Sonita hollered over the fence as I drove past. She shook her head and trotted up and down her run. She was agitated at the sight of my truck. She knew we were going somewhere.
I drove around back and hitched my trailer. Driving to the front of her pen and parking the truck and trailer revved her up. She squealed and bucked, pinning her ears at the horses on either side of her. Her stall mates, used to her temper, looked back at her mildly enough, but I noticed they stayed carefully out of her reach.
It was impossible not to take a minute to admire my cherry red monster. She had grown into such a beautiful, powerful animal. All solid muscle and beautiful action, her hot, high temperament suited her. I knew her well enough to know she was eager to go, looking forward to the hard workout ahead of us. So was I.
I loaded my tack into the trailer and ticked off the automatic check list in my head. Two bridles, a ring snaffle and my full bridle, two sets of romels, and extra set of split reins. My grooming tools, Sonita's protective boots and skid boots, my saddle pad and my saddle. Two heavy coolers. I remembered to grab a spare halter and lead rope and toss it into the truck.
With a horse like Sonita it paid to have spare equipment.
She waited in her run, looking into the stall with pricked ears and white-ringed eyes. She stomped to show her impatience, but didn't cross the threshold into the stall. I opened the door and went to her, knuckling her forehead and smoothing her forelock before I tied her halter.
Sonita sighed, tolerating my attention, her mind was in the alleyway behind me.
As we walked down the barn aisle Sonita alternately jumped and blew at shadows or squealed and threatened to kick at the other horses watching us from their stalls. She made sure to stay behind my shoulder, her striking feet never actually make contact with the walls and she was careful not to touch me with more than a whisper of breath. My lead rope stayed slack in my relaxed fingers, so I ignored her.
Sonita waited until I shut the trailer and was checking the air in my tires before her resounding kick vibrated through the air.
"Hey!" I yelled and slapped the trailer with my hand, she quieted and the trailer quit rocking.
I whistled my dogs and headed out to the Big K's.
Sonita stood quiet at the tie rail, ignoring the other horses tied on both sides of her. She knew I had left plenty of room, she couldn't reach them, so she stood content, waiting for me as I worked through my rides. She watched, interested and relaxed. It looked like she was enjoying the sun.
I tossed the saddle on her back, she pinned her ears, but looked away from me as I tightened her cinch. She kept her feet still as I put on her front boots, satisfied with lipping at my hair. I reached up and pushed at her nose, but she kept up until my braid was undone and she had grabbed my CRCA hat and tossed it to the ground.
When I came out of my tack compartment with my bridle Sonita was busy reaching with her hind foot, trying to drag my cap close enough to stomp it. I dropped her halter and lifted the bit to her face. She shifted a step and lipped at my nose. As usual I cracked up. I never understood her fascination and let her slobber up my nose and steam my glasses before I pushed her away. Happy, she dropped her head and carefully placed the big half-breed bit between her teeth.
We long trotted into the big outdoor, I ignored the Big K's amused, yet slightly disgusted look as I wiped the Sonita spit off my face.
"You took long enough."
"Get the edge off her and we'll work the buffs."
Wahoo, I thought. I was still a little afraid of cutting the buffalo, but Sonita loved it. They were as big as she was and twice as fast as the cows, smart and wily. I was in for an exciting afternoon.
I started loping my circles and Sonita bucked a little the first times through. Her feet never came off her directed path, so I enjoyed her play.
"Sometimes I think she understands what you say, " I called over to K. "look how happy she is!"
"She just smells them in the indoor, now quit messing around and kick her up!"
The Big K sounded cranky but I could see his grin. He liked seeing her fire up as much as I did.
Once we were warmed up and Sonita was quick enough off my leg to make the Big K happy, we went into the dim light of the indoor. Normally she would be jumping and spooking at the bars of afternoon light streaming across the dirt, but she knew important work was at hand. Her eyes drilled into the five buffalo standing in a group at the end of the arena. Her hind legs stepped deeper underneath me and her shoulders became light as she shook her bit and took tiny mincing steps with her front feet.
"Go ahead and cut you one. She doesn't need to wait," the Big K said.
When Sonita realized we were going into the herd her head dropped and she began to take slow, quiet strides. She gave a brief pause before each step, careful not to scatter them. I took a cue from my mare and relaxed, taking even deep breaths.
The buffs stared back, insolent. Unlike cows I could see the wise assessment in their eyes as they sized us up. They were as intent on the game as we were.
We sidled up the side of the arena and eased between the buffs and the back wall. They began to run and boiled around us, circling to get back to their turf. I stepped Sonita up and across, slowing their motion, watching, watching, until one of the buffs volunteered and veered away from the others.
In some ways the buffalo were easier than cattle. They didn't crowd or grow dull. They would turn away from Sonita instead of towards her, giving us a split second more time to read the turn. But they were so fast. They didn't quit. They relished the game and tried to fake and duck their way past.
We stepped up and began to cut, lightening fast with no respite.We got six, seven, eight turns with no break. Finally, the buff broke off.
"Good, good!" The Big K hollered.
I rode out and traded places, doing turn back for him while he worked his horse. We spent the afternoon cutting, resting talking. Sonita was solid, I was getting there.
We sat on our steaming horses, having our "good ride beer", watching the buffs mill around and lay in the dust, chewing their cud and glancing at us in the half-friendly, half sizing up way they had. The horses shifted their weight from one hind foot to the other, ready to rest, but breathing too hard to completely relax.
"You're going to make a go of the World Show at this rate."
"You're making me proud."
I fell silent under the rare praise.
"Do you know what you're going to ride next year?" The Big K asked.
The question had merit. As an up and coming trainer I needed to be showing more than just Sonita. My daughter had pretty much taken over my three-year-old. I didn't have a client base which could provide me with show horses, I kept attracting poor, earnest, hard-working people who loved their horses and wanted to show themselves. The Big K got the monied folks.
"I'm not sure what I'm going to do," I said, "I can't afford another horse, much less cover the show fees on three head."
"You know, you're sitting on your bank roll," The Big K's voice was soft, he kept looking over the buffs.
"Your mare, she's your bank roll. She's how you can afford your next horse."
My heart almost stopped. My hand flew to Sonita's neck.
"But she's finally getting good."
"That's right. You've proved yourself and the mare. Now's when you sell them, when they're good. It's how we move up to something better and hoist ourselves another step up the ladder."
"What about the Worlds?" I was breaking out in a sweat. I had never thought of selling her.
"A horse like Sonita isn't going to be easy to sell. You start talking about it now, it could take a year or more for someone to want her."
I must have looked like I was going to faint, or scream, or throw up.
The Big K's voice was still soft, but hurried, serious.
"I'm not going to tell you to sell your horse. If anybody has earned the right to hang onto their horse it's you," he said, "but you have to decide. Is this cowhorse thing a one horse deal to you? Or are you going to become a trainer? You're gonna have to think this through."
I couldn't think of anything to say. I just kept rubbing on Sonita's neck until she shook her head, annoyed.
"Do you want another beer?"
"I think I'd better go home. I've got to think."
"Janet, I'm not telling you to sell your horse. I'll never tell you that."
Somehow his kind words just made everything worse.