Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — Ginger, Part One: The Orphan

When my family started purchasing the upper ranch on Withington Creek in 1955 (a couple of summers after we’d been living in the cabin above it), we also got a new horse. A chestnut yearling filly named Ginger came with the ranch. Ginger was a friendly, inquisitive character but also a bit spoiled. She’d been orphaned at birth and raised on a bottle, so she was more like a big puppy dog than a horse.

Ginger and me in 1956, the summer after we bought the ranch.
She was more like a big puppy than a horse.

Her mother was a part-Thoroughbred mare named Lady Larabee, who belonged to Pepper Witteborg, the teenage boy whose mother, Ida, was selling the ranch to my parents. When Pepper went off to college the fall before Ginger was born, the old mare was turned out on the range with several other horses. Mr. Witteborg planned to round her up off the range the next spring and bring her home, because the old mare was going to have a foal.

As the story was told to us by Ida Witteborg, her husband rode out on the range a few times to check on the little band of horses, and they were doing fine — fat and happy as they roamed over the mountains. It was a mild winter, and the snow never got deep. The horses didn’t have to paw through very much snow to find grass, and the wind blew the snow off some of the ridges. It also melted off some of the south-facing slopes. So the horses were doing well and had plenty of food.

Spring came, and the old mare would soon be foaling. Mr. Witteborg rode out on the range to find Lady Larabee and bring her home. But when he found the herd of horses, the mare was not with them. He searched the surrounding hills and didn’t find her and finally had to give up and ride home because it was getting dark. The next day he and a neighbor rode out again to look for the mare.

At last they found her, in a sheltered little draw behind a grove of trees. She was lying down behind the bushes. As they rode closer, they could see that she was dead. What a shame, they thought, since the old mare had been so close to foaling.

Ginger as a 2-year-old, gentle and trusting

But wait! Something moved! The horses the men were riding started snorting as they approached the dead mare, and now they snorted even more and pricked their ears. They all heard a pathetic little whinny. A tiny foal scrambled to its feet, from where it had been lying on the other side of the mare, out of the wind. Upon hearing the other horses, the foal had gotten up and now came staggering and wobbling toward them. It was hungry and weak.

Mr. Witteborg got off his horse and handed the reins to his friend, then slowly approached the whinnying baby. The little filly came right up to him and nuzzled his arm, trying to suck his sleeve. He stroked the soft, velvety head and neck and spoke quietly and soothingly to the hungry baby, while at the same time taking a closer look at the dead mare.

Lady Larabee hadn’t been dead very long. Mr. Witteborg hoped the foal had been able to nurse the mare before she died, but he wasn’t sure. The baby was very hungry and weak. He gathered the foal up in his arms and carried it toward his horse. The horse snorted and jumped around as he approached, but his friend held the horse steady while Mr. Witteborg lifted the wiggling foal up across the saddle, then mounted the skittish horse. He and his friend rode slowly home, with the foal balanced across Mr. Witteborg’s lap.

When they reached the ranch, Ida Witteborg told him to bring the foal into the house to warm it, and she heated some milk on the stove. They tried to get the foal to suck a bottle, using a lamb nipple, but the foal refused to suck. So Ida squirted some of the warm milk into the back of the foal’s mouth with an eyedropper, and the foal had to swallow it. She fed the foal about half a cup of milk with the eyedropper, a little at a time.

By the next feeding the foal was a little stronger and more eager and sucked the bottle enthusiastically. Foals nurse their mothers much more often than baby calves do, so Ida got up every couple of hours during the night to feed this baby. She and her husband fixed a place for the foal on the enclosed front porch of the house, fencing off part of the porch with chairs and creating a soft bed of hay for the foal to lie in. Ida named her Ginger because of her golden chestnut color.

Ginger in our yard with some of the other horses

By the time Ginger was a couple of days old, she was much more lively and strong and needed more room. They made a place for her outside in one of the sod-roofed sheds and extended the bottle feedings to every 3 hours. Eventually, she lived in the orchard pasture with the ranch horses for company, and Ida fed her just four bottles a day. Ginger became so attached to her human “mothers” that she wasn’t very interested in the other horses; she preferred to spend time with people. She often followed Ida up onto the porch and tried to go into the house.

Ginger was a big sassy yearling in 1955 when the ranch was sold to my family. Ida told us about the filly’s unusual background, which explained why she liked to follow us around and come into the house yard every chance she got. She was a little pushy and spoiled but also very trusting, like the time I walked through the orchard and Ginger came limping up to me, wanting me to take a rock out of her foot. It was wedged tightly in the sole of her hoof, but she stood very patiently as I picked up her foot and pulled and pried and finally got the rock out.

She made a nuisance of herself in the barnyard, however, always getting in the way, always chewing on everything, always getting into trouble. That next summer my dad decided Ginger should live in the pasture up Cheney Creek with our other horses. At first Ginger was unhappy about being banished from the orchard and barnyard because she wanted to be with people, not horses. But soon she adapted to her new status and stayed with the little group of horses — Old Possum, Nosey, and a 2-year-old filly named Nellace that my uncle had bought as a future ranch horse.

I wanted to train Ginger to ride, but my dad didn’t think that was a very good idea. Because Ginger had been raised by humans and was spoiled and headstrong, my dad felt she might be too much challenge for an inexperienced 13-year-old girl to train. The filly liked to have her own way, and since she was big and strong, Dad thought I might have trouble. Ginger was gentle and would probably never buck, but she was stubborn and might be a difficult pupil for someone who had never trained a horse.

So my father asked the neighboring rancher, Mr. Gooch, to “start” Ginger. Mr. Gooch took her down to his place for a couple of weeks, got her used to wearing a saddle and bridle, and rode her every day for a while, teaching her to stop, move out, and turn. He had to be very firm with her at first, but she was smart and soon realized that it was easier to obey than to fight with her rider.

Ginger and me — after I started riding her

After those two weeks of “kindergarten,” Ginger was more ready for me to start riding her, and I gladly took on the task of continuing her training. The filly was very bold and not afraid of anything, and it wasn’t very long before the two of us were going out into the hills every day to check on the cattle. Ginger had a fast trot, and I enjoyed riding her.

I rode her so much that summer that her feet started to get tender and she needed shoes. Dad always put the shoes on our other horses, but he was busy with some other things right then and also felt that maybe it would be good to have a professional farrier put Ginger’s first set of shoes on.

Dad wasn’t home when the farrier came. I haltered Ginger and brought her to the barnyard for the farrier to shoe her. Being timid and inexperienced, I didn’t speak up or protest when he tied her to the crosspiece on our big pole gate by the barn. She was fairly well halter-trained by then; we’d tied her up many times. But I worried about tying her to something that flimsy, especially for her first shoeing. I would have been glad to hold her instead, but the shoer was an old cowboy who didn’t think a little girl could be much help.

Ginger was nervous about the shoeing and moved around a little. The shoer became impatient with her and slapped her for not standing still. This upset Ginger even more, and she pulled backward. The cross pole on the gate came loose. The filly went flying backward and the pole came with her, scaring her out of her wits. She went galloping around the barnyard with that pole chasing and bumping her and scaring her even more. It took awhile before we could corner her and slow her down enough to catch up with her and grab her — so the pole would quit chasing her, and so we could get it loose from her halter rope.

After that traumatic experience, Ginger was never trustworthy to tie up. She might stand calmly, or she might not — and whenever she set back she did it with all her strength and determination. From then on she usually tried to avoid situations where she’d have to be tied, just to minimize the risk for broken halters and ropes or injury to her neck.

[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.

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