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Making Logic out of Horseflesh

Column by Hal Walter

Equines – June 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

WHEN I WAS ABOUT 6, during one of my family’s cross-country migrations, my great-uncle Glenn, who plowed untold acres of northern Missouri with horses and mules, put me on the back of a Shetland pony. My parents and other family members watched in horror as the pony bolted. He bucked and galloped across the grassy farmland, finally jerking to a stop just short of a fence. Somehow I managed to stay on, but I believe the experience scarred me for life.

I had another similar lesson with a horse a few years later. I was riding double behind a friend when the beast took off down the road. I remember bouncing on the horse’s rump, holding on to the cantle and looking down at the ground rushing beneath my feet, all the while trying to decide whether to just let go and get it over with, or to hold on. Some will inside — which later in life seemed familiar in situations that did not involve runaway horses — told me: “Hold on. Don’t give up.” After about a half-mile of all-out galloping, the horse turned sharply into the driveway of a house, accelerated toward the garage and came to a screeching halt right in front of a guy working on his car.

Along the way other horses have done little to reverse my psychology of distrust. But sooner or later you learn that horses are really no different than friends, family members, lovers, and employers, all of whom are just as likely to bolt or try to throw you at any time. Later still, you realize that you yourself can be just as unpredictable.

This perhaps explains how I came to bid on a young horse at a horse auction recently. My wife Mary had been lobbying for a horse for more than a year, and I had decided that it could be justified by breeding the horse to one of my jacks in order to make a mule. I’ve owned donkeys for the better part of two decades, and though I’ve boarded some horses, and done some work for a local outfitter with horses, I had thus far avoided actual ownership of one of these critters.

We shopped around a little but hadn’t really found anything in our price range. Renowned horse breeder Virgil Lawson was having a big sale at his ranch in Wetmore, so we thought we’d check it out and see if we liked anything. If nothing else, we’d get to look at about a hundred head of horses.

We got there late and before I could get my feet under me I watched a couple of really good deals pass us by. Several mare-foal pairs and some three-in-one packages (pregnant mares with foals) were sold at bargain prices. Then a 4-year-old bay mare came into the ring with a rider. She wasn’t papered or bred, so the bidding was low even though she was broke to ride. I raised my hand, and thus started down the slippery trail toward horse ownership. But the bay was not to be. A guy on the other side of the ring was intent on owning her, and I bailed at $1,200 and let him have her.

For a while it appeared that we had missed our best chance. Other horses were brought in, but most were too expensive, some were too old, and some just didn’t strike my fancy. Mary had grown tired of the process, and had sat down in a corner to chat with a friend.

Then this pretty little filly walked into the ring. She was a 2-year-old registered paint, solid sorrel with a slight white mark on her nose. She was curious, yet calm, and peered out between the corral panels at the audience with her big, kind, brown eyes. The auctioneer started at $1,000 and nobody bid. Then he went down to $500 and still nobody bid. Then the auctioneer said $350 and someone on the other side raised his hand.

Then I bid. The other bidder went to $450, and I thought, “here we go again.” But when I went to $500, the other bidder butted out, and in a flash the auctioneer said “sold.”

I waited a couple of days for the dust to settle at the Lawson Ranch before calling Virgil about picking up this mare named “I Tell You Jackie.” It was then that I learned Jackie hadn’t been handled by people. But Virgil assured me that I had made a good choice, and that the mare’s parents were both very gentle.

VIRGIL HAS A SERIES of corrals and chutes that he uses to catch and halter horses. After she had been captured, he treated her with some worm paste. Then I backed my trailer up to a gate and we chased her into the trailer. That was that. “She’s already trained to load,” I joked with him before driving off.

I used a similar technique to unload Jackie, backing up to my corral and opening the gate. She walked up to the edge of the stock trailer and nonchalantly stepped out into her new home. In the next three days I was amazed at how quickly she caught on to leading and being handled. True to Virgil’s words, she was sweet, gentle and quite tractable.

But she was still a horse, and the day came when I had to face this reality.

I had been working with one of my donkeys, Spike, and decided to walk him down to the tack shed to unsaddle him. Jackie was in the corral looking at me and I talked to her as I walked up. Then suddenly she turned, looked at Spike, and spooked. She bolted the length of the corral and stopped just short of the corral panels and turned sharply. That’s when her feet slipped right out from under her, and slid under and between the corral panel rungs.

She was instantly tangled in the steel panel and all I could do was watch her thrash until she got free. It was an awful thing to witness, and all of the nightmares of past bad experiences with horses flashed before me. I expected the worst, but when she got up I could tell that she hadn’t broken any legs. However, she was badly cut. The bone in her right foreleg shone pearly white in the bright spring sunshine where she had skinned her shin trying to get free.

I let her calm down while I unsaddled Spike, who had just stood still and calmly watched the ordeal. Then I went in the house and started calling veterinarians. I finally found one in Ca├▒on City, Dr. Pamela Rose, who would look at Jackie’s injury.

THERE WAS ONLY ONE CATCH — I would have to load her and drive her down there. You really don’t want to train an animal to load under these conditions, and I remembered my joke about her being trained to load as I drove away from Virgil’s just a few days before. Somehow I managed to get her loaded in the trailer.

Once at the veterinary hospital, Dr. Rose had to heavily an├Žsthetize Jackie, as well as inject a numbing drug into her foreleg. Then she shaved all around the wound, washed it out and stitched it up. Lastly she wrapped it with a bandage. The prognosis is good, though Jackie missed cutting a tendon by about a half-inch. There was, of course, a good-sized vet bill, and an entire missed day of work to match it.

Horse ownership isn’t for everyone, and I’m not even sure it’s for me. But for now I’m not counting how many more bales of hay Jackie will eat than all my burros combined, or how the vet bill for her accident totaled more than I’ve spent on vet bills for all my burros over the last 20 years. I’m not even worried about how much training she’ll need before she can be ridden.

I’m just glad she survived.

Writer Hal Walter believes that his affinity for working with equines is a genetic defect that can be traced to his mother’s side of the family.