Growing Up Ranch Chapter 11 Horsey Tales.
My growing up ranch was quite unusual even in its day. The reason was we were one of the few ranches that worked our cattle exclusively with horses. These “beasts of burden” became friends and companions, each with their own personality. Here are some short sketches of the regularly used mounts which amounted to about a third of our horse herd.
We had a number of saddle horses. One of Granddad’s favorites was Chalky, an appaloosa gelding he rode on longer rides or when moving cattle. Art took Chalky out to ride the backcountry herd one fine summer day, nothing unusual about that. What was different was that he didn’t return until dark and then on foot.
The story gradually unfolded of horse and rider having had a disagreement which led to both falling down a cliff to the rocks below. Granddad was just banged up, but Chalky was badly hurt. Granddad went back on foot the next morning and led him home a slow step at a time.
Chalky stayed in the corral for the next several weeks. He was on his feet but nearly comatose. Granddad hand fed him cattle cake, and spoon fed him water. The tender care paid off, and soon Chalky was back to riding. He was never totally the same again as the head injury he suffered seemed to make him a little slow to react or think sometimes.
Chalky’s other big adventure was the result of the local wildlife. One day we went to bring the horses in and noticed that Chalky was not up to his normal speed. Head drooping he walked along sort of on egg shells like he had a bad hangover.
Then we noticed that his head didn’t look right. His muzzle was swollen up, and he could barely move his puffy lips. Closer examination revealed two puncture marks right dead center on his muzzle! Evidently, curiosity or inattention had overcome caution, and he had sniffed a rattle snake! A few days of corral side pampering and he was back in stride.
Chalky was a good solid mount. Not skittish and willing to trust you to reach out and do more than he might think wise, he was also comfortable to ride. He actually enjoyed going for a ride!
When you saddled up this didn’t seem to be the case. First he made sure you were serious by playing hard to catch in the corral. That game over he stood patiently as he was curried and saddle blankets put on. As the saddle was flung over you could see him prepare and as the girth was tightened Chalky sucked in the biggest belly of air you ever saw! Unwary wranglers who weren’t wise to this trick would find out as the saddle slid around and they fell off trying the mount. Young riders weren’t strong enough to just cinch the air out of him so we had a trick of our own.
We let him think we were all done, but we left the stirrup hanging up on the horn and the cinch strap free. As we left the barn, we heard the gusty sigh as Chalky got more comfortable. Reaching back we gave a good yank on the cinch and eyes popping Chalky was saddled and ready!
Now let’s ride a typical Back Country sweep. We ride up Bolln Canyon over through Lost Creek, down Ashenfelder, and finally down Roaring Fork Canyon and on home. On a good day this takes at least 5 or 6 hours of rough tree choked, steep, scrambling riding. Chalky was as fresh at the end as at the beginning!
Now we see how much Chalky enjoyed all this. We always brought the horses into the barn, took off saddles and gave them a good currying. Then we led them back out to the corral to remove the bridle. This kept a loose horse from panicking and hurting themselves or someone else in the barn. Chalky was gentle and still for all that. When we slid the bridle over his ears the bit should have dropped out of his mouth and off he would go. But NO, Chalky clamped his teeth tight and nudged you as if to say “Aw come on just another hour, maybe another 3 miles?! Huh? Can we? Huh?” At last, we would coax the bit free, and he went to roll like all the others.
Dad’s personal mount was Spot, a mustang from the Prager “wild” horse herd. The name came from his piebald spots that got shortened to Spot. Though gelding him tamed him somewhat Spot was always a good deal wilder than our other horses. Dad saddle broke him his way by gentle persuasion not the traditional buck it out spirit breaking way. Though no longer a stallion, Spot still ran the herd. Even upstart Shetland ponies didn’t mess with him. Spot had all the qualities that a good all round cattle horse needed. He was a good roper, sure footed, quick and maneuverable. He could smell out a snake or a cow hiding in the brush. He and Dad were a symbiotic pair.
Now that didn’t go for anyone else! Granddad Art tried to ride him, and Spot was so nervous and jumpy Granddad never rode him again. Dad put me up on him once in the corral and same thing. Spot wanted me down but was too polite to just buck me off right away, and I could feel a real horse under me that was way more than I could handle at that age.
Because we were the wranglers, we got to see a lot of Spot and the other horses. Spot was always the leader and most of the time he respected our wishes and went where told. Not always so. The horses had gotten out of the corral and into the yard. As we attempted to turn them back to the corral, Spot lowered head, then charged past, tail flying and heels flashing! As it was dusky he didn’t see the closed wire gate until the last second! He slammed on the brakes but the muddy road gave no grip and he slide right through the barbed wire gate. I just knew he would be cut to ribbons but he stepped gingerly out of the tangled gate remnants, and shook off one loop of wire. Then with a sort of sheepish, “Shucks I’m Sorry” look he galloped away down the meadow tail and feathers flying!
Fences were honored by Spot; they didn’t actually keep him in. This became apparent one day when a skunk got into the corral. Now they are not dangerous to a horse but who wants to get sprayed? Certainly not Spot! He tried backing into the far corner, but the skunk followed him. Finally, Spot just jumped flat footed over a 6-foot rail fence! He didn’t run off, just stopped and started grazing.
Spot was a top cattle horse, and most cattle never tried to see if they could outrun or out maneuver him. There is always an exception though. One day a Hereford steer belonging to our neighbors the Pexton’s got into the East End pasture. It wasn’t alone there were several others, and we rounded them up to push them back up the Dugway and into the Pexton pasture.
Hereford’s have a way of being gate-blind even when they want to go where they are being herded so some running back and forth is expected. Steers being young bold and independent are even more so. This bunch was also trying to get out of the flies and didn’t want to leave our creek bottoms. One steer in particular at the last moment bolted up a rocky ridge and took off through the timber.
We put the rest of the steers through the gate then trotted off to round up this last rascal. That steer had more run than brains! We chased him end to end of the East End ridge twice! Finally, he broke for Horseshoe which meant getting out of the trees that had kept us from heading him off. As we tore down the Big Flat at a full gallop Spot took matters into his own teeth. Yup, I said teeth! As the steer ran full tilt Spot reached out clamped onto the root of his tail and then lifted that steer’s hind quarters off the ground and carried him for about 50 feet.
The steer was terrified! Bawling and running he took off even faster. Now we could hardly keep him in sight at all. We finally got the steer turned round, and this time he did see the gate! Spot just wanted the stupidity to end and had finally had enough!
As boys, Paul and I got started learning to ride young. It wasn’t any thing like the formal riding lessons you sign up and pay for; this was hanging on and learn by doing. When we were real small, Dad would ride us double in front or behind him, but of course, we outgrew this soon. Then we got to ride by being helped aboard one of the saddle horses ( a gentle one), and Dad would lead our horse while he rode his. We got to learn the feel of the rock and roll but still hadn’t learned anything about real riding.
Finally, Granddad Art decided to get a couple of ponies so we could really ride on our own. Dad thought this was a good idea too and so Toby and Sacky came to live with us. Toby was the gentler of the two and a handsome golden dappled color. Sacky was a piebald miniature of Spot and had tons of attitude. He ran the horse herd every chance he got, even the Belgium workhorses let him boss them around.
Toby got to keep his name but we soon renamed Sacky, Tonka which I seem to remember was short for Wacken Tonka since it seems like we were always having to whack-on Tonka to keep him minding. At first we rode in the corral (it’s a lot easier to catch the pony after you fall off that way). We finally graduated to riding in the yard. The ponies weren’t to keen on this riding around in circles thing so when they got bored they introduced us to the lowest tree limbs and the various fence posts and barbed wire spurs they could rub up against. After a while we got skilled enough to prevent them taking real advantage of us and we graduated to riding on the meadows.
Riding the meadows was real riding, and we could begin to widen our horizons. But the ponies weren’t really much happier with this either. Often we would be brought home well before we were ready by a headstrong pony. That was still better than the runaway our meager skills were able to prevent. Not all runaways got prevented though.
Paul had at least three major runaways. The first landed him face first on a rough hill side just past the ditch his pony had just jumped. Face bruised, he recovered to ride again. Another runaway and this time as the pony jumped the lower ditch at an angle Paul went headfirst into the ditch bank itself. Much more battered, healing took longer this time. The final most memorable runaway ended with another face first fall into a pile of rocks! This time his face swelled up so much he looked like Donald Duck for a couple of weeks.
Paul may have taken runaway falls but while I generally didn’t fall off. I did get bucked off …a lot! We had a Welsh pony named Judy who was the root of most of these buck offs.
Judy and her sister Twiggy came to the ranch as we grew and needed larger mounts. Nearly identical in appearance they had night and day personalities. Twiggy was quite tractable and trustworthy. Judy was a devil in horse clothes! Here is my first experience with her.
The two mares had been brought in just a day or two before, and I was itching to ride them. I had been warned about Judy and advised to ride Twiggy first. I got a bridle picked out the one I thought was Twiggy and hopped on for a ride up and down the East Meadow. We got along fine as I left the corral, crossed the bridge and started down the meadow. Now Judy showed her true colors.
She blew up so fast and furious I never even knew it was coming! I piled right into the ground. Trailing reins she trotted back to the corral a quarter mile away. Fuming and sore I went back and got on to finish the ride.
Judy had no common sense about the bucking. One time she was being used to pack 50 pound salt blocks back to our summer herd. The idea was salt blocks were tied on and she could buck all she wanted they wouldn’t care. Judy was doing fine when the inspiration hit. She went to bucking in the middle of a slide rock hill most horses would tippy toe along. Bucking and twisting she slid down the hill ending at the bottom with no salt and no pack saddle either.
Since I was older and bigger and a little bit “stickier” than Paul, I often got to ride the green broke bronc and Judy sure qualified. I learned to watch her like a hawk and NEVER let her get her head down. Even so I would find myself doing the one jump, still seated, two jumps loosened up, three jumps lost the stirrups, four jumps arms length on the saddle horn, five jumps flat on the ground. I also got pretty good at stifling my anger so I could catch a loose horse. A couple of two and three mile walks soon taught me the wisdom of that.
Judy was the mother of Rowdy who eventually became my regular mount. Rowdy was coal black with a white star on the forehead. His sire was a full-size horse, so he was taller than his dam and built solid. He had a comfortable gait, but like Judy, he needed some watching. He wouldn’t just blow up and buck, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t plenty of horse. He did require some discussion at times before the proper course of action was determined. He could do things his own way sometimes, and that wasn’t always comfortable.
One nice summer day I hopped on Rowdy bareback (unusual, he was pretty big for bareback work) but I was just riding up to the lower canyon and back. I had ridden up to the ridge top, and as I guided Rowdy down the ridge toward the road below, he decided to take the direct route down the steep ridge.
As he jump hopped down the hill side I felt the old familiar one, two,… etc. starting. Rowdy wasn’t bucking or running just hopping along instead of sliding on his haunches. Now as it was a nice warm summer day, and I was bare back, and a full teenager of the male persuasion, I had certain items hanging loose. On about jump three as I came down on Rowdy’s back again a sudden intimate pain shot through me as I felt soft parts under my rump! Legs instantly clamped tight and I didn’t budge the rest of the way down that ridge!
I finally quit riding Rowdy bareback the day we went for a short gallop down the Race Track. As Rowdy stretched out and I felt his muscles flexing under me, I could feel just how strong he was. Quite intimidating!
Star was Chalky’s sister, a nice bay mare with one white star on her forehead. She was a gentle tractable mount who was generally eager to please. She was a real joy to ride as her gaits were so smooth. No chop, chop, chop trot like the ponies. She was a savvy cow horse, not quite cutting horse quick but with the same herding instincts. Sure footed she could go anywhere the Shetlands could and for a horse that says a lot. She did tend to pack on the feed but with us riding regularly this wasn’t a problem.
Star could be quite stubborn. We were doing the mid-summer move from the Maggie-Murphy pastures to the back country. We were bringing the last of the cattle up Lower Horseshoe Canyon, and the herd was beginning to realize we were moving them out of their ”home.” This meant a good deal of chasing cutbacks, especially at creek crossings.
Star finally got fed up and was determined to go home. As we turned to catch the herd up again, she spotted a large pine tree. At full gallop, she lined my leg up and twisted her body around to drive my leg into the tree as hard as she could. I rose in the stirrups and pulled my leg up as far as I could, but the blow still left a three inch long, bone bruised goose egg knot on my shin.
Star was most known as Mystery’s mom. One year we boys began to notice that Star was strangely gaining weight, even more than usual. This was especially puzzling because it was across the winter when summer fat normally slowly melted away. As spring came Star got wider and began to get winded easier. A front on look showed her weight gain was sort of whop sided, also not normal. Paul and I began to ask if she was pregnant. Dad said no we don’t have a stallion, can’t be. We still wondered and finally we checked. Sure enough she was making a bag too. We pinned Dad down, she has to be! No we haven’t had a stallion in several years. When we went out to wrangle the horses the next morning, there she was; a brand new buckskin filly we promptly named Mystery.
As we worked the cattle or at least wrangled horses every day, there are many more memories, but too many to share here. It’s enough to know that our horses were not just animals but our friends as well.