My mentor passed on to horseman’s heaven last weekend and I am feeling the loss deeply. I find I’m moving emotionally back and forth from gratitude and celebration to heavy grief. This is a man who truly changed my life by his willingness to be open to me and allow me to spend time with him. He shared his expertise and mastery with me every time we spoke or rode together. I was given the gift of being able to be in the presence of a master and a soulful, artful Paniolo for more than 5 years.
The first day I went to the ranch after hearing of his passing, an overwhelming feeling I can’t explain overcame me. It was like he was all around me, yet he was gone. I found myself unable to control my emotions so I breathed into it and allowed them to come. I was given clarity that day that I needed to honor him in that space.
The next day as I drove into the ranch the herd of cattle he so lovingly cared for and many of which he saw born and hand picked to remain, were sitting under a Keawe tree near the gate. In that moment I knew I needed to take a ride and be with the herd. I felt a sureness that I’d be guided as to what that ride would entail.
I tacked up my horse (who I haven’t played with or ridden in over 6 weeks due to my surgery and recovery) and checked in for calm, connected, and responsiveness. She offered it right away and off we went. I connected with her and let her know this was an important ride; we were gonna bonor the man that changed our relationship and both our lives.
As we entered the pasture the herd was laying down under the trees. One cow, a cow Sammy had included in a group of ween outs and hand fed when she was young, got up and quietly walked over to us. My tears began to flow. Jesse and I sat there for a while; I don’t know how long because time began to stand still out there with the cattle. We watched as the two bulls did their “dance”, heads locked together, moving as one being, mother nature guiding them. We eventually walked to the other side of the herd and I looked into the eyes of the cow who Sammy taught me would always be in the front of the line when we called to the herd on a day of a move. I asked her, “is he with us”?
As I sat there on my horse with a clear intention to offer honor and gratitude to the man who taught me so much and changed my life, the emotions came in waves. Memories came flooding to me and I laughed through the sobs.
I could see so clearly the first day Sammy took me out with him, to move the herd. I remembered how it felt when the herd came running over the mountain toward us and Sammy sat calmly on his horse and continued calling, “Coooooommmmmmeeeee heeeeerrrrreeeeee”. I was giddy inside at being a part of this experience but had to manage my horse who was a little stirred up with the herd of cattle running toward and past her. I had to find emotional fitness and be a leader for my horse though it was completely new and uncomfortable for me. Man, what a day that was!
The memory came to me of the first time Sammy offered me the opportunity to move the herd by myself and me actually accomplishing it; wow. Walking up that mountain singing what I began to think of as the cattle song, as I’d heard Sammy do so many times, and the herd calling back to me and following me was such a soulful experience that also boosted my confidence.
I remembered the days I’d go up and help Sammy sort the herd and all that I’d learn from him each and every time. I used to just soak up everything I could, knowing there was so much I wouldn’t even see, but giving gratitude to be in that space with a master. I used to stand there as Sammy artfully and soulfully worked the herd and recognize with awe how much he loved this; it truly fed his soul. He used to say, “this is no stress cattle work”. That’s what I look for now, using psychology and knowledge of the herd to be as quiet as possible while getting the job done. All I’ve had to change and grow from within as I learned from Sammy is what I mean when I see he changed my life.
The memories of watching Sammy with his mare, Jasmine, who was so full of energy came flooding back. He so artfully connected with her offering pressure when she needed it yet going with her and not blocking her energy in such a soft, light way. He was a strong leader yet didn’t cause this very sensitive mare to lose confidence. It took my breath away to watch them gather a run away or get in and out so softly when the situation called for it. Watching the two of them do the job together was a true honor. I have so many memories of Sammy and Jasmine heading out after a bull that was particularly stubborn and liked to get almost to the gate then turn back, running up the mountain. Sammy and Jasmine would, quietly but with intention, go get him and back to the gate they would come. I’d watch him with that horse and working that bull so calmly but with such feel and know I was in the presence of a master and that I couldn’t possibly see all the intricacies and feel in each moment, so I’d sit there with a strong focus and commit to just taking it in. I was blessed to ride Jasmine and am realizing now that I was given such an invaluable gift.
There were moments when a particular cow whose always ornery when she has a baby, where I’d watch as she came with some aggression toward Sammy and his horse and he’d get big with his energy and just move her off. I recognized that there was something to how he simply knew she’d move and he approached the moment with such assuredness. I tell you what, as much as I thought I saw his mastery it really became clear when I’d try these things on my own. I learned that if I had even a hint of a doubt with these animals, what I was trying to accomplish wouldn’t likely work. I’d once again be in awe of Sammy’s skills every time I attempted something I’d seen him do.
As I sat there with the herd, on my horse, a sense of peacefulness and gratitude came over me as the tears continued to come. I felt a huge smile on my face as I acknowledged that my mentor was there with all of us. I stayed with the herd until I knew it was time to move, allowing my intuition to guide me, believing Sammy was there and would let me know. This was a ride where I’d honor him and be able to let go of the heavy grief. It was necessary.
Something told me to ride up to the corral where I spent so many mornings learning about moving and sorting cattle with Sammy. There are a lot of great memories there. My horse and I walked away from the herd quietly and up the hill we went. I looked back as I wondered if they felt the strength of the connection, knowing they knew he was there. This beautiful family of beings began following me, calmly and quietly, one by one. I wasn’t calling them, but they came anyway. In that moment I began fully sobbing breathing heavy through the tears. I laughed as my horse stopped with my heavy breaths and reached down to stroke her neck and say thanks and just hang in there with me.
I accepted this beautiful gift from the herd and from Sammy; them following my horse and me, the herd softly beginning to call one by one, communicating with each other as we made our way to the corral.
I had clarity that this was not a ride for Sammy as I had originally intended, but a ride with Sammy. He was there with all of us. My heart opened and my grief was lifted in that moment because I knew he’ll always be there in this place he loved, with the herd he treasured.
A few weeks ago after what I believe was his last ride, Sammy stopped by to say hello and tell me about an upcoming move and sorting of the cattle, Sammy shared with me that anytime he was struggling with something getting on his horse and going fast was the thing that would help him. He was glowing as he told me about the ride he had on his gelding that day; it had been a while.
On that mountain, giving honor to my mentor and gratitude to the herd for all their soul and beauty, I cold see clearly that Sammy is galloping on his horse again and no longer has pain.
Every experience in life is an opportunity to learn and grow and I am finding lessons in the passing of my mentor. I had committed to giving thanks to Sammy each time I rode with him and every time I spoke to him about how I could help with the cattle, so I know he knew I was grateful.
The big lesson for me through his passing was something I’ve known was there and hadn’t been ready or willing to face. Though I give gratitude and try to tell people in my life what they mean to me, many times through writing, I stop at the edge of emotion. I live with a fear of showing too much vulnerability when I know that going there is going to cause the tears to flow. I thanked Sammy a lot. However, I was never comfortable speaking the words stating the depth of how he changed my life because I probably would have cried, and I wasn’t comfortable going there.
Even in death he continues to teach me and I feel like another big shift is coming for me.
Here’s to Sammy, a mentor, friend, and master Paniolo. May you find someone who will teach you, offer you opportunities to follow your passion and have growth experiences… a mentor who will change your life.
Today I sit here in celebration of the man who opened the door and with gratitude that I walked through. It wasn’t always easy or comfortable but my life is forever changed because of the time I had learning from him. There are some juicy lessons in that realization; I’ll be marinating on it.