So what could a cowboy from Texas and a farm boy from Iowa find in common after meeting in Snohomish County?
A love of horses and the best management practices for caring for them.
I first met Alan Shank on a soggy morning on April 5, 2017. I had been with the Snohomish Conservation District for just a few weeks. He was my predecessor with the Sound Horsekeeping Program and so meeting him became my first priority. Still fresh from my move from Texas, my speech and dress sometimes, as they still do, get me odd looks, and I’m sure when I walked into Alan’s kitchen that day he wondered what in the world had come through his door. As we sat down and he gave me a cup of coffee I remember him saying “When I retired I told the District that when they hired for my position to be sure to get someone who really knows about horses…but a Texas cowboy? That’s taking what I said to an extreme!” Then he laughed, and I laughed, and we laughed.
It’s his infectious laugh that I sometimes still hear in my head, one that if you ever heard it once you’ll never forget it. I know I never will.
That first meeting lasted for about two hours and we talked about everything horse related. It didn’t take long for us to form a relationship that, for me, became one of the greatest blessings of my life. Getting to know Alan over the last few years not only gave me joy for having a good friend, but our conversations about horsemanship and how to manage a farm helped me to grow in my personal understanding of those things, sometimes challenging some of my long-held beliefs, but always giving me something to improve my methods and perspective.
Yes, our methods were sometimes different on how we approached horsemanship, and I will confess to scratching my head more than once at some of his ways. I grew up in ranch country and my methods are rather old-school while Alan was always trying something new, something on the edge, to me, of the frontiers of horsemanship. Though our methods were different, our focus was always the same – the horse before all else. Whether it was riding, training or keeping them, the horse’s needs and perspective always came first. In that we learned to appreciate each other.
Alan was a master of the best management practices for horse keeping. The methods have been around for generations, and I practiced them myself for many years in Texas before coming here, but Alan turned them into a science. His small farm in Snohomish is the best example I know of about how to do it perfectly. Only a master could take a 3.5 acre parcel with a home, a full size covered arena, two outdoor sand arenas, a round pen, a six stall barn, multiple paddocks with Nobel shelters, and keep 10 horses with grass turnouts that always have enough grass for every horse. If there were ever a picture of an efficient small horse farm it would be Alan’s.
Just a few weeks before he passed I remember sitting with him watching the horses grazing on the fresh grass. “It is so satisfying to watch a horse graze on good grass.” he told me then, smiling.
Alan was not only a master of managing a small farm, but he was also a horseman to emulate. An example of how good a horseman Alan was is in his relationship with the horse he had when he passed - Rusty. Rusty is a muscled up, ranch bred Quarter Horse that he purchased from a dusty old spread in eastern Oregon. When Alan got him home Rusty looked like a formidable ranch horse, even for this old cowboy. Rusty had been used and abused down in Oregon. He was obviously rode hard and fast and knew how to work. Despite his amazing physical features, though, he was very careful and lacked trust in a lot of things, having been driven so hard most of his life. I commented to a mutual friend of ours that I was worried because I felt Rusty was more horse than Alan could handle. Heck, I was even wondering how long I would last on him if given the chance! I said I wanted to be around when he first mounted him because it was for sure going to be a rodeo.
Was I ever wrong.
Through his patience and dedication Alan slowly broke down those distrustful and fear-based barriers in Rusty. I went with Alan when he took Rusty to a saddle shop in Spanaway to help him pick out a good fitting saddle for them both. Alan never spared any expense to make sure Rusty had what he needed. In the end Rusty came to him like a dog and would follow him around like one, too. And when Alan finally mounted him there was no rodeo. Far from it. What there was was a union of man and horse like every horseman dreams of.
One of the last memories I have of Alan is of him sitting outside Rusty’s stall in a chair, quietly talking with him and letting Rusty touch his hand now and then as they both just sat in each other’s company, enjoying the time for just what it was. I had come out to see how he was doing and afterwards, as I went to leave, he just looked at Rusty and smiled and continued to sit there enjoying the moment.
A true horseman enjoys his horse for what it is, in the moment that the horse is in, with grace and humility, and a focus always on the relationship over any goals one may have.
And that is how I hope we all remember Alan Shank. Not just a master of the best ways to keep a horse, but as something much more – a true horseman.
See you down the trail, my friend.
- By Michael Hipp