More horsing around
Essay | True tales about a cowboy and his equine companions
by John R. Erickson
Posted 12/21/19, 09:04 am
Last month, WORLD published a couple of horse stories by John R. Erickson that first appeared in Western Horseman magazine in 2012 and 2013. We offer a second installment, with permission, below.
“They are all honest,” Erickson wrote. “Our age seems vulnerable to dishonesty about animals, perhaps because our manner of living has split us apart. We are the first generation in human history to live and work in places where even a fly or a mouse is not permitted, never mind chickens, goats, cattle, and horses. I suspect that it has changed us in ways we don’t understand.” —Marvin Olasky
Insanity Runs in Families
In the 1970s I cowboyed in the Oklahoma Panhandle, looking after a 5,000-acre ranch for the absentee owner who came into some oil money and took off for New Orleans.
It was an unusual situation. The owner (we’ll call him Rick) grew up on the ranch and detested every minute of it. After high school, he went off to college, got a Ph.D. in poultry nutrition, and went to work with a big feed company. He had no intention of ever going back home.
But on the death of his mother, he learned that to inherit his part of the ranch, he would have to live on the place for 12 years. She had written that into her will. His part of the ranch was worth quite a lot of money, with the value of the land and mineral rights, so he and his wife moved back and lived in an ugly little house.
He put in his time and hated it. He didn’t like ranching and didn’t get along with his neighbors. He considered them uneducated hicks, and they referred to him, behind his back, as “Chicken Doctor” and “Dr. Bird.” His wife packed up and left, and for 12 long years, Rick took out his anger on the cattle and horses.
When I showed up to run the place, he was ready to blast off. I asked about the four horses that were hanging around the sheet-iron shack that served as the shop, saddle room, and feed barn: a half-Arab sorrel, a big black half-Thoroughbred gelding (Blackjack), his full sister (Gypsy), and their mother (Momma Mare).
He said that he hated their guts and hoped he never saw them again. They were the sorriest crow-baits that ever lived, and as far as he was concerned, I could cut their throats and stake out coyote traps around their carcasses.
Oh, he mentioned that Momma Mare had kicked the entire back end out of a two-horse trailer and permanently gimped her left hind leg. He suggested that she was insane, as well as crippled, and maybe I shouldn’t ride her.
And with that, he was gone. I was all fixed up to run his 5,000-acre ranch.
It was good to know that Momma Mare might be insane, and it made me wonder if, among half-Thoroughbreds, insanity ran in families. That was kind of an important question, since I had to figure out what to do with the mare’s offspring.
I started working with Blackjack right away. He was a big handsome fellow and looked like a horse that could run faster than the wind and drag a truck on the end of a rope, but I wasn’t sure he’d ever been ridden. I worked him on the ground to get a sense of who he was.
After several sessions, my reading on him was that he had a dark, brooding personality and didn’t care much for me, yet he seemed pretty docile. I sacked him out, saddled him up, led him around the pen, and flopped the stirrups around until I ran out of reasons for not stepping into the saddle.
But first, I went to the house and told my wife, “I’m fixing to climb on a horse that’s as big as a train and doesn’t like me. If I don’t show up for lunch, come looking for me—and check the tops of the trees.”
I returned to the pen, pulled my hat down to my ears, placed a sweating palm over the horn of the saddle, and swung up. Big Boy tensed but didn’t move, just stood there. I touched the rein against his neck, which resembled a tree trunk. He didn’t move. I tapped him with a spur, ever so gently, and he didn’t move. I went a little deeper with the iron, and at last, he stepped out in a stiff, grudging walk.
We made several laps around the pen. He walked like Frankenstein, and up in the cockpit, I was oozing sweat from every pore. Then he stopped. I tried to turn him (nope) and gave him a spur (nope). There we stood.
I knew he knew I was up there, and I could almost hear him saying, “I ain’t going to move, Cowboy. What are you going to do about it?”
I looked at that thick neck and broad chest and did a few calculations about how high and far he could throw me and remembered something an old man had told me: “If you ever come to the point where you’re scared of a horse, walk away from him.”
I hated to admit it, but I was scared of that horse. I slid out of the saddle, patted him on the neck, and said, “You know, I think I’ll work with your sister. She seems a whole lot nicer than you.”
I hauled Blackjack to a horse sale and went to work on Gypsy. She was a sweet mare and had a much brighter personality than her thuggish brother. But I did find a few quirks. When I flopped a saddle leather, she went off like a load of dynamite and tried to uproot the snubbing post.
Well, she was goosey, but I felt I could work it out of her. I tied feed sacks and tin cans to the stirrups and let her buck. Boy, that worked. She went after it like one of those jumping whales at Sea World. But after several hours, she got it out of her system and I climbed aboard. We trotted circles and figure eights, and I knew I had myself a using horse. She was a sweetheart, and I began riding her that spring.
When the branding season was done, I turned the horses out in a four-section pasture (2,560 acres). Several weeks later, my brother-in-law came to the ranch for a visit and we decided to go for a ride. Gypsy was such a cupcake, I figured I could catch her in the pasture and ride her bareback to the barn.
We drove to the spot where the horses were grazing. I walked up to the mare, slipped the bridle on her head, grabbed a handful of mane, and swung up on her back.
My brother-in-law was impressed and said, “When did you ride her last?” Before I could answer, she swallowed her head and blew me so high, I could see the water tower in Beaver City, 15 miles away. I did several flips, ate a sagebrush, gathered my hat, found my glasses, and said, “About two weeks ago.”
The trouble with that mare was that she didn’t stay broke. Every time you turned her out, you had to go back to school. I rode her for four years and never got it out of her system. If you took the time—a lot of time—to warm her up, she became an honest woman. If you didn’t, she took you to the rodeo.
I guess the answer was … yes, some forms of insanity seem to run in families.
The Thoroughbreds turned out to be only slightly better than Rick’s description. Reno was the fourth horse on that ranch and ended up being my No. 1 using horse. He was the only one that didn’t bite, kick, or buck.
He was a 10-year-old gelding, half-Arab and half-Quarter Horse, and didn’t particularly resemble either side. He lacked the bulk, bone, and height of a Quarter Horse and lacked the delicacy and refinement of the Arab side. In looks, he showed nothing special.
But he was special. He had the acceleration and sprinting speed of a Quarter Horse and the legendary toughness of the Arabian. He was an amazing athlete: fast, quick, sure-footed, and tougher than iron.
The cattle on this ranch reflected the temperament of the ranch owner and his beer-joint wannabe cowboy pals. Rick hated his cattle, and they hated him back. They were as wild as deer and broke into a run at the sight of a man and a horse.
Reno reflected the temperament of the cattle. He had two gears: neutral and turbocharged lightning. This was a horse that had become a specialist in gathering wild cattle, and I got the impression that he loved his work.
Of course, he wasn’t good for anything else. Pasture roping? Forget it. The horse had a dead mouth. And boys, when he hit the jets and went after cattle, you needed plenty of Armstrong steering to pull him back from top-end speed. I tried several corrective bits on him. I might as well have put a piece of ribbon in his mouth.
When I did manage to shut him down, he planted his feet and bounced to a bone-crunching, spine-shortening stop. Just staying in the saddle was a challenge. I rode an old Heiser saddle with fairly large swells. They saved my bacon many a time, but I paid a price. After a long day, my thighs showed bruises from the swells, and all the hair on the inside of my legs had been shaved clean.
During spring branding season, when I rode Reno day after day, I had to cut the tops off a pair of socks and tape them around my knees to keep the saddle galls from turning into open sores.
Working with Reno, a guy didn’t need to go to the carnival for excitement, and I must admit that I learned to enjoy it—when I wasn’t in pain or wondering if I had enough life insurance.
Gored by a Bull
Reno and I spent four years together, chasing wild cattle in the sandhills of Beaver County, Okla. He was an expert at this kind of work, a real professional.
That word described his personality: professional. If you could catch him, he would give you 110 percent, but there was a coldness about him. He’d been raised and broke by an angry, bitter man who didn’t like him (or anyone else), and the horse had no warmth or affection for a human.
Me? I was the nuisance who intruded into his privacy and interrupted the long, pleasant hours he spent in the horse trap, swishing his tail at flies and being a lazy bum.
He was smart and observant. If he suspected that I needed a mount, he would trot to the farthest corner of the pasture, turn, and give me a taunting, gleeful look. The more I needed him, the more he enjoyed the game, and the harder he worked at frustrating my efforts. His most beloved gesture was to dash away, showing me the void beneath his tail.
It was my good fortune that he had a weakness for sweet feed, otherwise I might have spent four years afoot on that ranch. Once I had lured him into the corrals, once he understood that I had outfoxed him, he became a wild spirit dashing around the pen. An outside observer might have supposed that he was dangerous, a mustang that had been trapped on BLM land in Arizona.
That all ended when I roped him or hemmed him up in a tight space. Once the bit clicked into place, he transformed into Reno, Professional Cow Horse, with a specialty in chasing wild cows over rough terrain. In the four years I rode him, he never cheated or slacked on a job.
One spring, I hauled him over to a neighbor’s ranch to help with the spring branding. We gathered a pasture on the Beaver River, penned the herd, and tied our horses along the fence. The owner and another man stayed ahorseback, cutting out five horned Hereford bulls.
Two of the bulls got into a scuffle and wouldn’t leave the pen. It got serious, and cows scattered to get out of the way. The smaller bull sensed that he was whipped and turned to run—right through the middle of five horses tied to the fence.
I heard the thunder of hooves, the squeal of horses, and the sound of reins and headstalls snapping into pieces. For a long moment, the horses were lost in a cloud of dust, then one appeared. A shattered headstall hung around his neck and he walked in a peculiar short-stepped gait. He’d been gored in the throat and blood spurted from his jugular vein.
It took me a few seconds to realize … that was Reno! His eyes were on me and he came straight toward me on wobbly legs.
There are some things you know without understanding why or how. I knew that Reno thought he was dying, and he wanted to be close to me. That sounds corny, doesn’t it? If I saw it in a movie, I would roll my eyes and groan. But I knew it was true.
One of the cowboys drove to the nearest house and called the vet in Beaver City. It took him 45 minutes to get there, and the rest of us took turns putting hand pressure on the wound in Reno’s throat. The spurting slowed to a trickle, and by the time the vet arrived, the bleeding had stopped.
He examined the wound and shrugged. “Some horses are hard to kill. Turn him out and let him rest for a few weeks.”
Reno healed up and, as far as I could determine, he retained no memory of that tender moment when he had seemed close to death. It was back to business as usual: “Catch me if you can and I’ll show you what a professional cow horse does for a living. If you fall off, you’re on your own.”
John R. Erickson
John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.