Thank you all for helping me choose which of my stories to submit to Creative Nonfiction. I've polished up "Introducing the Herd" a little bit and thought I'd share the finalized, hopefully contest-ready, version with you.
Late in the spring of 2004, my parents were approached by a local lodge to run its livery. My parents and I had been working as part-time wranglers for a nearby livery for a few years and my parents had always harbored a hope that they’d get to run their own, so they jumped at the opportunity. The problem was that they only had three personal horses, one of which was far too young to be used, so they contacted the supply ranch that the other liveries lease their horses from, looking to rent just a handful of horses for the summer. The ranch couldn’t accommodate us, as they didn’t have enough horses of their own to fulfill their existing contracts. Well, now what? We had a shiny, new-to-us livery and only two horses. That wouldn’t do at all.
Hall Ranch, where we bought our hay, became our saviors. When they heard about our predicament, they offered to lease us some of their ranch horses for the summer. It was perfect! In May, nine shiny, new-to-us horses were delivered to our shiny, new-to-us livery and our herd count rose to eleven. Bill, my step-father, also contacted an old friend and former Barn Boss of ours to see about leasing a couple more horses. Bucky obliged, shipping us four horses from southern Arizona.
The herd had settled into their hierarchy – for the most part – by the time the Arizona horses were delivered, bringing our current herd total to fifteen. The perfect amount to run a small livery. The trailer arrived just after feeding time and Bill and I unloaded the newcomers into the pen, and then climbed up atop the cross-buck for our favorite pastime – watching the horses.
It was beautiful; the sun was just beginning to set, casting a soft light across the backs of the horses who had their heads down in the feeders. It was quiet and peaceful; we sat on the fence just drinking it all in and feeling all was right with the world. What could be better than sitting on the fence at our shiny, new-to-us livery on a perfect late spring evening watching our shiny, new-to-us herd? Sigh. Life was perfect.
Bill’s mustang, Ranger, suddenly realized that there were four new mouths he had to share his food with. Without warning, Ranger’s head popped up out of the feeder, his neck arched and nostrils flared as he took in the new arrivals. In his little mustang brain, he took stock of the food supply and the new horses and decided that there wasn’t enough to share with the interlopers. Born and raised a wild mustang, he had a firm grasp on the concept of limited resources. My breath caught in my throat as Bill’s mild-mannered mustang transformed into a snorting, nasal-flaring, four-legged monster. He pinned his ears back, lowered his head and charged. I had never seen anything so horrifying in my life, then or since.
Our perfect, peaceful evening quickly turned into a nightmare as Ranger attacked the new horses, trying to run them from the herd. The new horses scattered, trying to get away from raging mustang. Their terror was impossible to miss in the whites of their eyes and they were in full panic flight mode. The problem was that there was no place for the new horses to run away to; all of the horses were in the same pen.
At first we thought we’d just let them work it out themselves, but the attack continued to escalate to the point that it was getting out of control and dangerous. The main herd had congregated in the center of the pen, trying to stay out of the way of the monster mustang and the four interlopers as they raced around the perimeter of the pen. It seemed that when Ranger realized he couldn’t run them off because they were all trapped, he changed his tactic. Rather than just getting them away from his herd, he became determined to eliminate the threats.
Ranger was snorting and attacking, snaking, as it’s called when a stallion lowers his head and moves it side-to-side; a very aggressive and terrifying posture. I was appalled and frightened for the new horses. He’d take on one, then another, of the new horses, driving them as far away from the main herd as possible. He was so determined to kill the new horses that one of them tried to escape by climbing the cross-buck fence. The horse got one foreleg on the lower rail of the fence and stepped up, but missed the second rail with its other foreleg, slipping his leg between the poles and essentially trapping himself. As he thrashed in a panic, trying to get away from Ranger and break free of the fence, Bill decided to intervene. I was frozen on the fence, horrified, watching the whole thing unravel in front of my eyes.
And then the whole situation got a whole lot more dangerous. Bill and Ranger have a very good, trusting relationship, but Ranger was beyond reason and Bill’s attempts to get his attention were completely ignored. During one of Ranger’s rushing attacks, Bill actually stepped in front of Ranger and started yelling and waving his hat. Ranger swerved around Bill, but continued his attack on the horse. I was absolutely more terrified than I ever had been in my life; I just knew I was going to watch Bill’s own horse kill him. In my mind, I could already see Bill’s broken and bloody body being trampled by his own loving horse and the panicked newcomers. The new horses were running and screaming, knowing that they needed to get away from the mustang monster, but they literally had no escape. Bill repeatedly put himself between Ranger and whichever horse he was currently attacking; each time, Ranger would swerve to avoid Bill, but continue his attack. I have no idea how long it went on, but eventually Bill was able to turn Ranger away from his attacks. He turned Ranger away over and over again, allowing the new horses to huddle together as far away from the monster as possible.
In time, Ranger calmed down enough that we were able to move the new horses into the enclosed staging area, where they stayed for the next few days until the herd got acquainted with them and Ranger was satisfied that there would be enough food to go around.
I am not easily traumatized, nor am I overly emotional, but I learned a very big lesson that day – a lesson I have no desire to repeat. My family wasn’t new to the trail riding business; we’d merged herds before without any problems. But the big difference was that in all of the other herds we had merged, the horses were domestic and they were just vying for pecking order. What we did to poor Ranger, who had lived wild on the Nevada lava flats for the first nine years of his life, was threaten his existence, at least in his mind. He trusted that the humans would provide food – to an extent – but his instinct and experience told him that there were too many horses for the precious food that was available.