Some horses you remember because they’re so incredible, you wonder if they’re part human. Others . . . not so much — but they aren’t forgotten.
We once had a brown mare we called Dizzy Liz — for good reason. She’d never been abused, but she was one of the most naturally cranky horses I’ve ever worked with.
She was a lean style of Quarter Horse, nicely muscled with a beautiful long neck and clean throat-latch. On the end of that nice neck however, was a less-than-attractive head. It was narrow, the eyes were high, and there was a decided bulge just below the eyes. This is usually not good news.
As expected, she was hard-headed and stubborn, every step of her training fraught with resistance. She disliked people and had no intention of becoming a ranch horse if she could help it. She was even known to attack — rare behavior in a horse. As a three-year-old, she was started on light ranch work. My dad or one of my three brothers usually rode her because she was unpredictable. I was fifteen and less than a hundred pounds, and did I mention I was a girl? Not that that made much difference on a working ranch.
One day, we planned to move a thousand head of cattle to new grazing. To get to them, we had to cross the broad South Saskatchewan River. On the far side, the prairie plunged without warning into two-hundred-foot cliffs onto piles of rocks or the river itself. From the north, the river was difficult to see as the south shore was lower. The prairie appeared to continue uninterrupted to such an extent that sometimes cattle would walk to the edge of the cliffs and be pushed to their deaths by others behind who didn’t see the drop-off. They smelled water, and wanting a drink, didn’t realize the river was far below.
On this particular day, I lost the horse lottery and dad gave me Dizzy Liz to ride. Grumbling, I went to the barn to ensure I had a bronc saddle with good deep forks in case she got to fighting me. The chances were high we’d have a battle during the day, and I wasn’t looking forward to it.
We rode across the river in chest-deep water (chest-deep to the horses, that is). It would’ve been a great opportunity for Dizzy Liz to decide to buck, so when we emerged dripping water on the rocks at the far side, I breathed a sigh of relief.
Long gentle slopes led from the valley to open prairie. My dad and brothers fanned out, began picking up cattle and pushed them into an expanding herd towards fresh grazing some miles to the west. I was assigned the cliff-edge side where I was to scour the canyons for strays. Maybe climbing the slopes would dull the edge of Dizzy Liz’s attitude.
The view was beautiful. Canyons ran from the river cutting into the land for as much as half a mile. If they weren’t too deep, I rode across them as riding around took longer. I couldn’t skip them though, because cattle grazed there.
Dizzy Liz was resistant, fidgety, and irritable, but she went more or less where I wanted her to. In front of us was a long narrow hump of land that we called a hogs-back. It dropped off on both sides at about forty-five degrees before erosion created almost vertical drop-offs. Hogs-backs ran towards the river and their points usually ended in vertical cliffs. So both sides and the narrow point at the river ended in sharp drop-offs. I needed to ride these areas so I could check the canyons on either side for strays. It was like riding on a balance beam.
As we followed the narrow ridge of the hogs-back, Dizzy Liz decided she’d had enough. Her temper flared, and she exploded into bucking. But I’d ridden a few horses who didn’t want to be ridden, and I managed to get her into a tight circle (This is where cowboys learn to curse).
She fought her head and ran backwards to get away from the pressure on the reins that kept her from bolting. A quick glance behind showed I needed to get her stopped as we were almost at the river end of a hogs-back. If this continued a few more seconds, she’d back us off a cliff. I released her head so she’d stop fighting.
By now though, she was enraged and not seeing anything. I nudged her with my boot heels but she ignored me. As the cliff loomed closer, I began to lose some patience of my own. In danger of my life, I grabbed the heavy leather reins and laced her half-a-dozen times over the rump as hard as I could swing, hoping to get her attention before she killed us both. If slapping her on the rump caused her to bolt towards the prairie, we’d at least be going away from the cliffs, and I could ride her until she stopped. There’s a lot a running room in sixty-two square miles.
It was like trying to communicate with a rock.
I managed to get her hind end turned away from the drop-off at the end, but she still shook her head in fury and began to slide down the side of the hogs-back which was at forty-five-degrees. There were tufts of dried prairie grass and stubby cactus, so the footing wasn’t bad, but in a few more seconds, there wasn’t going to be any surface at all. The ridge dropped to near vertical in a few more feet, and neither horse nor human could climb that wall.
She was too enraged to comprehend the situation. All that was in her mind was to fight me. With a sense of unreality, I made a quick dismount, hoping she’d stop if there was no one to battle. I wouldn’t normally dismount in the midst of a disagreement with my horse, but considering the circumstances, there wasn’t another choice. I’d no intention of going over a precipice with her, but I also didn’t want her to fall either. How would I explain that? “Sorry, but I killed your horse, Dad. She just fell off a cliff. No, it wasn’t my fault.” Right! I almost didn’t believe it myself, and I was in the middle of it!
She continued to run backwards until her hind legs slid over the cliff edge. There she was, sprawled on her belly, front legs bent at a sharp angle and hind legs spinning at nothing. I dropped to my back and dug my boot heels into cactus, dry prairie grass, and dusty ground. A good deal of her weight was on the reins which I gripped with all my strength.
. . . But the leather slipped through my fingers. I couldn’t hold her. She was going to go over the cliff onto the rocks two hundred feet below! The thought made me ill.
One of the things our master-equestrian father drilled into us was never to wrap a rope or rein around your hand to stop a horse. It was a good way to lose a body part. As I braced my heels into the soft dirt, I remembered his admonition, gave a mental apology, and took a wrap around each hand. I simply couldn’t hold her if I didn’t — and I was only too aware that one jerk of her head would throw me into the canyon where I’d hit the rocks before she did.
Was this idiot horse going to fight until she died? I was the only thing between her and a lot of air.
We hung there, me calling her names and wondering how much longer I could hold on, she staring up at me in fury. The cactus needles that dug into my back were a distant irritant.
. . . I saw it in her eyes as clearly as if she’d spoken. Her predicament suddenly dawned on her. She was hanging below me, scrabbling for non-existent footholds with her hind legs when we had this — call it communion. It occurred to her that I was helping her — and that she was in a bad spot. By that time, I didn’t know if I’d be able to save her. I couldn’t keep holding her weight without her help. It was taking every ounce of strength I possessed just to keep her from sliding further. If I made one slip, one mistake, we were both finished.
We hung for what seemed forever looking into each other’s eyes. Then I heaved backwards as hard as I could, pulling on the reins and cursing at her to help me if she didn’t want to die. For the first time, she tried to scramble towards me, and I managed to move back a few inches before digging in with my heels again. Slowly, slowly, she caught better footholds with her flailing hind legs, and we made progress inch by inch.
Another problem loomed. I was on my back in front of her. What was going to happen when she got her footing? Would she run over me? Everything I knew about her said she’d trample me into the dirt without a second thought. She might even knock me off the cliff. As she started to gain ground, I skidded backwards, still pulling the reins, and watched her every movement.
I felt a surge of relief as one hind leg caught solid purchase then the other. The instant both hind hooves caught the dusty soil, I rolled towards the cliff face at the end of the hogback to get out of her way. Too close to the precipice to dare stand, I got to my feet but kept a monkey stance, my hands in the cactus on the steep slope to avoid falling over the cliff scant feet to my left. I could remove cactus needles later.
As the mare surged to her feet, as expected, she charged towards higher ground. I lunged for the saddle horn as she galloped by, and taking giant running strides, let her pull me to the top of the hogs-back where we came to a shaky halt.
Trembling with exhaustion and adrenaline overload, I glared into that stubborn dark eye as she looked back at me. Somehow though, her expression was different. I couldn’t feel her rage. Maybe it had temporarily been displaced by fear.
My hands and my back burned from rolling in the cactus, but I didn’t have time to think about it. I needed to re-mount. It wasn’t like I had a choice. I was on sixty-two square miles of short-grass prairie, and she was my ride. I lead her along the hogs-back towards the broad prairie where at least there’d be room to maneuver if she fought me again. She came along quietly enough. At least she wasn’t attacking me.
When I thought we’d gone far enough, I stopped her and screwed up my courage. I shortened the reins, grabbed the side of the bridle, and turned her head towards me as I mounted in one swift motion. It was a critical point. If she wasn’t finished fighting, this would be when she’d resume the battle.
She didn’t move a muscle. Was it a prelude to another explosion? What was going on in her head now? A hot wind lifted her mane and cooled the sweat that stung the cactus wounds in my back. The songs of meadowlarks and crickets returned to my awareness.
Neither of us moved a muscle for a time, but we couldn’t sit there forever staring at each other. I watched her ears and eye to get a clue as to her next move, but she just looked back at me as I watched her. It was hard to believe, but her eye didn’t look angry. After edgy, silent minutes, I settled deeper into the saddle and gave her head a slight tug towards the open prairie. I don’t remember breathing.
To my surprise, she walked away under perfect control and responded to the lightest touch without resentment or resistance. It was like she was eager to cooperate. I couldn’t believe it. Maybe she was still shaken up from the experience. She’d be back to her old, nasty self before long. Nobody with any sense ever trusted Dizzy Liz.
For the remainder of the day, she worked like a dream. When I rejoined the others a couple of hours later, I told them I’d had a bit of an incident and that now Liz was amazingly obedient — almost friendly. They scoffed and accused me of trying to get them to exchange mounts. They weren’t going to get sucked into that old trick!
It happened that Dizzy Liz wasn’t ridden over the next few days, but her eye had lost its sullen, sour expression and had become big and soft. None of us trusted this apparent change, but she did seem like a different horse. The laid-back ears were replaced by happy nickers when we went to the barn to feed. She was even eager to put her head in a halter.
There are stories with bad endings and stories with happy endings. Dizzy Liz had been racing full tilt towards a bad one, but much to my surprise, she pulled out a miracle.
She had the physical conformation of the perfect barrel-racing horse — fast and agile. Scant days after the cliff incident, a man showed up at the ranch who wanted to buy her for his eight-year-old daughter as a barrel-racing horse. My father flatly refused to sell him the mare, explaining how it took an experienced cowboy to handle the unpredictable and aggressive mare. She was far too dangerous for a child.
But the man kept coming back. He wanted that mare. Finally, my dad relented but reiterated the danger until he was blue in the face. No father would ever put his daughter on such a horse (??). The man swore they’d be careful, and Dizzy Liz would be ridden a lot before they allowed the little girl near her.
Months later, my dad got word of the mare’s new circumstances. Much to our surprise, the man’s young daughter was already winning barrel-racing competitions. She loved Dizzy Liz, and the mare returned the affection of her little rider. As my grandmother would say, there wasn’t a mean bone in her body, and the whole family loved her. They couldn’t understand how she could ever have been hard to handle.
I understood. Sometime during our life-threatening incident on the cliff, Dizzy Liz had experienced an epiphany. While I struggled to save her that day, I’d wondered what I was doing risking my life for such a dangerous animal. But the universe works in mysterious ways. Dizzy Liz had pushed fate to the final straw, but from that day forward, all resistance disappeared, and she loved everyone, especially girls!
And I’m grateful not to have given up on her.