The first time I met her, I followed a herd of adults out into a green pasture. I ignored their dull talking. We were introduced, and her twenty-some-year-old daughter was there. Omni was pretty, even though she was old; all of her hair had turned white. She was swollen with her pregnancy. Beholding one of her brown eyes, I remember sensing warm, intelligent, gentleness, and feeling a curiosity about her oblong pupils. I loved to lean against her large warm side, and hug her neck. I remember the way she smelled, a good horse smell. She had a breathtaking body, when she arched her neck and pranced, she was so enchanting. I was told that she had a long, unpronounceable Arabic name on a paper somewhere, but I never saw it. She was the best riding instructor I could have ever hoped for. She was a patient and loving mother. She was a brave adventurer. I still dream about her.
A few days after she had her colt, she was hauled to our house. She had been bred to a quarter-horse, and the foal was a dark-red and white paint “Anglican Arab.” Mom and the previous owner unloaded them and I took her for a test ride. I don’t know what my Mom traded for them, maybe an elk? I rode through Tobol Potato Farm property into a steep, dry valley. The foal followed beside the mare and me. We walked along a cow path, and we avoided the creek on account of the colt. We went through a barb wire gate that I opened and closed, into Loshcieder’s land, and up past the old homestead, before I returned home. The mare did everything I asked of her without any resistance. That was the only free ride she ever gave me. I think she just gave me a gentle placement test before she began my serious education.
On my second ride I learned that she could move in any direction with a speed I couldn’t predict. Sometimes she would prance in a way that made me feel like I was on a pogo stick. She had amazing endurance. The way she moved made me think of her as a living Omni-Directional-Nuclear-Pogo-Stick.
I wore tight wranglers, in garish bright colors like purple and teal with very uncomfortable cowboy boots, because that was the fashion in my high school. It wasn’t until I joined the army and rode horses at the stable in uniform that I realized how miserable it was to ride in jeans that are so tight your legs go numb.
I named the colt “Dhatu Senu” after a fifteenth century Sri Lankian king I had read about in a National Geographic. He was a bit of a jerk. He ate her long white tail off to a “bob.” He would rare up and put his front feet on her back. Sometimes he left bite and kick marks. She was very gentle, never nibbling or even laying her ears back. It wasn’t her nature. This gentleness made her unpopular with other horses, who fawn about the meanest mare. When we kept her with a herd, she ate at a distance and drank when no one else was near the tank. She was easy to catch, when the other horses would run away at the sight of a halter and rope, she would trot up, neighing. I think she liked people more than horses.
When Dhatu was two, he was at my Aunt’s to be trained. My Aunt went out and petted him and his dark red winter coat came out in her hands and the undercoat was slate grey.
“I tried to put the red hair back on,” My Aunt said as she mimed trying to pat his hair back into the skin, “but it just didn’t work.” Shrugging as she told us about his color change. My Mom and my Aunt were disappointed that he was roaning out, but I thought it was nice. He was white like Omni by the time he was eight or nine.
One time Dhatu put his nose in a porcupine. Horses do that from time to time because a walking porcupine kinda sounds like someone shaking a grain pan. My Aunt came over and gave him a slobber shot. His eyes turned glassy and his legs got wobbly as he got stoned. Then my Mom and my Aunt pulled the quills out with a pair of pliers.
I rode Omni down along Lower Crow Creek during the warm seasons of the year. My three dogs followed in a line that got longer as the older dogs got tired. Sometimes my cat would follow along as well, trolling for coyotes I suppose.
Mom and I would ride together because my Mom liked to ride out green broke horses. It’s good to have a well broke mentor horse along on these rides. “Well broke horses are boring.” My Mom would say. The goal for riding when I went with her was to experience lots of different things like crossing ditches, bridges, stepping over logs, going through gates, and going up and down extremely steep hills like the “Widow Maker.” We were trotting across a plowed field and Dhatu spooked. The terrifying monster was a plastic bag that had blown into a weed and was rustling in the breeze. We let him look at it until his eyes and nostrils weren’t flaring, until he quit twitching. Mom instructed me on these rides. She said things like “Get in a rhythm of putting your body weight on the side that Om is stepping on, it increases the endurance of your horse.”
I never was a good rider, I never learned to control a horse with just my feet like my Mom and all the ranchers in my family could do. I’m proud that my cousins ride every year in Vegas, but I didn’t live on a horse’s back like they did. I remember feeling a sense of reverence as I watched my Grandpa roll a cigarette with one hand, and smoke it, while he floated on a big red Tennessee Walker. I’m so far from the legend.
My Mom and I went to the Amish store and were at the counter buying homemade cheese, jams, and pear butter. Mom an d the bearded man started talking over the modern cash register.
“Yea, I messed my back up at work, throwing pallets of shingles up to some roofers. When I ride this paint gelding I have, and he side-steps on me, I’m done for the day and go home. Well, that horse is no fool… he takes advantage of my injury, and I can’t get anywhere with him anymore. I’m gonna have to sell him, cause I can’t stand to have him go to waste.” my Mom said.
“Have you tried training him to drive?” he asked.
“I don’t know the first thing about it.” she said.
I put the armful of jams, cheese, and pear butter back down on the counter while the Amish man told my Mom how to train a horse to pull a cart. She made her cart out of a fiberglass planter-box, some bicycle tires and other junk. Soon she had him pulling a rattling little cart down the road. A few years later her back got worse and she did sell him.
One spring, while there were still patches of snow on the ground and a crisp bite in the air, I caught Omni and threw a saddle blanket on her, then a saddle. I pulled the cinch tight. I slipped under her neck and pulled the breast collar around and clipped it. I loosened the buckle on her halter and slid it down her neck, and put the bit in her mouth and the headstall over her ears, then unbuckled the halter. I put my foot in the stirrup and swung up. She was calm and gentle while I was saddling her. The minute my foot went into the stirrup she arched her neck and I had to get my seat while she was prancing. I was worried that she would try to rub me off on the clothesline. She pranced backwards because I held her head so tight, and she made little jumps up into the air and stood on her hind legs for a moment. Om pranced sideways. I pulled her head to one side and she spun like a top in place, I got dizzy from the force of it. We skittered and hopped out of the driveway and pranced and spun down the white clay road. She had so much energy that she wanted to fly. Every time my attention would drift for as second, she could sense it. She would pop to one side and try to unseat me. I whistled and sang “The gypsy rover came over the hill, down through the valley so shady, he whistled and he sang, till the green woods rang, and he won the heart of a la-ha-aie-e-dee” to calm her as we went. When we got to Loschieder’s hay field, I let her stretch her legs and run. The wind blew through my hair like it does when you ride in the back of a pickup. I lost control, the reins slipped away, and she picked up speed “like a snowball rolling downhill, heading for hell,” to quote Merle Haggard. I decided to get off. I grabbed her neck and planned to slide off her side. I ended up under her. I landed on my head. I laid on my back and watched her back legs pumping her body over the hill.
I was so sleepy, I just relaxed on the ground and closed my eyes and sank into the dark warmth behind my eyes. My dog was standing on my chest licking my face. It was annoying. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I got up I ran my tongue over my teeth to make sure they were still there. I was confused and I turned around in circles until I decided which way to go.
I walked to where the white clay road ripped through the dry tan grass and there was a lonely trailer house, the only house without trees. I felt some apprehension about meeting these strangers who worked for the Tobols. I was sure they would let me call my Mom. A snappy gray haired woman, wearing jeans and an orange tank-top, watched me through the screen door. My dog and their dog were barking at each other. She welcomed me into her home as I explained my predicament. Myra Golden had a strong accent.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Virgina.” She said. I’d only met a couple people from outa State.
“I really need to use your phone. My horse is going to show up at the house, and my Mom’s gonna really worry.” I said.
“We don’t have a phone, but I’ll take you home in a minute.” She seemed company-starved and reluctant to let me leave.
“Do you like carrot cake?” I nodded. “Do you want some coffee?” I nodded again. “How do you take it?”
“Black.” I said.
“I like my coffee like my men, hot, black and stro-ong.” Myra said with all the flair in her exotic accent. We sat in the living room with her dog and an enormous orange cat.
“This is Taxi.” Myra said pointing to the cat, and then she pointed her finger like a gun at their blue heeler, said “BANG” and the dog stiffened and fell over sideways, “She’s dead.” I was uneasy while Myra delayed, but I was at her mercy so I was polite.
“I bet you’re ready to go home now.” Myra said with reluctance, I nodded.
“Yea, my head kinda hurts, my Mom’s probably worried. Omni is home by now.”
“Do you want some Tylenol?” I nodded. She rattled two out for me and got me a glass of water.
“Well, come on,” she invited me to ride in a big green dodge truck. “We call it the ‘Bondo Buggy’ cause it’s mostly bondo, but it’s a good truck. They don’t make them this way anymore.” Myra said. She patted the dash. I held my dog in my lap.
We rattled down the dirt road until we reached the Tobol’s potato farm. Dan Tobol was standing beside the road holding my horse by the reigns, waiting for us.
“I saw your mare running pell-mell down the road without you. I didn’t want your horse to show up at your house, riderless. Eloise would die.” He looked me in the eyes and challenged me, “You’re gonna get back on, aren’t you?” My head ached. I was afraid of her.
“I don’t want to.”
“Come on. You’re gonna get back on.” He put a hand on my back and guided me toward Omni’s side. I nodded and put my foot back into the stirrup and swung up. “Go ride in the potato field. I just plowed it and the sand is deep.” I trotted from the cellar, into the fluffy sand. We trotted in small figure eights and circles until she was breathing hard and covered in a thick smelling wetness. At times she was chest deep in fine sand that clung to her sweat. She breathed with heavy heaves. We walked home, stopped at the mailbox and got the mail, and walked up to the hitching post. I swung off, and yanked the girth loose. I put a halter on her, and began taking the tack off. Handfuls of frothy sweat the consistency of shaving cream glopped off of her chest. I had abused her by riding her so hard. I brushed the grime off her. My Mom wandered out and I told her everything.
“You should have started in the potato field. I thought you knew better.” I shrugged.
“We wanted to run.” Just after this we built a round corral so we could run the horses around in circles to tire them out before riding them. It’s called lunging.
When I turned her out in the field, she rolled. I went and took a shower. My neck hurt, and has never stopped aching.
The next morning she was waiting at the gate, neighing. She wanted to go, again.
Twice a year I took Omni to herd cattle for my Aunt, who lived five miles away. The cows are moved from my Grandparent’s home-place to the rangeland in the spring, and vice versa in the fall. That fall she was unloaded at the range. My first task was to keep the cows down in the draw on my side. Omni whinnied to the riders on the other side, her ears pointed forward, they returned her call. We waited. The cattle trickled like a stream of red water down the narrow valley. I followed them along the edge. My Aunt rode up, on her big black horse named Friday, and pointed at the gate.
“Go count them when they go through.” I did. When they were all pushed through, someone else counted them at another gate. My Aunt was with the last of the Herford cows. “How many did you get?”
“162, but I think I missed a few.”
“Come with me.” She started uphill toward five square red spots that hadn’t moved all day. Her Saler bulls were the size of trucks. I was afraid because I’d watched too much bull riding. In rodeos bucking straps are used to make bulls move. Bull riding’s like kicking a man in the balls for the sport of watching him squirm. I held back a little, but she rode right up and yelled at them. They looked at her for a minute, and then looked away, disinterested. She jumped off Friday and walked up and grabbed Tubman by the ear. “Get up you lazy fat ol’ cow.” He swatted her with his tail, and twitched his hide and ears like she was a bug. “Tubs! Get your ass up!” I was emboldened by this display and approached with prudence. I yelled at them until my voice was hoarse. I slipped a boot out of a stirrup and poked one in the rump, he twitched. My Aunt was in full tantrum mode. I can understand why they didn’t want to get up. It’s gotta be difficult to hoist 3,000 lbs. off the ground. Jazzman was the first to budge. Umpfh, he rocked forward on his front knees and his ass end went up, Ughoo, and his front was up. Once he was standing, the others got up, but that didn’t mean they were going anywhere. My Aunt swung back up on Friday and began pushing them to move. When we got to the bottom of the hill the little bull and Tubs began gently butting heads and circling each other. I backed Omni away, “Get after them!” my Aunt said. I balked at the command. Red faced she yelled, “GO!” I rode up to them yelling and waving an arm. We pushed them in the direction the cows went. I popped them on the butt with my reins. I quit yelling because my voice was sore, and started chirping. “Yip, Yip, Yip.” We had to catch up with the cows. I ran Omni right up behind a bull and pushed him with Om’s chest, once while doing this she bit him. I was shocked. “Yip, Yip, Yip.”
My Aunt rode up to the guy at the second gate. “How many did you get?”
“There should be 168.” She looked back.
We had to push the bulls the whole way, but the cows seemed to have the instinct to trot to better pastures. A cancer eyed cow, and a limping sore hipped cow, lagged and ultimately got loaded in a horse trailer and hauled. We followed the chalky white road that flowed beside the Flathead River; a river that was the color of the edge of a sheet of glass. I stopped for a moment when we got to the cliff tops that overlook “Buffalo Coral,” an ox-bow in the river. My Grandpa was here in 1906 and watched an epoch round-up where the buffalo were chased into the U, put in boxes, and shipped away. There are still visible wagon marks scaring the prairie.
Behind us we could see a car coming by its huge plume of white dust. It slowed and My Aunt rode beside and chatted with the driver.
My Aunt whistled to get my attention and made a forward motion with her hand. I understood and began to ride at a trot into the moving herd of cows. “Yip, Yip.” They pressed toward the sides of the road and the car followed close until we were through. He beeped goodbye and his big white plume of dust continued where it had left off.
One of the dogs got after a cow that was lagging, biting her around the ankle. She flicked him into the ditch with a little kick.
The cattle trotted over the bridge that crosses Mud Creek, but Omni hesitated. She didn’t like bridges. When we got to Sloan’s Bridge, a large cement structure that spans the Flathead River, Om stopped and I felt fearful tension in her, but it dissipated after a moment and we continued.
After passing the graffiti decorated cement bridge, we climbed a hill and entered the lush irrigated farmland of Round Butte. Picture an Irish valley with a round hill in the middle, fringed with dark mountains; that’s Round Butte. Just a few miles to go, miles measured by straight dirt roads that jig one eighth of a mile every six miles to account for the roundness of the earth. There is one paved road, the Round Butte Road, and we have to take the cattle down along an eighth of a mile of, then cross. When we cross, some of them slip and fall. The cow shit makes the pavement slippery. It’s part of the journey that has to be done very with calm caution.
After the cattle drive, Omni was glad to get out of her tack, get her oats, and have a nice roll in the dust patch behind my Aunt’s house. I enjoyed the steak, potatoes and corn at the “thank you” barbeque, but not as much as I enjoyed sitting in the cool evening shade, getting my burned face out of the sun.
The day after the fall cattle drive, I rode Omni home in the afternoon. The valley was swathed in green grass, and washed in purplish alpine-glow tinted evening light. I heard sprinklers, but I heard the song of the other kind of rainbird too, a soft repetitive whistle that heralds the coming rain. The mountains were tall and dark. The small farms I passed were so pretty you could paint them and people would buy the pictures. I stopped under an apple tree that grew on the side of the road and picked an apple for myself, and one for Om. I leaned over and handed it to her, listening to her squish it around in her mouth. It’s nice to pick apples from horseback because the best apples are higher up.
There were times when I caught Omni and just brushed her. Her mane was fun to braid. Her tail grew out and was long and flowing. Once Mom and I pulled long white strands from her tail to attach to tufts of white ermine hair on the tips of eagle feathers on a headdress my Mom made. Omni was very patient about having her hair pulled out.
I put my little cousins on her back and led them around, like a petting-zoo pony ride. I had them touch their toes and hold their hands out to their sides and over their heads while Omni walked. I was ready to take them off her back and she shook and they went sliding off one side and I caught them. She had been so gentle with them until then.
I rode around in circles in the pasture in front of our house. Mom would call, ”trot…walk…run…reverse…trot…don’t post, sit the trot, she sure changes leads nice, she was dressage trained and shown when she was younger, you can tell…heels down…back strait…lope…walk…halt….beautiful.”
I trotted down the road ‘til I came to a place with an old grey barn, a trailer house, a police cruiser, big trees, and a four-year-old boy playing outside. I stopped and was talking to the little boy. We were standing on opposite sides of the white clay road. We turned when we heard a sharp buzzing sound approaching. Whoosh, I felt wind and dust and swirling scared horse and shocked boy. The boy’s dad jumped out of the front door of the trailer house into the cop car, and raced down the road with his lights swirling and siren on. Horse, boy, and I watched the first Hummer we’d ever seen, get a ticket. Whoever said that the police are never there when you need them?
Omni and I were both pretty rattled by the close encounter. We went down the road and she jumped sideways every time we saw a car. I took her at a good pace, trying to burn off the anxiety we both felt. We went up to the Round Butte Road along the riding trail that edges it, and around in a 20 mile loop that passed my Aunt’s house. When I got home there was an idling semi-truck hauling a CAT on a lowboy trailer, parked in front of my house. POP….she stepped out of under me and I found myself sitting on the road.
My Mom and the Bartells have a neighborly feud going on; Tom Bartell thought Mom’s place should have been his. Bartell put his stallion on the other side of the barbed wire fence from our mares. It is a mare’s instinct to walk up to a stud, face him, squeal, and strike with her front feet. Putting his stud on the other side of the fence was an attack intended to cause our mares to get all cut up, cost us money in vet bills, and create hardship with the doctoring of lame horses; which it did until we fenced that part off. I woke up in the morning and Omni was standing on three feet, facing the fence, holding her foot up so it wouldn’t touch the barbed wire. She wasn’t following her instinct to flail and get away. I went and guided her foot to the ground.
On a ride home, we were at the wizard corner. I sang “Edelweiss….sweet and white….bless my Omni forever.” It was a mild golden summer evening. The mountains seemed taller this day. I looked back and a skunk was following us down the road. We ignored it. It didn’t bother us.
Another day, I remember riding at sunset, watching bats pour out of the roof of the Bartell’s house. The house had been built by old man Tolkie and had a steep ships gable, and the barn was round with an ice cream cone shaped top. The bats flitted down the irrigation ditch scooping up mosquitoes as they went. Puffs of cold air hit me. They felt out of place on the warm summer evening. Years later they removed the house’s roof, the bats disappeared, and we had mosquitoes to replace them.
Before a lightning storm there is a tension that Omni could feel. She would prance in the static electricity. I would sit on the porch and watch the lightning and her dance.
The snag on the corner looked like a wizard. It didn’t just look like a wizard to imaginative people like us, but to ordinary boring people too. The tree was part of a hedge of cottonwoods (actually green poplars, they look similar but live a lot longer) planted by old man Tolkie, a Norwegian ship-builder. The snag had been the tallest tree at the top of the hill that got struck by lightning and burned. We affectionately called him “the Round Butte Wizard.” Mr. Stipe was a very ordinary type of farmer and he cleaned up his property and burned the snag. I drove the truck up and watched it burn, the evening sky was a flat slate. A shooting star streaked down to the dark mountains. I stood staring at the imposing twenty foot tall blazing wizard, in awe of his magical glory, until the sky was dark. After an hour I turned, relaxed, and took a real breath…BASH…he fell. Sparks rolled up like a spell had been cast. The next morning was Easter. I saddled Omni and we went up the road. She tried to rub my leg into the barbed wire fence; I turned her so that her butt got scratched in the wire. She responded with an outburst of crow hopping. It took about an hour to go a quarter-mile. We came to a temporary truce in the ditch across the fence from the snag. There was a white ash outline of the corpse of the Round Butte Wizard, burned for his witchcraft, purged white, with his heart flickering small sparks of magic, still.
A crop duster flew over our house to spray the potato field across the road. It took repetitive passes. The chemical blitz lasted for an hour. Sometimes the plane flew so low it knocked branches off the green poplars. Omni reared and spun and pranced at every plane pass.
On cold mornings my blood hound and Omni would jump at each other and take turns chasing each other around. It was fun to see them play.
We were walking in silence down the road, I had forgotten about the Helvick’s dogs. The Helvick’s were a joke in the community. Rich folks from Wisconsin that bought a farm, had put fence posts in upside down, hadn’t banded their sheeps’ tails, the sheep drank out of worm infested warm springs, and were housed in a barn that they hadn’t maintained that laid almost flat on the ground, and they had twenty-some dogs. I walked Omni right into this mess because I forgot about the dogs. They chased us into a field and the wind rushed through my hair and stung my eyes as she ran for our lives. They were gaining on us and fanning around and encircling us. Omni stopped running. I kicked her sides to make her go, but she ignored me. She turned around and stood like a gunslinger eyeing her opponent. The chase was on. We pursued and stomped dog after dog, sending them yelping and running away.
When I joined the Army, I found what I hoped would be a good home for Omni with the Heraman family. They had a fourteen-year-old girl, a few younger kids, lots of land, and a fish hatchery. They gave my Mom 1,100 lbs of trout for Om. I called my Mom from basic training and she said that Omni had been led out onto a rickety bridge that had given way under her weight. She had a few visits from the vet. I called my Mom from my job training, she said that Omni got loose and ended up on the big highway, HWY 93. She didn’t get hit. My Mom didn’t mention Omni for months, so I asked. She’d been pastured in a swamp and ate too much of the wide bladed razor grass. She had a twisted gut and tried to walk to the house, but died on the way.
No death has ever stung like hers; not my dog’s, not my Grandparents, not my Aunt’s. I’ve ridden a few times since then, but it’s not the same. I’ve been home a few times, but it’s such a different world from the one I live in, that it seems like a dream.