Living in an Icon

Hats, Mustangs and Austrians

I blame my parents for causing me to spend most of my life disliking hats. First, my skull is rather large and not really shaped well for a hat built to a more regular oval. Second, genetics has contributed to my thick and curly head of hair. Twice blessed, any hat that would stay on my head had to be in the upper range of typical hat sizes, so I spent most of my life allowing my abundant hair to protect me from the elements. This approach worked well until I started gentling mustangs in west Texas.


In the high desert of the Permian Basin, any plant that can find enough water to grow to a height of 8 to 10 feet is considered a “tree”. Vegetation of that stature means that you pretty much have to be shaped like a snake to find any shade from the sun. The area also has the topography of a billiard table, so there is very little to block any of the prevailing winds. To live in west Texas, you need to wear your own shade and wind break. Even the shortest sojourn in the land of the pump jack, teaches the wisdom of the cowboy hat. A simple object perfectly designed for function in that part of the world.

Gentling wild horses requires spending time getting to know them and letting them get to know you. Our den lacked the space to invite them in to watch tv, so that left the best option as visiting them in their home. Those hours with the horses led me to overcome my lifelong aversion to hats. I experimented with various options from sweat bands to ball caps but Stetson wisdom is hard to beat. I know some cowboys would insist that the 5X felt is necessary for even the most menial of barn tasks, but I was new to cowboying and chose the more easily replaced straw version for daily wear around the corral.

You would think that after years of avoiding hats altogether developing a relationship with any form of headgear would impose its own obstacles. Instead, I found that even the mustangs were glad to see my fashion statement. They would nuzzle, nibble, grab or occasionally wear my hat. The impression given was that the herd had a meeting and agreed on appropriate outfitting.

There is a state park near Monahans, Texas called simply the Sandhills. This part of the state has been set aside for people who want to experience the Sahara but find themselves unable to visit Africa. Riding the dunes on horseback certainly invokes scenes from “Lawrence of Arabia” and provides excellent exercise for horse and rider. It was one trip to the Sandhills that allowed my hat to fulfill its destiny.

There were two of us, horses tethered to the trailer as we completed tacking up. Me in denim, ranch shirt, cowboy boots and hat ready to mount my mustang with his western style tack and saddle bags. She in breeches, riding boots and plastic helmet with her thoroughbred in his English style saddle and tack. As we were finishing, a motorcycle with two riders in leather pants and jackets passed on the road above us. Immediately, they wobbled through a u turn to return to where we were making final adjustments to buckles. The motorcycle was a new BMW with camping equipment strapped to the back and two small American flags fluttering off the sides of the saddle bags and the two riders came straight to us.

After silencing the BMW, a conversation in badly broken high school German and English revealed that the riders just wanted to take some pictures. Our Austrian visitors had been planning this vacation for decades. He was a truck driver who spent hours on the road planning different routes across the US to visit as much as possible during his 6 week summer vacation. He and his wife had bought the motorcycle in Europe but picked it up in California to begin a trip across the states. In their first week, they had made it to Texas and could not believe their good fortune in almost immediately finding an opportunity to talk with and photograph a real cowboy!

The disappointment in my companion's demeanor burst like a poisonous blossom when she found that a mustang and a cowboy hat were attracting shutterbugs while her retired racehorse with the impeccable bloodlines was being ignored. I just screwed my hat down a little tighter and did my best to not allow the irony of the situation to show while I posed for pictures, first, standing next to my gentle giant but the real photo op came as I took the reins free so that my horse could push the hat out of the way and nuzzle an ear. I have no idea what was said, but there certainly were a lot of enthusiastic German words as the shutter snapped repeatedly during this display of affection from equine nobility.

I have often wondered about that truck driver and what was said as he showed his friends those pictures back in Austria. I once told a class that I had not always been a cowboy, which got the appropriate laugh and one student looked at me and said, “You're still not.” Does that driver know that his photos were of an east coast college professor who had just learned to ride by gentling mustangs and was wearing his first cowboy hat? Does it matter? He had a picture of the hat and boots, the icons of the west, of a rider with a wild horse that he had gentled and gotten under saddle. In some ways, the story might have been better if his high school did a better job of teaching English or mine German.

The magic is the hat. The hat served me well through the gentling of a small herd. It was the friend and frequent toy of my mustangs. It was the attraction for German tourists. Now, it is hidden away. There are holes where hoofs have made permanent creases. The sweat stains created abstract art. There is no possibility of reviving its proud shape or original color. It is an American icon meeting its end.

Cowboy Poets

Cowboy stories are best told by cowboys who spent more time living in icons than I did. Kim Shelton's documentary film "Cowboy Poets" can be found on Here is a sample from the film's trailer.

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