Tuesday, February 21, 2012

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

The young mare that came to the Thomas family to spend the winter (when my husband Lynn was growing up) stayed there for the rest of her long life — since her owner never came back to get her. She turned out to be the most versatile workhorse they ever had — a horse they could ride, drive, pack, and use to drag out fence poles and firewood from the woods.

“Old Dot was smart and knew how to get out of work when we were haying with our teams,” says Lynn’s older brother, Will. “When we worked her on the rake, she’d let the other horse do most of the pulling. She’d let her doubletree slip back to where it would catch on something, because she knew that if it caught on anything, the other horse had to pull it all. We had to keep pecking at her all the time, to make her pull her share,” recalls Will.

Raking hay with a team

“Dad bought an old horse named Black Dick, and he was a good old horse, but I think he’d run away with every piece of equipment he’d ever pulled. You always wanted to have a good hold on him at all times,” says Will.

Will started driving teams at an early age, driving the dump rake or bringing the hay to the stack with the buck rake. One day when he was about ten years old, he had a runaway with a new dump rake. "When we were raking, Dad always buckled the lines — up there where they spread — to give you a handhold, and so the lines wouldn't be dragging along behind to get tangled up in the rake teeth all the time. But when that old black horse gave a hard jerk, I lost that line," says Will.

“Dad had sent me out to rake with him and Dot. When Black Dick jerked the line out of my hands, he felt it go and knew he was free, and he was off! Old Dot didn’t want to run, but she also didn’t want to get run over by the rake, either. With her line in my hand, I kept them in a circle awhile, pulling on her, but finally they lined out and were going strong. Dad was coming to the field to buck hay with another team when he saw it happen and came to rescue me — riding Bonnie — but couldn't get there in time. When we'd go to the hayfield in the mornings, he'd first go up to change the irrigation water, riding one of the horses, and then go hook up to his buck rake, but he hadn't quite got back from his irrigation when my team took off."

Will tried to stop the running horses but couldn’t. “Dad always told us kids that if anything ever happened, we should try to get off the rake and out of its way — just fall off backward so we wouldn’t get hit by it. But this was a brand new rake, and I wasn’t about to fall off backward and let those horses ruin a good rake!”

“I thought at first I could walk up the tongue and get on that black horse to stop him, but I soon realized that wasn't going to work. So I ended up with my feet wrapped around where the seat went up, sitting on the tines, and they were dumping about every 15 seconds.

“The rake would dump and throw me up into the seat, but I stayed right with those horses until they ran through the willows at the edge of the field — the only patch of trees on the whole ranch!” says Will.

When the rake hit the trees, the wheels missed the trees but the rake hit on the frame. “That factory-made toothpick of a tongue just broke and snapped right out of it. The doubletrees splintered and broke off, and away the horses went — with the tongue. I was left sitting there with the rake, and they ran off into some dry ground and sagebrush and just stopped and stood there. They were just running to run away, and there was no danger of them going through a fence or getting hurt. When they got tired of running, they just stopped.”

The neighbor lady saw it happen and thought for sure the boy would be killed. She jumped in her old car and roared down the road to come see if he was hurt. "The only thing hurt was my feelings, and the fact I'd busted up Dad's new rake!" he says.

"Dad dragged the rake out of the trees and made a new tongue for it, and by the next day we were back in business. We hitched up the black horse again and kept using him. Dad put a different bit on him, for a little more control. He was probably as good a horse for working as we ever had, though if he ever got a chance to run away, he took it. We worked him with Dot for many years, however, and they made a good team."

In later years something happened to old Black Dick, and Charlie (Will and Lynn's dad) paired Dot with the sorrel mare named Bonnie. They worked together the rest of their lives on the ranch. “They were in their 30s when Dad finally sold them. By that time it was their colts he was working,” says Will.

Lynn remembers Charlie selling the old team to a sheepherder in Wyoming who wouldn’t be working them very hard. The old mares had several more good years in their semiretirement, just pulling the sheep camp from place to place, to follow the flock.

Charlie in 1996 at age ninety; he loved his teams
and kept working with horses his whole life.

Old Dot was good at doing whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. “You could hobble her, in hopes she might not go so far or so fast, but she could outrun an ordinary horse, even with her hobbles on. Even if Dad sent the dog after her, to bring her to the barn, she’d stay just far enough ahead of the dog that he couldn’t reach her feet to bite her, and she’d kick him if he got too close. She was really smart, and very agile,” recalls Will. "She'd run right up to the gate, then spin around and run back to the far end. I bet I chased her more miles on foot than I ever rode her.”

But after she was caught, she was good as gold. There wasn’t a mean bone in her body, and she was always pleasant to work or ride. Will loved to ride her during the years he was growing up. “My friend Eron Coiner and I used to ride together. He lived on the hill above the main town — and either he rode out to the ranch to ride with me there or I’d ride Dot to town.”

A couple of times a month or more, Will rode Dot up to Eron’s place. “He’d catch his horse, and we’d ride all over the countryside — over to the Hot Springs, or some other interesting place, and then I’d have to ride home again. I put a lot more miles on Dot than Eron did on his horse, but Dot could travel a long way and never get tired. She had really tough feet, but Dad kept her shod during the summer when I rode her a lot. She didn’t have big feet, however. I think she wore a size 2 shoe, which was about right for her size and weight,” says Will.

Later he and his friend Eron worked for a rancher (John Long) in the Big Hole Basin (near Dillon, Montana) one summer and took Dot and Bonnie (her teammate) to snake out poles and build fence. “John had some pretty good fences, and we’d let Dot graze during the day because she couldn’t go far, but we always put her in a corral at night. If you left her out in a pasture overnight, she’d find a way to get out and start for home. She’d make a hole in about any fence or figure a way to get out,” says Will.

Charlie raised several foals from Dot, breeding her to a draft horse stallion to raise more work teams. After Will left the ranch and had his own place — a dairy farm near Gooding, Idaho — he had dairy and beef cattle and always fed them with a team in the winter. “Dad brought me two of Dot’s offspring when I was down there, a team that he broke and started. I used them for several years, and they were just as good as she was. Then I sent them back up to Dad when he needed a feed team, when his team was getting old,” says Will.

Dot was a good mother and raised some good foals, but one of them had an interesting adventure early in life. “Dad had loaned Dot to my uncle Bob, who had a little ranch 20 miles down the river from our place, about halfway between North Fork and Gibbonsville. Dot was heavy with foal at that time, and she stayed on my uncle’s place without trying to come home.

“One morning my uncle looked out the window, and Dot had a new foal. He didn’t think much about it, but midmorning he looked out again, and she and the foal were gone. She and the baby had got out of the pasture. He caught up with them at North Fork, where there used to be a building with a lawn. She was grazing on that green grass. This was in June, and the river was really high. Uncle Bob got several people to help him, and they cornered the mare and foal, right next to the river, so she couldn’t run off. She was completely blocked by people — and the river.”

So she took the foal right into the swift water. “She got that foal on the upriver side of her and reached over and grabbed him by the withers and kept him upright in all that swirling water, and the last we saw of her, she and the foal were coming out the other side. No one could get to her, over there, and it took her about 3 weeks to come home, grazing along the way,” recalls Will.

“The grass was good, and she knew that nobody could catch up with her over there. She just grazed her way home, with that baby. You could ford the river in high water, if you were riding Dot, because she was a good swimmer and could always get you to the other side,” says Will. “That mare always wanted to be home. She was better than a homing pigeon for coming home.”

The many family stories about Old Dot will live forever in the memories of Charlie’s kids and grandkids.

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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