I had a Barn Boss who had a thing for paint horses. It got so that I began to have a hard time telling them apart. My daughter easily solved the problem for me; she began to call them all “Rufus”. We had a “Black Rufus”, a couple of “Brown Rufuses” (or would that be “Rufi”?), and “Black and Brown Rufus”. Irritated my Barn Boss a bit, but I didn’t have such a hard time remembering their names after that – all of the paints were some form of Rufus.
Black Rufus was a prime example of a backyard pet turned livery horse. His first few days at the livery were pretty darn scary for him, but he got settled into the herd without too much of a problem. One of Black Rufus’ problems was that he was kind of a bugger to mount. He danced around and tried to spin away every time Boss tried to mount up. Since I had a little bit of experience with that – thanks to little Miss Estes – I was asked to work with Black Rufus. Time to “work” horses is limited at a livery, so I went to the quickest solution I could think of…I began to mount up from the off-side. There’s really no such thing as the correct side to mount a horse; by convention we typically mount from the left, but the horses don’t know there’s a “right” or “wrong” side to mount up on. He had no bad memories or experiences from the off-side, so he was a perfect gentleman when I mounted from the right. He never even twitched an ear when I began mounting from the right, though he still threw a fit when I tried to mount from the left. I just flat-out didn’t have the time to work him through it, so from the right it was.
He had a lot more issues than just being a bugger to mount; the poor guy had never been on a trail. Every little thing terrified him and we had rodeos pretty much each time we lead out a trail ride. We got paired up over and over again, partly, I think, because he was a big, intimidating horse and the newer wranglers were afraid of him. Over time, he began to trust me and calm down. It took weeks of trail time before we started to build a relationship, but I never completely relaxed on or around him.
For one ride, we took out a big muckity-muck from the Wyoming government and her nephew. She felt that her nephew from the East was too pampered and wanted to give him the full “Wild West” experience. They had been white water rafting, shooting, and hiking. Horseback riding in the mountains was just a part of the experience, so she signed up for a four hour ride. Black Rufus had settled down a lot and was a brave horse leading out the ride; a hundred eighty degrees from the ‘fraidy cat he’d been when I first started working with him.
We spent the first two hours just exploring the trails – I had a route in mind, but there are a lot of ways to complete the route, so I was letting them choose right or left. By this time, I’d been a wrangler on those trails for many years and wasn’t afraid of getting lost like I did my first couple of years. Black Rufus was still being a big, brave horse and behaving himself, so I began to relax a little bit.
As we came down out of an aspen grove, something spooked Black Rufus and we had a little rodeo, but it didn’t take much more than a calm word and a pat on the neck to calm him down. I was feeling pretty good that he was so easy to get back under control – just two weeks earlier I would have been riding for the buzzer and hoping for a good score. By that time, most of the horses in the string were used to his antics and no longer reacted to his little fits, they just stood by and waited for him to be done.
We continued along the lower side of the meadow, enjoying the perfect riding weather and talking about the rest of their plans. There was another ride heading back to the livery on the far west end of the meadow that we exchanged hollered hellos and waves with. I turned in my saddle to tell my guests about the other ride and where they had come from; we were going to be heading out the way the other ride had been.
I had just settled back into the saddle when Black Rufus reared straight up in the air. This was no little I-don’t-want-to-do-this temper tantrum. He was truly terrified and knew he couldn’t take off, so he went the only direction he could – straight up. His front hooves barely hit the ground before he went straight up again. All I could think of was to throw my weight forward to keep him from toppling over backward and crushing me. I went from neck reining, with both reins in one hand, to direct reining, one rein in each hand, and pulled the reins straight down toward the ground, hoping to literally pull him back down. He came down from his rear, but I kept my weight forward and downward pressure on the reins, so his next rear was only about half the height of his first two.
Once I was able to keep all four hooves on the ground, he calmed down as though nothing had happened. As he calmed down, I became aware of the fact that I’d kicked both feet out of the stirrups and had ridden through his little rear fest as though I was bareback. Because of all of our recent rodeos, I’d gotten pretty good at reading him and knowing when to get ready for the ride. In both instances I had been completely blindsided. To say I was perplexed would be an understatement.
I realized that the ride on the west end of the meadow had come to a complete standstill and they were watching our little rodeo. I got the thumbs-up from the other wrangler and assured him that we were fine. His ride continued toward the livery and I started our ride along again. For another half mile, Black Rufus was a perfect gentleman; no one would have ever believed that he’d been a wild-eyed, rearing monster just a few minutes before. I mulled it over again and again, trying to figure out what the heck had happened. While each ride on him was always an adventure, I’d always had warning that he was going to act up. Twice during that ride he’d caught me unaware. It was like there was something in the wind that was freaking him out.
Wait…there was something in the wind that was freaking him out. There had to be. It was the only reason that I could think of for his on-again, off-again behavior. I tried to remember if I’d noticed the wind shift before his rodeos, but I for the life of me, I couldn’t remember. As I was contemplating my new hypothesis, I did feel the wind shift and the rodeo commenced again. I managed to come back to myself just in time to dodge a rapidly approaching tree branch. Well, I would consider that hypothesis proven. There was some scent that reduced my big, brave Black Rufus back to the ‘fraidy cat he’d been when I started working with him. Black Rufus would completely calm down as soon as the wind shifted away from us; it was like riding a horse with a split personality.
The muckity-muck from Wyoming suggested we head back, but I was pretty determined to try to cross the hill using one of the many trails there were. When I protested about going back and shortening her nephew’s “Wild West” experience, she laughed and told me that he got a whole lot more “real” cowboy experience than she had planned on. I felt bad about heading back, but I was really getting beat up with the rodeos which were increasing in violence.
Of course, Boss wasn’t happy about us showing up at the livery an hour early, but the generous tip more than made up for being a little bit in trouble. Within twenty minutes of our return, another ride returned early with news of why we were unable to cross the hill. They had found fresh mountain lion tracks, which had significantly scared the guests, who insisted on an immediate return to the livery. Boss shut down the livery for the day, hopped on one of his horses and took off with his son to see what they could see.