breakerkentphoto © Kent Reeves, used with permission

by Joel Nelson

There’s a thousand-year-old story, involving beasts and men.
With one of each we set the stage and let the play begin.
Take Eohippus’ grandson now on middle fingernail,
and the world’s most recent primate, no vestige left of tail.
The first outweighs the second eight times or maybe ten.
Nothing new, this story of the horse and the breaker in the pen.

There are times he thinks he’s crazy, other times he knows for sure.
But centaur blood pumps through his veins and there isn’t any cure.
There are broncs that try his patience and those that test his skill,
make him lie awake in nighttime, make him almost lose his will.
There are stiffened, aching mornings when he questions if he’ll last,
’cause the breaker’s over fifty while the broncs are still two-past.

No imaginary spider web connects him to the brute,
just developed understanding, maybe years in taking root.
A dozen broncs stand shivering, the mist is rolling in.
There’s a slicker on the top rail and a breaker in the pen.

He’s a study in persistence, even stubborn if you will
He’ll bend more often than he breaks and he’s tough, damn tough, to kill.
Rumor runs he nursed on mare’s milk, Some say he’s into Zen.
Truth is he lives and breathes his work. The breaker in the pen.

There are times he feels restricted by those endless little rounds
wishing he were on the cow crew with the roundup sights and sounds
But he’s seen the cattle sorted, now the crew comes trottin’ in
astride the horses started by the breaker in the pen.

He’s not high on riding buckers, he disdains the use of quirt.
He’s eaten quite a little more than his fair share of dirt.
So he reads what’s there before him, tryin’ hard to catch the signs;
instinct or intuition gives him what’s between the lines.

His psycho-cybernetic work has often saved his hide,
but a moment comes with every horse when he has to mount and ride.
So fearless or in spite of fear he moves to step astraddle.
Now what will be will surely be, for the breaker’s in the saddle

Here we redefine commitment for it’s now the horse’s deal
The breaker’s foot is shoved into the stirrup to the heel
This ride might end with two as one just like it all began,
else the breaker finds the wherewithal to rise and ride again.

With triple-digit temperatures it’s tough to hang and rattle
and the breaker’s butt is heat sore, and bleedin’ in the saddle.
Hail the horses of the nations, hear the stories of them told,
How they’ve carried kingdoms’ armies, how they’ve won Olympic Gold.

Carried Washington and Paul Revere, helped set our country free
Carried Roosevelt and Houston, John Wayne, and Grant, and Lee.
One thing they have in common; their stories all begin
with one you seldom hear about: the breaker in the pen.

© Joel Nelson
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission

Respected Texas horseman, rancher, poet, reciter, occasional songwriter, and National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow Joel Nelson’s writing and reciting are masterful—he captures readers and listeners alike with his craft. This is the title poem from his CD, the only cowboy poetry recording ever nominated for a Grammy Award. Baxter Black has commented that the recording “raised the bar for cowboy poetry for 1000 years.”

Find more about Joel Nelson, including this poem and others along with information about his CD, at

This c. 1993 photograph of Joel Nelson is by Kent Reeves, Cowboy Conservationist and Photographer, from the landmark book Between Earth and Sky: Poets of the Cowboy West, by Anne Heath Widmark, with photographs by Kent Reeves.

Kent Reeves writes in the book’s Acknowledgments, “…I owe my work in this book to all the poets who allowed me to interrupt their lives and who took me in for a few days. I do not feel that I ‘took’ these photographs; I believe that each poet gave them to me.” In addition to Joel Nelson, the book includes chapters with Buck Ramsey, Wallace McRae, Rod McQueary, Linda Hussa, John Dofflemyer, Shadd Piehl, Paul Zarzyski, Sue Wallis, Vess Quinlan, Henry Real Bird, and Drummond Hadley.

See a gallery of photos from the book here on Facebook.

Find more about Kent Reeves at; at his site,; and on Facebook.

(Please respect copyright. You can share this poem and photograph with this post, but for other uses, request permission.)