The Tao of Cowboy

Robert Liner, who's also equestrian director at Lakeland Academy in Rockwall, "starts" troubled horses at a ranch near Corsicana.
Tom Jenkins

The Tao of Cowboy
Horse guru Robert Liner says he's never met a horse he couldn't train

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."

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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."

Liner moved back home to North Texas "poor as all get-out" but determined to teach people what he'd learned. Breaking horses, he says, was about changing his own attitude as much as that of the animal. "When I made the breakthrough with True Son," says Liner, who recalls re-reading his journal years later, "I started the chapter that it wasn't the horse. It was me."

Liner took out an ad in The Dallas Morning News that said, "Will break problem horses for free." Working out of stables near White Rock Lake, he had one pair of jeans and a pair of cowboy boots that he'd used duct tape on to keep the soles together, spray-painting it brown to match the leather.

His break finally came eight years ago, when another horse trainer at the state fair couldn't make it for a demonstration. Liner was asked to fill in. In the years that followed, he'd make a name for himself teaching lessons across the Southwest. It was back at the State Fair of Texas, however, that he caught the eye of a 10-year-old girl from Highland Park who took his career in a new direction.

Taylor Everett's dyslexia made writing even a few sentences difficult. Struggling to finish in a few hours what her peers might finish in one or two didn't give her much confidence. But Liner's horse demonstration sparked something in her, and she knew she wanted to tell him how excited she'd become about riding horses. At her dad Chuck's suggestion, she ended up writing him a three-page letter.

The Everetts received a call from Liner just days after they'd mailed the letter. When he picked up the phone, Chuck Everett could tell that Liner was holding back tears. "I need to meet Taylor," Liner told her father. "Now."

Last spring, the Everetts insisted that Liner move his operation out to their ranch at Rawhide Creek. Chuck Everett says his whole family is "infected" with horse fever, and they're more than happy to host Liner and his camps.

Many of his students, like Taylor, met Liner through the state fair. Starting at 4:30 a.m., the kids ride, rope and sweat until sundown, learning every aspect of what it is to work on a ranch. Back in their circle, though, no one lacks the energy to talk about what they've learned. "Knowing you can control a 1,000-pound animal just gives you so much self-confidence," says Esther Rollier, a formerly shy 16-year-old from Plano.

It was Esther who finally rode Jezebel, the rodeo horse who was so wild that Lone Star Equine Rescue couldn't even get a halter around her. Forcing her through a running chute and into a truck, they dropped Jezebel off at Rawhide Creek, where Liner immediately changed her name. "Every time I'd walk up to her, she'd scoot away," he says, "so I decided to call her Scoots. It's got a little bit better connotation."

One day early in the camp, Liner asked Esther and a group of girls to help him put Scoots in a squeeze chute, a small pen that puts pressure on a horse from every side. The girls rubbed their hands all over the horse to calm her. But Scoots still refused to give in. Esther, who's been taking lessons from Liner for a couple of years, worked alone with Scoots, squatting down in the pen to show the horse that she wasn't a predator. Then she was able to get her arm around the horse's neck and lead her. Taking small steps from there, in a few days, Esther says, she nonchalantly led Scoots out into the corral with a halter on and began grooming her.

"Everyone was like, 'Oh, my God, how did you do that?'" Esther says. "It was the best feeling you'll ever feel."

Liner pitched in for support only when Esther wanted to put a full Western-style saddle on Scoots. By herself, the teenager had managed to do in a matter of days what other trainers had spent months attempting to do. It was possible, she says, because of what she'd learned from Liner. "Robert thinks about why a horse might act crazy," Esther says. "What physical problem or internal problems could be hurting the horse? Other trainers just say it's a bad horse and we don't want it. Robert looks at all of that, and he doesn't give up. " --Andrea Grimes  

The Big Jesus Bash
The face of Christianity sure has changed. Or is it simply that this burgeoning movement has escaped the notice of our rigidly prescribed cultural radar? Last Saturday's Celebrate Freedom, the long-running Fourth of July celebration sponsored by contemporary Christian music station KLTY 94.9 FM and Interstate Batteries, is billed as the largest free outdoor concert in America. It begins at 7 a.m. and runs through midnight, capped with what is touted as one of the largest fireworks displays in North Texas. It allegedly pulls in some 200,000 people to Southfork Ranch to hear bands like Newsboys, Casting Crowns, Caedmon's Call, Avalon, Toby Mac, Iconoclast and Selah. The huge stage is flanked by Jumbotrons. The music is tight and well-produced, far different from the saccharine schlock that was the hallmark of contemporary Christian music years ago.

A tent city rises from the parched, fire ant-infested ground several rows back from the stage. A woman sleeps in one tent with a thick tome over her face; not a Bible, but the collected works of P.G. Wodehouse. In another tent a woman methodically fills a wading pool with water bottled in gallon jugs and hauled in via a toy wagon as her toddler splashes. Selah is on stage. Their bass player and his neon-orange Mohawk bob to the beat.

"We're fellow believers," says Brook Grisham, who is pulling a wagon stocked with handheld mister fans and stuffed toys, hoping to sell the stuff to tent-dwellers. His hair is dyed lime green. Celebration Freedom is thick with commerce. Around the stage are rows of vendor booths plying everything from Christian business directories to jewelry to Christian hockey to T-shirts with slogans like "Darwin Lied" and "My Ancestor Was Not a Monkey." The No. 18 Interstate Batteries stock car, driven by Bobby Labonte in the NASCAR Nextel Cup series, rattles and chokes not far from a CareNow medical center booth offering free patriotic tattoos.

Motorcycles are being raffled off, too, one of them an exotic chopper in the Bluegreen Resorts booth. "This one is 12 feet long," says Paul Van Hook, pointing to a color poster behind the chopper on display. "You need a Wal-Mart parking lot to turn the thing around in." The choppers are part of a "What would you do with $50,000?" promotion, he says. "We give you the cash, and you can get this bike, that bike, a Hummer, whatever. You can buy Twinkies with it if you want."

Near the entrance to the Celebrate Freedom spread is a plywood skateboard course with ramps, curved walls and steel bars. Kids skate around the course while hip-hop music throbs from a flock of black speakers stationed around its perimeter. A sinister red and black poster shills for the King of Kings Skateboard Ministry. The music stops abruptly, and those speakers pulse with the ascending and descending cadence of spiritual oratory. "Before long, I began to be sponsored," the speaker booms. "Ultimately, I was sponsored by some of the biggest skateboard companies in the world."

It's the voice of Jay "Alabamy" Haizlip, who was among the world's top professional skateboarders in the 1980s. He's standing on a raised wooden platform in the middle of the course, waving a skateboard. The tattoos on his arms seem a part of his tie-dyed shirt depicting a cross. His dark hair is flecked with gray. He tells of how he started doing drugs at age 11. He tells of how at 15 his neighbor chopped him a fat line of cocaine on her glass coffee table and rolled a hundred dollar bill for him, urging him to take a snort. "I said, 'Wow, this is the greatest stuff I've ever done,'" he says. "All I did every day was wake up, go surfing, come home, get high, eat, go skateboarding, party all night in Hollywood. That was my life." Then he got strung out and went to prison. After getting out of the slammer, he discovered Jesus through a chance street encounter while on his way to score some cocaine. After he finishes his story, Alabamy, a minister in Southern California, asks the kids to bow their heads, raise their hands and come forward to display their faith. Kids seep from the crowd and flow into the center of the course, huddling around the platform. He raises his skateboard above their heads, as if conferring a blessing. "This is the gnarliest thing you're ever going to do," he says. They bow. They pray. --Mark Stuertz

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