I put down my hairbrush late Sunday afternoon, about half an hour before we were due to sing in church. My daughter’s words sent a chill down my spine. I ran down the stairs from my attic rooms, pulled on my MuckBoots, and dashed out the back door to the group turnouts. My daughter followed.
“What happened?” I tossed the question out as we ran.
“I was putting Billy away, and Duke was prancing around, and he reared and fell over,” she said. I wondered if Duke had somehow slipped in the snow in the next pen and knocked the wind out of himself.
We arrived at the gate and opened it. Duke, an almost black Thoroughbred gelding, lay on his right side. Two of the other horses stood around him, nudging him with their noses. A back leg quivered.
One of my most vivid memories is the Cold War drill in which we dropped to the floor and crouched under our school desks while the air raid siren blew. I was never quite sure how the drill would protect me.
I suppose rescuers would get the seating chart, dig through the cave-in, and find me beautifully pressed by the desk into the floor.
Back then we visited my grandparents in Hardin, Montana at Christmas. The grandparents had heeded our cry for horses and given us Shetland ponies. The ponies in turn, served as prime bait for repeat grandchildren visits.
We couldn’t horse around much in Hardin then, due to icy roads, so we rode the lanes of my grandfather’s military surplus yard. Our ponies’ barn and the military junk made up part of his bulk-oil plant’s oddly balanced ecosystem.
Once, when it was time to leave for home, my sister and I hid, hoping we would never be found. We rode Nugget and Mohawk into a giant bomb shell. There inside the bomb, astride our stubby mounts, we watched snow gently drift to the ground and listened to our parents shout for us.
The snow, the bomb shell tableau, the moment of our discovery, my parents’ disgust: Not quite a Hallmark Christmas card, but a Christmas never forgotten.
I met two young people a few days ago who reminded me why I do this volunteer stuff, anyway.
Much like Pony Club or the Scouts, Colorado’s 4-H Horse Project offers an achievement program in which members demonstrate higher and higher levels of skill. In this case, we are talking about horse knowledge and riding skills.
As an “expert”, my job is to go out and test youngsters. The first brave soul, a young lady, age eight, was as young as you can be and still get into the 4-H horse program.
At the early levels, rules say young or small riders may ask for adult help with things like saddling, bridling, or picking up hooves, as long as they can tell the adult what to do.
This child dragged a three-step mounting block around for the “tall” work, and refused help with the saddle, even when offered.
It took a little longer, and her uncle jumped in when we thought the saddle would land on her head, but she insisted, “I can do it myself!”
And she did do it herself, with flying colors.
My second youngster tested at a higher level.
I like to talk with the riders while we test. They tell great stories and the conversation builds their ability to describe why they are doing what they are doing, a requirement at the higher levels.
Not so usual in today’s text-messaging culture, this boy used clear, complete sentences, and words like “encouragement”, “proper”, and “ma’am”.
Next, the boy asked his gelding to pick up a hoof. He struggled a bit with the pressure point on the fetlock. Finally the horse picked up its foot, and the boy said, “Thank you.” He thanked the horse many more times during the test.I looked at his test sheet. It said age 17. I wondered whether this was in fact, a very small 17-year-old. I was afraid to ask though, and cause the family embarrassment. The high vocabulary continued through a brushing demonstration.
I gave in to curiosity and asked, “How old are you?”
“Nine,” he said.
His mother had accidentally filled in his horse’s age, 17, for the boy’s age on the test form.
“I have known few nine-year-olds that use the words you use,” I said, scratching out the “17” on his age line. “Why do you always thank your horse?”
“Because we all like to be thanked,” he said.
Just a few days ago I rediscovered two of life’s important lessons from two of the real experts in 4-H.
((Karin Livingston was a career 4-H leader specializing in horses, and is the author of the young-adult horse novel, Winning Bet.)
Timing is everything. That was especially true the day Juan Rael saw the horse in the sale yard. Blood bay, tall and powerful, the gelding had the look of an eagle, the body of an athlete, and high-stepped like a parade horse. Juan Rael loved horses. Juan Rael hated horses. They drove a practical man like him crazy sometimes with their unpredictable and demanding ways. People remembered long after Juan died that the day he switched from ranching with horses to ranching with tractors, Juan also quit swearing. Juan went out window shopping for ranch stock that day in the 1930’s. He took one look at the bay and knew the animal carried good blood. Juan timed his bidding perfectly and went home with the horse they later called “El Bayo”. El Bayo soon made it clear that he would not work for everyone. “He was highly-spirited and he loved to prance,” said Juan’s youngest son, Nicholas Rael, who lived through what he calls “a strange love story”. Nicholas grew up working for his father on Rancho Uraca (Magpie Ranch) in a valley at the foot of Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains. “El Bayo was very, very big.,” said Nicholas. “Not just any person could ride that horse.” One man fell in love with El Bayo, and that was Luciano Jaramillo, Juan’s dashing, part Ute Indian brother-in-law and partner. Apparently the feeling was mutual.
Raise your hand if you will travel thousands of miles, cope with stressed-out youngsters and parents, sleuth out hands-on learning opportunities, seek out high-pressure situations and oh yes, do it all for free.
I met a man this weekend at the National Western Stock Show who has done just that for 21 years.
Ed Bader brought his Texas group of youngsters to Denver to compete in the 4-H judging contest against 16 other teams, all of whom were finalists at previous regional events. In team judging, 4-H’ers compete to see how well they place horse show classes against expert judges.
Ed’s team always makes top ten. Eventually, I would learn three of his secrets.
December 25, 2008 -- It a took a few attempts by the caller at our back door to make me understand that Blue, our resident Paint mare with a left blue eye, was probably at this minute dripping blood on the public bike trail -- at a dead run.
Blue had spooked at a loose blanket strap, bolted through the front of her day turnout, hung a sharp left, bolted down the turnout lane, crashed through the gate to the east pasture, galloped across the pasture and crashed through the four-and-a-half-foot city-built fence along the bike trail.
In 19 years, no horse has ever escaped our stable, let alone go through three fences to do it.
... running for the bike trail
My parents, my children and our guest dropped the last preparations of Christmas dinner, grabbed our jackets, and ran for the bike trail.
The client who brought the news to the back door ran ahead of us. I stopped at Turnout #1 and haltered my gelding Dell in case we needed equine support. People who saw me at our trail gate pointed and said, “The horse went that way!”