her lip and attitude. Betty moved to lay down. Allowing for the change in posture, Sally, Kathy and I provided her our love and a source of comfort. I stayed where she could see me, attentive as I could. This wonderful animal trusted me as the moisture welled up in my eyes.

Sally introduced the other needle. I guided Betty’s head to the ground as she drifted off to sleep. Sally was in no hurry. She felt her neck, noticed an involuntary inhale and then an exhale. Then she took her stethoscope to listen for any heartbeat. She calmly announced that it was over.

All our love combined for this outcome. Now it was over. Sally remained cordial as she put her things away and headed out. I had a plan of rigging up a skid to get Betty to where my neighbor Gary had a hole dug in my yard with his excavator.

Joe Read showed up with his tractor with a pallet on the rear forks. We rolled Betty onto the pallet. I walked alongside and held one ear so her head wouldn’t drag as Joe drove over to my yard. Kathy held one hind leg.

In my side yard, Joe coaxed the tractor over next to the hole. A quick roll off and Betty landed at the bottom. Kathy and I retreated to our unfinished coffee on the porch. Gary filled the hole with dirt and smoothed it off. The event was over. An hour had passed. I began to wonder about all that I had learned from Betty.

Betty taught me volumes. In an effort to honor what I found with her; I have a new aspiration; to live in love. I wondered how can I live a life of being in love all the time?

There are proven formulas for creating happiness. I had been given a unique combination of principles from my horsemanship mentors, the process of recovery from alcoholism and a jet-black mule named Betty. The most obvious is to stay calm, be encouraging and give praise frequently.

There are also things to avoid; typical mistakes people make. Recalling a blunder from the past indicates an inability to forgive – whether real or imagined. Often times we are focused on the behavior others produce. We must be careful as this qualifies as self-righteousness and a diversion. Being on the lookout for distractions that keep us stuck is prudent. Finding beauty, something to admire and being quick to approve is key to the formula that restores trust, regard and qualities that bring us into harmony.

There is a song that plays throughout the kingdom – from the smallest subatomic particles to the vastness of the galaxy filled universe; the still small voice. In order to have access to this song we must monitor what we allow in our minds. We must let go of prejudices, forgive all violations humans have produced and become fully present to this moment. Any lingering thought, resentment or fantasy interferes with my ability to notice. For this moment is the only place we can be in relationship with the qualities that add up to love.

I must become completely empty. When I become completely still and become the observer; remarkable things happen. I become like a child – completely uninhibited by beliefs, pre-conceived notions or prejudice. My imagination is not tainted. I am free to play, find and appreciate what is in the moment. I use all of my imagination. I am completely free. Through clarity I access the song of love first demonstrated to me by Betty the mule. In gratitude for this long-eared miracle, I live in love for the rest of my life.

My First Blog Post

This is the first post on my new blog. I’m all about the circus, living my life as a creative artist and how wonderful my life with horses has been. I have many stories to share about my interesting life and have finally begun getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more and let me hear from you. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.

Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus you own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about?
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.