Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — Old Dot, Part One

When my husband, Lynn Thomas, was growing up on a ranch north of Salmon, Idaho, his father, Charlie Thomas, had several teams of horses. He used horses for haying in summer (pulling the mower, buck rake, dump rake, etc. for cutting and stacking the hay) and pulling the feed wagon or sleigh to feed the cows in winter. One of the most fondly remembered family horses was “Old Dot.” She came to the ranch as a young mare and worked there until she was about 30 years old. Dot was probably the most versatile horse the Thomas family ever had. They used her for riding, packing, haying, pulling any kind of wagon or equipment, and “snaking” logs and poles out of the woods when they were cutting firewood or corral posts and poles.

Dot was a versatile horse. In this old photo
Charlie is riding Dot while skidding poles out of the woods

Dot was a bay mare, about average height (a little over 15 hands), and stoutly built. When she was fat out on pasture, she probably weighed as much as 1,400 pounds, but in her “working clothes” she might have weighed 1,300 pounds. Her thick mane was split in the middle, on both sides of her neck. Lynn’s older brother Will Thomas remembers when Dot arrived at the ranch. “She was a young mare, just green broke. A man named Harry Bennett brought her and a brown gelding, in the fall of 1946, and wanted Dad to winter them and left a saddle and bridle with the horses. That was the last we ever saw of Harry Bennett,” says Will.

The brown gelding died, but Dot spent the winter on the ranch. Come spring, when her owner didn’t show up, Charlie trained her to work in harness. After he’d had her a few years and realized what a good horse she was, he advertised to try to find her owner. “By law that was the only way you could become the horse’s legal owner; you could keep the horse if no one came forth to claim it. Dad advertised the necessary amount of times, so he could get ownership to the mare. Mr. Bennett never responded to the advertisements, so Dad owned Dot, and the saddle and bridle,” explains Will.

“Dad broke her to harness, and he let my older sister Edna and me ride her. She had a heart of gold but was the hardest horse to catch that I’ve ever seen. If she didn’t want to be caught, it was an impossibility,” recalls Will. “We’d want to go riding and start out trying to catch her in the morning, and by lunchtime some days we hadn’t caught her yet, and we’d just give up! She was the smartest horse I’ve ever known. She knew that us kids couldn’t put the bridle on. She’d raise her head up higher than we could reach. So we’d take her into the barn and tie her head down low, to the manger. She never fought that; once you had her head tied down, she knew she was had!”

“Then we’d put the bridle on her and unbuckle all the halter straps so we could get the halter off, out from under the bridle, because Dad didn’t like it if we rode with the halter left on,” says Will. But the next thing was trying to get on, because he and his sister always rode bareback. Charlie wouldn’t let his children ride with a saddle; he thought it was safer for them to ride without one. “If you wanted to get Dad irate, all you had to do was mention wanting to ride with a saddle! Years earlier he had a neighbor in Wyoming (before he moved to Idaho) that got hung up in a saddle and dragged to death. He wasn’t about to let us kids ride with a saddle. He figured it would be safer for us to just fall off.”

Charlie let Will and Edna ride with saddles one time, when they rode up to Wallace Lake with some friends. “He let us use saddles so we’d have something to tie our coats onto, but he took the stirrups off! That was more uncomfortable than riding bareback!” To get on Dot bareback, Will or Edna had to get her up close to a fence or gate so they could climb up the fence and get on her. “She’d stand close to the fence, but about the time you started to jump on her, she’d move, and you’d end up on the ground!” Will recalls.

Dot hated to be away from home. It didn’t matter where you took her, she wanted to go home. If she got loose, or you turned her loose, she’d go home. In the fall Charlie took her up in the mountains behind the ranch, to drag logs or poles out of the forest. “She didn’t like to stay up there in the woods by herself so he kept her in a little pole corral, made from poles nailed to trees, for a couple weeks until we were done getting out the posts and poles (for building corrals and fences) or winter firewood," recalls Will. They hauled hay for Dot and took water to her every day in 10-gallon milk cans. "We kept her tied in the little corral, tied to a manger. If you didn't tie her up, she'd get out of the corral and come home. We probably just had the corral to keep animals from bothering her — and the range cows from eating her hay and drinking her water."

The Thomases did all their haying with horses for many years.
"Dad used to get out about a thousand poles each fall. I'd ride old Dot up there, because we didn't have a way to haul her, and at the end of the 2 weeks we'd just turn her loose and let her come home. I rode her up there, and Dad drove the truck. He'd go up a little ahead, to cut down some trees and have them ready to snake out to the truck. It probably took half a day to ride her up there; it was 17 miles and all uphill and took me half a day or more. We hauled the wood home in the pickup. Dad put a bolster — a little two-wheeled trailer we hauled back and forth — behind the pickup, and the tips of the poles would be on that trailer. We brought everything out tree length and sawed it up at home,” recalls Will.

Charlie hooking up a log for Dot to pull to the road.

Dot was the only horse they took to the woods, because she was the best at snaking poles and logs, pulling the tree-length poles to the road. She worked well by herself, though she was never happy about it. When Charlie got her hooked to the pole or log, he'd just throw the halter rope over her hame, and she'd go right to the loading dock and stop at exactly the right place. "You didn't have to lead her; you just had to get the heck out of her way! She'd run into trees or anything else in her path — she just wanted to get her job done and get out of there," says Lynn.

Charlie using Dot to drag out a load of poles to haul home

“On the last day, when we had the last of the poles loaded up and ready to go, we’d take her harness off, throw her harness up on the load of poles, and turn her loose. She’d take off on a dead run and take a shortcut down the mountain. She’d be standing at the gate to the ranch by the time we got home with our load,” recalls Will. She could come down out of the hills a lot faster than the loaded truck; Charlie put a long reach (two-wheel trailer axle and bolster) a ways behind the truck to carry the back end of the poles. The truck had to come down all the switchbacks, but old Dot made a straight run down the canyon.

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.

1 comment:

Mimi Foxmorton said...

This is so lovely.
Thank you so much for sharing........