Saturday, January 9, 2021

Summer Break

 Well hello there.

I hope everybody is doing well. 

I'm not sure how things are in your world, but mine is pretty damn shitty. Sometimes everything feels so grim I don't want to try anymore. 

I'm not going to dive into personal beliefs, and God knows, I'm not talking politics, ever, and so this is the last time I'll bring this up. Part of my trouble is I don't know how to help, and haven't known for a long while. 

But I remembered something today. I tell a good story, and I know stuff. Not all stuff, but enough to share it here and there. I can offer distraction. I can help by offering our imagination another place to be.

So, let me dust off my hat, put a little oil on my spurs and a lot on my boots, because it's time to start up my stories. They won't be the same, because I'm a totally different person than the Mugs you knew, and have worked hard to get that way, but hopefully I can still spin a yarn. 

In the fields behind our neighborhood, the grass was so tall I could let my feet swing as I rode and kick the heavy heads off the bunch grass. Seeds would scatter and I felt a bit like Johnny Appleseed - more like Janet Spread The Weeds - but I didn't care. The sun was hot on my pink and peeling shoulders, and Mort walked along without a head toss or a jig. I had hours before chores and summer vacation was still new enough to stretch ahead like a fresh-graded dirt road. 

Mort stopped and started stomping and swatting his tail at a horse fly, so I sidled him next to a scrubby elm and reached for a leafy fly switch. Almost crazy from that buzzing horsefly, he leaned in and started to rub himself on the trunk, then under some low branches. I squawked and wrapped my arms around a branch, and he slid out from under me. 

He was involved enough in grunting and rubbing on that poor little tree that I wasn't worried about him leaving, so I slid to the ground and inspected the damage. My belly was scratched up, so were my legs and arms, and the new pink skin on my sunburned shoulders had been scraped raw. I blew on the little beads of blood that appeared and hopped around until it didn't sting so much. A little baby oil should fix it right up. Another good sunburn or two and I'd be ready to tan all summer, reason enough to ride bareback in  cut-offs and halter top, even if mom said I looked easy.

Mort ambled over and lipped at the bark imbedded in my arm. 

"Yeah, you did that, you shit," I said.

I took a quick look around  to see if anybody heard me cuss. Silly, since we stood alone in a big empty field. I swung up onto his back and he ducked his head so I'd vault all the way over and land on my butt. I was ready for him though, hooked my elbow over his withers and dug my heel into that little hollow right under his hip bone. He didn't get me off, but decided to get a little froggy to pay me back. 

I sat on my pockets and let him ease into his long trot. Karen and I planned to ride out to look for baby antelope and her house was still fifteen minutes away.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Me and Dave

Dave the rooster stood his ground, cocked his head and looked me in the eye. He took a step left, then another, and I held my line while I moved a few feet right, then stopped just about a foot past him. He fluffed his feathers, stretched his wings and went back to giving me the side eye. It occurred to me that chickens give the best side eye of any species, except maybe dinosaurs.

We stood and contemplated each other. I was patient. I could wait until he decided whether  he wanted to spend the day outside, soaking his battered bones in the sun, or hide in the laundry room, safe from his status hungry son and the dog that tore him up.

I wanted him outside, which made Dave want back in the laundry room. Because I blocked his route to his hiding place he went ahead and looked out the door, then back at me. Out the door, and back at me, you'd think he didn't have an eye on each side of his head. I didn't push him by taking a step toward him, if you step too far into a chicken's bubble, they'll come at you. Dave is a big old Dorking rooster with five, not four, taloned toes and  spurs the size of, well, my spurs. Even banged up like he is, I'm not sure the odds in a battle would favor me.

This is not the first time Dave recovered in my house with horrendous injuries from a predator. It's the second. The last time I kept him in a pet carrier for three days until he was more upset than hurt, and let him out. After that, Dave started hanging out with me and the dogs while I worked. Eventually his hens came along with and did their happy best to destroy everything I tried to plant. They also ate bugs like crazy, so we settled into an uncomplicated partnership.

This time, I couldn't figure out for the life of me what got him. His coop is varmint proof and he's been healthy for many months. Which is a good thing, because this time the wreckage about totaled him. Torn wings, a lame leg, bites on his neck and a chewed chewed up head and comb, told me he was done. So far, Dave's recovering in spite of my dire predictions.

My dogs guard him well when he's hurt and their sudden hostility towards a tenant's Labrador explained a lot. Dog friendly Dave's terrified screeching when he sees the Lab gave me the details. The dog and it's owner have a short time left on my place. I'm surprised the mauling didn't sway my rooster from his new life as a member of my dog pack, it seemed to strengthen it.

Dave feinted right, but I was ready for him and took a step closer as I cut off his retreat. He settled, then crowed, turned his back and I was able to guide him outside. I'm sure he'll be back tonight.

Friend and mentor, Tim Unzicker, once told me, "Each animal has a bubble around them and you need to learn how to manipulate the space, not dive into it. A horse will have a different bubble than a buffalo or cow. Figure out the bubble and you're in charge."

Through the years since, this bit of good sense stood by me countless times. I learned to move and separate cattle, llamas, horses, sheep, goats and chickens, on foot and on horseback. Each species has a different place in their bubble that will turn or stop them. Learning to work cattle taught me how to control them and Tim taught that to control the bubble meant to control the critter. My guess is Tim never thought I'd end up bumping a chicken bubble, but there you go.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Just One Time

My time as a horse trainer was drawing to a close. I was selling off investment stock, finishing up contracts and promises and gearing up to leave the last place I'd landed, foundation buckskin breeders that also rode cow horse. It was interesting and a little pitiful to end my career riding almost the same not-quite-good-enough type horses that I began with.

Drawing boundaries with people was a brand new activity for me. My first effort was quitting this job, I was determined to be kind, polite and direct. It didn't work out as I expected, and I was under quite a bit of pressure my last few weeks as a horse trainer. I had one more colt to start and he belonged to me. Loki's foal was a cute, runty, aloof little thing. He didn't want to be pet, caught, fed by hand, or talked to even after weaning. He was too short to sell and I hadn't messed with him enough to get much for him and I liked him.

I had a niggle of an idea with him, it came from no need to hurry but no time to really concentrate on him either. I decided it was time to test consequence and sequence, the cornerstone of my training program. I was going to teach my colt no more than one behavior or response per session, and if I did it correctly, the next day we'd add the next step, built from our last session. If I knew what I was doing, and seriously thought things through, I had a feeling it would work. Didn't have a clue what my little Scrub end up like, but it was nice to think about and a private challenge.

The yearling colts were raised on pasture, then kept in a large corral until they were gelded, taught some manners and halter broke. I could handle every single one of those little shits - except my own. He's scramble the fence to avoid looking at me.

Our first lesson was about contact. I walked into the corral and started watching him, which was enough to get him trotting out, tail flagged and looking over the top rail away from me. I kept a steady gaze on his ears and would stay even with his shoulder from the middle of the corral while he  moved. I stopped, relaxed, and looked away any time he paused. Nothing else. He could hide between his brothers and I would still stop. He could bolt and fart and stomp and I would still walk along just behind the point of his shoulder and stare at his ears.

A bunch of horses can always figure out who I'm hunting, and while it might be fun at first, eventually playing wild mustang got old and they'd stop moving, close ranks and kick out the one I'm after. It took about forty-five minutes with these knuckleheads, but seriously, with six bored yearling stud colts in that pen and I couldn't expect less.

Scrub got pretty white-eyed when he realized his siblings had sacrificed him to the enemy, and didn't seem to give a hoot whether he lived or died. He took off running again in little spurts, with a lot of stops and turns, but didn't last long, he was tired. His head still looked over the top rail and away from me, and he whinnied to the broodmares on pasture across the road. Loki answered him and he bawled to her again.

Then, I got what I'd been waiting for. Scrub flicked a fuzzy little ear toward me to reestablish my whereabouts. He'd lost track of me while he tattled on me to his mama. Our first session ended when he flicked that ear. I turned around and left.

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