It was my pops’ birthday yesterday. We took him out to dinner in good ‘ol Watford City and he got to hang with little man and have a steak and watch the sun finally peek through the clouds and shine in on the dining table of the restaurant.
Pops loves steak and little man and hanging with his family. And birthdays are a day, in the opinion of my family, that you get to do whatever you want. So I couldn’t help but think to myself as we sat in that restaurant after a day of rain and watched that sun appear that if pops could do anything at that very minute, with no realistic restrictions placed on any of his family, it would be this:
Head to the ranch, catch the horses, saddle one for each family member (including little man) and head out across the hills as the sun sank down into the horizon changing colors from yellow to pink to orange to red.
Now I know Little Man is only seven months old and it will be at least seven more before I buy him that little pony, and last time big sister was on a horse (or I guess it was the mule) she nearly had a panic attack as Pearl took after the dogs with no regard to the screeches from the tiny woman on her back. Oh, and mom is over the whole horseback riding thing and has been since she realized her husband was going to stay her husband regardless of if she ever saddled up again. So maybe the entire family on horses thing would have been a bit stressful in real life, but hey, a birthday dream is a birthday dream.
Anyway, pops has been riding horses since he could walk. It is a piece of him that’s pretty amazing actually, how it feeds his soul, how he appreciates the animal and how he can get a horse that has been giving other riders headaches and heartaches to trust and move forward and learn a little every day.
Because Pops hasn’t found a horse he doesn’t like. Yes, he has favorites, but each animal has something to give to him, some redeeming quality. And the quirks–the one that lays down in frustration, the one that doesn’t like her ears touched, the one that is soft-footed, the one that shies at rocks and cows and any leaf that moves, can be worked with, can be better and is what pops calls “a good horse.”
They’re all good horses.
I was reminded of his instincts with the animals on a ride we took on Sunday afternoon before the rain poured down. We have seven horses on the place (and one old, blind mule) and for the most part, husband, little sister and I have been on all of them at some point or another.
All except the Buckskin.
The Buckskin, beautiful, mysterious, unpredictable, and the only horse branded with the E hanging V brand belonging to the Veeder Ranch is the most expensive colt pops has ever owned. He purchased the animal for his sound breeding and sentimental value, reminding him of his father’s lifetime horse “Buck.” Pops broke the horse, sold him and then worked out a horse trade to get him back.
I am just assuming here, knowing the nature of the horse, but it is quite possible that the previous owner didn’t get along with the Buckskin.
The horse is damn intimidating.
Well, in some situations more than others….
Anyway, it’s because the buckskin bucks, you know, just a little just about every time that saddle hits his back. But give pops the chance and he can get that horse worked out into a picturesque equine who holds his head right, lines out, and gets over the hissy fit thing. Usually by the end of the summer anyone can ride him, if they dare.
I never dare. I like to look at him though.
Anyway, that mellow-yellow attitude is not the case for the Buckskin in the spring. On the first spring ride the Buckskin has his kinks and pops talks himself out of riding the other horses he is working on and into getting on his favorite.
And that’s what happened on Sunday. I chose my sorrel, Colonel (who shares in my personality disorders: laid back, wussy, clumsy, and too trusting) and then had to put him back because those qualities got his ass kicked in the pen by the other horses.
So it was me and the Red Fury, little sister’s horse, (who shares the same personality disorders as her: energetic, ADD , impatient, stubborn and literally raring to go). Needless to say when we get together we get pissy.
Both of us.
So as I was negotiating with the Fury, pops was saddling the Buckskin as the hump in the horse’s back continued to grow.
He laid on the saddle and the horse swung to the side. He pulled the cinch and he gave a little jump.
I got nervous and the Fury got more nervous as pops lunged the buckskin in a circle, the first step in getting the kinks out.
Pops patted down his back, slapped the stirrups against his side. The buckskin hopped.
The Fury snorted.
I whimpered and had a vision of a runaway stampede as husband saddled up the big Paint he doesn’t necessarily get along with no matter how hard he tries.
Good Lord, we are all going to hit the ground.
I cringed and pops laughed at his mount as the Buckskin continued his little hissy fit. He led him through the big pen and to the other side to open the gate. Husband worked to get the big Paint to actually take his first step forward and away from the barnyard. I continued my negotiations with the Fury and held my breath as pops swung his leg over the Buckskin’s back.
Now here I will tell you I’ve grown up riding alongside my pops and in all of my 27 years I really can’t recall a time I have ever seen him hit the ground as a result of a mis-behaving horse.
A stumble? Yes.
A buck? No.
But I project. I project what I feel like when a horse is acting up and what it felt like for me the countless times I have been canned on the hard clay of the ranch. Because at least twice, as the result of a buck-off, I have been convinced I would never feel my left arm again, and I am pretty sure that is a sensation that you don’t get back the third time.
Anyway, I need to remember that the fear I hold is the not the fear pops holds when it comes to horses. Because pops is a teacher and the horse is his student.
He is always in control and he loves the challenge as much as he loves the result of his teaching.
So he swung on and took a moment to let his favorite horse show him what he was made of. He laughed and said something like:
“Ok horse, let’s get this over with. Show me what you got.”
And with that husband (who finally made it to the gate) and I watched in awe as he gave the Buckskin a little kick and the horse, with what seemed like a mile between the saddle and his back, hunched over and made his best argument for why he didn’t feel like taking a ride today.
And pops pulled the horse’s head around in a nice, tight little circle, pushed him back and forth between the four fences of the corral, stopped him, backed him up and did the whole scene all over again until the Buckskin’s ears moved forward from the pinned back position, his mouth started working with understanding and his head dropped down in cooperation.
It was five minutes. Five minutes of patience and listening and that horse went from broncy to trail horse.
(No photo available…I was too nervous)
And off we went following that cowboy who has undoubtedly performed that process hundreds of times over his now 50 + years. and loved every minute of it. And in that two-hour ride, that horse that had behaved so badly at the beginning of the ride was the best behaved throughout the duration of the trip.
The Red Fury? Well we had words in the field half-way through and I finally let him open up and give it a good run and we were fine at the end of it all.
We always are.
But that’s the thing. I have been watching pops work with horses since I sat my butt in a saddle for the first time at six years old. I have watched him face challenging animals with the same kind of patience I witnessed on Sunday time and time again and I have always wished for the same thing, the same qualities in myself.
And pops would give me chances to learn by allowing me to put miles on horses he was breaking and when I came back sweaty and frustrated and bruised he wouldn’t get worked up. He would just tell me that’s the nature of the work. That horses need time to learn.
And so do I.
I imagine though, at his age, on his 50+ birthday, he knows things about the animals that I will never know. I imagine that he dreams about them. I imagine he always has.
Because if you ever go on a ride with my father you will get a glimpse of a man who is doing exactly what he was meant to do. It’s infectious, joy that pure. I get the same feeling when I’m singing my favorite song and have waves of it when all is going well on the back of my favorite horse when I can just let go of worries and shed off the layers of insecurity.
But when pops is on a horse there is no insecurity. There is no fear. There is no worry or dread of sense of time restrictions or mortality.
And there is no place else he’d rather be.