Little Horse, Big Heart
Countering the paranormal stuff that stalks my life, I've had the good fortune to acquire a number of four-legged co-workers over the years. Like old friends, some have gained a permanent place in my memory. This story is about a little guy who deserves his own page in history.
The pony's name was Peanuts. It's not a name with which I'd have saddled a horse but he came with it and it stuck worse than a burr.
When I was about nine years old, I was watching a pony class at the Vermilion Fair and a medium-sized pony with a dark red coat and fluffy white mane and tail was going around the ring. The girl on his back was having great difficulty controlling him. It was love at first sight. I told my dad that I bet I could handle him. He was beautiful!
Dad never said anything but a couple of weeks later, he drove into the yard and a beautiful red pony with a fluffy white mane and tail stepped out of the truck box. It took me a long time to realize it was the same pony. It never occurred to me that my father would buy me a horse.
It turned out I was right about the pony. Ranch work was just what he needed. He had a good mind and worked as long and hard as the larger horses. He was tough as nails and brave enough to face down fully-grown bulls more than six times his size.
He was joined by Shetland ponies over the next couple of years – loaners from friends whose children couldn’t control them. Hoards of cousins descended on us for the duration of the summer months and many of them had their only experiences riding horses with these little guys. It didn't take long for the ponies to realize they'd better conserve their strength and not fool around as our rides were five or six hours long instead of fifteen minutes. A couple of the Shetlands turned out to be good little workers too, and we used them to push cattle out of the bush.
I remember one day squeezing through thick brush riding Peanuts bareback to bring out a Hereford bull who didn't want to come out (Dad always said our horses were little and could get under the brush. I never did see his logic as the brush started at the grass!).
The bull, of course, was enormous – nearly six feet at the shoulders and two thousand pounds of muscle. I hoped some bravado from me would get him moving. I made lots of noise, waved skinny arms and shouted, hoping he'd think I was some sort of threat. Little Peanuts didn't hesitate for a second. We charged through that brush like we knew what we were doing. At first the bull just looked at us but, as we got closer, he must’ve thought we were either crazy or dangerous, and he wasn't sticking around to find out which. He heaved a sigh, turned away and moseyed his way out of the trees and onto the meadow where my father waited.
Working the bush was painful, hot, bug-infested and dangerous. And we all did it. Deadfalls with sharp broken branches were a constant threat. Our mounts on occasion were speared by broken trees that lurked behind thick clumps of leaves. Charging through the trees at a high run was always an unnerving adventure. I'd lie low on Peanut's bare back, tuck my feet up behind, hide my face in his mane, hold one arm in front to deflect branches . . . and trust to fate. Somehow we always got through, albeit with twigs in our hair and numerous cuts and scratches.
One beautiful autumn day it was riding Peanuts rounding up steers. I was happy to have a saddle that day. I'd moved about 50 steers along the fence and was waiting in the brush for my brother to bring more. I didn't want to get in front and spook them back the wrong way.
The autumn had been warm and dry – perfect conditions for hornets. They'd been buzzing around all day and Peanuts and I had been lucky so far. We settled down to wait for my brother in a grove of poplar trees. Peanuts was quiet at first, happy for the rest but, after a while, he began to fidget and stamp his hooves. I was watching for cattle, so controlled him automatically without thinking about it. I assumed he wanted to get moving. When he started stamping the ground hard and spinning around, I jerked my attention back to my situation.
We were surrounded by a swarm of hornets on the attack. Peanuts had had enough of being stung and he bolted through the trees. Strangely enough, a particular tree appeared in front of us and I had the premonition that we would run into it. Normally Peanuts avoided trees but he was in a panic. He smashed my right foot and leg into the tree hard enough to jerk me from the saddle, over his rump, and onto my butt on the ground. I didn't have a chance of holding him. He was headed for safer places! It was our bad luck to pick a spot right over an underground hornet’s nest. Every time Peanuts had stomped his feet, he’d enraged more hornets that poured out to see who was tramping on their ceiling.
I jumped up and ran after him, batting at hornets as I ran. Dad had an iron-clad rule - NEVER let go of your horse, no matter what!! I ran until I found Peanuts standing in a grove of trees swishing his tail to get rid of the hornets. My right foot hurt but I had other things to think about. Worried we were now in the wrong place, I scraped hornets off him with my bare hands and re-mounted. Oddly enough, I never got stung. Guess Peanuts got enough for both of us!
As the day wore on and I continued to work my area, my foot hurt more and more. I didn't dare remove my riding boot (if I could get it off). It had gotten painfully tight and I was afraid my foot had been broken (not unusual on a working ranch). If I took my boot off to check it out, I wouldn't be able to get it back on, and I wouldn't be able to walk – or get back on my horse since I had to stand on one leg to mount. So I left it and continued my job.
As evening fell, I rode into the corrals where the steers were being collected. My right foot had escalated to excruciating pain. I didn’t know which would be more painful, leaving the boot on or letting someone twist it off. I finally asked my older brother to help me. He tried to be careful but I still remember how that felt! One look and my dad agreed it was probably broken. I got to ride home in the truck that day and one of my brothers rode Peanuts home for me. By then my foot couldn't carry any weight so the next day it was x-rayed. Although the doctor didn't find any broken bones, many years later, it was discovered the impact had compressed the instep which left me on crutches for two months..
Oddly enough, when I saw that particular tree coming, I knew I'd carry the result of that impact for the rest of my life. And I have. That part of my foot has not flexed properly since. But it works well enough.
And I see it as a reminder of my little partner whose heart was bigger than he was.