I was chatting with a friend about the muscle groups I am finding while working on the bareback part of my horsemanship challenge, and she brought up abs. I laughed and remembered the one summer of my life that I had both a killer body, and the time to show it off. I was also reminded of the little sorrel horse that ruined any hope I had showing off my bikini body.
By the summer of 2002 I had moved on site at the stables and picked up the extra responsibility of feeding in the mornings and making sure everything was okay at night. Summer was our busy season and this one looked like it was going to be a good one. The forest, however, was incredibly dry and it’s closure was imminent.
Since the stable and trails were on Forest Service, closures were bad news. The Forest Ranger for our district was very understanding, and did his best to let us take out rides as long as possible.
On June 18th disaster struck. A wildfire was reported northeast of us. Just a couple of days later a second was reported. Within another couple of days the Rodeo and the Chediski fires merged and worked their way into history as Arizona’s largest wildfire. (That of course changed in 2011 with the Wallow fire.)
Needless to say our operation was shut down indefinitely. I was lucky enough to be able to stay on and tend to the horses’ daily needs. After all, even if money isn’t coming in, hay must go out.
The fire seemed to get closer every day. Once, as I was getting ready to step on my horse for a little ride around our makeshift arena, the winds changed and brought delicate, fluttering ash flowing down around us. The gray, snowflake-like particles were sharply contrasted in my horse’s thick, black mane. GULP.
We had an evacuation plan in place and kept in close contact with local officials. (This is where I plug making sure your horse’s trailer loading skills are perfect. Loading in emergency situations is not the time to deal with quirky or stubborn. More on this in another wildfire story.)
Luckily, things began to work in our favor and they got the wildfire under control. Our operation, however, had strict orders to remain shut down until the summer rains came. While I am in 100% support of forest closures due to severe fire hazard, it is always a financial blow to those of us who make a living during the forest’s tourist season. So we waited. And, we prayed. And, we ate a lot of ramen.
I got word that there was a stable just a little south of us. It catered to cub scouts and boy scouts, and was still managing to do rides two days a week. I can’t remember why they were able to march and we weren’t but I know I was game for a little side work. With a good word from my boss I was able to land the job.
By that point I had gotten very comfortable in my own little horse world and it didn’t occur to me to be nervous about stepping into a new one. I mean, you’ve seen one dude stable, you’ve seen them all, right? Well, yes, kinda, and no.
I showed up the first morning and instantly began noting the differences. The first thing I noticed was the horses at this new place tended to be “hotter”. The only other wrangler was a petite girl in her mid teens, who rode a hyped up, black morab. He was cute as a button if you could get back the bug eyes and his snaky head. The guests horses weren’t much different.
The second thing I noticed was the type of bits the guest horses were fitted with. Long alligator shanks, high ports, correctionals, chain mouthpieces, quick stops…all to be put in the hands of novice eight year old children. Little warnings began flashing in my brain.
I brushed them aside as I was given the rundown for the day.
“There’s one tree with a super low branch. If you don’t get ahead of the mule and block it, he will take the kid’s head off.
Be careful of the little bay gelding. If the kid tries to mount from the ground he will get cow kicked.”
After the guest horses were saddled I was given my mount. It was a pencil-necked, nondescript, sorrel gelding.
“We just got him and we are trying him out before we put kids on him. He’s been a little light in the front end, but he doesn’t rear.”
I tacked him up and tried to get a feel for him. He blew, threw his head, and pawed.
The cub scouts invaded the barn and there was no more time to worry. With only a few minor hiccups we got all twenty of them mounted and stepped on our own horses. As I put the headstall on my mount the manager came up and repeated her earlier statement.
“Don’t worry about it at all if he feels light in the front. He’s never reared.”
With that I stepped on and fell in at the back of the line. We weaved through the pine thicket, with the crispy needles crunching under our horses’ feet. My mount seemed to be doing alright so my nerves settled down and I focused on my job. So far I was very impressed with how the horses were doing, especially considering what they were up against.
Just after the half way point my horse’s head went up and he began to prance. I began running information I had collected about rearing through my mind. I had been on a couple of different horses that reared in the past year. I knew it was basically a matter of leaning forward, hoping he didn’t go over, and making sure not to pull back.
Having mentally established that there was really nothing to do about the situation but pray and be ready, I rode the increasingly agitated horse along side the line of children, trying to block any of the other horses who knew that they were headed home. We almost had the barn in sight when my horse started popping up. Each pop got a little higher and faster. At that point common sense kicked in (It was slow going in those early years.) and I decided I had no business being on that horse. Best case scenario, the horse was going to be in an all out bucking fit by the time we got to the barn and I was going to get my neck broke. Worst case scenario, he was going to bolt and take twenty cub scout mounted horses with him in an all out stampede.
So, I called it. I got the horse in the very back of the line and slowed him down to a prance. I took my right foot out of the stirrup and prepared to dismount while the horse was mid stride. It was evident that he wasn’t going to stand still. I took my reins in my left hand and simultaneously put my hand on the horse’s neck and began to swing my leg over. That’s when the horse flipped over backwards and smashed me underneath him.
Here’s where I am going to count just a few of my blessings from that day.
Thank God that I didn’t get nailed with my saddle horn and shatter my pelvis.
Thank God that I already had one foot out of the stirrup and managed to get the other one out before the horse got up and dragged me to death.
But mostly, thank God that I managed to keep that horse’s reins in my hand and managed to restrict him from bolting past those children and creating mass destruction and chaos.
I walked the rest of the way back to the barn, leading the prancing, hopping, snorting horse by a short rein.
At the barn I tied up the horse and helped get everyone unloaded. I was dang bruised up physically, but mentally I was even worse off. I replayed the wreck over and over in my mind looking for a place where I could have caused a horse that doesn’t rear to react that explosively. I just couldn’t find it.
Obviously, the manager was not happy with me.
“We’ve ridden him around the yard three or four times and he’s popped up a little but he’s never flipped. He should have been fine on the trail. You must have pulled him over on you.”
It was her turf and her horses. Arguing would have been futile. So, I finished out the day. I tailed a second ride of twenty cub scouts, this time riding the mule who had a penchant for beheading it’s riders with low branches.
At the end of the day I jerked my saddle and helped do the chores. After the work was done, everyone else left. I carried my saddle out to the road and sat under a big alligator juniper to wait for my ride. My boyfriend pulled up. I loaded my saddle and eased myself into the passenger seat.
I told him.
The next morning was BRUTAL. Although the first layer of bruises was just beginning to show on one side of my body, every inch of me felt like it was on fire. I very gingerly got dressed and readied myself for round two. When my boyfriend saw me his eyes were huge with disbelief.
“You have got to be kidding me.”
“Nope. I told them I’d work for them this week and I am going to.”
The young wrangler choked on her muffin when I walked up carrying my saddle. Still, she didn’t seem to mind my help when it came time to round up the hard to catch horses. By the time we got the first ride of the day mounted I knew I was going to quit. I’m not saying the place I worked at full time was top notch, but I don’t remember us ever having several small children dangling underneath horses by a foot stuck through a stirrup. Call me lily livered if you want, but I just didn’t have the heart for this!
We eked through the day with no deaths. At lunchtime the manager and the young wrangler sat on the porch reminiscing about past wrecks.
After unsaddling and afternoon chores were done I went to the manager. I had thought all day about what I would say and decided I should be honest.
“I think you should find someone else for next week. I’m just not a good enough hand to do this job.”
“Yep. I think you’re right.”
And that was the end of it.
The rains came and my stable opened again. Shortly, we had more tourists and money than we knew what to do with.
One evening my boyfriend and I were sitting at a table at a little cafe. One of the local horse traders walked in, saw me, and pushed his way into our booth.
“I heard you did a short stint at that place down the road.”
“I heard you got munched by that little, scrawny, sorrel.”
I looked down at my fading bruises.
“You know, I ran him through the sale this past spring because he did the very same thing to me!”
He laughed, smacked the table with his palm, got up, and left.
I think about what I would do now compared to what I did then, and I’d like to say that I’ve either gained the knowledge to help that little horse, or at least I’m smart enough not to get that deep in before I cry uncle.
I don’t know if that horse’s problems were pain or training related. I doubt anyone ever bothered to try to find out. It’s a shame, whatever the cause, that it got as bad as it did. It’s also a shame how people are willing to ignore huge red flags and not just put themselves, but others in danger.
Anymore I am very particular about whose horses I just step on and go. If I have the option at all, I prefer to spend a little time on the ground with them first. No, I may not see every hole, but I may see something that will save my life.
There are people out there who can ride anything. I have friends who can (and do) ride a bucking horse while roping a wild bull. I believe we should push ourselves to be the best riders we can be, because at some point, no matter what, something is going to hit the fan. I would, however, just as soon spend some extra time with a horse getting as many bases covered as possible before the wreck happens.
Anyway, another valuable lesson was learned. Along with always checking my cinch, I also never step on a horse who, “Never rears.”