On a recent trip to El Paso to purchase hay, I stood near some sheep pens with my old friend, Rudy Avila. Rudy comes as close as anyone I know to being one of those proverbial “horse whisperers.” I came to know his unusual abilities with those animals while boarding some horses with him a few years back.
He told me that he was taught by his father at a very young age to handle horses. “In fact,” he said, “when I was just eleven or twelve years old I was running the starting gates for races that we used to hold regularly in the valley of the Rio Grande at Ysleta.” I suppose that Ysleta today is considered to be a suburb of El Paso even though the old timers know that Ysleta was the original site for what we know today as El Paso.
“I lived in the valley and grew up around horses,” he said. “I learned from my father and others how to not only ride them but to break them and to train them. I was a cowboy at a very young age and I dressed the part. I wore jeans, western shirts with pearl snaps, cowboy boots and a belt sporting a big shiny buckle.
“When I was a sophomore in high school, the family moved to town and I enrolled at Austin High School. Austin High School at that time was considered one of the elite high schools in El Paso. Many of the students were pretty well off and they dressed the part. They wore well pressed slacks, fashionable wingtip shoes or slip-ons with little tassels, and shirts with button-down collars.
“For several days after enrolling, not one student spoke to me. I sat alone, I walked the halls alone, and I ate alone in the cafeteria. Any attempt that I made to converse with my fellow students was less than successful. Finally, I decided to ask one of the Hispanic students, in Spanish, why nobody would talk to me.
“’You’re a stomper,’ came the curt reply, referring to the manner in which I dressed. To them, those cowboy boots I wore were made for stomping through horse and cow manure. I went home and told my mother that I needed a new wardrobe. After a fashion upgrade I ceased to be seen as some sort of oddity around school and eventually found my niche in the social pecking order.
“Hueco Tanks, which later became a state park, was then and still is a popular place to camp and picnic near El Paso. When I was a senior in high school, my class planned an outing there. Most of the other students were to travel by bus but I arrived early in a car with a few of my classmates. Manning the venue we found a grizzled old gentleman wearing a dirty, tobacco-stained shirt with his chair propped at a precarious angle in the shade of a gnarly old mesquite tree.
“I informed him that several bus loads of students were headed his way and that upon their arrival they expected to find horses saddled and ready for them to ride. His eyes widened. He spat some tobacco juice into the dust and said that he was there all alone that day and that there was no way he could saddle as many horses as would be needed. When I offered to help, he looked me up and down, dressed in my big city attire as I was, and shook his head doubtfully.
“He soon found out to his amazement that I could handle the situation and it wasn’t long before we had saddled and bridled some thirty or forty horses. Most of them were gentle creatures used to be ridden by city dudes with little experience. In a stall by itself was a magnificent black horse that had caught my eye early on. I asked if I could saddle that one for my own use.
“’Oh, that horse likes to buck,’ he said. ‘I don’t think you can handle him.’ Well, I took that as a ‘yes’ and proceeded to saddle him up. I had just mounted when the string of school busses arrived. That horse walked a few paces, started to run, then put its head between its legs and went to bucking. I jerked the reins around and made him go in a tight circle with him snorting, crow hopping and kicking up his heels. Together we put on quite a show.
“The students and teachers on those busses stared out the windows in wide-eyed awe as I rode that bronc, knowing that I was about to meet my doom. When the dust settled, I was still in the saddle and that horse and I had come to an understanding. I rode that animal for the duration of our visit to Hueco Tanks.
“The following Monday back at school, one of the teachers who had seen that initial ride approached me and expressed his amazement. ‘How did you manage to stay in the saddle?’ he asked. I told him that I had been raised around horses and that it was no big deal. He said, ‘If I could ride like that, I would be wearing western shirts, cowboy boots, and jeans with a big silver belt buckle! Why don’t you dress like the cowboy you obviously are?’
“I just grinned and walked down the hall in my fashionable slip-on shoes and neatly pressed slacks.”