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A Horse With No Mane
I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no mane. A line from a favorite song, only twisted to fit the circumstances, describes the tale I’m about to tell. In my case, the real case, not just a line from a song, the desert is a period in my life which was lacking enjoyment and filled with irritation, frustration and difficulty precipitated by a short buckskin colored horse named Dusty. The word twist, of the title line from an America song “Horse With No Name” will be re-cantered later. I feel I am compassionate and humane towards animals, especially animals which are pets that have affectionate and obedient dispositions. Even some animals which are not pets can become the benefactors of my kind heart. An animal that is evil or maliciously plots against my human endeavors to attain comfort in my daily life, for whatever reason it conceives in its inferior mind, will strain my patience. A pet which behaves with contempt for its owner is not a pet, it is an adversary. These beliefs were not solidified until Dusty stormed into my life.
Dusty strolled into my life shortly after I began dating the girl who is now my wife. It was her horse. She acquired it from the horse stable where she worked for one summer guiding trail rides, caring for the horses and doing barn chores. Dusty was the horse she rode on the trails, he didn’t have the temperament to allow inexperienced riders to stay mounted for more than a minute or two. Anyone who managed to stay in the saddle after withstanding his first few attempts to eject the obnoxious weight he felt on his back, would eventually and sometimes repeatedly, find themselves becoming very familiar with the dirt. It was not a big horse, almost could be called a pony, but it had a big attitude. Dusty didn’t do anything he didn’t want to do. My wife was an experienced rider, but this horse was a handful for even her. On one trail ride he was being exceptionally ornery and decided that it was much more comfortable and cooler to spend the day resting in the barn. After a few attempts to scrape her off on a tree, he finally succeeded then made a mad dash for the barn, leaving her on the trail with a broken collar bone. Even after all the trouble she had with it that summer, she purchased Dusty from the stable owners, just to save it from the Alpo cannery.
I had never been around horses, never ridden one, and never even tried to pet or feed one. My only experience was having my photo taken as a young child at the fair while I sat atop a nearly fossilized Shetland pony that was decorated with a fancy saddle and bejeweled halter, while I wore the cowboy hat and vest provided by the proprietor of attraction. At the time I couldn’t care less about the horse, I was concerned with my disappointment for not being provided a holster and six-gun to go along with the vest and hat. Thinking about my lack of experience and trying to hide a little fear from my girlfriend, I stood confidently in front of the stall with a half door, behind which stood Dusty, strategizing on his horsely maneuvers to ensure a proper introduction. We were at a stable where she rented space to keep her horse. Trying to display a level of confidence which was truly absent, I slowly raised my hand to his nose to pet his face. He raised his head so that his flapping lips met my fingers, then bared his teeth and chomped down on my index finger. My girlfriend came quickly to the rescue and saved me from a trip to the emergency room. My finger was sore and the skin was broken slightly. I could see a large bruise immediately starting to form. “Next time” she said, “hold your fingers together with your palm up, reach from underneath”. Geez, thanks, I thought, why didn’t you tell me that first? “I don’t think there’s gonna be a next time” I thought as I looked at the blue swelling on my throbbing finger.
She asked if I would like to ride Dusty, a question which for some reason I had forgot about, but thought I may be asked when I finally met the horse face to face. I knew I had to answer without hesitation or I would probably appear too cowardly but, all I could think was “Sure, climb on top of the animal that just nearly severed my finger, what else could go wrong.” Those thoughts caused a delay in my response and probably accounted for the wobbling pitch in my voice, when I said “Sure, I’ll give it a try”. Too much confidence can sometimes be a bad thing.
She led Dusty by the halter from the stall, past me where I stood pinned tightly against the outside wall of the adjacent stall, toward the double door of the barn. As the horse walked toward me, it made eye contact, avoiding looking it straight in the eye, I tried not to give an inkling of fear but failed. It veered in my direction until it was crushing me against rough sawn oak boards. I felt slivers in my back and the heavy weight of its rib cage rub across my chest until its wide belly section passed and I could breathe again. Breathing was an essential bodily function that I sorely needed as I inhaled deeply when Dusty stepped on my running shoe clad foot with his hind hoof. My girlfriend calmly led the horse out to the access road joining the large oval dirt track. She held it by the reigns and they both stood quietly as I limped over to them.
“Hop up” she said. I was sarcastically thinking “this should be fun” as I looked at the long, slightly banked track, trying to suppress expressions of worry from wrinkling my face. Placing my left foot in one stirrup I shifted my weight and tried to swing my other leg over the saddle. Just as my leg was about to swing over, the horse started to spin in circles away from me and I dropped that foot back to the ground. “Try, again, be quick”. I tried again. Same thing. “damn it, hold still you old mule”, oops did I stay that out loud?
Finally, I grabbed a handful of mane, which at that time was still bountiful on the topside of his neck, and made it into the saddle. Ok……now what? I thought I should try to head for the track, not having a clue how to steer this thing, I kicked it in the sides with my heels, like I remember seeing done in old western movies. When I did this my feet left the stirrups, the horse started stepping backwards. “loose up on the reigns”, she said. That stopped the back stepping but then the horse rapidly spun a 180 and headed back to the barn. The spin slid me sideways in the saddle with most of my weight hanging low to the left. I grabbed the saddle horn and held on, mounted sideways, on the horse with my right leg over the saddle and my left dangling dangerously near entanglement with its front legs. This unconventional riding style saved my head from smacking the beam above the door opening when Dusty trotted into the barn, where he stood quietly waiting for me to dismount, another slightly unorthodox technique.
In spite of my riding expertise and all around horsemanship skill we eventually married. Me, my wife and now “our” horse moved to a small brick house on 5 acres in the country side near the town where my wife grew up. I’ll have to admit, I gave living in this family unit a second and third thought, knowing I could spend the next several years being harassed by this horse. Once we moved in and borrowed an old horse trailer from a friend, and fellow horse lover, to transport Dusty to his new surroundings, I began construction of a barn and corral. Until the new building, more of a horse palace I’d say, was completed we kept the horse contained with a single strand of electrified wire secured to temporary metal posts with plastic insulators. A word about electric fencing; it is an effective containment method as long as the fencer unit is connected and functioning. If it is not, horses, at least this horse, have an almost supernatural ability to immediately sense a malfunction and break out, providing you the opportunity to spend the entire night and the early hours of the next morning sneaking through your nearby neighbors properties with a flashlight and a grain bucket.
I had the pleasure of spending my entire vacation that summer constructing the 24x32x10 steel sided pole barn and build a board fenced corral, complete with 75 hand dug post holes. A much more rewarding use of my time than say fishing, traveling, camping, spending time at the beach, etc., etc., I must say. Inside the barn, half was dedicated to run in shelter for the horse the other half was for hay storage, grain barrels, saddles and other horse stuff. The two areas were separated by a wall made from left over steel siding panels nailed to posts and 2X4s. The wall was about six feet tall with a one foot space at the bottom, why the space, I don’t recall the logic, probably it allowed me to make use of all the spare panels. The wall also had a hinged door for the access to the run in area. Dusty seemed to like his new turf, huge new barn, spacious new corral, and the 3 acres pasture he had to run around in. We liked our tiny old, two bedroom, single bath, home too.
Once we located a farm from which to purchase hay, we stacked half of the barn with several pickup loads of square bales for winter feeding. Everything seemed to have come together nicely. I even ran water from the house to the horse barn, spending a weekend learning the finicky operation and failings of a rented ditch digging apparatus. One morning my wife went out to do morning chores and found Dusty standing in the barn with a guilty grin on his face and blood dripping from his neck. It so happened that the one foot space at the bottom of the interior steel paneled separating wall was just enough for him to fit his fat head under and help himself to gluttonous portions of hay. He ate his way into the stack of hay and pressed a large half-cone shape dent in the bottom of the steel paneling. Apparently each time he retracted his head with a mouth full of flavorful fodder, his mane scraped along the sharp bottom edge of the panel shaving it down until it looked like a worn out tooth brush. Somehow during his midnight foraging, he managed to slice the side of his neck.
I soon discovered that this horse ownership hobby had additional expenses beyond feed and shelter. As the veterinarian drove away in his brand new fancy four wheel drive Ford pickup, a model I could only dream to afford, I stared at my empty wallet and wondered why we owned a horse. I figured, in spite of my first experience, maybe it was time for me to try riding this horse again. Maybe the gratification from having conquered that challenge would compensate for the deprivation that Dusty was inducing. When the stitches in his neck were out and the wound was sufficiently healed I mounted up. With the barn door closed, I learned that lesson, and the corral gate closed I skillfully guided the horse around the inside of the corral. A slight smile began to form on my face. The second time around did not go so well, when he found out we wouldn’t be going back into the barn. After rounding the first inside corner again I began to feel bumping in the hind section. The bumping turned into bucking. I found myself elevated above the saddle with my face precariously close to the top of his head. I dropped back to the saddle, with my feet dangling stirrup-less, and my butt was met with another violent twitch which got me airborne, gliding gracefully towards a body slam into the boards of the spacious new corral fence. Luckily my ribcage breaking the fence boards slowed my rapid decent and I touched down in the dirt with freshly demolish fencing around me. Dusty trotted back to the barn door and stood quietly facing the opening end. I was in a mild state of shock, but soon realized I was ok, nothing broken, only an annoying snapping noise. The electric fence wire we strung inside the corral fence to keep the horse from pressing against the boards was now cradled beneath my left ear and sparking against my skin. That was the last time I tried to ride that horse.
Desperately trying to derive some value from horse ownership I came up with a brilliant idea. I could use it to help with a simple chore, spreading horse manure. The pasture by now was piled with numerous mounds of manure. I thought if it could be spread, the pasture grass would grow better and even perhaps save me some money on hay. We had an old box spring that would make a perfect drag, but it needed more weight. Behind the garage was an old trailer axle that probably weighed in at a couple hundred pounds. I rolled the axle on top of the box spring and secured it tightly with rope. Another rope was tied from the end of the axle to a collar around Dusty’s neck. My wife warned me that he didn’t care for pulling things, a statement I tried to disregard with determination to make this horse useful. She finally convinced me to let her lead the horse around the pasture given my past incompetence at maintaining control of the horse. The first few manure mounds flattened out nicely. I was feeling a proud Rube Goldberg moment. It wasn’t long until skittishness set in. Dusty, despite lead rope tugging and coaxing by my wife began to back up towards the contraption. Once his hoof struck the metal he reared up, resembling a rider-less scene of Trigger the Lone Rangers horse, at least that’s the peculiar imagery that stuck in my mind. He came down and galloped away forthwith, apparatus flailing side to side in tow behind him.
He disappeared in a cloud of dust over the slight hill at the back of our property but reappeared again swiftly and at a full gallop. As he raced toward the fence at the side of the barn which extended to the property line I could see that axle bouncing back and forth and high up into the air behind him, still attached to him with the rope. The box spring was gone. He didn’t slow in the slightest as he approached the fence and burst right through, boards flying to each side of his body, and heading in a direct line towards me. I could see the whole event in slow motion, his muscled legs digging dirt with each step, lethal scrap iron flailing behind like a death thrasher, his nostrils flared, thrusting loud voluminous bursts of air synchronized with each gallop, evil squinted eyes revealing revengeful intent. It just so happens I had been shooting my revolver earlier that day and still had it loaded, holstered and strapped to my hip. A memory from my childhood involving a horse and six-gun briefly flashed through my mind. I stood crouched like Matt Dillion preparing to draw on the gunslinger that called him out on the streets of Doge City in Gunsmoke.
The thought of drawing and shooting Dusty luckily receded and he bared down on me. I leaped to the side. Lying in the grass I looked on horror as he ran towards the narrow space between the cars parked in our driveway. The axle took once last bounce as he raced between the cars. It became airborne, and flew over the roofs of both cars breaking free and gouged into the dirt on the side of the driveway, leaving the cars undamaged. We spent another night exploring nearby property with a grain bucket and flashlights.
Dusty moved with us to a few more places over the years and in each new place I found accommodation for him. I eventually gave up on the idea of using the horse for something productive, a decision that I’m sure he appreciated and which made my life a little easier. I gained a mild appreciation for the sight of a horse grazing in the pasture with morning fog framing the scene. As long as I kept my distance, I was fine. We had a few incidents, like the time he knocked me though the barn door and leaped over me after I tried to hold him while my wife jammed a medicine filled needle in his neck. Eventually we got another horse, allegedly for me, but really as more of a companion for him. I can’t say I grew fond of him as we both aged but the day I came home and found him on his back with his legs stiff and pointing skyward did cause my eyes to water for a while. Looking back, our adversarial relationship didn’t kill me or even seriously injure me but it did create lots of vibrant memories.