I didn’t grow up with horses, but I had always wanted to learn how to ride, live around them and take care of them, too. So a few winters back, with no horse or a place for one, I took a horse and mule packing class from Smoke Elser at his small ranch in the Rattlesnake Valley just north of Missoula. And since that class, I’m trying to remember what I learned that winter, because now I’m getting to know a one year old filly roped wild off the range of the Blackfeet Reservation.
I had been around horses before that class, once even helping move cattle on horseback with cowboys at a Montana ranch. But I knew little about the animal I was on, while the horse knew the job to be done and pretty much ignored me. The horse let me know where we stood when it knocked me right off its back. This was just as the sun was coming up one June morning before we even got started with the cattle. But I got right back on. But that’s another story.
One thing I remember from Smoke Elser’s class is what he said each night before we moved into the barn for the hands-on part of learning of working with the livestock: “All horses and mules will try and bit, kick and stomp you, so be careful and remember what you’ve learned.”
But we had little to fear from Smoke’s old veterans of the pack trails of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Lured into the 100 year old stone barn with pans of sweet oats, they mostly stood rock still as the class fitted pack saddles and britchens and hoisted up pack manties and took them down again. They blinked and breathed and stood still, waiting for the next pan of oats. Some were 15 years old. Some even fell asleep.
Seeing how others in the class worked around the animals – an ex-Special Forces soldier who had packed with mules for operations and a Salish-Kootenai tribal member learning packing skills in order to document cultural sites in the wilderness, among others – and how they showed their care and worked with confidence was good for me to see.
So I got reasonably comfortable around horses and mules, at least in Smoke’s barn, which festooned with the antlers and stories of the wilderness but wasn’t the wilderness. Now I live in the little town of Choteau – where unlike the “big city” of Missoula, people keep horses in their back yards – I’m getting to know Lucky, the wild, one year old or so white and brown “paint” filly. Choteau is cowboy country, too, where everyone rides – sometimes down Main Street – and everyone has horse stories, good and bad. So someone like me who knows little about horses is looked upon as suspect, like a door to door salesmen. And someone like me who isn’t a native of Choteau but who lives here, well that’s even more suspect, but that’s yet another story.
Lucky isn’t mine, but her owner Deb is nice enough to let me get to know Lucky, after giving me a few pointers and making sure I knew Lucky was wild. Deb has two older paints that are a mother-daughter pair, both white and reddish-brown. They act like big dogs with me, because – before Lucky arrived – I had been taking breaks from my work to walk down the street to feed them carrots. Deb visited them every day, but horses are social animals, and those two got to know me and would walk over from across the pasture. Unless the grass was real good eating and it was a few hundred yards back to me, and in that case, they would look over but not come over.
So I’d walk out to them and they would regard me while they ripped up grass and nosed me for oats and carrots. When I didn’t have anything for them, they went back to grazing, heads bent down in the profile you mostly see with horses from a distance.
Deb has rancher friends who live on land on the Blackfeet Reservation, and a few of them managed to rope Lucky on one of the last good fall days before it got cold. They got her in a trailer and drove her down to Choteau.
There are lots of horses on the reservation and they wander the prairie and graze along the roads. It’s no exactly safe for them or for drivers. You have to be careful and on dark nights and slow down. The horses have their own groups and families, and one can see the body language and the hear their voices when two herds are near each other. They run away from me when I stop the truck. Some are in bad shape, with ribs sticking out, a few seem lame from fights. Others are old, and there are always lots of young horses. The Blackfeet are good horsemen (and women), and they don’t ignore the horses, but seem – from my limited perspective – to live with them and let them live, for better or for worse. I suppose the horses are nearly wild. Some have brands, but the way they act and live, they’re at least partly wild.
Late one ten degree below winter day I was driving around the northern reaches of the reservation and when I came over a hill, a herd of eight horses was running in the road, swinging manes and nipping at each other. They stopped to paw some snow away from brown grass, breath steaming, and then ran up a bank and into the unfenced prairie with the sun-reddened peaks of Glacier Park beyond. They were happy, unconcerned with the cold, running like they meant it and didn’t have to think about it.
Because Lucky is the off-spring of two semi-wild horses, Deb had to – regrettably she admitted – choke Lucky down to get a halter and rope on her. Choking down a horse means just that: getting a rope around their neck and choking them into submission. Once they are down, you can get a halter on them. And then tie a lead rope. Then you release the choker rope and get out of the way. It’s brutal. It’s a risk. Sometimes the horse dies. But Lucky didn’t.
And the reason for the name Lucky? Deb and her friends were pretty sure those horses were headed for the canners. That’s what happens to some reservation horses. They get shipped to Canada.
Lucky looked confused and sad for weeks, kept in the corral, sometimes getting her halter hung up on the fence when she tried to rub it off. Most days, she stood still in the shade of the roof, watching and waiting. And staying away from me when I came to visit.
Once Lucky had a halter and a lead rope, Deb was able to approach her. And teach her to not pull back on her rope. And eventually to be brushed. The trick was lots of time, she said, and a handful of sweet feed. Lots of time and gentleness to cure the emotions after being choked down.
But Lucky wanted nothing to do with me at first. One day she took some alfalfa hay from my hand, but then never would again. Maybe it was my scent. Maybe it was because I was male, Deb said. Lucky could sense that, she said.
When I got in the corral, Lucky would run around and around, keeping the most distance she could. She still trailed a 20 foot rope, Deb’s insurance that she could be caught. Lucky trotted around the pen, dragging the rope from her halter. She stayed in that pen for months, getting used to the wind and the scents of a small town and the other horses across the fence. Deb wasn’t going to try and keep her behind a few strands of barbed wire when she was this young. Her other horses had run through the fence last summer when a grizzly bear was wandering around town. And being half-wild, Lucky could be spooked by a lot less, run through the fence and be gone.
One day in the pen I grabbed the end of the blue trailing rope. I already had an idea of what would happen. Lucky’s eyes flicked down to the rope and then to my face. She knew I had the rope. And when I took up the slack and the rope grew taught, Lucky flicked her head. She ripped the rope right through my hands.
I knew that would happen so I hadn’t wrapped the rope around my hand. That’s a good way to break a wrist or loose fingers.
Everyone in Choteau has a horse wreck story. They can even get listed in the local paper in the weekly sheriff’s log if they happen in town. Titanium plates in heads, blown out knees that take months to heal. And relatives and friends tell of the dead, too.
Later, I told Deb what happened with the rope, and she knew it would. She told me to be firm and keep trying. And it took six or more tries over the next few weeks.
But one day, Lucky stopped pulling and stood still. So I slowly walked toward her, reeling in rope but keeping it loose in my hands not wrapping it in case she jumped. Lucky stayed put, but her eyes flashed and her ears pointed straight at me. There was a little breeze, so I swung to the side and upwind. Lucky’s nose worked and worked. And I walked right up to her. Within reach.
But I didn’t try to touch her. I just stood there for a minute. I watched her bright eyes. She sniffed and worked her lips. Her ears pointed at me. And when I dropped the rope, Lucky bolted away, and rope snaking away.
So the next day I got a handful of pellets from the the tack room, and did the same thing. She lay her warm nose in my palm, sniffing, deciding. And finally taking some, her lips working my hand, tasting and backing away a step. Her whiskers worked, there was mud on the side of her head, and she had some scars on her face from back when she was growing up on the reservation. Her paint pattern looked like butterfly wings draped over her back. Her hair and mane looked like a little kids’ who had just woken up.
So much of being around horses is intangible. But I had been told that speaking with the same tone of voice and being confident and consistent is very important. Showing those qualities is a form of communication. Humans know those things below the level of our senses. Horses must know these things as primary.
And with Lucky, I guess that meant just standing there, looking into her eyes. I’m no horse whisperer, that’s for sure. Some days Lucky is just plain spooked from something, and I don’t force my hand. I think she’ll always be a little wild.
A few weeks after that day I was able to get close to Lucky, Deb let Lucky out into the main pasture with her other two paints, and they started grazed together. And when I walked out to all three, Lucky recognized me, but kept her distance. The older paint horse was a bit jealous and moved between me and Lucky. And Lucky let that happen. She was in a herd now and knew her place. She was getting to know where she stood.
So I know a little more about horses now. And I think that horse I rode when moving cattle probably decided to put up with me for the day, thinking he could teach me something.