By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Fresh from the corral, Robert Liner wipes beads of sweat from his temple and drapes his arms across the back of the couch, trying to soak up a little air conditioning in the ranch house. He has the tanned skin of a man who sees dawn, dusk and every hour between from the back of a horse, and he makes the oversized love seat look like a kiddie chair. His boots are just about tall enough to touch the seat cushions. Even his moustache is of exceptional size.
Close your eyes, though, and Liner could be some kind of Eastern guru, tossing around terms like "transformative experiences" and "personal journeys." Definitely the kind of guy who wears white linen robes, listens to world music and always orders vegetarian.
"You want to be a better horseman?" he asks. His voice is calm and smooth, with just the right hint of Texas twang. "Read better poetry. Write better poetry. Listen to better music. Treat horses like works of art, because that's what they are."
Liner's brand of "intuitive equine guidance" has made him one of the most highly sought-after horse trainers in the Southwest. (Liner is also the brother of Dallas Observer Stage critic Elaine Liner and son of proofreader Reba Liner. But that's not his fault.) Based at a ranch outside Dawson, Texas, near Corsicana, he says he's never met a horse he couldn't ride. Not even Jezebel, the former rodeo horse given up on by an equine rescue foundation and dismissed as "just plain crazy." Not even Copper, who at 7 years old had his owners so spooked that they hadn't even gotten a saddle on him. The list goes on and on, and every one of the more than 40 horses at Rawhide Creek Ranch is proof.
"There's not a horse out here that somebody didn't say it couldn't be ridden," Liner says as he gestures out the window to the stables. But all of his horses are now being ridden by the 15 or so kids who come out for two weeks at a time to attend his riding clinics. Today, he's just finished the first camp of the summer. Usually girls and sometimes from troubled backgrounds, the campers have a way of putting horses at ease.
"It's not that a 16-year-old girl is a better horseman than a grown cowboy," Liner says, "but they have a pure approach. Horses can sense that."
Most people would call what he does "breaking" horses, but he prefers the softer term "start." Where other trainers might try to force a horse into submission by tossing a saddle on its back and hoping for the best, Liner starts by examining a horse's facial features and hairline. He'll use a special touch method, working with the horse's "sweet spots" under its chin or on its forehead. Sometimes it takes him only days; with other horses it might be months or longer before they're saddled up, but Liner says he'll let it take, well, as long as it takes.
"I tell horses the same thing I tell people," says Liner, whose students are frequently just as scared as the animals when they first start out trying to ride. "You're going to live another year anyway, so you may as well have something to tell at the end of it."
The kids at the camp back him up on this point. Sweaty, tired and smiling, they gather a motley collection of lawn chairs and hay bales in a circle outside the stables to reflect on their experience. Ranging from about 10 to 17 years old, many of them have never worked with horses before.
"We've had our good days and our bad days," says Michelle Wood, a 17-year-old from Irving who brought her horse, Copper, to the clinic. "I didn't ride my horse for seven years, but in a week here, I could take him on a trail."
Time, in fact, isn't something Robert Liner, now 46, seems to worry about much. It's been more than 20 years since he left Dallas for the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he volunteered for a therapeutic riding program. That's when things started to "get a little bit deep."
A psychology major who'd hoped to turn pre-med and become a doctor, Liner eventually admitted to himself that he didn't have the stamina to keep up with the academics. He was crushed but soon began to see that the same high he'd hoped to get from healing people physically, he could get from teaching them in horse therapy. His own horse, however, was doing nothing but causing him problems.
"What's wrong with this horse?" Liner wrote in his journal, when True Son, a gift from a friend, refused to be ridden. "Is this horse stupid?"
One of the women he worked with happened to see Liner with True Son. She told him he didn't know how to "touch a horse."
Liner scoffed at first but finally took her advice and was able to mount his horse after years of frustration. "She taught me about sweet spots. They're a pathway to the whole body of the horse."