A stallion can be a great companion if you have work for him.
When I was fifteen, my parents had a training stable in Red Deer and one day I wandered to the arena to discover that a beautiful Arabian stallion watched the barn activities from a stall. He had a wide white blaze, big, dark, gentle eyes, and a deep red coat. Unusual for an Arabian, he had what is called a double mane – which meant his mane and tail were extra-thick and really long. A heavy forelock reached to his nostrils.
I walked over to inspect the new arrival but he shook his head and laid his ears flat back, threatening me with bodily harm if I came closer. I watched him from a safe distance then went to talk to my dad who was working colts in the arena.
“His name’s Jericho Sahib, and he’s spent too much time in a stall,” was dad’s response to my questions. “Grew up in small pens and barns. Since he’s pretty, people keep touching his face, so he’s learned that if he looks threatening, they’ll leave him alone. His only entertainment is watching what’s happening in the barn.”
“Why is he here?”
“The owner wants me to work with him.”
“Is he broke to ride?”
“Yes, he’s well broke.”
I recalled that many of the horses we had for training were called “well broke” by their owners – and most were dangerous or they wouldn’t have brought them to us in the first place. “Can I take him out?”
“If you can get a halter on him, go for it.” Then he went back to working with the colt.
My dad wasn’t what you’d call an overly-protective parent.
I spent more time watching the horse then selected a heavy leather halter from a peg on the wall.
I approached the newcomer; watched as he went through his threatening routine. When he realized I intended to open the stall door, he jerked his head away and jammed himself against the back wall, head in a corner. His hind end wasn’t exactly facing me, but it wasn’t pointed away either. Message: Stay away!
I stepped into his stall and latched the door after me because a stallion on the loose is dangerous; I couldn’t take the chance he might get out. I stood by the door and talked in a quiet voice. After a few minutes, his flat-back ears began to flick forward and back, signifying he was now confused. Why was I just standing there? Good. I wanted him thinking, not reacting to my presence.
Finally, he turned his head towards me, ears perked, which meant he was tired of waiting and ready to deal. He was asking what I wanted. I shifted the halter from my shoulder so he could see it then eased towards him. Horses don’t understand words but they pick up a lot from your tone of voice so I talked in a gentle, steady stream.
I touched his shoulder, stroked it with the backs of my fingers, waited for him to relax but eventually had to take that final step. I lifted the halter towards his head. Every muscle in his body was rigid with tension and I expected him to spin away but he didn’t. I slipped it over his nose and buckled the strap. We both heaved a sigh as I adjusted the fit, mine from relief; his from acceptance. He was ready to cooperate – maybe.
Our early association wasn’t without its challenges but those are other stories. Suffice it to say Sahib became one of my favourite mounts. When the family moved to a ranch in Southern Alberta six weeks later, I was thrilled when he stepped out of the horse trailer.
Once the stallion learned he could explore the world with me, his attitude did a one-eighty. When I entered the barn, he’d greet me with a nicker, head over the stall door, ears perked, anxious to go for a ride. He was as gentle as a stallion gets; strong and always eager to go, a wonderful companion.
One warm summer morning, I headed to the barn, gave Sahib a handful of oats while I saddled him, and we headed out to explore the badlands of the South Saskatchewan River. I’d already been informed that rattlesnakes infested the hoodoos and dry draws, aware that I’d have to watch for them as horses that don’t grow up around rattlesnakes can accidentally step on one.
As I swung onto Sahib and settled into the saddle, a light breeze stirred my hair and cooled already warm air. With no assigned job that morning, I planned to explore the badlands and I figured the sooner I got out of the yard, the less likely I’d be spotted and assigned some work!
Sahib and I followed a dusty track through rocks and tumbleweeds, the scent of sage strong in the heat, and the sweet song of meadowlarks filling the morning air. He drank everything in as if he was a colt, new to everything which, in his case, was true. He’d had little experience with the great outdoors and he loved it all.
The trail dropped towards the river and, part-way down, I directed him into the canyons. The scenery was breathtaking; clear blue sky, other-worldly fantastic arroyos, wind-shaped hoodoos, and narrow game trails. Steep-sided canyons were filled with baked clay and rocks that had tumbled over the millennia. Wide-eared cactus clutched at bits of dry soil. I took my time, stopped often to consider different routes to ensure we wouldn’t get trapped in the rugged terrain.
It wasn’t long before I discovered Sahib had no concept of “down.” He was so busy staring at everything he didn’t watch where he put his feet. After he stumbled for the third time on a narrow trail, I paid closer attention to his movements. Horses born in the country are sure-footed but, growing up in small pens, Sahib hadn’t learned to pick up his feet or to watch where he stepped.
After an hour of riding through the exotic surroundings, I turned towards the cool river. The South Saskatchewan is wide, quiet, and dangerous. We rode out of the hoodoos towards huge old cottonwoods that lined the river, their over-sized leathery leaves rustling in the breeze. The sun was hot on my shoulders and the shade inviting.
We waded into a shallow spot where I listened to soft sipping sounds as Sahib drank. I soaked in the fascinating world around me, the broad expanse of the silent river; the two-hundred-foot cliffs on the far side that soared towards the sky and gave me a sense of vertigo from just looking at them.
When he was finished drinking, I directed Sahib into the shade of the cottonwoods where there was grass beneath the trees, the beautiful valley a heaven-on-earth. It was too early in the day for mosquitoes; the breeze strong enough to discourage other insects, and the temperature perfect.
A fallen cottonwood, the trunk of which was three feet across, had fallen against a living one. Not ready to leave yet, I dismounted, loosened the saddle cinch, and balanced along the fallen tree in my cowboy boots, ensuring I kept a secure hold of Sahib’s reins.
As I settled onto the log and leaned my back against the tree, legs crossed at the ankles, Sahib moved close and I stroked his neck. He no longer avoided a touch to his head and the velvet of his muzzle was soft beneath my fingers. He rested a hind leg and watched the river flow, listened to the sounds of nature as I murmured quietly to him.
Mother Nature must’ve been asleep that day or I was lucky enough to avoid her traps because the gentle power of Gaia filled the valley with life and acceptance. Sahib and I were one with each other and with our surroundings. The light rustle of cottonwood leaves stirred by the breeze and the ever-present distinctive chorus of crickets were nature’s gentle background music.
A golden eagle skimmed the edge of the cliffs, its cries piercing in the quiet. A higher, thinner cry caused me to search the sky until I spied a red-tailed hawk, wings spread to catch the updrafts looking for lunch or perhaps just enjoying the view. The lilt of meadowlarks in the sage drifted on the cool breeze. As long as I live, meadowlarks will remind me of that time and place.
A black spider and some ants scuttled along the tree trunks, busy with something, intent on important destinations. Unconcerned with insect life, I let them continue.
I watched the river, felt its silent, intimidating power fill the valley. Other than the occasional splash of a fish, it flowed with little apparent movement. The water continued on its journey to the ocean but the river remained; an entity in its own right, powerful enough to carve the valley; home to aquatic life, precious source of water to innumerable species that inhabit the area.
As I absorbed the experience, I focussed on each sense. The sight was breathtaking, the scents musky and thick with sage, sounds gentle and soothing; the deeply-furrowed bark rough against my fingers. The breeze lifted my long hair, teased it into knots I’d have to untangle later. Sahib’s glorious long mane stirred in the breeze and I tucked his heavy forelock beneath a bridle strap so it wouldn’t interfere with his vision.
I don’t remember how long we remained there absorbing the peace and quiet, the reality of nature here on earth – a reality most people don’t realize even exists, would never seek out.
My thoughts made a brief side-trip to the couple of years I’d just spent in a city. The people there would’ve complained, “How boring! There’s nothing there! We need to be entertained!” Not many comprehend what every rancher knows deep inside.
I brought my attention back to the present, a pocket of perfection in my life, a private communion with the life force of the planet. The noon sun beat into the valley with relentless heat but I was unwilling to leave the shade or the peace of the moment. Sahib was content to wait as long as I wanted, big dark eyes drinking in a world he’d never known existed.
As I rested against that big old cottonwood, I knew someday I’d write about that ride; share it with those who hadn’t been so lucky. I put it all in a memory packet to be opened at some far future date.
Eventually nature reminded me it was time to go. The bark was rough through my shirt, harsh against my thin frame. I slipped from the log, tightened the cinch, and mounted. As we rode from the trees into the blazing sun toward the hills, I could feel the breeze had already warmed, would soon be blistering hot.
Sahib left hoof-prints in a thin layer of dust as we followed a winding trail that climbed out of the valley. I listened to the song birds and the familiar squeak of saddle leather until we reached the point where the land levelled out. There I turned to gaze once more on the scene, imprint it in my memory. Sahib, too, surveyed the valley; dark eyes alight with interest. He heaved a sigh as I turned him away.
I promised him we’d come back. And we did – many times.