Saturday, April 20, 2013

Lessons in Ranch Living for City Girls #14: A neophyte can learn that a horse is not a dog. And you gotta have friends. Part I.

Mind you, my experience with horses up until my move to Montana was with well broke, older guys.  Horses that had been around the block.  Who had seen their share of greenhorns and dudes and who had developed a benign tolerance for the inexperienced rider.  Horses who would bide their time, accepting me on their back, until they could get back to the barn and to their preferred vocation - eating.  I'm sure a number of them even rolled their benevolent, kind eyes when they saw me approach.  Fancied myself a decent rider, I did.  Mostly managed to stay on (there was one glaring exception, as my sister will probably remember), mostly managed to look like the real deal.  Ish.  I had the boots, anyway.  And I kept my back straight.

Baby boy, Tulsa
The Most Beautiful Horse on the
Face of the Planet
Then I moved to Montana, where horses are a way of life.  Where the Blackfeet and their horses are a glory to behold.  When a Blackfeet cowboy or cowgirl is horseback, they seem to share the same blood circulation and it truly is an amazing thing to see two beings in such harmony... Go to an Indian Relay Race at a rodeo in the west, and you'll see what I mean.  Cowboys and cowgirls will spend thousands on a roping horse or travel to Canada for a trailer load of bucking horses, and keep those horses better than they keep themselves.  These are not pampered, weekend horses like the ones I've known in the past, and it's taken me a while to wrap my mind around the fact that they are working animals, with a job to do.  I've tended to treat them like dogs, which I know is a mistake, but there you are...  There are, however, far too many unwanted horses out here, so that's been a harsh lesson for me, too.  Out of sight, out of mind horses, lost in the vast expanse of the plains of Montana, surviving (or not) difficult winters, predators, and injuries.

Happily, our horses have done just fine out on winter pasture, thank you very much, and are due here in a month or so!  It'll be so good.  It was a huge surprise for me when I discovered how much I missed having them here at the ranch.  (Although, when we turned them out, I was in tears and they just walked away without so much as a how do you do, so my missing them may be one sided!)  Looking forward to having another broken or bruised body part because I don't know enough to stay out of their way and not allow them in my personal space!  They need to come back - I've taken to naming the moose pair who have been crisscrossing the pasture.  Tulip and Lily.  I know...  An homage to my friend, Julie, an amazing gardener with a wicked sense of humor.

Our Allison with Bayley, Ranch Dog
Anyway, that first summer, I learned a lot about horses from Bill.  Lots of technical stuff, lots of just how to be around them, lots of how to ride, and lots of how to read them without losing sight of the fact that they're all individuals with unique personalities.  I also learned tons from Allison, who was Bill's right hand wrangler/cook/vet, etc., last summer and who has remained a dear friend.  Allison is wise beyond her years.  She has an amazing intuition when it comes to these magnificent animals and a lovely way of explaining things so that a neophyte like me can "get" it.  I remember a conversation we had while we were out watching Bill work in the round pen (we had lots of those "therapy sessions" as we called them)...  Horse herds are like high school kids, Allison says.  You have the bitchy, mean girl cheerleaders (a couple of sorrel mares we had for the summer), the mid-semester newbies and transfers who are unsure of their place (Tulsa and Pink), misunderstood bullies (Mouse, who has a terrible Napoleon complex), the followers (Two Medicine, Mouse's buddy and my favorite mount), the athletic boys who can't be bothered (Hombre, Lizard, Truman), the Greta Garbo (Whit, who wants to be alone and crib),etc.  You get the picture.  I loved that analogy!  Especially having been one of the unwashed masses in high school - the middle-of-the-roaders, neither the queen nor Carrie.

Bill, Allison and our hunter/jumper Pink

Horses are a way and a means of life up here at the ranch.  The beloved is an amazing horseman, mostly fearless (but cautious when required), in tandem with whichever horse he's working at the moment.  Of late, it's been my big, beautiful, aforementioned paint colt and baby boy, Tulsa who will be all of three years old this coming July 4th.  And Pink, a glorious sorrel filly that we came to own in a roundabout way.  Pink started out terribly fearful, probably five years old, although we're not sure of that.  She had never been handled by a human, never been away from her mother, and had to be caught and put in a stock to get a halter (a pink halter, hence her name) on her so she could get into the trailer that would bring her to her new home.  When Bill first started working with Pink in the round pen, she was terrified and looking for any escape.  She's not a tall horse, but she cleared a five foot fence with ease (see attached photographic evidence).  Cleared it multiple times.  

Pink and our yearling filly, Sweet Grass in the round pen

As the summer progressed, she calmed and learned, but remained a bit aloof and unsure.  She was at ease with Allison, and even learned to enjoy a bath (we have photographic evidence of that as well, but will  have to clear that with Allison!).  She was brushed and groomed and had gentle hands on her body - nothing in anger, nothing to make her fearful.  Bill was sure to work her with other horses in the round pen at first so that she would have a "herd" and a feeling of safety.  

She's come a long way, thanks to Bill's skills as a horseman and trainer.  At the end of summer, just before we sent her to winter out where the snow isn't 30 feet deep, he got on her back and rode her in the round pen.  I have no pictures - just some of him putting some weight in the saddle a few days before.  I was, as Bill says, in the moment.  She'll be a fine, fine horse, trained with patience and time, leadership, love and care.
Bill and Pink, trust at the end of the summer

Tulsa, hooking on
When Tulsa came to live at the ranch as a two year old, he and Pink bonded and are pretty inseparable now - he's her herd.  We keep them separate from the others for the most part, partly because they are Bill's "works in progress" and partly because they just really do well together.  They also get beat up a bit when they're with the other horses, so there's that.  They won't be part of the herd we use with guests of the ranch, but will be our personal saddle horses.  I identified with Pink on a number of levels.  Being the "new girl" and feeling ill at ease in that role, is probably the most glaring example.  I also bonded with Allison, who for purposes of this ramble, I'm putting in the Tulsa role.  I was fortunate to have found a friend (like a daughter, really) in Allison.  As Pink found Tulsa.  She helped see me through my hard transition from City Girl to St. Bernard Wrangler!  And like Pink, I have calmed and learned, but am still a little unsure of my place in the herd.  But I'm getting there!

This ranch and this country are places to learn.  About life in the West.  About horses.  About what it takes to be a true friend.  I've found that lessons abound in all of those things.

Me and Two Medicine.  He's reliable, honest, and takes good care of this neophyte!