Story by: Molly Rosbach
Photos by: Mason Trinca
GRANDVIEW — On several acres of bumpy grassland jutting up against an orchard, Jose “Cowboy” Lopez puts his favorite animals through their paces at his farm in Grandview.
He guides them in increasingly tight loops around a metal trough. He has them canter around him in a circle while he stands in the center, the radius the length of the nylon strap connecting him and the horse.
But those are just the warmups. The real work is the dancing.
His three horses can grapevine, weaving their feet in and out as they clip-clop along diagonal lines. They high-step daintily, lifting up front-right and back-left hooves together, then front-left and back-right. They bob their heads in rhythm. They don’t even protest when he guides them backward.
After just a few minutes of fancy footwork, his horses are blowing hard and developing a fine lather all over their glossy bodies. Lopez says he can only train them for an hour or two a day because the exercise is so taxing.
At that pace, he said, it can take eight months to a year to train a horse to dance.
But he loves it all.
Lopez and his two brothers grew up with his uncle’s 10 horses, but he’s the only one who fell head-over-heels for the animals. His brothers don’t even ride, he says.
No one taught him how to train horses; he just learned on his own when he was young. He never hits the horses, using extra training as punishment instead, and emphasizes that if either he or the horses get mad, they have to take a breather.
He trusts the horses, and they trust him.
“If I come home from work in a bad mood, the horses take it away,” said Lopez, who works in an orchard as his day job. “They take away my stress.”
Lopez and his dancing horses often perform in parades, anywhere from the Lower Valley to the Tri-Cities, Hermiston, Ore., and Hood River. He also enjoys roping horses more than having them dance but people always clamor for the dancing. And if anyone, kids included, wants to climb up and sit on his horses, Lopez lets them.
“It’s a sport,” he says. “Before, I liked playing pool, but I left it all behind for the horses. It’s the best sport.”
His favorite is Centenario, a pale gray horse that doesn’t budge while Lopez mounts, dismounts, lifts his hooves or slaps his rump. For his obedience, Centenario gets to lap up a beer after his workout — a Corona, no lime.
“If he behaves badly, he doesn’t get one,” Lopez says before turning back to the horse. “Right, Centenario? Right, you’re my baby.”
Centenario, who was 18 months old when Lopez bought him, is named for the gold coins made in Mexico in 1921 to commemorate 100 years of Mexico’s independence from Spain.
“I grew up on him,” Lopez said. “To me, he’s worth gold.”