Some horses are just plain weird.
As families often did in ranching areas, when I was seventeen, I'd gone to help with the fall roundup at a large ranch southwest of Medicine Hat in Southern Alberta. My dad and I wandered down to the corrals where I was given a powerful quarter horse mare to ride.
When I noticed my dad saddle her for me, I began to get suspicious. This was something we did for ourselves – always. She was really jumpy and my self-preservation instinct moved into the red. He waved my unease aside and said she’d be fine.
I’m not suggesting that my father giving me a challenging horse was out of the ordinary. As a Master Equestrian, people brought dangerous horses to him all the time and, as his offspring, we were involved with gentling and correcting all kinds of horses. There weren’t many we couldn’t and didn’t ride. In spite of the fact that I was still shy of a hundred pounds, I was usually able to hold my own. But I liked to have the facts.
On this particular day, he held the mare for me to mount – something he only did if the horse had never been ridden. But this was an older mare . . .
My instinct jumped to high alert. There had to be something seriously wrong with this horse! As I mounted, I cast him a quick sidelong glance as I watched my horse's ears for a clue as to what she planned to do. Buck? Run? Rollover? Rear over backwards? She danced in place and pawed at the ground.
"You sure this horse is broke?" I asked, wondering if I’d done something to make him mad.
He waved a hand. "She's well broke. She'll be fine!"
She wasn't acting like it. I'd gotten on unbroken colts that were calmer.
"When was the last time this horse was ridden?" I was thinking maybe it’d been years.
"She's fine. Don't worry about it!" he evaded. "Just get her moving; take some of the kinks out of her."
As he released her head, I spun away from the corrals toward the open range. If I was going to get bucked off, I'd rather not land on a corral rail. Besides, dad knew what he was talking about when it came to horses and he was pretty up-front about what he thought they’d do. I just think he sometimes over-estimated our skills.
She danced and pranced, kicked out behind and tossed her head in extreme agitation. I heard one of the calm old cowboys say to dad as I went by, "That mare's gonna buck that girl off."
And my dad's reply, "No, she'll be fine!" Don’t know whether he meant me or the mare.
I trotted her around to loosen her muscles, getting a rough ride from the constant fretting and fidgeting. She'd kick out and bump up her hind end, telegraphing that bucking was on her mind. A few cowboys gathered in a loose-knit group, kept a wary eye on and a respectful distance from my cranky mount. Whenever she came near another horse, she'd lay her ears flat back and bite or kick.
A cowboy drawled as he backed his horse out of biting range, "You sure that horse is broke?"
I gritted my teeth. "So I've been told."
He nodded, arms resting on the saddle horn and a small grin visible beneath a drooping moustache. They'd already figured this slip of a girl could handle the mare and weren't about to insult me by offering a rescue – or else they didn’t want to ride her either. Nobody offered to exchange horses.
When the crew was assembled, we moved out to gather the five hundred head of cattle that needed to be worked through the corrals that day. The herd was in a holding pasture nearby so we didn't have far to go. I stayed away from the others as I didn't trust the mare not to injure someone.
My brother and his wife came by in a half-ton truck and stopped to chat. My brother, an accomplished horseman himself, was doubtful the aggressive mare would last the day without dumping me into a rock pile. I noticed he didn’t offer to take over either. She snorted, pawed, and kicked up her hind end as we talked. After they drove off, I decided a good stiff gallop might stretch out her muscles and take the edge off her stress.
The cattle had tramped down most of the grass leaving a mixture of soil and manure. I picked a spot well away so I wouldn't disturb the cattle and, on a long level spot, nudged her into a lope, keeping a short rein. This was her opportunity if the threat to buck was real. When she seemed to be okay, I urged her faster. We'd reached a ground-eating gallop when I heard the heart-stopping sound of a rattlesnake – something you never forget.
Surprise! Murphy's law at work. Just what I didn't need.
It's amazing how many thoughts can go through your mind in a split second. My first one was, of course, ‘where is it?’ My second was ‘this ranch horse will know all about rattlesnakes!’
We saw it at the same time – directly in front, all coiled up and furious. Thoughts flashed through my head in staccato fashion. Quarter horse . . . trained . . . agile . . . strong . . . I knew she wouldn't run over that snake. What would her response be? I could handle it if she ducked to the right or left. The other option was a 180 degree turn. Only a Quarter Horse could perform a maneuver like that.
My brain clicked off possibilities. A 180 degree turn at that speed would be tough to ride and, if I fell off, I'd land right on top of that cranky old snake. After being trampled on by sharp hooves for the past day and a half, it was in a really bad mood. A fraction of a second to consider that scenario confirmed falling off wasn't an option. Wrestling a rattlesnake in fresh cow manure was not on my agenda.
I clamped my knees and had just started to pull the mare's head to the side to steer around the snake when she did just what I'd feared. Her ears pointed at that snake as she slammed both front feet into the ground with a bone-jarring crunch.
Her front end dropped and rolled to the side but it wasn’t the first time a horse had done that to me. I was determined to stay with her. I don’t think her hind legs even hit the ground before she'd rolled back the way she'd come. As she spun, I felt the pressure slam into the inside of my right thigh and, not wearing leather chaps, my jeans began to slip. As my butt left the saddle, I hoped the cinch was good and tight as my weight transferred to the left stirrup. I tipped my right toe just enough to keep from losing the stirrup as my knee came up to catch under the right saddle fork. There was a lot of daylight between my butt and the saddle.
No one else was around so if she dumped me on that rattler, she'd run off and leave me, and it might be awhile before I was found. A fall at that speed could also have a lot of side effects besides snakebite. I know from experience the ground feels like concrete when you’ve got that much momentum.
Somehow, I managed to keep it together as we spun in place right in front of that rattler. My hand might even have caught the saddle horn in the midst of that about-face.
FYI: A real cowboy will tell you it’s bad form to grab the saddle horn to keep from falling off. Now, who the hell came up with such a dumb idea? I was grabbing anything within reach!
I thought I caught a glimpse of disappointment on that pointy little face as centrifugal force put us face-to-face just before we spun out of range. I envisioned sharp fangs snapping at the air as poison droplets gathered at their tips.
It took a ways to get that mare under control but I got her stopped and rode back to take a look at the snake. It was still curled up and rattling, daring us to step up. He wasn’t in any danger as I couldn’t have moved that mare within fifteen feet of it with a block-and-tackle.
As we rode away, I concluded my mount was warmed up and she just had a nasty disposition. She hated every horse and every cow that came across her path. It was like riding a weapon, and everyone avoided me.
We spent the day moving cattle through the corrals and she fretted and fidgeted the entire time. But my dad was right about one thing. Threaten though she may, that mare never did buck - hard.
When I unsaddled her that evening, she sighed, pushed her nose into a bucket of oats, and was happy as a clam as I brushed her down. Now why couldn't she have been like that all day?
Some horses are just plain puzzling.