PINE RIDGE | Percy White Plume sweeps his hand over a world of rolling green hills, ridges and grottos that spills from one horizon to the next.
“Where do you want to go?” he asks. “Wherever you want to go, we’ll go that way.”
The horses whinny and scuff their hooves. It is another hot day on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a hemmed-in yet wide open space that White Plume wants to continue exploring on horseback with Native American youth and visitors from around the world.
A 58-year-old retired mental health worker, White Plume runs the Horse Spirit Society from his 2,200-acre property in Manderson and is looking for funding to keep the program going.
Since 2001, he has taken groups of kids from the reservation out on rides that can last days at a time, meandering through windswept fields into the rocky canyons and spires of the Badlands.
This kind of free-roaming horseback riding, White Plume says, is a uniquely powerful act of healing rooted in Lakota culture.
“Horses are really in tune to everything,” he says. “And we can learn by being a part of their life, learn different things about ourselves. You’re healing yourself. The horse is just showing you the way.”
White Plume keeps more than 40 horses on his land. He and his family sometimes take them riding bareback across the plains. All of them are trained and each of them has a name.
Sitting atop a chocolate colored stallion named War Bonnet, White Plume points out a cluster of glistening red buffalo berries as the horse canters through the tall grass. There are little birds singing in the breeze.
White Plume’s son, Freedom, and his 11-year-old granddaughter, Johnnie, are also along for the ride. Both are expert riders like him. But on a horse you are alone, White Plume says, even when you are with a group of people.
White Plume’s parents died when he was very young. He grew up poor, though he never thought of it that way. Raised by his uncle, he remembers using oil lamps and mirrors to light their home, which was the first in the valley to get electricity. That was in the early 1960s, he says.
Horses have always been an important part of his life. White Plume remembers riding quietly through the night under the light of U.S. Army flares on the way to deliver supplies near Wounded Knee to members of the American Indian Movement during the armed occupation in 1973. He was a teenager then.
“I remember drinking alcohol and the whole bit, and getting nothing out of it,” he says. “But when I got on a horse I felt so free. I was essentially healing myself, but I didn’t realize it. I was too busy riding and going here and there.”
Riding helped him quit drinking. Sometimes he would cry and speak to his horse in Lakota. It was in these quiet moments that he taught himself how to grapple with feelings of loneliness, sadness and worthlessness.
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“That’s how our young people feel,” he said. “And for me to have all these horses, to not do anything, it’s like I would be pushing them away. It’s important that I give back all that I know about horses and things I’ve learned in life to the children who are coming up.”
For him, White Plume says, healing requires a connection between human and horse, a bond that he remembers forging with his very first horse, a black stallion named Rascal. It was 1976, he was a teenager, and a friend had let him borrow Rascal when a storm thundered to life during his ride home from Porcupine.
“There was lightning, and I was scared of getting struck so I went down into the ravine and spent the night with him,” White Plume said.
He kept Rascal until he died in 1984. “He was a good horse,” White Plume says. “He took me all over.”
Today, White Plume has that kind of bond with each of his horses. They recognize his face and respond to the distinct sound of his voice.
“I never hit ‘em, I never use spurs,” he says. “If you have to use spurs, you’re not doing something right.”
White Plume works with kids of all ages and their parents are invited to ride along too. Getting a chance to build those bonds by living and working with horses even for a few hours has a noticeable effect on the youth, he says.
“What drives me is the change in the children, the laughter, the courage that they get to do things differently,” he says. “They’re enmeshed in negative behavior, but when they come out here it changes them. When they come out here, I always talk to them about their lives. What are you doing that’s a positive thing in your life?”
It’s not just kids from the reservation who find a moment of peace among White Plume’s horses. A few weeks ago, he hosted a group of students from Chicago and in years past, he has had paying clients come from as far away as Germany and Switzerland.
Many are first time riders. Those who have experience with horses tell him they have never ridden as freely as they did during their visit to the reservation.
White Plume doesn’t always feel like it, but he does still live in poverty, as many do in Pine Ridge. The rides cost money, so he hasn’t been able to take as many groups of kids for rides this summer as he would like. He’s in the process of applying for grant funding and hopes to begin going out again soon.
Standing on a hill, he points to Red Shirt, to Stronghold Table in the Badlands, to a group of hills where some of the old Oglala chieftains are buried, and to a snarl of trees and underbrush where wild horses run free.
“I tell people, ‘You ever wonder what’s over that hill?’” he says. “‘Let’s go for a ride and find out.”