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Best friends

Best Friends

Best friends, a bond of affection

Horses make good friends! They’re social animals and sociable once a pecking order is established to make them feel secure in their equine neighborhood. Studies show that leadership and dominance do play a role in horse interactions but they’re less important once order and safety are established between them and their familiar and best friends; then they’re more likely to rub and scratch each other’s backs, to parade the paddock together, and to watch out for one another. Those behaviors reveal a horse level of understanding and trust.

Sensory creatures

Like people, horses communicate with facial expressions using eyes, ears, and noses. It’s been said that the eyes are the windows of the soul and horses have the largest eyes among all the land mammals. Placed at the sides of their head, they can see more than 270° around without turning the head. Each ear has sixteen articulating muscles that rotate the ear through 180° and they typically point the ear toward whatever the eye on that side is seeing. So yes, the horse can see two different things at the very same time! They can twitch and move their skin separately from the muscles beneath. Horses also vocalize what they want to communicate with whinnies, neighs, roars and snorts, the meaning of which other horses know and that we too can learn. They are unique and interesting animals.

Do horses really befriend humans?

If you’ve cared for a horse, enjoyed each other’s company, built a history together, learned the nuances of emotion, you know that the horse is your friend just as you are his. Each of you is free to express your feelings honestly, to exchange trust, sympathy and love. It’s not that a horse cannot compare or judge you but that he’s found you worthy. Because a horse does judge and remembers, earning his affection is a personal honor and true compliment. In your shared friendship each of you can be happier. A horse may live many decades returning value for value with a fortunate human friend. They see us; we see them.

From the artist’s point of view:

This is Ed, a Morgan horse who was cherished by his human for more than thirty years. The commission came last winter—to paint a remembrance in honor of a wonderful horse and as a surprise for his owner and best friend to replace her grief with glad memory. The exact time and place is imagined but summarizes familiar woods and trees, a corral and the cattail marsh of home. To set the scene required four major paint sketches. From the beginning both husband and daughter contributed ideas in the framework of a good day between best friends landscaped against a summer sky with puffy clouds. It was a challenge gladly accepted and their help throughout was irreplaceable.

Challenges in painting Best Friends

Painting Ed was complicated by their wish to show his muscular, younger self in the prime of life, in the days when carrying his friend across the countryside was a mutual joy–in the absence of a photo that showed him that way. Painting her was challenging in a different way; we humans recognize everything about ourselves! The slightest nuance of glance or smile or posture had to be accurate or she wouldn’t recognize or accept it as herself. Several months into the process I even considered anonymously observing her, perhaps in her place of work—until that just seemed too entirely weird.

So I put her riding helmet on her head and even turned her sideways into the scene. The helmet covered her lovely hair which I’d decided long before to showcase with sunshine highlights. Turning her head toward Ed made painting a reasonable likeness more reliable (as we don’t commonly see ourselves from the side). But that dodged the point of the painting. So I persisted without helmet, face forward until she looked like the woman in two dozen family photos, until husband and daughter confirmed that indeed it did capture the woman they knew.

Passing the test! 20160918_133514

But the truest test came when the husband brought his wife to our home. On a Sunday drive through the country, he’d told her moments before that he wanted her to meet some people who lived down a long country lane in coulee country. We greeted him, “It’s good to see you again,” while she looked slightly bewildered; imagine her thinking, “Odd that he knows these strangers whom I don’t.” We all acknowledged the peculiarity of the moment and assured her that soon all would be explained.

I’d hung her portrait in our library and beyond were lemonade and cookies on the summer porch. Leading the way I turned toward her at the instant she saw herself and Ed. It was a life event for them and for us too, a never to be forgotten moment. We four spent time getting to know one another, answering questions, explaining how it all came to be. They are a remarkable couple in the ways they communicate, in his kindness and perceptions of what might please her, in her appreciation of him and thankfulness for the gift.

And she looks exactly like the beautiful woman in the painting!

Salt River Valley

Salt River Valley

Afton, Wyoming, may be small but it’s the biggest little town in the Star Valley

Exhausted Mormon travelers emerged from the Lander Cutoff and settled in the Star Valley to build their futures. At fewer than 2,000 people in the 2010 census, Afton is the largest town among Smoot, Thane, and Etna strung along U.S. Highway 89 south of the Palisades Reservoir. It is ranch country for raising horses and cattle along with the grains to support them in rich pasture land beside the Salt River. Country people, cowboys and cattlemen live side-by-side with newcomers attracted by the pastoral calm of a gorgeous place. There is world class fly-fishing in local streams. The town’s water supply pours out of the world’s largest Intermittent Spring in the crotch of mountain peaks high above the town.

They ride horses, drive cattle, and they build and fly airplanes

The second family vehicle is often a horse trailer, an RV, or an airplane. Seventy-five miles north, the more famous Jackson Hole anchors Grand Teton National Park and the southern entrance to Yellowstone. But here in Afton the day-to-day is working class normal. This is a place where generous people judge your character and may offer you a place to rest or even perhaps their brand new truck to drive for the week. We know because it’s happened to us. Oh, and about those airplanes . . . the Aviat Husky factory occupies a hodge-podge of nondescript buildings which look like war surplus, the Second World War, that is. That’s what takes us to Afton! We fly a Husky A-1C 200 and return each year for its annual inspection.

Afton, Wyoming, on the ramp at KAFO

Afton, Wyoming, on the ramp at the fixed-base, the Afton Municipal Airport (KAFO)

Skilled employees build a world-class bush plane, the Aviat Husky

In 2010 we drove into Afton for the first time to take delivery on our plane. A Husky is a superbly competent little bush plane with excellent performance and short takeoff and landing capability. We tease that we spent our children’s inheritance which isn’t too far from the truth. Imagine then, arriving in a small western town with one main street, armed with an address to which we’d sent our money, and what did we find but a shabby collection of derelict grey buildings hard on the narrow sidewalk. (Since we first saw it, there’s been a makeover and last fall was nicely repainted.) Don’t judge this book by its cover! Inside is a factory employing a few dozen industrious employees who basically hand-build the aircraft. They know each one intimately by the time it’s finished and they take great personal pride in putting a bit of themselves into each one by building it right!

Star Valley and Afton WY

What is it about Afton Wyoming? THIS is what it is!

Afton, Wyoming

The Corral

The best food in Afton comes from the sea!

There are several good restaurants that serve generous fare but the most unexpected, and for our tastes, the most outstanding is Rocky Mountain Seafood run by the colorful Larry and his partner Julie. He’s a retired ship captain and she a harbor master transplanted from Pacific seacoast to interior mountains. And they still have good connections in the coastal fishing industry! The seafood arrives as air cargo and is trucked from Salt Lake City direct to the restaurant, deliciously prepared and on your plate before the tang of fresh salt air has faded. The menu is simple, a mix and match of basic preparations where one type of fish can be switched with another. The whole point is for the flavor and quality of fish to shine rather than indulging a cook’s conceit. If you have a kid’s tastes or don’t like fish, there’s always an excellent steak or Julie’s fine mac ‘n’ cheese. The atmosphere is dockside fish market, casual with sturdy picnic table seating, a diner where you can take your catch home in a sack or have it prepared, seat yourself–among friends or friendly strangers. Don’t look out the windows at majestic western mountains and you just may forget you’re in Wyoming!

Where dreams come true and those dreams can FLY! At the Aviat factory, home of our very own Fire Horse.

And for us there is the added inducement of this, the Aviat Aircraft Company where our very own Husky named Fire Horse was born. They also build the Pitts Special, the renowned competition aerobatic plane, as well as the Eagle II which is available as a kit or factory complete. But we’re partisans for the Husky given our 900′ runway below 200′ cliffs–we need a bush plane!
WhereDreamsFly_900px-70pct-sRGB

Leah Collected is my newest work. In process for several months it is finally delivered. The subject is a bay-colored Morgan horse and several times over Grand National Champion in Dressage, sometimes known as horse ballet. Dressage has several levels and standards required in competition where the highest level of skill, intelligence, strength, and difficulty is known as Collection. So at the peak of her career Leah was a dressage master of being collected.

Master of Horse Balley

Leah Collected

Notice Leah’s characteristic bay coloring of brown body with soft black nose, legs black at the bottom, black mane, ears outlined in black. Her ears are pricked forward now as she gallops her way through the water ahead but in a moment they’ll move back to listen intently to her rider.

At 28 years of age Leah is finally retired. She has some health issues but is just as sweet of disposition and intelligent as ever. Her caring owners stopped riding her last year. This scene in the river really happened and it’s the way Leah’s family wants to remember her — running freely, full of life, soaked with the joy of plunging headlong into river water with her best friend — a permanent, tangible memory of this very special horse.

A personal footnote: My life doesn’t leave much time for the care and feeding of livestock. We have a lovely philosopher cat who lives inside with us and a dozen big goldfish in the summers that get transferred to a deep year ‘round pond each fall. Our one indulgence is a small airplane named Fire Horse, so in that sense we do have a horse with wings! Leah is the fourth real horse I’ve painted in 2012 and I learned a great deal in several conversations with her owner, about horse ballet, about horses in general, and about this lovely girl in particular. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire process and the challenge of it, but especially exploring the way the human heart can fall completely in love with a horse. Thank you for that, Leah, and to your family who loves you so much!

“Freckles is my good friend. When we ride it feels like flying on wind. I wonder if Freckles feels me like a pair of new sprouted wings?”

This painting was commissioned by the young woman’s other friend to recognize an important achievement and to acknowledge a special place in the heart.

Friends