photo by Kevin Martini-Fuller

About Joel Nelson
The Breaker in the Pen CD

About Joel Nelson

Joel Nelson, one of today's most respected poets and reciters, resides in Alpine, Texas.  He is a frequent participant at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada; the Arizona Cowboy Poets Gathering in Prescott, Arizona; the Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering at Alpine, Texas; and other gatherings.  

In 1999, he was invited to Rothbury, Northumberland, as a poet-in-residence, sponsored by the Mid-Northumberland Arts Group of the United Kingdom's Poetry Society. An article in Poetry Review, about his visit, comments, in part:

Joel Nelson proved to be a remarkable man. He is a very experienced horse-trainer and one of his first visits was to a horse breeder in Thropton. He got up onto a horse straightaway and cut a figure against the Simonside Hills, perfectly at ease, completely in control of his steed. His poetry displays the same composure. He is a man, also, of quiet but great charisma, infinitely courteous and gracious. At every public event he appeared in--the back room of the pub at Alwinton, the young farmers meeting in Thropton, the final show at Alnwick, he completely captivated his audience. His voice, of course, was pure Texan and he was recognisable in any crowd by his large black cowboy hat, which he never, ever takes off (except when eating at table). As an inspirational force for poetry he is incomparable.

Joel Nelson has a degree in Forestry and Range Management. He served in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division. He has worked as a custom saddle maker and is known for his horse training skills, which he has practiced in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Hawaii. Currently, he and his wife Sylvia raise Corriente cattle.     

His CD, The Breaker in the Pen, is the only cowboy poetry recording ever nominated for a Grammy Award. Baxter Black has commented that it "raised the bar for cowboy poetry for 1000 years."  

In 2009, Joel Nelson was awarded a prestigious National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) National Heritage Fellowship.

Joel is respected as a cowboy’s cowboy. He knows the work and handles horses and cattle with a gentleness of spirit.

Virginia Bennett, in a report from 2002




Roundup Time


On Finding Someone

While I Sleep

Inside War

The Men Who Ride No More


Equus Caballus

The Breaker in the Pen



Roundup Time

When the cold short days grow a little longer,
When whiteface calves grow a little stronger,
The Roundup Time is near.

When gray Winter skies have turned to blue,
When mesquite leaves tell us the rumor is true,
When the buzzards are back and circling too,
The Roundup Time is near.

When greenup comes along the creeks,
Then the two-toned scream of the read-tail speaks
That Roundup Time is near.

When the shoeing anvil chimes and rings,
When we hear the sounds the night wind brings,
Then the high pitched wail of the coyote sings
That Roundup Time is near.

When the steel shod hooves send sparks a flyin',
And there's a smell of oysters fryin',
The Roundup Time is here.

When the days are filled with cattle drives,
With horseback crews and wind burned lives.
And the moon shines down on lonesome wives,
The Roundup Time is here.

When the checks are signed and beds are rolled,
And the calves are worked and the cook fire's cold,
We'll wish that this weren't all.

But soon we'll hear Dutch ovens rattle
When the times comes 'round to ship the cattle,
So sell your soul, but not your saddle!
We'll see you in the Fall.

© 1990, Joel Nelson, 06 Ranch
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without written permission.

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The flaxen maned colt
That had more cow than any
Three horses I ever rode

Scotty who I named after
Peter Scott—the Aussie—a good horse hand
Who worked for me

Scotty—who after a long morning circle
And roping two calves
Tied to lead in later
Bucked me off
In the noon camp cook fire.

Scotty who never quite got plumb broke
In seven years of dragging calves
And working herds
Was still the closest to perfect
That I ever rode.

The "buck fever" that never hit
In thirty some-odd years of dropping venison
That never hit even before or after my first deer
Dropped from one well placed 30-30 silvertip

Hit me now—turning my knees to jelly
Bringing the nausea
Hit me just after the colt revolver
Bucked in my hand
And Scotty dropped in front of me.

Hit me as if that first 30-30 slug
Had come full circle
On a thirty some-odd year journey
And plugged me dead center!

© 1999, Joel Nelson
New Mexico
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without written permission.

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On Finding Someone

If on some better than average day
I should be riding along
Observing—not expecting—well maybe
And should see just as hoof swept by
One flawless arrow point—
If on that shining morning
I should step down to lift this point
Turning it delicately—feeling its smoothness
Beneath my fingertips
I would marvel at its perfection
At the way some ancient one
Had tempered and crafted such beauty
And how it came to lie there
All these centuries—covered—uncovered
Until it came to me
To happen by this place
On this day made now more perfect.
And I would ponder such things
As coincidence and circles and synchronicity,
And I would pocket this treasure near my heart,
And riding on I would recall
Having seen such treasure as this elsewhere
But not this one—not this one.
And for one brief moment I would stiffen with fear
At how one quick glance in another direction
Could have lost this to me forever,
And I would touch my shirt over my heart
Just to make sure.

© 1998, Joel Nelson
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without written permission.


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While I Sleep

While I sleep
Words come in the night
Like small birds and critters
Along dusty trails
Through the branches
Over rocky stream beds
To line up and watch me
Waiting for me to awaken
Looking at one another
Trading places
Rearranging themselves
As though they somehow know
Their proper order
And what they need to say
Sometimes I awaken 
And acknowledge them on paper
As I should
If not
They dissolve back into the shadows
The thickets
The burrows
And if they ever appear again
Will they all be the same ones
And will the order be disturbed

© 1999 Joel Nelson, Cave Creek Arizona
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without written permission.


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Inside War

We read stories of Wars

Hist’ries written on pages

And records of battle

Drawn on walls of the cave

Read of Glory and Honor

And Right through the ages

And all those who fell

‘Neath the crest of the knave


The themes are eternal

Of wars on the ocean

Of axes and swords

On the Otterburn Plain

The ninety gun Frigates

The horsemen in motion

The bleeding has stopped

But the stories remain


There are terms of Armistice

And flags of surrender

This war fought for freedom

That war saved a race

Twixt  savages  cruel

Or soldiers yet tender

The scholars record them

And each has its place


Some go unrecorded

Wars fought self-contained

Conflicts never ending

No respite or truce

For the foe lives within

Lashing out unrestrained

And the warrior wears thin

From the battles’ abuse


The shelling subsides

Then intensity quickens

With most unaware

Of the state of the war

Leaving soldier and loved ones

With Conflict that thickens

Outsiders observing

The scene from afar


There is only so long

Any warrior can battle

‘Til he must succumb

To the enemy inside

So loosening the reins

Stepping down from the saddle

Heaving sigh of relief

He will cease his long ride


His allies left standing

Gather somewhat uncertain

Refraining from judgment

United by love

Acknowledging peacetime

And drawing the curtain

Leaving all in the hands

Of the Maker above

© 2008, Joel Nelson
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without written permission.


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The Men Who Ride No More

"Bronc to Breakfast" calendars hang fading on the walls
There’s a lost and aimless wandering through the corridors and halls
Of slippered feet that shuffle on a waxed and polished floor
And vacant stares of emptiness from the men who ride no more

Men who once rode proudly—men with long straight backs
Men who covered hill and plain with steel shod horses tracks
Now pass their idle days in rooms with numbers on the door
With orderlies and nurses for men who ride no more

Time was when spur rowels jingled when boot heels bumped the floor
Dawns with hot black coffee and saddling up at four
With feet in tapaderos and broncs between their knees
And silken neck scarves snapping as they turned into the breeze

From full-blown living legends true to riding for the brand
To the scarcely mediocre who could hardly make a hand
They would gather for the branding or the shipping in the Fall
Now it’s walker, cane, and wheelchair in the antiseptic hall

And they all have their mementos on the table by their side
Like a cracked and fading snapshot of a horse they usta ride
Or standing with the wife beside a thirty-seven Ford
A high-heeled boot hooked nonchalant on a muddy running board

Just instants frozen from the past that somehow give a clue
To who and what they were before their riding days were through
Horseback men with horseback rules from horseback days of yore
Their one and only wish would be to somehow ride once more

To once more rope a soggy calf and drag it to the fire
To long-trot for a half a day and see no post or wire
To ride a morning circle—catch a fresh one out at noon
And trot him in when the day was done to the rising of the moon

To put in one more horseback day and have just one more chance
To ride home to a pretty wife and drive her to the dance
To take her hand and hold her close and waltz across a floor
Before the time to join the ranks of men who ride no more.

© 1997, Joel Nelson
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without written permission.


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We cannot say what drew us here,
What piper's flute, what siren's song
In younger days—another year
When sun was low and shadows long.

Her great high deserts lured us on—
We were but boys when we rode in
To live the life and chase the dawn
Till evening sun shone down on men.

Nature was our friend and foe
She dealt us pain, she brought us bliss
Our Mother Earth we came to know
Was nurturer and nemesis.

Our cattle graze her hills and draws
Her august grain is ripened now.
For horseback men with horseback laws
May she be saved from park and plow.

We've seen her change since we rode in.
Have read her pages as they've turned
And worn our stirrup leathers thin.
We fear the lessons we have learned.

What hands would tear this land apart?
We are not all what we appear
We can't afford the careless heart
That beat within the pioneer.

And red man's wisdom has been cast
Aside as savage—yet we see
The noble savage doubtless passed
Much closer to his earth than we.

Are we her stewards, foes, or friends?
And who could better serve the earth?
We throw these questions to the winds
And ride toward answers' timely birth.

© 1997, Joel Nelson
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without written permission.


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Equus Caballus

I have run on middle fingernail through eolithic morning,
I have thundered down the coach road with the Revolution’s warning.
I have carried countless errant knights who never found the grail.
I have strained before the caissons I have moved the nation’s mail.

I’ve made knights of lowly tribesmen and kings from ranks of peons
And given pride and arrogance to riding men for eons.
I have grazed among the lodges and the tepees and the yurts.
I have felt the sting of driving whips and lashes, spurs and quirts.

      I am roguish—I am flighty—I am inbred—I am lowly.
      I’m a nightmare—I am wild—I am the horse.
      I am gallant and exalted—I am stately—I am noble.
      I’m impressive—I am grand—I am the horse.

I have suffered gross indignities from users and from winners,
And I've felt the hand of kindness from the losers and the sinners.
I have given for the cruel hand and given for the kind.
Heaved a sigh at Appomattox when surrender had been signed.

I can be as tough as hardened steel—as fragile as a flower.
I know not my endurance and I know not my own power.
I have died with heart exploded ’neath the cheering in the stands—
Calmly stood beneath the hanging noose of vigilante bands.

      I have traveled under conqueror and underneath the beaten.
      I have never chosen sides—I am the horse.
      The world is but a players stage—my roles have numbered many;
      Under blue or under gray—I am the horse.

So I’ll run on middle fingernail until the curtain closes,
And I will win your triple crowns and I will wear your roses.
Toward you who took my freedom I’ve no malice or remorse.
I’ll endure—This Is My Year—I am the Horse!

© 2002, Joel Nelson
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without written permission.


In an interview with the National Endowment for the Arts, Joel Nelson talks about the poem:

Well, the year 2002 on the Chinese calendar was the year of the horse. It rolls around every dozen years if I'm not mistaken. In 2002 the summer of that year I began trying to put together, I guess what I would call to a tribute to the horse because he's been so important to me throughout my life. I stalled out on the piece and then later, in the autumn of 2002, I finished this and I titled it "Equus Caballus," which is the genus and species of the horse. To maybe help a little in the understanding of the piece, I'll talk about the ancestry of the horse a little bit. Evidence that scientists have unearthed over the years would indicate that the horse was not always as he is today. He was at one time a little terrier-sized animal trotting around the face of the globe with toes on all four feet. And it wasn't until probably the Eocene Era that the middle digit of each paw had evolved into what we think of as the horse's hoof. And the digits to either side diminished and are now what we refer to the splint bones in the horse's leg. But this poem is a tribute to that great animal that I ride.

As is her way, reciter Jerry Brooks was curious about the unusual use of the word "fingernail" in the first line of the poem. Then, she stumbled upon an unattributed snippet of poetry in the foreword to the 1920 Songs of Horses; an anthology selected and arranged by Robert Frothingham:

"Said the little Eohippus:
'I'm going to be a horse,
And on my middle finger-nails
To run my earthly course.'"

We researched it, and found that the same snippet was included in respected Western writer Eugene Manlove Rhodes' (1869-1934) 1914 book, Bransford of Arcadia, later titled Bransford of Rainbow Range, or, The Little Eohippus. You can find the complete text of the book here.

Rhodes also did not attribute the verse. We eventually found that it was from an 1890 poem by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), "Similar Cases," which you can read here. Gilman was "a prominent American sociologist, novelist, writer of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction, and a lecturer for social reform." That description is from a Wikipedia article here, which comments, "'Similar Cases' was a satirical review of people who resisted social change and she received positive feedback from critics for it."

So when we asked Joel Nelson to lend the poem, we asked him about his inspiration for "middle fingernail." He told us that he had read the verse in Rhodes' novel decades ago. He had not been aware of the complete "Similar Cases" poem, but the excerpted verse he read in Rhodes' book had stayed with him.

The poem was featured on the back cover of the 2003 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering program book (see the image here).

Wylie & the Wild West put "Equus Caballus" to music on their Hooves of the Horses album. You can listen to it here YouTube.


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The Breaker in the Pen

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, All rights reserved
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without written permission.


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See Joel Nelson's "Here's Looking at You" in Before the Song.




The Breaker in the Pen

Joel Nelson's CD, The Breaker in the Pen, is the only Cowboy Poetry recording ever nominated for a Grammy Award. Baxter Black has commented that it "raised the bar for Cowboy Poetry for 1000 years."  The Breaker in the Pen is available again, after a long period of being "sold out."


Shadow on the Cutbank
The Ballad of William Sycamore, by Stephen Vincent Benet
The Breaker in the Pen
The Song of the Packer
Shady Valleys
The Final Run of the Deadwood Stage
The Trailside Boulder Story
Sundown in the Cow Camp
For Little Brother Who Sings
While I Sleep
Anthem, by Buck Ramsey
The Men Who Ride No More
For Life, by Rod McQueary

with background guitar and harmonica music by Lew and Gail Steiger
produced by Gail Steiger


The Breaker in the Pen is available for $18.50 postpaid from:

Joel Nelson
PO Box 1021
Alpine, TX 79831



Joel Nelson's poetry can be found in anthologies, including:

cpreunionbk.jpg (25377 bytes)  Cowboy Poetry: The Reunion, edited by Virginia Bennett

"Equus Caballus" 

  Cowboy Poetry Matters: From Abilene to the Mainstream: Contemporary Cowboy Writing, edited by Robert McDowell

"Breaker in the Pen"   
"The Men Who Ride No More"  
"Shady Valleys"   
"The Shadow on the Cutbank"   
"Song of the Packer"   

  Cattle, Horses, Sky, and Grass, Cowboy Poetry of the Late Twentieth Century, edited by Warren Miller

"Charles Goodnight's Dream" 

Click to view at  New Cowboy Poetry: A Contemporary Gathering, edited by Hal Cannon

"The Drifter and the Homeguard"
"The Prize Possession" 
"Sundown in the Cow Camp" 

Click to view at  Between Earth and Sky; Poets of the Cowboy West, edited by Anne Heath Widmark

"Kings, Queens, and Mountain Kingdoms" 
"Sundown in the Cow Cowcamp" 


  National Public Radio has an archived recording of Joel Nelson reciting his poem, "Equus Caballus," at the 20th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.  The poem was also featured on the 19th Annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering program

In 2009, Joel Nelson was awarded a prestigious National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) National Heritage Fellowship.


Joel Nelson recites his poem, "The Men Who Ride No More" on The BAR-D Roundup: Volume Four (2009) produced by

 Joel Nelson recites his poem, "Shadow on the Cutbank" on The BAR-D Roundup: Volume Three (2008) produced by

   Joel Nelson recites his poem, "Breaker in the Pen" on The BAR-D Roundup: Volume Two (2007) produced by

  Joel Nelson recites his poem, "Equus Caballus" on Elko! A Cowboy's Gathering, produced by Waddie Mitchell, from Western Jubilee Recording, 2004

  Joel Nelson recites "Anthem," by Buck Ramsey on Cowboy Poetry Classics, compiled, produced, and annotated by David Stanley, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2003

  Wylie and the Wild West recorded Joel Nelson's "Equus Caballus" on their Hooves of the Horses CD. Wylie Gustafson writes about the words, and they are posted here

  Don Edwards recorded Joel Nelson's "Here's Lookin' At You," on his Wrangler Award Winning CD, Last of the Troubadours.

  Joel Nelson was featured in COWBOY MAGAZINE in Summer, 2001



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