Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — Khamir’s Story

My 14-year-old mare Khamette gave birth to her only foal,
Khamir, in early spring 1973.

As I write this, on July 5, 2010, it’s been exactly 10 years since our daughter Andrea was severely burned in a wildfire accident. She spent the rest of that summer in the Intermountain Burn Center ICU in Salt Lake City, Utah, fighting for her life, starting the long, arduous journey toward recovery. I will tell more about this experience (and how it affected our family and changed our lives) in later blogs, but today I want to dedicate this space to the feisty little mare that became Andrea’s first horse and tell about their adventures together.

Khamir came into our lives in 1973, a sassy chestnut filly with four white feet and a white star-strip down her forehead — destined to be a horse for our young daughter. When our children were small, we wanted them each to have a horse of their own, so we bred two of our ranch mares. One of those mares was my old Khamette, the first horse I raised myself, born when I was 15. I raised her as a 4-H project and trained her from the time she was a baby. She and I traveled many miles together, climbed a lot of mountains, and chased a lot of cows while working on my dad's ranch.

Khamette with her filly Khamir at a week of age

Khamir was her only foal, born when Khamette was 14. Khamette was such a dependable all-around ranch horse that we never gave her more than that one year off to have a baby. Khamir was sassy and independent from the beginning; training her was a challenge. I wondered if she would ever become a dependable horse for our little girl. But Andrea (who by then was riding old Khamette, tagging along with me to ride range) loved the feisty filly. I spent a lot of time working with Khamir and gentling her, hoping that someday she'd be calm, well mannered, and trustworthy. In the meantime, Andrea continued to ride Khamette (who was by then 20 years old) and even competed with her on a 40-mile endurance ride, where she received an award for being the youngest rider on the oldest horse.

Andrea at age 6, with her young mare

Andrea began riding Khamir when the young mare was 5 and Andrea was 7. I was still hesitant to have the two of them go off into the hills on their own; the sassy red mare was still a handful for a little girl. But the next year, when Andrea was more confident and the mare a little more dependable, Andrea did some range riding by herself. They were becoming a team.

Andrea and Khamir helping sort and move some cattle
to our upper place on a winter day

At first we'd start the ride together, and I'd open and shut the gates until we reached the range pastures where we needed to check cattle. Then we'd split up, to cover more territory, and meet again at a designated spot several hours later to eat lunch and compare notes. We each had our own hip-pocket "cow book," a notebook with a list of all the cows, and we’d try to see them all on every ride. We checked our cattle often when they were on summer range, to make sure they were healthy (no foot rot, pinkeye, snakebite, or calves with pneumonia). If we discovered a sick animal, we brought it home for medical attention.

We also checked water troughs, fences, and gates. If gates got left open, cattle strayed into the wrong pastures, and we’d go look for them.

At first I'd pray when Andrea took off over the mountain by herself on that mare, hoping she would not have any trouble or get bucked off. But she always managed just fine, and it gave her confidence, being able to do an important job by herself. She was becoming an excellent rider and a lot of help to me. She knew the cattle as well as I did and could recognize a cow or calf from a distance without having to ride close to read its tag number. She also had an intuitive feel for sickness and health in an animal, and I could trust her judgment. If she thought a case of pinkeye was serious enough to need treatment, or a calf looked a little dull and might be getting pneumonia, she was usually right.

She and Khamir became good at herding and chasing cattle. If we had to bring one home for some reason and the cow didn't want to leave the herd (making a mad dash for the brush or trying to get away from us), Andrea and her mare could handle their part of the job very well. We could always round up even the wildest cow.

By the time Andrea was 9, she sometimes rode out by herself to check cattle on days I was too busy. The child was strong enough by then to open and shut the difficult wire gates. And she could always manage to get back on Khamir, pulling herself up by the saddle strings to get her foot into that short little stirrup. She was proud of her mare the day she brought home a cow and calf all by herself; the cow needed treatment for pinkeye. It had been difficult herding the pair up out of brushy Baker Creek, over the mountain, and through a gate, but she and her good little cowhorse had managed the job without any help.

As the years went by, Andrea rode many miles on the range
to check cattle, fences, and gates.

They made a good team. But they had bad moments, too, like the time they were trying to head off a wild cow running full speed down a steep, rocky hillside. The cow was trying to get into the timber to get away. Khamir tripped and fell, tumbling Andrea over her head. Luckily, the child didn't land on a rock. She and the mare scrambled back to their feet, Andrea climbed back on, and they took off again full tilt after the cow. They caught up with the wayward bovine before she could disappear in the thick timber.

Another time when Khamir was still young and flighty, Andrea helped me gather cattle and move them to the next range pasture. We'd ridden for 8 hours and had the cattle rounded up, moving them along a creek bottom. The canyon was brushy, and cows were going up both sides of the little creek. Andrea decided to go across the creek to follow the cattle on the far side. There wasn't a good crossing; low-hanging branches made it impossible to ride across. So she got off the mare to lead her through the brush. Khamir didn't want to step into the water and jumped the little creek, landing on Andrea's leg and bruising it. I heard the child screaming, so I jumped off my horse, tied him to a tree, and ran through the bushes to see what had happened. Andrea was lying on the ground weeping.

After assessing the damage and realizing the leg was not broken, we debated what to do. I asked if she wanted to go home and put ice on the leg (it was starting to swell), but she said no, we had to finish moving the cows. So I caught her mare, helped her back on, and we rode 2 more hard hours driving the cattle, Andrea riding with only one foot in a stirrup.

As the years went by, Andrea and Khamir went many miles together. Andrea enjoyed riding in the mountains, checking cattle and seeing wildlife. She and Khamir watched bobcats, coyotes, bighorn sheep (rare in our area), and bears, besides the usual deer, antelope, and elk.

Andrea especially enjoyed seeing elk. Often she'd get very close to them, like the time she and Khamir rode into a large group of elk cows with calves. The calves were confused, never having seen a horse before, and some ran up to her horse, making their high-pitched “eeep eeep” noises. Another time they were on a hillside watching a group of elk run down the mountain, when Khamir suddenly snorted and spun around. A big bull elk had come up right behind them.

In 1986 Khamir (at age 13) had her first foal.

One year Khamir suffered a serious stone bruise on a front foot, after a hard cow chase through sharp rocks. She was lame and needed several weeks' rest from work. So we bred her that summer, and the next year she had a colt, named Khamahn. By this time Andrea was training a young mare and had something else to ride — and decided to raise a few more foals from Khamir. She had two more colts, Diablo and Fozzy. Still hoping for a filly, we bred her again. But that dream was not to be.

Andrea and Diablo, Khamir's third foal

Khamir's offspring gave Andrea several nice young horses to train
and gave her more experience in handling and training horses.

The old mare was due to foal in about a month, and we were hurrying to get the foaling pen ready. I always put our pregnant mares in pens next to the house, under the yard light, so I can watch them at night as their time comes to foal. We had about 2 more days' work on a new pen; then we planned to move Khamir from her little pasture and put her by the house where I could watch her more closely.

I went out that Sunday morning early to feed the horses and found Khamir lying dead. She had lain down to sleep or to roll and ended up with her back slightly downhill on a small slope. Being heavily pregnant and clumsy, she was apparently unable to get up, and pressure from her big belly caused her to suffocate. So we lost both her and the baby.

If only she hadn't lain on the slope. If only we'd had her in the foaling pen (a more level spot — and I could have peeked at her a few times during the night, from my window). If only it had happened during the day, when we could have seen her and helped her get back up. My mind was churning over all the “what ifs,” all the things we could have done differently.

But life isn't like a tape you can rewind past a certain place and start over. So with tears streaming down my face I trudged back to the house to wake the rest of the family and break the sad news and let Andrea have some time alone with her old friend to say good-bye. The two of them grew up together, and the parting wasn't easy. As my husband and I buried Khamir in the old garden spot later that day, hundreds of memories flooded back, of our little girl growing up and learning to ride, becoming my best cow-chasing partner and range-riding buddy, on her sassy chestnut mare.

It was the end of an era. With Khamir gone, it was also the end of that family of ranch horses. Khamir was Khamette's only foal, and Khamir's foals were all boys. Geldings. They were the last of the line. It was also the end of another era. Our little girl had grown up and was ready to launch out on a life of her own. Khamir was a part of her childhood and youth, now gone. A chapter of life finished. The mare's passing came as a sort of punctuation mark, emphasizing the fact that my little girl's childhood was past. But what they shared together — what we all shared — will be with us forever. Wistful thoughts. Good memories. Special times.

I'm grateful that Khamir and Andrea made such a good team, grateful that even though the mare was at times a difficult challenge for the child, Andrea had spunk and determination and was able to meet that challenge and gain confidence and ability. A youngster needs to reach for some goals, attempt some tasks that may seem too big, especially in the eyes of parents who worry that the child can't handle it. We don't want to see the child get hurt. But if we overprotect our children and wait until we think they are ready for a hard task, they may lose interest. We need to let them reach for the stars, try those challenges, and have some successes that give them confidence, self-assurance and satisfaction — and make us proud of them. Our children need that quest, to accomplish something that makes us proud.

Andrea was a timid little girl who took on the challenge of a naughty, feisty chestnut filly. Together they worked through all the problems and became a team, helping each other grow into their fullest potential. That mare was special. I know that Andrea's memories of growing up in our family here on the ranch will always be intertwined with memories of Khamir. And Khamir will always have a very special place in my heart, as well.

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.


Bonnie said...

I love reading all of Heather Smith Thomas's posts about life on her ranch. But this is the first one that has left me crying at my computer. What a moving story - thank you.

Sue Weaver said...

Wow, I agree with what Bonnie says. Heather's stories are the best and this one made a huge lump in my throat.