My Kingdom for a Horse!
(The continuing adventures of a pair of urbanites who exchanged glitz for country living.)
Driving through the dark towards our small ranch, my husband at the wheel, I shone the flashlight on the page and read:
“The decision to depend on horses or mules in harness for farm work, logging or highway work . . . should not be taken lightly. . . a person new to the business could very well find himself or herself in either a dangerous, humiliating, confusing or discouraging situation. (It’s likely to be a combination of all four.)” Work Horse Handbook, Lynn R. Miller (LRM)
We decided to go ahead. My husband said, “I’m stubborn, I’ll try it.” I agreed. But Lynn’s words would be prophetic not just for working with horses, but also for working and living with rural folks. For a horse, like a man, is a product of his upbringing; horses are no longer found loose on the prairie but purchased from previous owners.
The Horses: Our First Team
I sat writing the check for $3200 for our first draft horses, a matched pair of Creams named Amber and Rosy. That price sounds expensive but was less than the going rate for a trained team. My eyes were dewy as I signed the check, and contemplated the start of this chapter of our lives. The team were recommended by a local, a new friend who was quartering them. To find out more about the horses, we called the owner. She ran a carriage company in San Antonio, where her teams gave tourists rides to the Alamo. She explained that the two were for sale because they were getting a little older and ready to slow down, and because Amber was blind in one eye. But both, she reported, were pregnant. They sounded perfect for us greenhorns. A slow team. And foals to come!
We read more about training horses and liked LRM’s approach. He did not believe in breaking a horse, but in bonding, showing authority, and teaching by repetition.
My husband Jay went forth each morning to put LRM’s advice into action. Up at 5:30 am, breakfast, and out to talk to the horses. I followed Jay some mornings. The scene felt like a dream: the pink dawn colored the prairie and the big pale horses grazed as though they didn’t know we were there.
We both stood at a distance, and Jay crooned a song—“Hello Amber, Hello Rosy, that’s a good horse,” and slowly approached. I kept well back, holding the baby, who wide-eyed watched her papa and these huge creatures.
Step by step, my husband got closer, keeping his shoulder towards the horses, which is less confrontational, according to the book The Man Who Listens to Horses. And soon, Jay was able to pat Rosy.
Each morning he made a little more progress. One day he was able to put a lead rope on them, then a halter. But Amber was not very cooperative. For a long while, she mostly ran away. Eventually, she would allow herself to be harnessed and would pull a cart for 25 minutes; but then Amber considered herself at the Alamo and the tour was over, her work done. Jay tried to get the two to do some farm work, to pull the harrow and the plow. Amber wanted no part of it. She would stand and refuse, period. So Jay settled for a while on ground driving Rosy as a single. She helped pull fence posts and a small cart and such.
We turned back to LRM’s books: you may eventually be able to do something with a runaway horse, but a balker you cannot reform.
To get some on-the-spot advice, we invited some new friends out to see the horses. They were from a group that lived in part like the Amish and regularly worked with horses. Their horse expert from Oaxaca was with them—Armando Diaz, the man who trained all their stock. Armando and his companions talked to the horses, patted them, and tried to drive them. Amber refused, as usual.
Our horse experts told us what they thought. “We don’t like these balkers. You can’t work with animals like that. It’s dangerous. Sell them, get yourself a real team.”
We decided to keep Amber and Rosy at least until they had their foals, and then train the young ones, too. Rosy had a beautiful filly with a stripe down her face, making one eye half blue and half brown. She loved us; we loved her. But Amber turned out not to be pregnant, just overweight. Breeding her never did work.