How the West Was One
Hundreds of teenagers. A herd of mustangs. One man with a vision. In the foothills of the Rocky Mountains rides a cavalry that just might change the world.
The Westernaire education includes a hefty dose of horse learning, and the curriculum is a combination of equine biology, psychology, and maintenance. Before ever climbing into a saddle, they'll take safety courses and grooming classes. They'll study the social order of these herd creatures so the children can recognize if a horse is ornery or just lonely. And finally they'll learn to diagnose illnesses-memorizing the warning signs, like how colic sounds with an ear pressed against a horse's belly.
Along with their horse care and riding lessons, Westernaires spend hours in classrooms learning every horse's step for each drill. At home, they diagram these drills for hours, filling reams of paper with color-coded maps, which they then commit to memory. Riders are allowed only five unexcused absences from practice. More than that earns a rider a meeting with Keller.
If Keller's training seems rigid, perhaps it's because he knows enough about horses to never trust them completely. On July 4, 1993, at the Festival of the West show, a Red Team trick rider named Katie Nielsen was about to perform one of the dangerous acrobatic stunts when the horse panicked. Nielsen's foot became stuck in her stirrup and she couldn't escape, and no one could stop the bolting horse. In the middle of a performance, she was dragged to death.
Today, as the various ranks and teams finish tacking up, Keller is already standing ready fence-side. As his Red Team riders lope toward the outdoor practice ring, he watches. "Heat it up," he tells the Red Team captain. The riders fall into formation, quickening their pace. Of the 300 kids who showed up at Induction Night, fewer than 40 will make it to the Red Team, an achievement recognized with a red varsity sweater-like the high-school letter sweaters of the 1950s. Every child at Fort Westernaire wants to make it to Red Team, all of them knowing there's only one way to get that sweater: Follow Keller's rules.
The Westernaire's rulebook is based upon simple tenets: self-reliance, hard work, respect, common sense, and pride. The Westernaires start on time, and riders are expected on the grounds at least 30 minutes before their practice starts. Riders don't smoke, drink, or do drugs. They treat adults with respect. Riders must be enrolled in school, no exceptions. Couples are allowed in the Westernaires, "But I don't want to see it, hear about it, or generally know about it," says Keller. If a girl gets pregnant, she's out-if a boy gets a girl pregnant, same goes. Tenderfeet learn early on that any excuse that begins with "My Mom..." just won't fly. Showing up on time, in uniform, and prepared remains the rider's responsibility, not the mother's. It isn't the parents who'll be riding those drills in the ring.