Thursday, January 3, 2013


Day of the Dummy
I have spent some time of my life on top of horses. Current aches and pains would indicate too much time, but I wouldn’t change anything. In the late 1970’s I made my living now and then on horseback, working on ranches in terrain too extreme for gasoline powered vehicles. To “cowboy” is a romantic dream that reads significantly better than it lives. Twenty dollars and two meals for a fourteen-hour day, while using horses owned by the cattle company, isn’t the easiest way to make a paycheck.

Stock horses are a mixed bunch, the best of which are usually snapped up by the full-time hands for semi-permanent use. The dregs are used by the “day hands,” misguided fools like me hired as needed for roundups, calving season, and the like. The selection of horses inflicted on us constituted a mixed bag of quirks and bad habits.

Dottie was a small chestnut mare of easy temperament and generally good attitude. From time to time, however, Dottie’s tiny mind would compel her to walk into an available stock pond and lie down. Her rider’s protests and efforts to the contrary would go unheeded, leaving the cowboy soaked to the skin in drenched clothing and water-filled boots. This was an unpleasant experience, especially shortly after dawn on a forty-five degree March morning. (Dottie’s motivation remains unclear.)

Curly was a wise bay gelding with quick feet and good cow sense who stood quietly when mounted, never threatened violence, and did not bite at knees or buck. Curley’s specialty was to wait until his rider was most vulnerable. At the moment the cowboy was lulled into a false sense of security - arms behind his back while removing a jacket that had become too hot for the day, or reins slack while he was absorbed in rolling a cigarette - Curly would dart to one side of the trail or the other, with the speed of a mother-in-law’s tongue, and leave the rider sitting atop five feet of nothing but his aspirations. The resulting crash was humiliating, but Curley was not without compassion. Once the deed was done, he would not repeat it for the balance of the day.

Then, there was Cloud. Cloud was a leopard Appaloosa of a little over sixteen hands and nearly twelve hundred pounds. Snow white and covered with a plethora of dark blue silver dollar sized spots, Cloud was beautiful. Cloud was Majestic. Cloud was slow. Cloud was dumb. The briefest glance his way convinced the novice observer that this was a wonderful steed. Five minutes on his back gave the exact opposite impression.

One cool morning, he and I went bushwacking, searching for calves in hard to reach places. The sky was totally clear. Post oaks and cedars whispered in the tingling breeze as a distant hawk or buzzard poised artfully against the blue for best effect. But I had little time to enjoy such things. I was riding Cloud. Left to his devices, Cloud would wander off the trail or stumble over his own feet or walk under a low-hanging limb or just stop. He had no evil intent. There was not a nasty bone in his huge body. He was merely unsuited for this reality and paid almost no attention to it. A horse that is unaware of his surroundings is maddening to his rider and a danger to both of them. When aboard Cloud, I could never relax. I tried to keep my mind in the middle and protect both of us.

I was riding along the rim of a rocky gulch, rocks that Cloud stumbled over from time to time, when I noticed a splash of black among the stones about forty feet down the steep slope. I got down among scattered prickly pear and new polk salad to investigate. When I dropped the reins, Cloud was instantly ground-tied, sinking deeply into his own horsey thoughts, as far away from the mundane world as possible. Clattering down the steep slope I encountered a calf, a two-day old indigo bundle of cute. I wrapped him around my neck, holding his feet in both hands, and struggled back up the slope on an easier route, emerging at the top of the draw about sixty feet from where Cloud stood in deep meditation. I eased the little calf to the ground and was admiring him when his mommy, a thousand pounds of outraged motherhood, came boiling out of the brush, bawling straight for me.

I was in big trouble. Standing on that lacerated and rocky ground wearing cowboy boots, I was about as mobile as an inverted turtle. The best I could hope for was that the end would come quickly. The cow, sporting four-point independent suspension on a variable wheelbase and driven by one full cowpower of motherly love, had me totally at her mercy. There were no trees to climb, and no big boulders to dive behind. I was without defense. She charged. When she was less than fifteen feet away, wonder of wonders, Cloud blew by me and slammed into her. Momma fell flat, and he to his knees. When the cow lurched back to her feet, that marvelous horse stayed between she and I, squealing and biting until I could move away from the calf and clamber into the saddle. As she turned her attention to Junior, Cloud and I retreated to the tree line and watched their tearful reunion.

I was astounded! For one brief and shining moment, Cloud, that equine monument to “Duh,” had soared so high above his usual shortcomings as to render them insignificant. The same horse that could not be depended on to do anything even remotely correctly, had saved me from serious injury, possibly death, and he had done it with style. I never told any of the other hands about Cloud’s accomplishment, for I would not have been believed, but from that moment on I used that stumble-footed steed as often as I could. I found myself more tolerant of his shortcomings. Even months later as he and I tripped and slipped along the trails, Cloud, for all his bumbling ineptitude, was still my favorite. Not for what he was, but for what I knew he could be.



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