Cowboy Poetry? Parade without Motors? Yes!

Julie Kenney traveled from Harpswell, Maine, to take in the Best Horse Practices Summit and check out southwestern Colorado. She was also a Strater Hotel guest and an awesome Summit volunteer. She filed this report as a first-time visitor to the Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering:

By Julie Kenney

Cowboy Poetry: an unfamiliar term to a woman who was born and raised in Maine. The term isn’t distasteful, but it certainly didn’t sound interesting. It reminded me of high school English classes that required poetry reading and writing as part of its curriculum. Boring! The thought of making me do something that didn’t interest me in the first place was the problem.

In early October, I had the great privilege to attend the inaugural Best Horse Practices Summit in Durango, Colorado. I’ve been planning the trip for over a year, ever since Summit director Maddy Butcher and I had a quick meet-up in Maine the previous summer and she told me about this idea she was working on. I was on board from the beginning. This Summit was just where I wanted to be!

Hotel arrangements were made. Money was saved. Airline tickets were purchased. I knew traveling to about 6,300 feet elevation coming from an average of 38 feet elevation might require an adjustment period. So, my flight arrangements had me arriving in Durango two days ahead of the conference.

It just so happens that my hotel, The Strater, and all of Durango for that matter, was playing host to the Cowboy Poetry Gathering at that time. I met some really nice people at the Strater and even had breakfast with one of the participants, a cowboy poet.

That’s how I ended up buying tickets for a couple of Poetry Gathering events. It was worth it! This poetry was stories told, with a little rhyming, or in song format. That’s all. Simple but also intricate. Nothing like the boring stuff required in high school. I was moved to tears, brought to a full belly-laugh, and everything in between. It was patriotic, touching, funny, and uplifting. I was so happy to have been there listening.

On Saturday, there was also a parade that consisted of only non-motorized participants. That meant a lot of horses of all different breeds and sizes, mules, donkeys, llamas, and even a long-horn bull. Coming from a town in Maine that worries about any amount of manure along the roads or on our beaches, it was refreshing to see a whole parade dedicated to the animals that help us move from place to place. They just used a John Deere tractor to follow behind the parade route with volunteers cleaning up the road. No big deal.

If you have the desire to head out to next year’s Best Horse Practices Summit (and I highly recommend it), go a couple of days ahead of time. Watch a parade and listen to the stories told and sung at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering. You will not be disappointed.

A Visit with Western Folklife’s Kristin Windbigler

Kristin Windbigler is the new executive director of the Western Folklife Center and the event it runs, the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. We visited with her via email about the organization and this year’s production, the 34th annual gathering which runs from January 29 to February 3 in Elko, Nevada.

Cayuse Communications, the family of six sites including NickerNews, BestHorsePractices, and HorseHead, are regular sponsors of this wonderful mid-winter event.

This year’s NCPG theme: Basques and Buckaroos: Herding Cultures of Basin, Range, and Beyond.

The weeklong winter event features workshops where visitors can learn about Basque cooking, Dutch oven cooking, two-step dance, cinch making, rawhide braiding, and hat making, to name a few. There are also special events to connect more closely with favorite performers, like poet Paul Zarzyski and musician Dom Flemons.

Kristin Windbigler

Excerpts from our visit with Windbigler:

NickerNews: Why do you think you were chosen to lead Western Folklife and the Gathering?

Kristin Windbigler: I was raised on a little place in a remote community located in the rugged ranching and timber country of Humboldt County, California. I come from gyppo loggers on both sides of the family, but there is a ranching thread in the weave, too. I’ve been around cattle and livestock most of my life.

I have attended the Gathering for nearly 20 years and as a participant since 2005 when I made my first of seven films for the Deep West Video program. I joined the board in 2013 and most recently served as its vice chair. I fell in love with the Gathering that first year I attended because I saw my own culture—the life I grew up in—recognized, examined, celebrated and lauded.

The Western Folklife Center and the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering explore and give voice to the traditional and dynamic cultures of the American West, and I couldn’t be more thrilled and humbled by this opportunity to grow the organization.

NN: What are you interested in having evolve at the Gathering and what you are interested in maintaining as more or less the same?

Performers at the NCPG

KW: I’m not going to mess with the magic, but I would like to make it all more accessible and also to new audiences — that means both people who live the life as well those who have an interest or love for the West and life spent close to the land (and those certainly aren’t mutually exclusive!).

I hope to nurture the deep connections everyone makes at the Gathering as well as foster new ones by using technology to bring the organization’s far-flung community together year round. Read more about that here.

NN: Are there more workshops than in the past and if so, is this an intentional pattern of introducing more ways for members to engage in ranch culture? Are more and more members “from away” (ie, not ranchers but wannabe ranchers)?

KW: Much of the 2018 Gathering planning was already underway when I came onboard in June, so I can’t take any credit for the incredible offering of workshops—that all goes to the Western Folklife Center’s talented programming staff.

It is very much part of our mission, though, to provide a venue for artists to pass on their crafts and skills. The Gathering has a long history of fantastic workshops, and I’m so thrilled you are interested in making people more aware of them.

You are correct in noticing there is an increase in the number we’re offering in 2018, but that’s just because Gathering participants (ranchers/cowboys included) enjoy the hands-on offerings.

Wylie Gustafson will perform at the NCPG

The Gathering isn’t solely about stage performances with featured artists, but also about actively engaging with many Western artforms (including cooking, gearmaking, visual art, poetry writing and recitation, open mics, etc.). We appreciate that there are different ways of doing this, so we like to provide lots of options.

All kinds of people take these workshops, and I would not say they’re intentionally geared toward any particular audience as often as they are designed for both beginners AND skilled, advanced students. I think it’s worth pointing out that I know several highly skilled gearmakers who did not grow up in this life, but came to it later because they were interested or had a passion for it. Anybody who has the desire to learn is welcome.

NN: The Western Folklife staff is almost all women – Serendipity? Strength? Weakness?

KW: I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that. A person’s gender doesn’t have much to do with what they can accomplish. I don’t have any brothers and my dad got a lot done on our place with the help of my mom and two little girls.

I grew up building fence, bucking hay, and packing fuel and saw oil in the woods when he was falling timber for the neighbors. He told us we shouldn’t ever apologize for being small or not as strong, but we did need to learn to make good decisions and use our brains to work efficiently, especially when we needed to make up the difference on a task that required brawn. That said, this job doesn’t require much lifting.

New Horse Professionals Expo in Maine

Well-known horse trainer Chris Lombard is working with the non-profit Healing Through Horses to direct the inaugural Horse Professional Demonstration Expo at their facility in New Gloucester, Maine. It will take place all day, September 30.

Visit their facebook page here. 

Visit their website here. 

Healing Through Horses is a non-profit counseling service that offers Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) in a private indoor horse facility in New Gloucester, Maine. Horses are known for their unique blend of gentle disposition and compassionate power. EAP is animal assisted therapy that incorporates human interaction with horses as guides. Used for decades, it is a proven form of therapy that effectively employs a horses’s innate ability to connect and bond with people in a non-judgmental manner. Horses are sensitive, compassionate and gentle animals. They are able to perceive the needs of humans and act on those needs with unconditional love which makes them a perfect partner in a therapeutic setting.

Admission is just $20 for the day and children under 8 get in for free. There will also be a food booth and The Village Store is close by for lunch.

There will be three different venues holding demonstrations simultaneously. “Think of it like a mini, one-day Equine Affaire. There will be equine professionals from all types of specialties – dressage, jumping, centered riding, natural horsemanship, driving, farrier/hoof care, dental, veterinarian, holistic medicine, energy work, performances, body work, saddle fit, animal communication and more,” said the Healing Through Horses site.

Chris Lombard

Presenters include:

KRISTENE AUBIN (Equine Dentistry)
SANDRA BEAULIEU (Performance/Trick Training)
SAYRE ENGLISH (General Training and Horsemanship)
MICHAEL FRALICH (Equine Assisted Therapy)
ASHLEY HUTCHINSON (Saddle Fit/Massage/General Training and Horsemanship)
NIKALINE IACONO (General Training and Horsemanship)
DR. DAVID JEFFERSON (Equine Veterinarian/Chiropractics)
ADRIEANNE JOHNSON (Holistic/Herbal Horse Care)
RON JOHNSON (General Training and Horsemanship)
DR. TOM JUDD (Equine Veterinarian/Chiropractics)
DEBBIE LITTLE (Youth Horsemanship/General Training and Horsemanship)

Judy Cross-Strehlke

CHRIS LOMBARD (General Training and Horsemanship)
LOUISE POPPEMA (Animal Communication)
STACEY SCOTIA (Holistic Horse Care/General Training and Horsemanship)

Dressage and Champagne in Mancos

Classical dressage competitor and instructor Petra Beltran will speak and present during an informal free evening presentation at the River Studio in Mancos, Colorado. Reservations are required for “An Evening of Classical Dressage and Champagne,” 5:30 – 7 pm, February 24, at the River Studio, 121 Grand Avenue.

Originally from the Czech Republic, Beltran is currently training and living in Woodside, California where she runs White Horse Dressage Academy. Beltran has traveled extensively and is a USDF bronze medalist. She describes herself as a constant learner and one who is passionate about classical dressage. She is enjoying southwestern Colorado while visiting friend and fellow horse lover, Petra Sullwold.

Check out the White Horse Dressage Academy Facebook page here.

Space is free but limited. RSVP by calling (970) 903 8901.

Petra Beltran





NCPG in Elko: Celebrating Storytelling and Life with Horses

For those who’ve not had the pleasure of attending the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, an annual event run by Western Folklife in Elko, Nevada, it may be easier to describe it through metaphor:

A stage backdrop in Elko

If the Gathering were something you ate, it would be tapas, snacks often offered as part of a social agenda, of getting together.

Held over seven days in the historic Nevada town, the Gathering is not one single event where you gorge on the talents of just a few artists. Rather, it is scores of small events, hosted and presented by dozens of talents from the Western states and beyond.

In this way, snacking is a wonderfully fulfilling way to go. The Gathering celebrates not just performance but the reunion of performers with their audiences and with their fellow artists. For one week in the middle of winter, the event turns the town into a sort of rollicking, mobile family reunion. The connections between artists goes waayy back, as does their rapport with fans.

Case in point:

Paul Zarzyski
Photo courtesy of NCPG

Over the years, poet Paul Zarzyski has recited “Making Her Day,” about an only-in-Montana shenanigan involving the delivery of two Pabst Blue Ribbon cans of beer to his favorite drive-thru bank teller by way of the drive-thru bank cylinder.

This time around, one of his fans presented him with his very own drive-thru bank cylinder.

The year’s theme was Storytelling. In typical Gathering fashion, the topic took many tangents in the form of panel discussions, a keynote address by Andy Wilkinson, and several sessions dedicated to specific aspects of storytelling. Wilkinson, a beloved writer, musician, and teacher at Texas Tech University, chastised the current climate of vitriol and antagonism. He offered attendees a way back to civility and a way out of the politically-charged mire:

“…[T]here’s but one way back to glory, o kith and kin, and that’s through story.”

Wilkinson helped capture the Gathering’s mission concisely when he said: “The principal business of art is storytelling. And the principal business of storytelling is to give us an understanding of the world that is distinctly human. The historian sees their view, even though it is ever-changing, to be the objective truth. The artist knows that the ever-changing nature of truth can only be captured in a story.”

Many performers and attendees leave behind present, real-life stories of horses, cattle, ranch hands, and cowdogs to be part of the Gathering. This is true for some of my favorite performers: Gail Steiger, Randy Rieman, Joel Nelson, Ross Knox, Amy Hale Auker (Steiger’s wife), Teresa Jordan, and John Dofflemyer, to name a few. Their year-round occupations and personal histories give ringing authenticity to their presence and purpose here.

Australian poet and stockman, Jack Sammon

Jack Sammon, a talented gem from Murwillumbah, New South Wales, worked for years as a boss drover (stockman) on Australian cattle drives. One ranch he worked on spanned 170 miles from its northern end to its southern end, “with not a single fence line in between,” he said. It’s easy to get lost in that kind of vastness, he told the audience.

It’s easy to get lost and fall in love with that kind of work, too, said many performers.

Joel Nelson elaborated during another session, “we were all young cowboys and like all young cowboys, we were looking for that straight riding job.”

It may be hard, dirty, poor-paying, bone-jarring, occasionally crippling work. But especially in today’s world, where folks are constantly plugged, wired, and stressed, there are some blissful advantages

As Gail Steiger recited: “The hired man on horseback goes laughing to his work.”

Couldn’t we all stand a job like that? And even if we couldn’t – the Gathering lets us take some of that notion home with us. It let’s us embrace the idea and the lifestyle.

Teresa Jordan, who grew up on a Wyoming ranch before attending Yale University, lent a wise, female perspective to a session, titled “Let the Mystery Be” (the title of a brilliant Iris DeMent song). As a girl, she was used to spending plenty of

Trish and Deon Reynolds discuss their photographic murals

time alone and plenty of time with animals, she recalled. She’d often ride out from the ranch with men and boys. But when a girlfriend visited, the two would head out with a different mindset. “We would be the horses. There was this sense of transcendence,” she said.

Judging by the crowd’s response, it was an appreciated attitude.

At a morning session called “Coffee with the Cowboys,” performer Gail Steiger openly addressed the climate of discord which seems to blanket the country of late. He remembered the 1983 invasion of Grenada and said, “I turned off the TV and left all that nonsense behind…We disagree on some things, but we don’t disagree on everything.”

Fellow performer and working cowboy Rod Taylor nodded his head and chimed in with a song from his group, the Rifters, “…I got news for you. Let’s turn it off. Let’s go outside. The world is much more beautiful than the news implies…” Check it out here.

Out there in nature, of course, everybody and everything is just trying to get along.

And like healthy, delicious snacks shared with friends, the Gathering reminds us horse folks of what’s good in our lives.

Video accompanies Joel Nelson’s poem “Equus Caballus”

NCPG’s Moth lineup is here

The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is in full gear this week. The event, which draws performers and fans from around the world, will dominate the mining town of Elko, Nevada.

Read more about it here.

Aside from the spectacular array of day and night performances (I’m keen on seeing poet Paul Zarzyski, Joel Nelson, and Randy Rieman), the Moth Mainstage event stands apart as a new and different NCPG feature.

Saturday night, the Moth storytelling lineup consists mostly of women. (That alone is a departure for a gathering that has historically featured predominantly men. )

Teresa Jordan, the talented writer and public speaker (and also wife of Hal Cannon, the former longtime executive director of Western Folklife) will step on stage as a storyteller and sheep herder from southern Utah.

Amy Hale Auker, a performer and horsewoman from Arizona (and wife of performer Gail Steiger) will tell a story, too. She cowboys for Spider Ranch in Yavapai County, in Arizona.

Otherwise, the event’s director, Maggie Cino, has brought several folks from East of the

Amy Hale Auker


Micaela Blei is a Moth New York City GrandSLAM champion and Dame Wilburn, a Detroit performer with roots in Georgia, will host.

Nestor Gomez, a native of Guatemala and winner of the Moth’s Chicago Grand Slam event, will tell a story.

Artist and spoken word poet, Bobby Wilson, a Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota, will be a storyteller. He was born in Minnesota and is now based in Phoenix, Arizona.

The evening’s attendees will hear music from Brigid Reedy. Reedy first entertained the Elko crowds by yodeling at the Pioneer Saloon at the age of two. She has attended every Gathering since (this is her fourth as an invited performer). Check out her music videos here.

NCPG Welcomes The Moth

The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, the granddaddy of gatherings, continues to evolve in its 33rd rendition, taking place in Elko, Nevada, January 30-February 4, 2017.

For the first time, the event will highlight an evening with The Moth, a New York City-based organization and a premier storytelling operation.

What is a storytelling operation?

We’ve come a long way from the campfire, folks.

Storytelling has entered an entirely new domain, where first-person narratives are rehearsed, produced with music, uploaded into podcasts and appreciated by millions of strangers. The Moth was one of the first to give amateur storytellers a broader audience, complete with radio and Internet treatment. Moth parameters are simple: stories must be true, short (usually 10-minutes or less), and told in the first person. While snark and sarcasm are often the most popular sentiments in entertainment nowadays, the Moth offers listeners refreshing options: compassion, sincerity, and vulnerability.

It will be interesting to see how the New York outfit meshes with the cowboy poets of the West. Maggie Cino, Moth director of the Saturday night show, has been researching the NCPG and reviewing storyteller options. She said she was excited to highlight the cowboy way of life and those individuals’ literary and artistic passions.

“Our way of working is to find the common interest among the storytellers, but to also showcase them as individuals,” she said in a phone interview from Los Angeles.

For the Gathering’s executive director, David Roche, the Moth production is another way for the NCPG to flex and grow.

“At the core is cowboy poetry, stringing words together. The next layer is oral literature in general. We’re interested in expanding to incorporate contemporary Western literature and ethnic and occupational diversity.”

In the past, Western Folklife (the non-profit running the NCPG) has invited cowboys from Italy, Mongolia, and the Baja California peninsula of Mexico, for example. This year’s offerings include workshops, open mic sessions, teen poetry, films, and a keynote address by poet and songwriter Andy Wilkinson. It’s an incredible, week-long celebration of cowboy culture, history, humor, and handy work.

Make no mistake, Elko will still celebrate its veteran performers – the likes of Joel Nelson, Randy Rieman, Paul Zarzyski and many others are still on the bill. But other stellar reciters have “aged out,” said Roche.

“Our idea is to refresh and regenerate,” he said. “We’re all about taking risks and trying new things.”

Check out the event here.

Highlights of the Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering

The Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering is a whirlwind entertainment experience with talented performers singing, reciting, splash16even gyrating. This year’s installment was no exception, with scores of standing-room-only, sold out performances and the state’s only non-mechanized parade (itself a wonderful display of horses and horsemanship.) Next year, it’s right before next year’s BestHorsePractices Summit.

Here are some highlights:

Wylie Gustafson & the Wild West

Wylie is a fifth generation Montanan who’s no stranger to hefting hay bales, tending to cattle, and raising horses. He wove stories and songs seamlessly during two energetic evening shows (complete with Wylie’s hilarious hip gyrations) with his talented four-man band.

Wylie Gustafson

Wylie Gustafson

Gustafson said his father was a veterinarian and a rancher who called long days of haying his “Character Development Program” and who sang and played guitar for the family in the evenings, after the Lawrence Welk show. Wylie’s childhood influences were, he said, Myron Floren (accordianist for Lawrence Welk) and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. No wonder he excels at cowboy and rockin’ country music.

Gustafson instills love and respect for equines in nearly every song. “Our heroes were the horses,” the performer recalled as he displayed a custom guitar with 18 horses crafted into it.

Check out Wylie here.

I was privileged to host a new storytelling session featuring four Colorado horsemen in one of many venues of the historic Strater Hotel. The session followed a poetry recitation gig hosted by Mike Dunn and featuring Gary McMahan. McMahan, from Bellvue, Colorado, gave us this brilliant response to Ralph Lauren’s marketing of the cologne called “Chaps.”

Reprinted here with permission.


By Gary McMahan

Gary McMahan

Gary McMahan

A poem made from a letter Dick Spencer wrote to Ralph Lauren on how to pronounce the word chaps. Dick Spencer was the publisher at Western Horseman Magazine for 40 years and is also my father in law.

chaps (chàps, shàps) plural noun

Heavy leather trousers without a seat, worn over ordinary trousers by ranch hands to protect their legs.
[Short for American Spanish chaparreras, from Spanish chaparro, chaparral. See chaparral.

chap·ar·ral (shàp˝e-ràl´) noun

  1. A dense thicket of shrubs and small trees.


(This begins the actual poem.)

To: Mr Ralph Lauren

505 5th Ave

New York City


I seen on the TV Mr. Lauren

66994mThat you have a men’s cologne you call “chaps”

And it’s probably a manly scent

Or you wouldn’t have called it that.


I confess I’ve never used the stuff

And this may sound a little harsh

But I suspect men use cologne to hide

The fact that they didn’t warsh


So I can’t really comment on the product

Though I’m sure it smells just fine

It’s the way you say the name “chaps”

That chaps my cowboy behind


You see the name is derived

From the Spanish word chaparro well

It in turn got its name

from the word chaparral


Which again in Spanish means

A dense thicket of thorny brush and trees

Which all manner of cowboys

have ridden through for centuries


Thus needing protection for their legs

These chaparro’s were fashioned from cowhide

and are the leather leggin’s cowboys wear

That comes without a backside


Then us gringos got hold of the word

And shortened chaparro to chaps

Kinda like when we took the word

Tappaderos and condensed it to “Taps”


So that’s why “ch” is really pronounced

With an “sh” sound you see

And to an ol’ cowboy that’s worn chaps all his life

It seems a travesty


That you would use the cowboy’s manly image

To sell you fancy smell to the herd

And never even take the time

To learn how to say the word


‘Cause fact is Mr. Lauren

Even though I’d like to console-ya

anyone who says “chaps” for chaps

Don’t know chit from chineola


The Durango Gathering is the kind of event where one finds treasures (of the people and moment varieties) in every corner.

Check out this quick video of an impromptu lesson on tying a Buckaroo Knot, by Linda O’Dell:



Martin Black’s only New England clinics

Kim Stone has cowboyed and worked with Martin Black for years in Oregon and Idaho. She now runs Shinantu, a small and busy farm in Brunswick, Maine. She submitted this  guest blog post to tell readers more about Black’s offerings next month:

Stone writes: Martin Black has been coming to Maine to share his knowledge with us for the decade.   This year will be different than the past clinics as it is broken into several “mini-clinics” for customized learning.

20151012-img_9716October 4-5: Private and semi-private sessions. Ride one-on-one with Martin, or in a small group.

October 6-7: Versatility and Horsemanship. We are excited about the opportunities to learn from Martin on our new Mountain Trail Course at Shinantu. We’ll see how he would negotiate different obstacles with all levels of horses and riders. There will be an optional trail ride at the end of this clinic that will encompass many of the Mountain Trail Course obstacles along the beautiful Androscoggin River.

October 8-9: We have teamed up with Old Crow Ranch and will be working their cattle for the stockmanship/horsemanship clinic.   What a great learning opportunity to work in a rare working ranch style format here in Maine.  Martin believes in low-stress stock handling. Working with your horse in a way to keep the cattle quiet and in control with the placement of your horses feet.  It is fascinating!

October 10 is our Annual Popham Beach Clinic. This will be the last year we will be offering Horsemanship on the Beach.

What can you expect to learn?

20151016-img_2198Martin would say, “it depends.”

Are you looking to learn something to help yourself, or something to help your horse, or both?

Martin comes from a long line of talented horseman and he believes one never stops learning. There are traditional formats of learning, and then there is the Martin Black form of learning. He will look where the horse is at, where the rider is at, and do what will benefit both. As you become more in tune with the movements of your horse, things begin to make sense and fall into place.   This is where the Mountain Trail Course, working with cattle, and even practicing riding on the beach can become a beautiful dance.

For more information, email Kim Stone at or CLICK HERE


Calendar Highlights

5947b3bd-5b53-481d-bc1d-a971ca5a37a1It’s not yet June and already our horse calendars are filling up. From Maine to Colorado and Canada, there’s a lot happening in our world.

Here’s just a taste:

The U.S. Equestrian Federation and the U.S. Para-Equestrian Federation announced five Centers of Excellence this month. It came as no surprise to us that the most excellent Carlisle Academy Integrative Equine Therapy and Sports was among them. Read more about Carlisle here.

Congratulations, Carlisle!

Later this year, Carlisle will conduct para-equestrian camps for veterans, among its many activities. Check out Carlisle Academy here.

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 1.52.39 PMHorsewomen Nancy Lowery and Kim Stone will demonstrate their non-horsey skills.

Lowery is presenting at TEDxYYC in Calgary. Her presentation “A Natural Guide in Leadership and Motivation” just might have some references to horses. Click here. Stone has a photo exhibit at 3fish Gallery in Portland, Maine. Read more about that.

Amy Skinner of Essence Horsemanship will run two clinics around Michigan. Check out Events page here.

And in Durango, Colorado, don’t miss the Barn Dance. A stompin’ good time to raise money for youth programs at the Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Meanwhile, if you just happen to be house hunting, check out our new listing: over 30 gorgeous acres and an historical house and barn in Searsport, Maine. Check it out here.


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