Pepsi was the first horse I trained at my new job in Green Mountain Falls. Up until I met Bob and Pepsi, I was giving lessons, riding the stud who stood at the barn and getting the word out I was working in the area.
My boss, Jim, came into the arena and handed me a phone number. "Call this guy, he's got a horse for you."
"Do you know anything about the horse?"
"She's a two-year-old mustang/arab cross. She's been started, but her new owner is green. I guess she tossed him pretty good and ran home, now he can't get her out on the trail."
Visions of a tiny, elfin, two-year-old filly lugging some green dufus down the trail flitted through my head.
"Two's pretty young to be riding on the trail, don't you think?" I asked.
"I don't know anything else, but call him, he's going to board here if things work out."
I called the owner and talked with him a bit. It turned out he was the third owner of this mustang/arab. She had come out of a breeding program at a dude ranch who which was planning on breeding the ultimate dude horse. Pepsi had flunked out of the program. She had refused to stay in line behind the other horses. She kept busting loose from the pony horse and heading home. So she had been sold to family for a 10-year-old boy. After she had thrown the boy and bolted home a few times they sold her to poor, naive Bob.
"I took her out on a ride and she threw me and ran home," he told me, "I ended up in the hospital with a bunch of broken ribs. If you can't fix her I'll have to get rid of her."
"How old is this horse again?" I asked.
"I'm surprised she's big enough to ride, much less cause all this commotion."
"Oh, she's pretty big."
What a gomer, I thought, and we made arrangements to bring her to the barn the following week.
I pulled into work and was surprised to see my boss waiting for me. He was leaning on the door of the indoor arena. The smirky grin on his face made me wary.
"What's up?" I asked.
"You're horse is here."
"OK." I couldn't figure out the grin at all.
I stepped past him into the arena and stopped cold. As my eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light I made out the silhouette of a horse tied to the rail. I looked around for another horse. This couldn't be Pepsi.
Mustangs in Colorado tend to be small. Many of them don't ever clear 14 hands. Arabs are not known for their height. I had forgotten that in World War II there had been an influx of draft horse blood mixed into the mustang herds.
The horse I stood staring at was a sharp reminder that somewhere, somehow there had been a heavy dose of draft horse blood crossed into at least one herd of Colorado mustangs. She was a 16hh behemoth (Stop laughing you warm-blood riders you, 15 hh is big to me, this thing was a moose). Her head was enormous, her neck upright and short. Her barrel was deep and her back was short and strong. Her legs were as long as a thoroughbreds, heavily feathered and surprisingly refined.
She had a small, but kind eye and a great roman nose. Her heavily muscled chest was broad enough to push her elbows out and her toes in.
Jim stood behind me, his hands in his pockets.
"This is Pepsi?" I asked.
"Poor little thing, hope you don't hurt her tiny self riding her around." Jim burst out laughing and left the arena.
I spent a week on the ground with Pepsi. She seemed friendly and intelligent. She wasn't particularly co-ordinated, but her sheer size and young age explained a lot. She was easy to saddle and was quiet to sack out. Someone had done a decent job of starting her. I began to have a little hope.
The first day I rode her I had my assistant, Kathy, near by. She sat on the fence, a bored look on her face. Pepsi had been quiet enough to work with and Kathy wasn't expecting anything fun.
I stood in the stirrup, one hand on the horn, the other on the cantle. I was really high in the air. Normally when I stand over a young horse for the first time they shift around, trying to balance me. Pepsi stood like a rock. I bumped her with my knee. She moved away from the pressure, steady and solid.
"Here goes," I said.
I swung a leg over and sat in the saddle, letting my off boot dangle outside the stirrup. Pepsi stood quiet. She turned and sniffed my boot. She seemed relaxed and happy.
I went ahead and asked her to walk on. She was supposed to be started after all. Pepsi cruised around the arena. Her back was relaxed, her tail quiet. She guided left and right, no problem.
I settled deeper into my saddle and asked for a trot. Pepsi moved off in a big, shambling trot. She took eight, nine, ten strides and suddenly spun 180 degrees and bolted.
I watched her thunder across the arena, her tail clamped and her eyes wide in terror. She had spun out from under me slick as snot and left me flat in the dust. I couldn't believe it. I sat up and studied Pepsi as she trotted off her nerves. I had pretty much figured out the problem. That elephant could move. Kathy caught her up and was nice enough to keep her smiles to herself. I dusted myself off and crawled back on for round 2.
Pepsi didn't get me again, but I had plenty of respect for her after that first ride. She got to where it was time to head back outside.
I had no trouble with her on the trail as long as we went out in a group. She was incredibly strong and sure-footed. I was pretty pleased with her. Her owner, Bob, took regular lessons on her and was progressing nicely.
"I want to take her out alone," Bob told me.
"I'd work on that one a little at a time Bob, she's coming along fine," I replied.
"The whole point of you training her is to get her out alone."
I was beginning to doubt my chosen profession.
"OK Bob, I'll start taking her out."
Big words from the trainer, especially since I couldn't get her past the arena door if she didn't feel like it. She was powerful and quick, at the same time such a klutz she would fall to her knees finding her way down a gentle slope. She was a knot of anger and fear and a friendly, willing mount. She could spin and bolt like a startled gazelle, but couldn't hold a lope around the arena. Her head, measured from nose to poll, was 2 inches longer then her neck, poll to withers. When she set it against me I couldn't make her do anything she didn't want.
Her huge head coupled with her short, sticky neck made her impossible to stop if she got away from me. She could bull into my hands and take me wherever she wanted. Which was home. Pepsi would whip herself around and take off for the barn whenever she got worried. She would mow over other riders, stomp dogs, topple aspens and run through a parked car or two, nothing phased her.
I felt like Tarzan on the rogue elephant in a stampede. Except Tarzan could stop his elephant.
I was stumped.
I remembered a book I had read once about a Colrado horse trainer back in the 1940's. He was an arrogant blow hard, but a fun read. He had an interesting story about how he cured a barn sour horse. I decided to try it. Pepsi was only two. She was going to just get stronger. That head was going to get bigger.
I took her out one day and we rode to the corner of the barn property. Pepsi began to shake her head and fight. I kept pointing her down the trail. We fought and jumped and bolted and started again. Finally I got her to a spot about fifteen feet farther down the trail than usual. I got down and drug her another ten feet to a shady spot under a tree. There I gave her the 1/2 can of rolled oats I had stashed earlier in the day. I loosened her cinch and led her home.
The next day I took her out and she went pretty willingly to the spot where I had fed her the day before. I got down, loosened her cinch and led her another 25 feet down the trail. Where I had another 1/2 can of oats waiting. I let her eat and we headed home.
I planted oats every 50 feet or so down the entire two mile loop by our place. Every day she had to go a little farther to get her oats. Pepsi got to where she was pretty willing to go wherever I pointed her. I kept it short and sweet.
Bob started keeping her oats in his saddle bag. He would ride her until she got anxious. Then he would ride her at least 25 feet past where she was starting to act up. If he got scared he would get down and lead her, but they still headed out a ways. Then he would give her some grain and head back.
As time went on he would make her go farther and farther to get her oats. Eventually he quit taking the oats. Her reward became a rest, a loosened cinch and some grazing time.
It worked. Nobody got hurt. Pepsi forgot her fear. I was credited for fixing a renegade. Bob didn't sell his horse. As a matter of fact, Pepsi and Bob are inseparable. She is about 17 hh and 1300 pounds. She can pack out an entire elk by herself during hunting season. She and Bob became champions at black powder target shooting from horseback, or some crazy ass thing. The two of them trail ride like maniacs all over the mountains. She has to be 15 or 16 by now. Last I heard her head wasn't any smaller and her neck wasn't any longer, but it doesn't really matter anymore.
I prefer just to get on a horse and tell them to get. Most of the time that works for me. But I have used my "hidden surprise" method to get a horse down the road more than once. It's never let me down.