Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Heather Smith Thomas — Notes from Sky Range Ranch: Nell, The Mare Who Taught Me the Most

Dad and Mom and me (riding Nell) up on our mountain pasture

When our family started ranching, my dad bought a brown Thoroughbred filly named Nell from an old rancher who raised good horses. Nell hadn’t been handled much, so my dad sent her to be started by a horse breaker. Dad and I were both inexperienced in horse training — his experience was with teams of work horses he drove as a boy on his parents’ farm, and I’d learned to ride on my own by trial and error and reading everything horse related I could get my hands on. I’d barely joined the new 4-H horse club in our valley and was still a novice in the finer points of horsemanship.

The man who “broke” Nell was not a trainer. She came back broke to ride but resentful of humans. Dad rode her with caution. My uncle rode her and got bucked off. She was very sensitive and proud, with a lot of heart and spirit. If someone abused her, she fought back. Her bad start with the horse breaker got her off on the wrong foot.

Dad riding skittish Nell in the lane through our orchard
(she's shying at the camera person)

She was intelligent, fast, agile, and quick as a cat. You had to be a good rider to stay topside when she was working cows or spooking at something; she could be across the road and heading in the opposite direction in the blink of an eye — yet she was very coolheaded for a Thoroughbred. Her sire, Cheyenne Chief, was a cavalry remount stallion, and the rancher who stood him at stud ran him in races at the county fair (always winning) and would then use Chief as a pickup horse in the rodeo arena the same afternoon. It takes a calm, sane horse to do that. Nell came by her speed honestly, too. Chief’s sire, Pillary, won the Belmont Stakes and the Preakness in 1922 and was the top money-winning Thoroughbred that year.

During my second year in 4-H, my younger brother joined the club and needed a horse to ride. Dad talked me into taking Nell for my project and letting Rocky have Ginger. I was reluctant, because I was afraid of Nell. She was four years old then, still sulky, still carrying her fierce resentment. She was hard to catch and kicked me on the leg one time when I tried to corner her in our corral. She tolerated me sometimes, and other times she’d outright let me know she’d rather I just leave her alone. Once I tried to stroke her neck after I caught her, and she nipped me on the cheek. That really hurt my feelings because I wanted to be friends with her.

My brother Rocky and I rode range nearly every day to check cattle, and we also rode to town twice a week that summer to 4-H meetings at the fairgrounds. It was a 28-mile round trip to town. Nell usually settled down after about the first 8 miles but was often sulky or skittish when starting a ride.

Nell, with her well-balanced athletic conformation

The first few times I rode her that spring, we had arguments in the barnyard when I first got on, but by then I was a good enough rider to keep her from bucking. But twice that spring she went over backward with me during those early arguments in the barnyard. Somehow I managed to jump clear. The second time she did it, she lay in the road sulking, and my dad had to whip her to make her get up. Mom didn’t want me to ride her, but I swallowed my fear and got back on. As summer passed we cautiously felt each other out and got along a little better.

Nell had a lot of spirit and kept me constantly on my toes. Riding her did more than anything else to make me a good rider and learn to respect and be sensitive to my horse. I treated her decently, and she began to respond. We made some very long, tough rides in steep country moving cattle, but I never abused her. I lost my fear and gained a deep and lasting respect for her agility and judgment. She had a wonderful ability to handle herself in rough country; she never stumbled or fell with me. I learned to trust both her judgment in choosing the best way to go through precarious footing at top speed and her ability to outrun and outmaneuver any other critter on four legs. I marveled at her courage and stamina.

We went through a lot together, and she began to accept me. We became a team. When a horse gives you everything she’s got, doing a hard job, all you can do is humbly appreciate it and be grateful. This didn’t happen overnight, however. Her acceptance of me and her willingness to work her heart out for me was a gradual thing that took several years. She finally tolerated me enough to let me catch her. She still didn’t come up to me like the other horses did, but she’d stand and let me walk up to her, no longer trying to avoid me.

The morning of the fair and rodeo (Nell and I were ready
to enter the Rodeo Queen contest and then change saddles
to participate in the 4-H dressage test)

She was my 4-H project from eighth grade all through high school, and we did very well at the county fair and all the open horse-show classes. Our first bareback class was a spur-of-the-moment thing; I’d never ridden her bareback. I’d been afraid to, because she was so quick and catty. But we entered and came out with the blue ribbon.

We developed a bond that words can’t describe. But the thing that truly cemented that bond occurred when she got injured. Nell was seven years old and carrying her first foal, which was to be my next 4-H project.

In March that year Nell jumped a barbed-wire fence and cut her left front foot. It was a deep cut above the hoof, and I treated it every day after school for many weeks. She had the foal in May — a nice colt — but we lost him at a month old from complications following gelding by our veterinarian. I stayed up all night in the corral with him and Nell, but the little fellow grew weaker. At 4 a.m. I woke my brother, and he rushed off to town in the Jeep to call the vet (since we didn’t have a telephone at the ranch), but little Amahl died in my arms before the vet could get there. Nell stood over me, worried about her baby. After he died she nuzzled the body and knew that wasn’t her baby anymore. She wandered around the corral and whinnied a couple of times, making a sound I’d never heard before, and it tore my heart out. Then she came back and nudged me with her head.

Her injured foot was still mending. The wound had developed proud flesh, and I treated it twice a day — a challenging ordeal. Back then the traditional treatments were harsh; scrub and pick off the scabs and apply a caustic agent to eat away the overgrowing tissue. I spent hours doctoring that mare, and through it all came a bond of trust and respect that was deeper than I’ve ever had with any other horse.

Nell taught me patience. If I was in a hurry or frustrated because of her avoidance of the hurtful medication, she wouldn’t let me handle the foot at all. At first, with my dad helping me, we tried various methods of restraint. There were ropes and harsh words and exasperated failures. But by midsummer I was treating her without fuss. I had to discard attempts at restraint, forget my fear of her stomping or kicking. I had to calmly get right down under her feet and trust her — and she finally came to trust me. From that point on I could walk up to her anywhere in the pasture and work on that foot, and she’d stand there quietly and let me do it, and the foot was looking better.

That summer some of us in 4-H studied dressage. We borrowed flat saddles and learned to ride English. I rode one of the club leader’s horses all summer in class but had my heart set on using Nell for the final test at the fair. It was late summer when I finally began riding her again, after she was no longer lame — they were brief rides because she was out of shape and her injured tendon was badly shortened. I was still treating the foot daily. I rode her only 10 minutes at first, then 20, then 30, stretching the lame tendon, going through the dressage pattern.

She learned the movements quickly. We did in 2½ weeks what our class had been teaching their horses all summer and made it to the fair — placing second in the final test. We entered a few open classes, too, and placed, even though Nell still didn’t want to take her left lead. This should have been the happy ending, but it wasn’t.

By late fall the proud flesh was reduced to a small line of scar tissue, and I was just putting a little ointment on it now and then to keep it soft. Nell was in a big field with the rest of the horses, for winter pasture. I was checking on her every 2 or 3 days.

A few weeks after the fair, I hiked up there to put more ointment on her foot, but Nell wasn’t with the other horses. I finally saw her up on the ridge—outside our fence. My heart sank. She wouldn’t be all by herself unless something was dreadfully wrong, and I was already guessing. I had a halter, so I put it on Ginger and rode her bareback up the steep hill, trying to keep from sliding off as she lunged up the slope.

Nell was cut up again, both front feet this time. She’d taken out about 30 yards of fence in her struggles. The old posts were broken off and the whole fence was dragged down the hill. Nell had been there a long time. The blood was dried, and her front legs were so swollen and stiff she could hardly move.

She was so glad to see me, so forlorn and hurt. After the ordeal we’d just been through to heal her earlier wound, it broke my heart. I sent Ginger back down the hill and put the halter on Nell. I gently coaxed her across the strands of barbed wire on the ground, and it took more than an hour to lead her down off the hill, one careful step at a time. Every step she took was torture. She tried so hard to move, but the pain made her tremble, and she tried to carry most of her weight on her hind legs — very difficult while going downhill.

We finally made it to the field and shuffled painfully to the creek and across it. It was almost dark when I got her down to the barnyard. I then drove to town to get some medication. As I left she called out to me — that same unearthly lonely sound she’d made when Amahl died and when I came to get her up on that ridge. It gave me such a horribly helpless feeling to have her looking so trustingly to me for help when there was nothing more I could do to ease her pain.

Thus began another 6 months of doctoring, only this time it was harder because it was both front legs and it was winter. For the first 3 weeks, we didn’t know if Nell would survive. She wouldn’t put much weight on those legs and spent so much time lying down that we worried she might give up or get pneumonia. I carried feed and water to her, but most of it sat untouched as she grew thinner. She didn’t seem to care.

Finally, she began to improve and spent more time standing. I treated her wounds twice a day all winter. By spring she was healing, and I began to ride her a little every day to give her exercise to strengthen and lengthen the injured tendons and reduce the swelling in her front legs.

1962, a few hours after the birth of Nell's second foal, Nikki —
the filly who grew up to become my best cow horse

Nell recovered and continued to be a great cow horse. The scars remained, but once she got back in shape she was able to handle the cattle work just like she always did. She had four more foals, two fillies and two colts. The filly she had in 1962 (Nikki) grew up to be the best cow horse I ever had. Nell retired from hard ranch work in her mid-twenties and died peacefully and suddenly from a heart attack, a few years later.

There was something special between her and me that I never gained with any other horse. I’ve had a lot of good horses over the years, but the bond of trust I had with Nell meant more, perhaps because her confidence was so hard to win. My other horses have meant a lot, too, but in different ways. The ones I raised myself — I had their confidence from the beginning. The bond of understanding between Nell and me, which grew out of so much heartache, tears, and hard work when I was a girl, has never been equaled.

To be continued . . .

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook. You can read all of her Notes from Sky Range Ranch posts here.

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