Hard to Catch: Eulogy to a Ranch Horse

He was lying on the ground, one eye staring up toward the grey morning sky. 

As I approached his pen, he lifted his head, grimacing, looking toward me. He was too weak to keep his head up…he slumped back down onto the ground as I climbed the bars into the pen to be with him. Uneasy at my approach, he looked cautiously at me, the way he always looked at humans when they entered his pen, the entire twenty years he had been our family’s horse.

He was badly abused as a young horse. My parents bought him as a seven-year old for my older brother to use as a ranch horse. A sleek, shiny, huge-chested, quick-footed Quarter Horse gelding who was kind and curious, but quivered in his shoes at your approach. He had been broken as a ranch stock horse, but the cowboys had been too rough on him: there were scars on his left shoulder and neck from abuse. For the following twenty years of his life, every single touch from a human hand, no matter how kind, no matter how tentative, was met with a flinch and a grimace. Twenty years of kindness couldn’t heal the mental wounds he had sustained as a colt any more than could be erased the scars on his neck. His name was Jack Daniels.

He flinched in his customary way as I touched his neck and shoulder where the old scars lay under his thick coat, like disc-harrowed rows beneath a winter cover crop. For many years, we all had hoped he would let go of that initial flinching reaction; that he would realize he was finally safe from harm and abuse. After years of no progress, years of still regarding all humans with one wary eye whenever one stood in his presence, we recognized that his memory of abuse was so strong, no amount of kindness could wash it away.

I kept my hand on his neck, stroking him, evaluating the situation. He looked at me with his left eye, as if waiting for me to tell him what to do next. His body was gaunt, his muscle tone gone, his frail frame reflecting his age: twenty seven years. Two decades in service to our family. He carried three generations of riders on his formerly broad, muscular back.

We did everything with him. Being a horse on a working cattle ranch was a job that required diversity. He was a great trail horse. We took him camping. Like a goat, he could navigate the steep terrain of the backcountry in search of lost cattle. He was great in the branding corrals. He could cut, sort, and was our best gait horse. He hobbled, he ground tied. He carried a spade bit. He went in parades.

We didn’t rope off of him much. He was a great header and an even better healer but the zinging ropes sent him into a tizzy, probably from the abuse. He was also terrified of the smell of the branding irons, and could hardly abide hot shoeing for the same reason: the smoke. Regardless of his past fears, he worked through his distrust of people to please us. He was just that kind of horse. We learned not to push him to do things that made him anxious. His appreciation showed in how hard he worked with everything else we asked of him.

When, at 12 years old, I got interested in 4-H and Pony Club, I stole Jack from my big brother. It is a customary tradition among riding families for younger siblings to steal horses from their older brothers and sisters. I probably wasn’t ready for him at the time, but I sure thought I was. He taught me a lot about humility. But he also let me become his. Because of the hit film Titanic, I renamed him Jack Dawson after Leonardo DiCaprio’s teen-swooning character. Jack was my everything, and I was his Rose. His pictures were taped to the wall above my bed, next to Leo’s.
He learned to go English: dressage lessons and Pony Club rallies, and eventually jumping. Kate Winslet hanging off the bow of the Titanic held around the waist by Leo was how I felt when practicing jumping with no hands on Jack’s back. It was a typical teenaged love story. Together we won high point at the county Fair two years in a row by excelling in showmanship, equitation, pleasure, hunter under saddle, and hunter hack. No ropes and smoke, no problem for Jack. Jack would do anything for me.

In his later years, he was the most careful, cautious, kind kid’s horse a family could ever ask for. He became my big brother’s daughter’s horse. She stole his heart like Rose stole Jack’s. He nickered every time she walked into the barn. She shared him generously, though. Cousins, extended family, uncles, aunts, neighbors, friends…anyone who rode him felt safe and secure. He was the best family horse any sibling or grandchild ever stole.

Except that he was always hard to catch. Impossible, sometimes. He was kept in a 40 acre pasture with a small herd of other geldings. Most of them were pocket ponies; easy to catch, mount, and ride back in to the corrals bareback in a halter. But Jack was aloof, weary, and always a few steps out of reach. He almost seemed to take glee out of being hard to catch…he was in charge, which was a rare feeling for a horse so scarred from human domination in his distant past. It was almost easier to round up the whole herd on horseback and run them into the open corrals at the ranch barnyard than it was to take a bucket of grain out to try to catch him up on his own.

One year, as a budding teenaged hopeful horse trainer, I read Monty Robert’s book The Man Who Listens to Horses, a novel about his younger years and how he learned to speak “Equus.” I wanted to learn to speak the language of horses, too. Jack seemed like the perfect candidate for my own research on the topic. I went out with a halter and lead one morning, with no time frame in mind for how long this experiment could take.

I approached him as I normally always did, and he moved away from the herd, always a step ahead of me. He would circle around the herd, then duck back into the middle, hiding behind another gelding or two. Sometimes I thought I could sense him smirking, enjoying the power play, but wary of my movements nonetheless. I circled the herd. The other horses remained quietly grazing in one small group. I moved him gently but firmly away from the center, then worked to stay in between him and the rest of the horses. Jack was at first slightly alarmed. Then he caught on to my new tactic; he realized I was using herd leadership, and he was being ousted from the group. He didn’t like it very much. I kept hazing him. Each time he tried to duck back in to the herd or slow down his pace, I pushed him some more. Eventually, he realized I wasn’t going to give up. He relaxed his poll, still trotting around the tightly grouped geldings. They had stopped grazing and were watching, too. Jack began to lick and chew, and he relaxed his ears and lowered his head as he trotted on. Eventually, he walked. He kept glancing at me, to see if my posture had changed from authoritative to neutral. Very carefully, I changed my stance to neutral, knowing what a sensitive horse he was. As soon as I did, he stopped and faced me. I turned my shoulder, showing him my profile, and stared at his feet in my periphery. He took a step forward. I reached out my hand. Another step forward. For a minute, neither of us moved. Then another step from each of us. Gradually, we were within haltering distance, my shoulder at his neck. He reached out his nose to my hand, just like the photo on the cover of Monty’s famous book. He chose to connect with me, in an acknowledgement that, for the first time, a human was relating to him on an equine level.

When he touched my hand that day, he didn’t flinch. It was the greatest gift a horse ever gave me. I haltered him. We stood there for a moment. He looked at me, waiting to be told what to do next. I removed his halter and he hesitated, confused. Then he went back to the herd.

He was never easy to catch, but each time we did our ritual Join-Up, I got the thrill of being greeted by a horse who didn’t want to trust, but chose to, anyway. Of all the things that Jack taught me, his worst habit, not his best, was in the end what I appreciated most about him.

I stroked his neck, running my fingers over his old, gnarly scars. His muscles were relaxed. He wasn’t flinching any longer. He looked at me, waiting.

He was not going to get up. I stroked his neck again, and he did not flinch.

(c) 1.28.13