Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ride 'Em Cowboy!

During the Summer of Rain, when my parents were running a local livery, there was a lot of training that had to go on with our horses.  We'd leased ranch horses, who were impeccably trained as ranch horses, but had some holes in their training for livery horses.  One of the holes was mounting blocks.  They'd never seen one.  They had no idea what the heck a human would want them for.  After all, their owners could mount them on the fly, they never needed a stairway to nowhere, which is exactly what our mounting block looked like.

Guests sometimes needed a little help up onto the horse, so we had, literally, a stairway to nowhere.  It was a platform about stirrup-height, three feet square, with stairs up one side.  Each of the horses had snorted at the mounting block when they saw it, so we knew that they'd need some training.  The training began with just leading them by it until they no longer snorted at it.  Then we left them tied to the rail next to it.  Eventually, they just didn't care about it.  Great, step one taken care of, now on to step two; people on the platform.

They didn't really like that so much, as it puts the human in predator position.  As prey animals, the horses understandably were nervous having predators (humans are the ultimate predator) poised in an attack position.  Again, we lead them back and forth near the platform and let them stand tied.  So far, so good.  After a while, they didn't even notice my kids scrambling up and down the stairs, sitting on it, swinging their legs, even jumping off of it.  Great!  Time to move to the next step, having someone step from the platform to their backs.

By the time we got to this point, it was just my son, Digger, and me at the livery.  One of us had to lead the horses to the mounting block and one of us had to step on.  Digger was twelve years old at the time; I opted to let him be the one to mount up, so that I could control the horse. 

You know what they say about best laid plans.

The first couple of horses were astounding.  They walked right up to the mounting block with Digger standing there and stood patiently while he slung a leg over and mounted up.  I walked them around the pen and back to the mounting block so that he could step off.  They acted as though they'd been doing it their whole lives.  Not a problem at all.  We were getting pretty cocky, Digger and I.  We were horse trainers extraordinaires, just ask us.  We'd started a project and were having great luck with it.  Mom and Bill were going to be so thrilled to see the progress we'd made with the horses!

And then we got to Peanut.  Or P-knucklehead as I began to call him.  Peanut lead up to the mounting block calmly, didn't even twitch his ear.  He let Digger swing a leg over and get settled.  And then the rodeo started.  Peanut acted like we'd just opened the gate to the bucking chute.  He started with a little crow hop away from the mounting block, followed with a snort and a little half-rear.  When that didn't work, he charged forward a few steps, throwing a buck or two in for good luck.  I played out a little lead rope, so that I wouldn't have those flying hooves so close to me, but I was going to be damned if I let go while my son was still aboard.  Digger seated himself deep in the saddle, with both hands on the saddle horn, since I hadn't bothered to bridle up any of the horses.  He rode like his butt had been Super-glued to the saddle.  His face initially went white, but as he realized that he was riding out P-knucklehead, a grin broke through.

Peanut's temper tantrum only lasted a few seconds and a handful of bucks, but it made an impression.  His tantrum ended as quickly as it started and he walked nicely around the pen.  Digger opted to dismount the traditional way, rather than go back to the mounting block, and I can't blame him.  We tied Peanut to the rail to let him think about it while we worked with the other horses.

We had to come back to him, though with a bit of trepidation.  I wasn't thrilled about putting Digger back up on him, but I couldn't have Digger on the end of the lead if Peanut thought to have another tantrum.  I lead Peanut back to the mounting block, Digger took a deep breath and swung his leg across.  Peanut didn't twitch, he just walked away from the block as though nothing had ever happened.  Knucklehead.

I thought that Digger's wild ride would maybe shake his confidence and decrease his desire to ride, but it had just the opposite effect.  Being able to ride out the temper tantrum gave him a boost of confidence - probably too much - but at least he wasn't afraid to get back on.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Black Magic

I don’t know what it is about black horses being named Magic, but I’ve run across plenty. Only one, though, really was Black Magic.

We were out on a large corporate ride; one wrangler leading, one riding drag, and two of us outriding. The outrider’s job is to ride parallel to the trail, monitor the riders and help with the pacing of the ride when it’s too large for one or two wranglers to handle. Should there be a tack adjustment that needs to be made or an object fetched from the ground, it’s the outrider’s job to do it. Having outriders really keeps the ride moving along nicely and good outriders can spot small problems before they become big ones.

Most of the time.

I was working with a couple of wranglers I’d worked extensively with in the past and one newer, inexperienced wrangler. The Boss’ son and I pulled rank and chose the outriding positions, the Boss’ daughter rode drag and the newbie got stuck leading the ride.

The ride went well despite having twenty-eight guests. Managing that many horses and riders can be very tricky, but we had no real problems. One rider required constant reassurance, as she was a nervous Nellie, but she had finally relaxed halfway through and a smile was breaking through where a grimace had previously been. She had been paired with Magic, a horse we often used during kids’ camp, who was easy going and taking great care of her.

Boss’ son and I were “parked” near the head of the switchback leading back to the livery. We were visually checking each rider and their tack to make sure that there wouldn’t be any problems headed down the switchback. The newbie wrangler was just approaching the switchback when I saw Magic, three horses back, stumble out of the corner of my eye. I noted that she’d regained her balance and directed my attention to the next horse in line; Boss’ son was reassuring Magic’s rider that it was okay, horses stumble over rocks sometimes.

Then I saw Magic stumble again and stagger a bit before regaining her balance. I told the newbie to hold up the ride and rode back to see what the problem was. Sometimes little rocks can get caught up in the horse’s shoe and can cause repeated stumbles, so that’s what was going through my mind. I had my Gerber tool already out and was flipping it open to the pliers so I could remove the offending rock. As I neared Magic on my horse, I saw her start to topple; her front right leg buckled and she started a slow fall to the ground. She was trying to stay upright, but her right front leg just wasn’t working. I called to the rider to kick her feet out of the stirrups and jumped down off my horse, dropping my rein to the ground and calling out “stand”, her command to ground tie.

The rider was frozen in her saddle, despite repeated commands to kick her feet out of the stirrups, she just sat on the horse’s back, feet still in the stirrups, her face blank in shock, as Magic fell heavily onto her right side. Had she kicked her feet out of the stirrups as she was told, she could have literally just stepped off of Magic by putting one foot on the ground and letting Magic fall under her. Instead, locked in her fear, she froze, only coming back to herself when she realized her right leg was going to be pinned. She started to scramble away from Magic before the horse’s full weight could pin her down, getting most of her leg out of the way, only getting her ankle hung up under the horse.

As long as there have been commercial trail rides, there have been stories of horses dropping dead on the trail. After years of taking out trail rides, I knew that it was always a possibility, but it never occurred to me that it could actually happen on my watch.

Boss’ son helped the guest untangle herself from the saddle while I ran around Magic’s head to get hold of her bridle, praying fervently that I did not just have a horse die on me. Even before I got around her head, I knew that the groan she’d let out as she fell was her last breath, there hadn’t been an inhalation since. I looked at her eyes and there was no sign of life. Magic was a d-e-a-d horse. Besides being traumatic for the ride, it was logistically a nightmare. Magic was the third horse in a line of twenty-eight and completely blocking the only way back to the livery.

I got hold of her rein, called her name, and gave a tug, not expecting a response and not getting one. I sighed in frustration and looked at Boss’ son. He knew as well as I did that we’d just had a horse die on us. This was not a seizure; this was not a horse laying down in protest; this was a dead horse.

Muttering explicatives, we looked at the horse, at the line behind the horse, and back at the horse. Out of frustration, Boss’ son wound up and kicked Magic as hard as he could in the ribs. Not exactly the professional behavior one would expect and fairly brutal. And Magic responded by drawing a large, loud, ragged breath. We looked at each other, not really believing what we’d just heard. Magic exhaled loudly and struggled to draw another breath. She blinked and tried to look around, seeming to ask, “where am I?”

Now, I’d been an EMT for longer than I’d been a wrangler and I know dead when I see it. That horse was dead.

Dead-as-a-doornail dead.

Went-to-meet-her-Maker dead.

Call-the-glue-factory-guys dead.


It took Magic a few minutes to come back to herself and stumble to her feet, but she did. We were close to the livery, but we thought that maybe we shouldn’t put her rider back up on her. After all, Boss’ son had just resurrected her, surely she was due some recovery time. I offered the guest my wrangler horse so she wouldn’t have to walk back, but not surprisingly, she declined and chose to walk back. I gathered up my wrangler horse’s reins and Magic’s reins and stood off to the side while the other wranglers completed the ride, with me and my horses bringing up the rear on foot. We took it slow and easy, and though I could have ponied Magic, I felt better leading her from the ground. She stumbled her way through the switchback but was able to keep her feet. My wrangler horse walked quietly beside Magic, literally offering a shoulder to lean on, as Magic stumbled along like a drunk most of the way back to the livery.

Magic gained strength over the next few days and was back out on the trail a week later.

The only explanation I can come up with for Magic’s miraculous resurrection is that the swift kick she received worked like a precordial thump works on a human. A precordial thump historically was used before CPR was started, but was only effective when delivered within sixty seconds of a witnessed collapse. There were many successes with them, but many more failures and they were quickly removed from the protocol for human CPR, now they’re only seen on TV or in the movies. Certainly, the kick she received was delivered within sixty seconds of a witnessed collapse and Boss’ son definitely had success.

Sadly, though, I don’t think that guest will ever climb up on the back of a horse again. I can’t really blame her; she was nervous about riding to begin with and then had a horse drop dead underneath her. I’m pretty sure that if that had been my only exposure to horseback riding, I wouldn’t ride again either.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Cowboys and Indians

One summer day, my step-dad and I headed out for a ride, just the two of us. We knew that there was at least one paid ride out on the trail, possibly two; one from each of the nearby liveries, so we initially stuck to some of the less-ridden trails. We kept our eyes on the other trails, wanting to stay out of the other rides’ way, but shortly that got boring. Instead we began stalking one of the other rides, just to see how close we could get without them noticing. Like I said, we’d gotten bored with trying to stay out of their way.

For twenty minutes or so, we took parallel trails and cut back and forth between trails, keeping one particular ride in sight. The wrangler leading out the ride was the owner of one of the liveries and a good guy with a sense of humor. Bill got the bright idea to play “Cowboys and Indians” with the ride and once we figured out which way they were going, we circled around to head them off.

The plan was to burst out of the tree cover in front of the ride and circle around them, whooping and hollering. We got into place and waited for them to arrive for our “ambush”. The wrangler played right into our hands; as they arrived at the spot we had chosen, he stopped the ride to point something out.

Bill looked at me and nodded, so following the plan, I put my heels to Estes and burst from cover doing my best war whoop. The wrangler was startled and jumped, but then as soon as he figured out who I was, just stared incredulously. I’m sure he was seriously wondering if he’d made a mistake by hiring me as a part-time wrangler. The looks on the guests’ faces were priceless; they and their horses stood stock still. The only thing moving on their horses were their ears as they followed Estes’ progress around. I played up the role, and could fully imagine myself with a flowing headdress and bow circling the “Cowboys”. Except about halfway through my first lap around the ride I realized I was alone. Bill, my co-conspirator and lame-ass Indian, came calmly riding into the clearing laughing his butt off.

I finished my loop, my war whoop winding down, face burning momentarily in embarrassment before I started laughing, too. Bill was laughing too hard to explain to the wrangler that they’d been drawn into our game of Cowboys and Indians, so I had to. Luckily, the wrangler got a good laugh at it and told us that it would have been better if we’d had bows and suction cup arrows. The running joke that summer became the Cowboys and Indians; from that point on, we were on the lookout for more Indians with every ride we took out.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sand Beach Lake

One of my favorite all-time rides was to Sand Beach Lake. I’ve only been there once; I had the good fortune to take a young couple up there one July. It’s a difficult ride, not one for beginners, so I was lucky that this couple was fairly fearless.

As rides go, it’s not a particularly beautiful ride. There are components of the ride that are breath-taking, but it’s the end result that makes it worth it.

The ride begins by climbing up out of the Wild Basin area on a set of stairs not necessarily made for horses, so it’s a jarring beginning to a long ride, which is approximately nine miles round trip. Immediately after cresting the stairs, the trail begins to follow a ridge overlooking the most amazing network of beaver ponds. Some of the other rides in the Wild Basin area skirt the beaver ponds, but it’s impossible to grasp the sheer magnitude of the beavers’ network until you’re above them, looking out over the valley. It’s a good thing that the view is so captivating, because it lets you forget that you’re riding on a very narrow trail along a ridge that is very, very high and it would be a very, very long, painful fall should your horse take a misstep. After riding along the ridge for a good way, the trial turns back on itself and begins to move deeper into the mountain, off the ridge and away from the view. Once the trail turns away from the ridge, it’s a fairly boring ride, visually and technically, that’s easily forgettable, for a mile or so.

Though the overall elevation gained is just over two thousand feet, which comes at the beginning and end of the ride, so the middle mile is fairly flat, giving the horses time to rest and go easy for a bit. About two and a half miles in, the trail begins a steep ascent into the forest again, leveling off briefly, just enough for the horses to catch their breath. Being my first, and only, ride in to Sand Beach, I heaved a sigh of relief when we leveled off, not realizing that the ascent we’d just completed was just the beginning. We crossed over Hunter’s Creek and started the scramble up the trail.

My Barn Boss had assured me that the ride “wasn’t that bad” and that there were “stairs” at the end of the trail leading into Sand Beach. The look on the Barn Boss’ son’s face should have been warning enough, but I thought I’d misinterpreted his look. Nope. I was right on the money in my interpretation of the look: relief. I thought, wrongly it turned out, that he was relieved that he wasn’t going to be sent out on an eight-hour ride. Nope, he was relieved that he didn’t have to do this rock scramble. As a general rule, I don’t mind going up. Up’s not bad. But like the Law of Physics states: what goes up must come down. The whole way up the scramble, all I could think about was that we’d have to come back down and, frankly, the thought scared me to death. Four hundred forty three feet straight up what appeared to be a rockslide, and if there were stairs, I never saw them. In fact, I began to doubt that we were still even on the trail until we came across some hikers coming down the trail. We hesitated long enough to ask them how much farther we had to go and we were assured that we were more than halfway up the last leg of the trail. My riders and I took deep breaths and bore on, determined to make it to the top and be done with it.

There were audible sighs of relief when we crested the trail and it leveled off. The trees to our left blocked the view of the lake and the sign to the hitch rail pointed us to the right. I swore that if we’d just made that ride for a crappy, half-dried up pond of water, I’d freakin’ lose it. I helped my guests off of their horses and pointed them in the direction of the trail. We’d made better time than I had anticipated and we had almost an hour and a half for lunch before we had to head back. I stripped the saddles off the horses to give them a break, made sure they were tied securely and went to take a look-see at the lake.

I started down the trail toward the lake and pulled up short when the trees opened up and I got my first look at the lake. I’m pretty sure my heart stopped and I forgot to breathe.

The trees opened up and the world’s most perfect beach lay in front of me, leading to the bluest lake I’ve ever seen. I actually reached down to touch the sand to see if it was really as soft as it looked. It was. There were some small rocks mixed in with the sand where I was standing, but closer to the lake, it was pure, perfect sand. I moved forward reverently, afraid to disturb the perfection of the scene. All of the internal cussing that had been going on during the scramble up to the lake seemed to melt away and every step up the cursed trail was suddenly worth it.

I looked around and saw my guests had their lunches spread out on boulder on the east side of the lake, so I headed back to the horses to grab my lunch and my camera, so I could explore the area. Knowing that I was going to break one of the cardinal rules of being a wrangler – never, ever leave your horses unattended - I double checked their ties to make sure they were secure and went back to the lake. There are two reasons for never leaving horses unattended: first, people always want to touch the horses and if there’s no one around, they run the risk of being kicked or bitten; and second, horse thieving still occurs, believe it or not.

The impact of the view was no less the second time the lake came into view. I sat down with my lunch at the base of a tree and just drank in the view, wondering when the cabana boys were going to show up and offer me a frozen drink with an umbrella in it.

That beautiful blue water just called to me and I was itching to ditch my boots and wade in. The siren song was strong enough that I approached the water, boots still on, to see how cold it was. It was in the low eighties that day and I had hoped that the water would be warm enough for a quick toe-dip. I reached down and touched the water. Immediately, my fingers froze and I couldn’t get my hand out of the water fast enough. I’m not talking, it’s-hot-out-and-the-swimming-pool-feels-cold cold, I mean, crap-I-forgot-that-this-is-glacier-melt cold, thirty-four-degrees-Fahrenheit cold. I chose – wisely, I like to believe – to keep my boots on and stay out of the water.

Far too soon, it was time to re-saddle the horses and head back. The ride down the scramble was every bit as bad as I had imagined. Being in the lead, I was aware of every single rock that the horses behind me displaced and prayed that their horses could keep their feet. I encouraged my guests to lean back, hold on to the back of the saddle with their free hands, and let the horses pick their way down. It seemed like hours later that we reached the bottom of the scramble, though it was only twenty minutes or so.

The rest of the ride back was completely boring and uneventful, even the scary ridge ride overlooking the beaver ponds was fairly ho-hum. It’s amazing how quickly perspective can change.


That same Arizona festival weekend, I got my first opportunity to ride an OTTB (off the track Thoroughbred). River was a tall, black, gorgeous gelding, who was only about five years old. He was much better mannered than I had anticipated, because my very limited exposure to race horses had left me with the impression that they had no ground manners and could only go fast and turn left. The Barn Boss had picked him up at an auction after he’d been retired from racing. Apparently, River wasn’t the fastest horse on the track and, therefore, not worth much. Being young and already broke was a plus, because that meant that the Barn Boss would get several years’ worth of work out of him.

At that stage of my riding career, I was still into tall horses; I hadn’t been exposed to small, agile cattle ponies yet, so of course, when given my choice of wrangler horses, I chose River. He reminded me of my favorite wrangler horse back home, RC, who was also a tall black gelding. River and I got along fabulously during the first day of the festival and he did everything I asked of him. He was easy going and calm, even when I asked him to drag an eighty pound bale from one point to the next. He just let me hook up to the bale, take a dally around the horn and dragged that bale like he’d been doing it all his life. To this day, I can’t remember why we had to move the bale, but we did and he pulled it like a champ.

Even throughout the chaos with the trailer getting shot at he was easy going, so it was a cinch that I’d choose him for day two of the festival. Once we were set up, again working out of the stock trailer, I mounted up on River, who had to be close to seventeen hands – he was honestly one of the tallest horses I’ve ever ridden – and backed him away from the trailer. About three steps back, I laid the reins across his neck to turn him left, fully expecting him to pivot on his hindquarters like every other trail horse I’d ever ridden. He knew what I wanted and attempted to comply, but had no idea how to do it. His whole life had been forward driven; shifting his weight to his rear end to free up his front end was a concept he’d never even heard of. He tried, though.  His weight shifted left, his right leg crossed over his left, which stayed planted where it was, and we began our slow topple to the ground.

I’ve been bucked off of horses; I’ve fallen off of horses. Heck, I’ve even been on a horse that has fallen down, but I’ve never been on a horse that just…tipped over and didn’t try to save itself. It was like riding a slowly falling giant. I had time to kick my feet out of the stirrups and wait as he fell. Once he tipped over far enough for my foot to touch the ground, I just…stepped off and that was it. He lay on his side for a minute, like, “what just happened?” before struggling back up to standing.

Turns out, River had horrible arthritis in his left shoulder, so when I asked him to pivot to the left, his shoulder just couldn’t do it and locked into place, which is why he didn’t scramble to regain his balance. The poor sweetheart couldn’t do it. Had his weight shifted to his rear, it might have been a different story, but since his weight was still forward, his front legs basically had the movement of dried cement.  I damn nearly cried, but he picked himself back up and was ready to go. I felt guilty riding him the rest of the day, even though he didn’t seem to be in pain and was more than willing to do everything I asked without hesitation. Probably, his arthritis wouldn’t have flared up if I hadn’t used him to drag the bale the night before, but who would have thought that such a young horse would have such bad arthritis?

Friday, January 1, 2010


One Fall I was asked by a former Barn Boss to go down to Arizona to help him out during a Thanksgiving weekend festival. One of the other wranglers I’d worked with in the past, JB, was already working for the Barn Boss at his new ranch, but he needed an extra hand in order to maintain his regular ride schedule and manage the festival. Not being one to miss out on the opportunity to ride in a warm climate, I loaded up the kids and we headed south to Arizona for the weekend.

Since the festival was not at the ranch, we had to work out of a horse trailer. Nothing in my training had prepared me for setting up shop from a stock trailer, but we wranglers are nothing if not flexible. JB and I ran what was essentially a glorified pony ride, only we were using horses and our loop was a one-mile block, not a small round pen. Not exactly what I’d envisioned when I said I’d work the festival, but it was a good excuse to go to Arizona and ride in the good weather.

At the end of the festival, we loaded up our horses into the stock trailer, piled ourselves into the truck and started out for the ride back to the ranch. No sooner had we turned onto the ranch road when we felt a ruckus in the trailer. Normal movement is one thing, but this felt like a horse had lost its balance and fallen, which can become lethal, as they were all tied. If a horse had fallen, it could have been hanging from its halter and lead rope, under the feet of the other horses. The ruckus continued as we pulled to a stop and leapt out of the truck. Standing on the wheel wells, we counted heads, and all were still tied and accounted for. There weren’t any horses down and we couldn’t immediately figure out what had caused the commotion, but the horses had quit banging around and were standing nicely once again.

With shrugs all around and a string of curse words out of the Barn Boss’ mouth, we piled back into the truck and resumed our trip to the ranch without incident. At the ranch, JB happened to glance at the trailer’s side window as we were walking to the back to unload, “Sonovabitch, looket that!” He was pointing at a small hole in the window that we hadn’t noticed when we stopped the first time. “Boss, don’t that look like a bullet hole?”

Sure enough, it did look like a bullet hole and being out in the Arizona desert, it wasn’t entirely out of the question that the trailer had been shot accidentally, or, I suppose, even on purpose. A bullet through the window would also have explained the ruckus the horses put up. We went over the trailer, inch by inch, looking for another hole, an exit hole, but there was nothing. Which meant that a bullet, if that’s what caused the hole, went into the trailer, but didn’t leave the trailer.

It was with some trepidation that we unloaded and inspected the horses. The horses at the back of the trailer were unscathed and a little surprised at the thorough inspection they got before we turned them out. One horse, however, who was tied opposite the shot-out window stepped out of the trailer with blood running down his leg.

Hot damn! One of the horses had been hit by a ricochet. We looked at the leg more closely and saw that the bullet hadn’t actually entered the leg, but had carved a nice furrow in it as it skipped by. It was a lucky break for the horse, who had already lived through a previous gun encounter in his old life. The horse’s name was Thirty-eight. As the story goes, his old owner had tried to shoot off of him and missed, instead hitting the horse in the head with a .38 caliber round, which could still be felt under his skin. The horse lived and was eventually sold at auction.

What were the odds that the only horse, in a stock trailer full of horses, hit by the bullet’s ricochet was the only horse that had a previous gun encounter? Crazy, isn’t it?