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My Free Horse

My Free Horse


Fly-fisherman with Brown Trout
Me with a nice brown trout that came up to visit me while fishing on the South Fork near my home

One day my neighbor Cheryl asked whether I’d like a free horse a friend of hers was trying to unload. I asked the appropriate questions of why the horse was free.  The story was, although broke no one could ride her as she spooked easily. I have trained spooks, and other horses inexperienced riders couldn’t handle and I had successfully turned them into good horses. Now I’m not a good horse trainer, but I am cheap.  What I lack in good sense I make up for in my willingness to do reckless things. I have always preferred to buy green broke horses as they have most of the buck out of them yet lacking the real training of a finished horse makes them cheaper.  I decided to go take a look at this free horse.

She was an Arab mare so I should have returned home right away after this revelation, but this problematic hunk of horseflesh did have great confirmation so I was intrigued; I wasn’t crazy about her color, a grey coat with tiny brown spots which are known as “flea-bitten gray.” Despite the fact, she appeared to hate people and was nearly impossible to catch, the price appeared to be good so I took her home. You can’t beat free!

Trial rider, Idaho mountains
My son Scott on a trail ride with my up Bear Creek in the Caribou Mountains of eastern Idaho.

I have found over the decades that a horse’s personality will mirror their name, a couple of horses from my past taught me that. I learned to ride on a testy, fiery red colored sorrel named Satan, and later not having learned my lesson from Satan, I bought a foul tempered whirlwind of an appaloosa named Diablo, Spanish for “the devil.” A name wasn’t conveyed to me for this mare so I named her Cupcake.

As I ground worked Cupcake in the round pen I realized she was spookier than most, after I started riding her she confirmed she was quite fearful of her hallucinations, the hallucinations she incessantly jumped from must have been horrible things. A perfect mind? I don’t think so!

I took Cupcake to the arena to see how she would act around other horses. On Mondays all the 4-H families show up for equestrian activities. My friends were impressed that this old fat guy was willing to give such and ignorant and dangerous horse a try; they also had some other opinions they kept to themselves. After several Mondays, I was still intact and Cupcake was coming along, but was still very problematic. 

Horseback at Lake Solitude in the Grand Tetons
A horseback rider taking in the view high in the Grand Tetons at Lake Solitude.

I enjoy horses because they are my elevator into the high mountain wilderness around my home. It was time to see how Cupcake would do on the trails.  I often ride alone, but I wouldn't ride this unpredictable mare on steep mountain trails unless I brought someone along to bring out my body, my old friend Tony was willing. Off to Big Elk Creek in the Snake River Range we went.

When I first take a new horse on a trail, I have found it handy to have an experienced mountain horse to follow. A horse may shy from obstacles, but their fear of being left behind supersedes their fear of the obstacle.  I put Tony on my good horse Sherman and told him I’d follow.  Cupcake would have none of this following stuff, she wanted to lead, so we got out front and she loved it. She acted as though she had been a mountain horse for years, no spooking, no balking or nothing.  The more she, gave the more I asked, and she didn’t disappoint.  It was June and spring runoff was peaking, and Big Elk Creek was running high yet I wanted to see whether Cupcake would cross the water and dang it if she didn’t trudge right through swift shoulder deep water as if it were a puddle in the pasture –I was impressed; this girl was showing some real promise. Optimistically I hoped she was just arena sour and preferred the mountains.

Horseback riders, Snake River Range
My son Scott and friends riding Palisades Creek Trail inSwan Valley Idaho. This is no place to be on a unpredictable horse without a friend to bring home the body.

Soon, I wanted to take her on another trail ride but again I didn’t want to go without someone to pick up the pieces if things went south for me, so I again phoned Tony but he declined mumbling something like: “I ain’t going to ride that rough riding quarter horse again, my ass hasn’t recovered yet, after I recover I might ride Cupcake.” I couldn't find anyone else to go either.

I decided that I’d just ride her around at home. It was so windy I considered putting the saddle over her ass to keep the wind from blowing the bridle out of her mouth but decided otherwise.  I tried to saddle her but for one reason, or another she was jumpier than usual and she balked and violently pulled back on her halter and lead rope repeatedly.  Tied to my portable round pen she kept jerking it out of round. My wife, yelling from the house, suggested I should put her away and try again when Cupcake wasn’t so upset, but I don’t like to reward poor behavior so I carried on. After awhile I completed the extended task of bridling and saddling her. Cupcake seemed slow to grow into her new name.

A cowboy and his horse - Daryl L. Hunter
Me the pseudo horse whisperer with my horse Jake. Jake wasn't much of a lsitener

Upon completion of getting her saddled I re-rounded, the round pen, as this was where I was to initially ride.  I rode her around the round pen for about a half hour.  As I did my merry-go-round thing in the round pen and Cupcake jumped to the left from this and jumped to the right from that, I pondered:  “Just how much is this free horse going to cost me?” Since she seemed to hint, she was getting into the groove of things, and calming down I thought I’d ride up the road a bit. Riding along the road, if something went wrong a car would soon come along and report the wreck.

The Wrangler, Jackson Hole Wyoming
The Wrangler, Jackson Hole Wyoming

I opened the gate and rode through and all was well and good for the first five yards until the boogieman attacked her from the right and she broke into a dead run to the left.  The problem with the left was the approaching barbed wire fence, if she went through it, it wouldn’t be pretty. I had visited barbed wire while mounted on a horse before; I learned it was good to avoid it.  If she went over the fence, I risked landing hard on the asphalt of the road on the other side. Since I had sworn off road rash when I quit riding motorcycles, I reined her back as hard as possible, but instead of slowing or stopping Cupcake threw up her rear legs as high as she could while running and catapulted me forward. Oops, I should have attempted to rein her with all my might to the left and turned her. Meanwhile, as I was sailing through the air I concentrated, ever so briefly, how I could land and not break my neck as a friend had done several years previous. I had some powerful forward velocity, and it was a wonder I had any time to plan, but time really slows down during brief thoughtful moments of crisis. I hastily picked a choice and convenient spot on my left shoulder/upper arm, unfortunately for my face there wasn’t the desired six degrees of separation between my cheek and ground dwelling prickly cactus that called my pasture home.

Ouch, as I laid there trying to catch my breath I felt fortunate about narrowly avoiding ground contact on my neck, but simultaneous cussed the cactus in my eye and the paucity of air in my lungs.  During a moment of brief oxygen adequacy, I stood up and took a few steps over to the fence where I found a supportive post where I again worked on accumulating enough oxygen for my next move.

After about five minutes, although still windless, I knew I had to try to catch that spooky horse. Still struggling for air I would have gladly put off the task, but I was afraid that if Cupcake remained loose she would get hit by a car. Luckily when I found her down at the neighbors she thought she was cornered and I walked right up to her and removed the saddle in case she bolted and made a run for it. I left it on the ground and uneventfully led her home. I returned for the saddle and put it away.

Me after the wreck, take note of the cactus hanging off my cheek and the thorns embedded in my hat. I apologize for my wife’s photography skills
Me after the wreck, take note of the cactus hanging off my cheek and the thorns embedded in my hat. I apologize for my wife’s photography skills

I took a brief inventory of myself and knew there was a round cactus ball hanging from my cheek and severe chest pain, and a lack of oxygen was indicative of broken ribs. Disheveled and bloody I dragged my sorry carcass into the house and told my wife to get the camera, as I was sure a story lived here somewhere. Sharon clearly not crazy about my new cactus bling and bloody accents freaked out; you know how they are! Sharon’s mouth went into overdrive oscillating from anger to concern and a few yadda, yadda, and yadda’s and I told you so's!  I gave her a very brief summery of the event but told to hurry and take the damn photo so I could start removing the cactus, thorns, dust and blood.  Sharon reluctantly complied, but with her mouth still in overdrive she blew the photo with a point and shoot camera in perfect light; an impossible task!

After an hour of pulling thorns out of my eyelids, eyebrows, beard, cheek, etc., it was time to take a look at my insides.  A trip to the emergency room, x-rays and an MRI revealed three broken ribs in my back and another broken rib in my chest. The x-ray tech and the MRI operators where more thoughtful about focus and exposure of their pictures than was my wife, but those photos were much more expensive.

I couldn’t work for following three weeks and now with a complete pile of invoices and an extended negative cash flow, l now unequivocally understood the price of that “free horse.”




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