Savvy Steeds at Your Service

The most fascinating thing about getting new horses is the fact that you don’t know what kind of training they arrive with, in most cases.

Our first family horses, Sugar Babe and Stormy, came to us without proper introductions. Larry Kirkwood, a family friend who knew horses as few others did, chose them for Mom and Dad, who would entrust them to keep their three girls (we were about three, six and nine at the time) alive and well.

Sugar Babe was an old pack horse. She would watch carefully to make sure our legs and knees didn’t get banged up whenever our family took narrow, forested trails rides into the Olympic and Cascade Mountains. She was also stubborn. When she’d had enough of our horsing around, she would put her head down, taking her reins and our weak-muscled arms with her, and head for the barn. When Sugar Babe said we were done, we were done… so we made sure to treat her right, pat her a lot, and feed her carrots.

Stormy was equally docile, less headstrong, and truly beautiful. She was reddish-colored with a white blaze. What we didn’t know about her was that she had been a parade horse earlier in her career. The first year we rode her in the Cle Elum 4th of July parade (she had a young filly running loose at her side, to the delight of parade watchers), every time someone would blow a whistle, Stormy would turn and walk sideways until the whistle sounded again. Parade watchers were highly impressed by my horsemanship, but it wasn’t me; it was 100% Stormy. I was as astounded by her training as everyone else was!

Later on, we bought a horse that was a dead ringer for the famous Snowman (the horse that was headed for a glue factory until he was bought by a man for $80 and turned into a prize-winning jumper). A dappled white steed, he was big, ungainly looking and smart as a whip. I discovered—quite by accident while riding him—that he was a superbly-trained cutting horse.

We were out on horses trying to herd a few specific calves back into the barn. We weren’t having much luck until I realized that Charlie was trying to do something I wasn’t asking him to do. So I gave him his head.

He knew which calves I wanted, so all I had to do was sit on him and let him do his thing. He rounded up the exact calves we were after and chased them into the corral, and then into the barn. No muss, no fuss.  It was just “Show me who you want, then sit back and let me do all the work.”

In Spanaway, we had another Charlie—a paint—with a wicked sense of humor. He seemed to firmly believe that his job was to keep his field mates in tip top shape. He would take a branch into his teeth and run around swatting the others on the rumps to make them run. He was never looking for a fight; he was looking for fun!

This Charlie also dug a small hole with a shovel that was leaning against the corral. He grabbed it in his front teeth and pushed in into the ground repeatedly until he had excavated an appreciable hole.  Whether he was trying to emulate a human, I’ll never know, but he did want me to notice it. I gave him a congratulatory pat and told him he was brilliant.

This Charlie also drank water out of liter-sized bottles. He would take a bottle in his front teeth and elevate it sufficiently that gravity would cause its contents to trickle down his throat.

Stormy’s foal, Sandstorm (the one that was running loose in the parade mentioned above) found her way into some barbed wire (I think trying to jump a fence) and ripped open the inside of her foreleg where it connected to her body. The result wound was substantial and nasty-looking. But she patiently stood and accepted our daily, no-doubt-painful, medical ministrations. She knew we were helping her. She grew up at my side and knew I was her best buddy so she let us do what we needed to do to heal her wound.

My family shared our life with horses from the time I was about five (1956) until I left Cle Elum in 1969. I’ve fallen off them (Stormy balked when jumping a ditch so I sailed over her head), been saved by them (Stormy jumped that ditch belatedly after I’d sailed and took great pains not to step on me as she came), and been kicked by them (accidentally, in the kneecap, while sitting astride a horse when another horse took umbrage and assaulted it with her back hooves). I’ve walked bloating out of a horse, watched as foals were delivered, and helped bury them. I drew horses incessantly as a kid and, before getting my first real horse, my imaginary friend was a horse who accompanied me to first grade, stood quietly under my desk while I studied, and escorted me past what “the Pegasus tree” (the remaining, bald spire of a lightning-struck tree where Pegasus perched in my imagination) when we went to play with our friends, Penny and Judi Cooper, on Enchanted Island in the middle of Spanaway Lake.

I remember one time when we were riding in a group when Larry Kirkwood’s horse fell with him into a deep, broad patch of quicksand or something like very much like it. Suddenly the leaf-strewn ground seemed to just swallow them up, up to the pommel of the saddle. Larry’s horse bucked and struggled for ten or fifteen feet before he finally picked his way out. It was pretty terrifying for all of us. It left a definite impression on me.

Many of my favorite childhood books and TV shows were about horses: The Black Stallion, The Black Stallion Returns, Misty of Chincoteague, Fury, My Friend Flicka…

I  love horses.

Please share your favorite horse story with us!


Top photo: My sis Laurel on Stormy

(I’m in the background atop Sugar Babe)

Bottom Photo: Our first “Charlie” Horse

(The branch-yielding, hole-digging one)

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