The screen door’s wet slam echoes back at me off the rocky hillside a hundred yards away as its spring sings in the early morning air. The sun will rise over that craggy hill in another hour and burn the mist away that lies in the valley at its feet, but I’ll be elsewhere. Stiffly, I walk down the overgrown path toward the barn, awkwardly bending to snap my chaps as they schuss through damp, knee-high grass. My boot soles slip a bit in the heavy dew and prey on my sleepiness to make me stumble. My coffee hasn’t kicked in yet. Lighting a cigarette is easy, there is little wind, and I pause for a moment to watch the smoke rise and shiver a bit. The Levi jacket that will be too much an hour after sunrise is not enough now.
The pipe gate drips with moisture and the squeak of its hinges is answered by a crow call from the line of thin trees that borders the creek. Supper tonight will be augmented by fresh, peppery watercress from the spring that becomes that stream and waters the horses. They peer through the gloom at me from down the slope, waiting for Houston, a chestnut mare, to take the lead and head for the barn. I slide back the door and greed overcomes them. Breakfast is in the offing and it brings a nicker from Spud, a fat little sorrel gelding who loves his munchies. They trot toward me, blowing and snorting, their breath visible in the growing light, throwing horsey greetings toward the one that will feed them.
The sweet pungent smell of molasses assaults my nostrils as I open the feed bin and put two scoops of Omaline into each of seven buckets. As I carry them outside, the horses begin to dance and whirl, playing games of dominance as I set the buckets on the ground. They wheel and whinny, stomp and snort. It’s pure sport on their part and I hold my position as thousands of hoof-borne pounds miss me by only inches. When they settle down, they’ll each eat from the same bucket in the same location as they always do, but it’s morning, and they celebrate.
Back in the gloom and dust of the barn, I sit on a hay bale and strap on my spurs. Picking up a brush, hoof-pick and lead-rope, I walk back out into the yard, enjoying the “chink” of the rowels as my boot heels strike the earth. Cobber, a chunky bay of nearly sixteen hands and dubious quarterhorse ancestry, throws a wary eye my way. I speak to him and he ignores me, grinding away in the bucket. But he hears me. His tail switches and he stamps a rear foot, giving himself away.
As I approach his left side, he swings his body away from me until we are head to head with the bucket between us. It’s part of our ritual. I move to within arms length and he throws his head, backing up and rolling his eyes. I am inevitable, but he won’t admit it. Then I play my trump card. Picking up his half-finished food, I walk toward the barn. The sound of his hooves clomping behind me tells the story. I turn and toss the lead rope casually over his neck. Broke to death, he freezes as I snap it into a loop, then shakes his head in protest. Right, Cobber. I’ve heard it all before.
Tucking the free end of the rope when we get in the barn, I give him back the bucket and brush him down a bit, checking for bites and wounds, swelling in his hocks and such. Then I pick his feet, inspecting the frog, noticing that he’ll need new shoes in a couple of weeks. The rocks on this ranch are tough. He leans on me a bit as I work on his rear feet, just to remind me that he’s bigger than I am. As he finishes eating I strap on a little Ruger single action loaded with birdshot. I’ll probably be on foot some today and Copperheads are all to common. Down the slope, the crows wake completely up and the air turns raucous with their cries.
I shake out the pad and lay it across his back. He prances a bit, flipping his nose at me and knocking by battered old Bailey straw off my head. It’s all part of the game. Next comes the saddle, an elderly Duce Five that fits him like a glove. It creaks and clanks when I swing it up on the pad, protesting with leather groans as I rock it forward onto his withers. Reaching under him I collect and buckle the flank strap, loosely wrap the front cinch, and snap the breast collar in place. Lifting down his headstall, I warm the short-shank snaffle in my hands a moment before I ask him to take steel into his mouth. Once the headstall is in place, I gather up the braided reins and we walk out into the growing light. From up by the house, a mockingbird begins his morning routine.
I ground-tie Cobber and pull the cinch tight as he pooches out his stomach and chest in resistance. We stand there as I wait while he holds his breath. Finally he blows, and I lean my weight on the nylon strap, pulling the cinch tighter than is necessary. Gradually I allow it to loosen to the desired tension as he inhales again. Honor is satisfied. As I swing a leg over the saddle, he grunts and goosesteps backwards, protesting the indignity of having anyone on his back. I pat him on the shoulder and remind him that he is the best horse I’ve been on all day, and we walk to the gate. After weeks of practice, he slides sideways up to it so I can release the latch then moves sideways away from it, opening the gate as I hold onto the top rail. We walk through, and he reverses the process. An open and shut gate from horseback. Of course, it takes longer than getting off and leading him through, but it’s a cowboy kind of thing.
As we walk toward the distant hill, a rabbit flushes in front of us, a frantic cotton ball bouncing away through the weeds, and Cobber starts, hopping to his left in feigned fright. The murder of crows takes flight from the trees along the creek, the birds heading toward the barn, standing out in silhouette against the brightening sky. The mist is beginning to fade from the valley as we cross it, grays turning green while we pause at the bottom of the hill. Cobber breaks into a short lope when we begin our climb because it’s easier for him, and I give him his head. Right on schedule, we’ll beat the sun to the top.
And that is not a bad way to start the day.