Estes’ eyes were rolling and she was completely lathered, her 14.2 hand body absolutely rigid with tension, making her look twice as big. Dan’s eyes were wide with fear, his grip on the saddle horn so tight that his knuckles were white, his body absolutely rigid with tension. Estes was an experienced ranch horse who’d been there, done that; Dan was a ranch kid who’d been riding almost since before he could walk. Estes, in her little half-rear prance, zeroed in on the wrangler rail and headed toward it with single-minded determinedness. The two of them were not having a good time; the tension between them radiating off in waves. Dan’s riders, behind them, were absolutely silent as they filed into the yard. It was hard to tell who was more relieved that the ride was over, Dan or Estes. I couldn’t fathom what could have happened on the ride to put them both in such a state.
I quickly helped unload the ride and get the guests on their way. Dan finally calmed down enough to say, “I am. Never. Riding. That. Horse. Again.” Estes had come to us listed as an “advanced” horse, so we’d decided to use her as a wrangler horse, which worked out perfectly since she was also the alpha mare of the ranch herd. I’m not an advanced rider. Yes, I’d been on a lot of horses and had a lot of saddle time, but I also knew my limitations. With Dan being a ranch kid and Estes being a ranch horse, we naturally paired them up, thinking all would be right in the livery world.
All I could get out of him was that they’d had quite a rodeo at the entrance to the park. Estes did not like the looks of the tree stumps with the cross-hatching on them. When Dan told her that they’d be going by them, she said no. He said yes, she said no. In short order, her no turned into bucking and snorting. He managed to stick with her and made her go by the stumps. Round one to the wrangler. Unfortunately, that was just the beginning of the ride. They repeated the rodeo at each tree stump. Each time, Dan won and got her past the stump, but the tension between the two of the continued to build until they were completely at odds with each other.
The decision was made to not use Estes for a while. After all, if the ranch kid was terrified of her, who was left to ride her? Certainly not me. I was a chicken; I liked laid-back wrangler horses, not horses that snorted fire like Estes was doing when she returned from her last ride.
Reality set in a couple of weeks later when we realized that we couldn’t afford to feed a horse that wasn’t making us any money. In a small livery, every horse needs to earn his/her keep and Estes was becoming dead weight. There was some talk about sending her back down to the ranch.
Imagine my surprise when I reported to work one weekend only to be told that I’d be wrangling on Estes. Oh, hell no. I’d seen the state of panic she’d induced in Dan, there was no way I was getting on that snorting monster. She looked like a sweet horse, she had soft brown eyes and begged to be caught, but I’d seen her at her worst and there was no way I was getting on her. No way. No how.
Funny, though, how when your boss tells you to get on a horse, you do it. Didn’t matter that my boss was my step-dad, Bill; still had to get on the horse. When I balked, I was told, “She’s fine. We’ve been working with her and she did great. You’ll be fine.” I was working with Bill that day because we had a large ride on the books. I reluctantly saddled up and got ready for the ride – and my funeral. I knew I wasn’t half the rider Dan was and I just knew that Estes was going to kill me. On the other hand, Bill wouldn’t lie to me – would he? I knew that they didn’t want to send Estes back to the ranch, that they needed every working horse they had, so they probably did spend some time working her. If they told me I’d be fine on her, I’d have to believe them.
The guests arrived for the ride; we went through the safety speech, got them matched up with their horses and loaded up. Because it was my first time riding Estes, I was going to ride drag, that way if we had any problems Estes and I wouldn’t hold up the ride. Bill led the ride out, his string of riders behind him while I held the gate. I closed and latched the gate and took a deep breath. Finally, the moment of truth. I had to mount up. No ifs, ands, or buts. Had to get on that horse. One more deep breath and my left foot went in the stirrup. And off Estes went. I had two choices: immediately master the running mount or get left behind. I chose to master the running mount. One, two, three hops alongside the horse on my right foot and up I went. And landed in the saddle. Whew. Well, I was on Estes, now I just had to stay on her for the next two hours.
Bill, without even looking back, said, “See? I told you you’d be fine.” Smart ass. Still had a long way to go before I’d be fine, but I was on the horse. I knew we’d be okay running the gauntlet, because that wasn’t the part of the trail that Dan had problems with her – it was the entrance to the park that he and Estes had their first rodeo.
I was right, the gauntlet wasn’t any more of a problem than usual. I started to relax, and as I did, so did Estes. In no time, we were moving together well. She was smart and responsive and I began to enjoy myself. We had a moment at the trail head – when I had to dismount to tighten a guest’s cinch – that I began to get worried again. I tightened the cinch, gathered up Estes’ reins, put my left foot in the stirrup and off she went. This time, the running mount didn’t go so well. One, two, three hops alongside her on my right foot and up I went. Unfortunately, I didn’t land in the saddle quite as gracefully as before. Rather than my rear end ending up in the saddle, I ended up laying across the saddle on my belly. I’m still not sure how it happened, but I managed to swing my right leg over her butt and get upright in the saddle, despite all of the jigging she was doing. The guests got a giggle out of it, as did Bill.
The rest of the ride was uneventful. Estes didn’t even pay any attention to the cross-hatched tree stumps at the entrance to the park, though you can be darn sure I did.
When we got back to the livery in one piece, I mentioned that Estes had been a pleasure to ride, not at all what I had expected. I asked Bill how much work it had taken to calm her down that much. She was absolutely 180º different when we returned from our ride than she had been when she returned from her ride with Dan. His answer, “We went to the bridge and back.”
The bridge and back?! It was only half a mile from the livery to the bridge and back. She had been a fire-breathing, snorting monster, and they had only worked her to the bridge and back?! As far as I was concerned, Bill had lied to me. Working a horse to me means more than “to the bridge and back.” Weren’t parents supposed to love and protect their kids, not put them on horses that could kill them?
Putting me on Estes was the best thing they had ever done for me. I’d been on plenty of scary horses, but had gotten into the habit of riding the “safe” horses; the no-brainers that any beginning wrangler could ride. In riding only safe horses, my riding skills, and therefore, my confidence was slipping. My parents recognized that and forced me to “get back in the saddle” with another horse who would challenge me and get me out of my rut.