Thursday, June 26, 2014


You guys are awesome. Here's a present. With a disclaimer.

This blog is about horses and dogs. It's about training--the animals in my life, myself and the people who dropped in along the way.

My development as a horse trainer directly parallels my development as a decent human being. My growing up was not always monitored, was not always safe, and I certainly wasn't born horse whispering. While this story is true, it absolutely IS NOT about recommended training techniques. It's about growing up, sometimes at the expense of others.

This isn't really Spirit. She was flea-bitten, bigger head, shorter neck, but you get my drift.
Spirit was the trashiest horse I had ever laid eyes on. She stood about 13.2, a slab-sided, ewe-necked, pig eyed train wreck with a giant wonking hammerhead. Her back was a church pew built from warped boards, her spine dipped below the withers, rose in a bony hand waving hallelujah over her loins and spilled down her goose rump to a low slung tail, clamped firmly over her cow-hocked, club-footed hind legs. She had this huge hitch in her get-along, my first case of string-halt. Riding her inspired more prayer than I had ever mustered during a Sunday sermon.

The flea-bitten gray mare was also my first, official, horse-in-training. I was going to be paid, in hay, to make this horse safe for the six children who were supposed to ride her. The Henderson family was suburban, had never owned a horse or had a riding lesson, and couldn't figure out why they couldn't get on their new toy.

"I paid good money for her," George Sr. said. "She's a guaranteed kids horse."

They had bought Spirit, sight unseen, from somebody who had owed George Sr. money. She had arrived at our barn with 10 bales of moldy alfalfa, a feed store grazing bit and bridle, no reins, no chin strap, no halter.

I gave them a list of things to buy, brushes, new hay, grain, and tack. My wish for a saddle was denied, the kids were to learn to ride "like wild Indians," like me. I didn't point out I rode bareback because my saddle had been stolen, or that I wasn't an Indian. This horse, and the riding lessons I could give the wild herd of wolverines who owned her, would just about earn me enough to buy a new one.

I was seventeen-years-old, fearless when it came to horses, and totally cowed by any and all adults. If Big George wanted his kids riding Spirit bareback then it must be possible.

As an added incentive, George Jr., the number one son, was my age, handsome enough to make me melt and in the habit of watching me ride. At school, on the streets of the 'burb, a boy like him would never know a girl like me existed. His crystal blue eyes would sweep over me like a mail box on his sidewalk or a pothole on his street.  When I rode his eyes followed me. He asked questions and listened to my answers with his hands in his pockets and his head bowed. The sun glinted on his streaky gold hair and I waited, my heart pounded, and I held my breath as he digested my answer, his shaggy head rose and a slow, wicked smile crept across his beautiful face. There was admiration and praise in his voice, I felt like John freaking Wayne. It made me so weak I almost fell off my horse.

So hell yeah, I was going to train Spirit.

 On my first day, I came to the barn in my standard summertime horse clothes--cut-off blue jean shorts, my favorite red tee and sneakers.  Fear of my mother's eagle eye spotting any change of dress or manner, and absolute terror of Junior looking at me and finding me lacking, stopped the temptation to dress more like a trainer or God forbid, someone prettier. My crazy hair might have been cleaner than usual, my legs were shaved, and my shorts might have been the shortest and fringiest pair I had, but that was the only deference to Junior's potential presence I dared.

When I haltered the mare and led her to the fence George Jr. hopped the fence across the ditch and sauntered towards us, the rest of the Henderson brood followed behind, flowing in and out of each other like so many escaped ferrets.

Spirit knew kids. It became clear, even to me, that she had put in her time. She loved to be brushed and petted. She loved having her one attribute, a luxurious silver tail that dragged the ground, combed, at least until I bent over to untangle the end. She lashed out, her cow kick a blur of motion I barely registered before I found myself on the ground, my thigh clutched between both hands and my teeth clenched against the building blocks of a fist sized hematoma. Bitch! Spirit sucked back and shook her head.

"She does that a lot," Junior said. The rest of the Henderson kids, who stair-stepped down from Jr. to about five-years-old, giggled and elbowed each other in the ribs. So much for John Wayne.

I crawled over to the fence, well out of Spirit's range and pulled myself up. An angry bruise was already covering my thigh. I was covered in dirt and manure, and the baby oil I had slathered on that morning guaranteed it was with me for the day.

The only way to redeem myself was to get her ridden. I grabbed my ring snaffle and held the bridle between her ears. She immediately squinched her eyes shut, stuck her nose out and opened her mouth wide. She wasn't about to get her teeth banged Yep, this was a short horse who had been bridled by a lot of kids.

I led her out to the field, shortened my inside rein to stop her from grazing and vaulted on.

Before I had loosened my rein or adjusted my seat, Spirit reared up and threw herself backwards. We crashed to the ground. When I landed, I banged my head hard and got the wind knocked clean out of me. It seemed in by best interest to lie still and think things over for a bit. Spirit got up and stood close, her piggy little eye looked directly into mine. She began to crop the grass, I continued to contemplate her eye. She was soft, relaxed, and I swear, amused.

"She does that a bunch too," Junior said.

I rolled my head to look at him, heard my neck pop, and knew this was going to hurt. Junior was standing a foot away, legs splayed, arms akimbo. The rest of the little bastards were laughing on the other side of the ditch. He didn't help me up.


  1. Oh man, have I learned some lessons at the expense of others. It's what I call experiential learning- learning through making the mistake. The redeeming thing about experiential learning is that those who learn that way learn solid lessons that they rarely repeat. I suspect when it comes to horses, we learned things along a similar path and I respect you very much for admitting it. I often cringe when I think about some of the things I've done in ignorance (sometimes willful ignorance) and I'm not brave enough to write about them yet. Maybe through your experience I will find the courage.

  2. Oh my...look forward to the follow up episodes!

  3. I got kicked in the same exact spot once.


    Feeling Junior's uncaring eyes on me through your writing hurt worse than the hurt.

    Also, also, I literally remember the exact page that horse's picture comes from in my Horse book I poured over as a kid. It's the classic example of the Ewe neck. You just gave me the oddest feeling of nostalgia.

  4. oh, my
    any horse who will deliberately throw themselves over backward is never safe for kids....or adults, either.

    only sure cure? a .32

    I almost hate to think how you managed without getting seriously hurt

  5. "Marshmellow!" That horse is actually better looking than Marshmellow. In fact, Marshmellow was SOOO bad, that even my 13- year-old, [clueless] Daddy's finally going to buy me a horse! self knew we didn't want to get the first one we looked at. We didn't even try to ride her.

  6. Damn, it took me until I was nearly 40 to get flipped over on. I was lying there in the grass figuring out if I still had feeling in my toes and hands, thinking, "Well, that's crossed off the list now." I'd like to think by the time you got your wind back you handed him his horse and asked him to show you what other talents she had.

    But most of all I have to tell you how much I love that third paragraph. That's friggen amazing.

  7. Was I wrong to laugh? I guess I need more development to be a decent human being.

    We used to have a pony for the kids to ride. She was fairly old when we got her and had been ridden by lots of children. I found out right away that you couldn't send kids out to the pasture to catch her, even with a bag of carrots. She'd let adults catch her though. She wasn't pretty, but any kid could ride her.

  8. Thank you Heidi!
    redhorse - I'm thinking you and I view the world through the same cracked glass eye.

  9. great story telling! WyoFaith

  10. I also remember that pic. It was in the Ultimate Horse Book wasn't it? It's still on my bookshelf :)

  11. So tell me again why you aren't writing books? Like real life hold in my hands, take with me everywhere, read in the twilight with my Beasties around me kind of things.


  12. Too early in the morning for one of your patented frustratingly tantalizing cliff-hangers.
    When I was 14 and thought I knew it all a local 4H leader sold me a 3 year old strawberry roan filly--yeah I could hear the old song in my head--who would rear up and fall over. I kind of agree with Gail that a horse like that would never be trustworthy.

  13. It's funny, I was talking to one of my friends who's about the same age as me (early 30's) and we were talking about getting hurt doing stupid stuff. He said the other day he realized he's actually learned something over time, because he was about to do something, thought "If I do it like that, I'm likely to get hurt." adjusted what he was doing to be safe, and completed his project. He said he realized afterwards that he would have just thoughtlessly done it before, not because he wanted to get hurt but just through thoughtlessness. We debated on whether that's growing up, or if it's just your brain finally going "HEY STUPID, CUT IT OUT YOU'LL HURT MY CARRYING CASE!" Not sure what it has to do with this story now that I've written it out, except the whole doing something despite it being in your better interest not to.

  14. :) I actually like the sound of Spirit. She sounds a clever and tolerant lady and like she had a really good reason (from her perspective) for throwing herself over like that. Did she have back pain (eg kissing spine or some other issues?)