By the time I was five or six I was judged old enough to ride my own horse during round up. At last I could begin to earn my keep.
The horse for beginners on Date Creek Ranch was Lady, a horse so ancient she had turned white, speckled with little brown spots, like liver spots. Lady was a good choice for beginners in some ways. One of the things that makes horses so dangerous is they spook easily. Unlike cows, which are pretty placid, horses have a tendency to basically freak out when something pops up that startles them. If you’re in the wrong place when that happens, you can get hurt. You might even lose a body part. (I’ll save that story for another day.)
Here’s how skittish horses can be. I remember as a young adult going to Texas to visit my sister, Kim, and her husband who were managing a ranch in West Texas at the time. We were out in the corrals feeding the horses and she said, watch this. She patted the horses, scratched their ears, then we turned and started walking away. After going about ten steps she grabbed the tails of her jacket in both hands, raised her arms and went batwings with the jacket. Then she turned back to the horses, took a step toward them, and they freaked out. (What is this scary thing that suddenly appeared where that friendly human used to be?) Then she lowered the jacket, they realized who she was and they were okay again. Five seconds later she did it again. Same result.
However, there was no spooking Lady. She was so old and lazy and she’d been around long enough to see it all that nothing fazed her. You could have let off fireworks under her belly and she wouldn’t have twitched her tail. She knew all about humans and their foolish ways and she wasn’t buying any of it.
That made her good for little kids. You could also get off her, anywhere, any time, and just walk away and she’d stand right there, head down, dozing peacefully, until you came back. Not like most horses which might just take the opportunity to run back to the barn and leave you stranded a few miles from nowhere (this also happened to me; I had lots of fun with horses).
What wasn’t so good was that she had a mean streak a mile wide and she was always watching for her chance to get you. At that age, getting on the horse was a big task. I had to take hold of the saddle strings at the front and the back of the saddle (saddle strings are long, narrow pieces of leather attached to roughly the four corners of the saddle and they’re for tying things like ropes and saddle bags to the saddle) and jump in the air until I could get my knee into the stirrup. Which usually took a few tries. From there I had to pull myself laboriously up until I could get a hand on the saddle horn (that thing that sticks up in the front of a Western saddle, where the cowboy traditionally wrapped his rope after roping a cow or some other cowboy-related quadruped). Then I could make it into the saddle itself.
Lady liked this game. If I wasn’t quick enough, if I didn’t get all the steps right on the first try and scurry up into that saddle, she would reach back around and bite me on the ass. It hurt!
I had a pretty bad temper even as a little kid (hmmm, wonder if I learned it from Dad?) and when she did that I’d yelp, drop to the ground and just start punching her wildly (while Dad, if he was nearby, laughed uproariously). Lady liked that part of the game too, since I couldn’t actually hurt her at all.
Compounding my fear was the fact that my wonderful older sister (four years older) at some point fed me this story about how if a horse every really bites you, I mean, breaks the skin, the horse can’t stop biting until its teeth come together. I lived in fear of that, waiting for that damnable horse to tear off half my ass and leave me sitting lopsided for the rest of my life.
Lady had other games too.
Sometimes, when I was standing beside her, trying to get the cinch right or adjusting the stirrups or something, if I wasn’t paying close enough attention she’d pick up her front foot and set it down on mine. Then she’d lean on that foot, putting her weight on it.
I always wore boots when riding, so they protected my feet somewhat, but still, it hurt like hell. I’d scream and start pounding on her and she’d just look at me calmly—I was too small to even reach her face, so all I could do was flail futilely at her shoulder—all the while enjoying my suffering. There wasn’t really anything I could do since I was about thirty pounds or so (I was a terribly small child) and she probably weighed twelve or fifteen hundred pounds. All I could do was screech and pound until she got bored and let me go.
Worse than the hurt was the absolute sense of helplessness. Helplessness would just enrage me.
Lady had one other favorite game she liked to play.
When you’re out gathering cows off the range, most of the time it’s pretty dull. You ride for hours and hours by yourself, no one to talk to, nothing to really pass the time. It’s easy to sort of nod off. Not actually sleeping, but just sort of lulled into a trance-like state by the horse’s steady, rhythmic motion.
When that happened, Lady mentally rubbed her hooves together and cackled with glee. (Yes, I’m sure that horse was capable of cackling. She was an evil, old witch.)
It went like this:
We’re plodding along (and plod was Lady’s only real speed) a few feet from a barbed wire fence or some cactus, I’m half asleep, everything’s calm, and suddenly Lady would just sidestep, running me right into the barbs or filling me with cactus thorns.
I’m not making this up. That lazy, nasty old horse would wait—wait!—until I wasn’t paying close attention, and then she she’d just do this neat little sidestep and jam my leg—and sometimes upper body, if the cactus was big enough—right into something pokey and painful.
Geez, I hated that horse.
I always carried a switch to swat her with to make her go (she didn’t react to my pathetic jabs with the spurs at all and if I let her go her normal speed we’d fall behind the other rides and Dad would yell at me) and after she wounded me I’d just go berserk, smacking her on the hindquarters until I ran out of breath. And you know what?
That didn’t bother her at all. Not even a little bit. She’d just keep plodding (plotting?) on, her head down.
Laughing at me the whole time.