Friday, June 12, 2009
Sure He Can Run...But Can He Walk?
We raise rodeo horses. Therefore, we breed for speed. Speed is important in the arena. On the ranch, however, speed is optional, and generally hazardous to your health. There are rocks. There are holes. Coulees, washouts and bogs. Slick green grass. Bottomless mud pots called soap holes. All of which are best encountered at a moderate pace. When it's time to work cattle, nobody cares too much whether a horse can run. But we’ll elbow each other out of the way and even throw a good trip on the way to the barn to get our hands on the one that can walk. Why fight for a horse than can walk fast? Because cows are best moved along in a leisurely manner. Especially cows with a calf by their side, if you’d like mother and child to end up somewhere in the same county. The cowboy rides along behind, shouting encouragement as needed, zig-zagging this way and that to keep the herd moving. Over to the right there’s a calf who just realized that he’s starving and he must eat right now. Hard for a cow to walk when there’s a kid latched on to that particular body part. Off the left is that old red cow that tries to peel off and head west every fifty yards. In the middle, three calves have lost track of their mothers and are convinced that they must go back to where they last saw her. Mostly it all happens in slow motion. Walk over here. Walk over there. Walk over here again. It can go on for miles. This is when you truly appreciate a horse with a smooth, ground-eating stride. It’s also when a horse that can’t or won’t walk becomes a four-legged torture device. Climb aboard a lazy horse, and at the end of the day you'll feel like you pedaled a tricycle over the Rocky Mountains. Worse, though, is one that does everything but walk. They jog. They paw the ground if you try to stand still. They run sideways, jerk at the bridle, perform gymnastics akin to the leaps of the famous Lipizzaner stallions, all the while grinding your butt and knees into a saddle that has no appreciable padding. A good fast walk isn’t automatic. It has to be learned. And it seems to come unlearned when a colt makes the move from pasture work to the arena. Suddenly, they discover speed, and it’s addictive. Who wants to plod when you can fly? The more aggressive the rope horse or barrel horse, the less likely that they’ll be a pleasure to ride anywhere else. Betsy was one of the worst. At barely fourteen hands, she was only a size larger than the average Shetland pony. A classic, well built roan, she was a pretty little thing…from a distance. She wasn’t quite so cute after she ran full length of you when you tried to corner her in the corral. And stepped on your foot at least once—with deliberate malice—while you were saddling her. Once aboard, she had a mouth like granite, a head to match, and roan Hancock attitude coming out her ears. But man, was she fun to rope on. Anywhere but the arena, Betsy was punishment from hell. Getting her to walk away from the barn was like pushing a canoe upstream with one hand. She veered left, then right, then left, and if you let your guard down for even an instant, she’d swap ends and head for home. Finally, after hours of kicking and wrestling her every step of the way, you’d dump the cows into the target pasture and turn toward the barn. What a relief. Not. The instant you turned around, Betsy would grab the bit in her teeth and blast off. Given her size, it should have been easy to stop her. Wrong. You’d brace both feet in the stirrups and haul back on the reins with both hands and all your might. She’d bow her neck, set her jaw and keep going. Assuming you’d eaten your spinach and picked a good stiff bit, you could keep her to a bone-rattling, side-stepping, nose-rooting trot. Forget stopping. If you tried, she’d flip around and run backwards. It would have been easier to get off and walk home if it hadn’t been for that trick where she ran a circle around you, over at least one set of toes, then tried to bolt while she had you tangled in the reins. Ember is Betsy’s child. She’s only half as obnoxious as her mother, and not near as tough. And she can’t walk a lick. It’s not her fault—she never grew out of the chubby little girl phase. She has the stride length of a gopher. Her short legs churn as fast as they can, and still the others leave her in the dust. Every fifty yards she has to break into a jog to catch up. I know just how she feels. At cattle moving time, you want to grab Vegas or Scotchman or Pocket or Julie. Nico if he hasn’t been roped on a lot lately and isn’t too fresh. Bailey as long you remember not to wave your left hand, or are prepared for the consequences. He can jump sideways a fair distance for a big horse. At some point, we will end up riding side-by-side. It looks casual. Reins slack, conversation idle, horses strolling along. Except I’m pretty sure Pocket can out walk Vegas, with a little extra squeeze of my heels. Greg is pretty sure she can't. And no way is Dad going to let us make his horse look bad. The race is on. First to the barn without breaking into a trot wins. ‘Cuz out here, horses that can run are thick on the ground. But one that can really walk—that’s something to brag about.