Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — Scrappy, Our New Horse, Part One

The first spring that my family was on the ranch (1956, when I was finishing sixth grade), my dad decided to buy another horse. Ginger (the orphan filly) and Nell (the Thoroughbred filly we bought from Lester Withington, the old rancher who lived at the mouth of the creek) were still young and untrained, and Possum (my first horse) was getting old. Nosey (the big buckskin mare we won at the grocery store) was versatile and dependable, but there were times we needed several horses to gather and round up cattle.

Dad was looking for a good young horse that was already well trained. Someone mentioned that Charlie Thomas (a rancher on the other side of town) had a five-year-old mare for sale. So one afternoon after school I went with Dad out to the Thomas ranch to look at the mare. She was coal black and very gentle. One of Charlie’s teenage sons saddled her and rode her around the barnyard and up on the hill above their front gate, to demonstrate her smooth gait and maneuverability. Her name was Scrappy; she got that name as a baby because she’d been a feisty little scrapper.

Charlie had bought Scrappy as a small foal, with her mother Misty, for his two young sons. Lynn, the youngest son, was a year older than I was, and Scrappy was his horse — but now he was selling her, to be able to buy 10 ewes from Dwight Stevens, who owned the local drug store. The interesting sequel to this story is that 10 years later Lynn and I got married. But back to the story of Scrappy . . .

Lynn's older brother Bill, with Misty when
Misty was purchased, with her foal at her side.

Dad and I were both favorably impressed by the nice-looking black mare, her eager willingness to please her rider, and how smooth she was to ride. I’d never seen a horse that traveled quite like her. Instead of trotting, Scrappy had a unique fast gait called a “singlefoot” (also known as a rack). Each leg moved separately in a one-two-three-four beat instead of a two-beat trot in which diagonal legs move together in unison. But unlike a four-beat walk, the singlefoot gait was as fast as a trot and smooth as silk — the rider never bounced.

We learned later that Scrappy’s mother was a pacer (a lateral gait, moving the legs on each side forward together, rather than in diagonal pairs). Scrappy’s singlefoot gait was a sort of broken pace, with the legs moving separately instead of in pairs.

Lynn and Scrappy when she was a foal, purchased with her mother

Dad bought the mare, and the next challenge was to get her home to our ranch. She had never ridden in a truck or trailer and was very nervous. She didn’t want to step up into the borrowed horse trailer that Dad pulled out to the Thomas ranch the next afternoon. It took a lot of coaxing and some firm persuasion to get Scrappy into it.

Once in the trailer, however, she didn’t fight or protest; she stood as still as a statue, trembling. By the time we got home to our ranch 20 miles later and went to unload her, I was surprised to see that Scrappy was covered with white lather. She had worried and fretted so much that she’d worked herself into a heavy sweat — and she was very glad to get out of that trailer!

I led her around our barnyard until she calmed down, then let her graze awhile in our front yard while I brushed her to get off all that lathered sweat. She was nervous and fidgety; she’d grab a bite of grass, then look around, snorting and whinnying. As I got to know her better in the days that followed, I realized that Scrappy didn’t like being by herself, away from other horses.

When I took her to the horse pasture and put her out with the rest of our horses, she was very glad to see them — though she immediately made it clear to Ginger and Nell that she was bigger and tougher than they were. They meekly kept out of her way from then on. But Possum and Nosey didn’t want to give up their leadership positions to a strange newcomer. After Possum chased her and bit her a few times, Scrappy grudgingly acknowledged that he was the boss. After they settled their places in the ranking, it looked as though they were all going to get along fine.

The next thing I learned about the new mare was that she didn’t like to be caught. She was just as elusive as Nosey whenever a person approached the group of horses with a halter or bridle. But when I brought the whole herd down to our corral every day (after catching old Possum to ride bareback down from the Cheney Creek pasture — with the rest of the horses following us or running ahead to the corral), Scrappy loved her grain reward just as much as any of them and was easier to catch in the small corral.

Scrappy was fun to ride. In this photo, taken in 1961, my cousin
was visiting, and we went riding in the rain, with cousin
Jennifer on Nosey, my baby sister on Scrappy, and me on
young Khamette (Scrappy's daughter that I was training).

I fed them each a little grain in their individual grain boxes, then caught whichever horses were needed for the day. Sometimes it was just me riding to check the range cattle, and sometimes it was me and my little brother Rocky, or me and Dad, or the three of us if we needed to round up or move a lot of cattle.

When my little sis started riding, she enjoyed riding Scrappy.
In this old photo we are getting ready to ride — Dad and
Nellace (holding Khamette) and me saddling Scrappy for Heidi.

Scrappy was fun to ride. She loved to travel at a fast gait, and her rider never had to urge her. It was more a matter of holding her down to a reasonable speed. She’d get into her fast, smooth singlefoot gait and cover the ground as swiftly as the fastest trotting horse. Her biggest fault was being too eager to get back home again, and she always wanted to go too fast whenever we came home to the ranch. Her rider had to constantly hold her back.

My little sis liked to ride Scrappy to help with the cattle.

She always knew exactly which direction home was. No matter what we were doing on the range — checking gates, fences, or cattle; moving cattle; or searching for missing ones — Scrappy always had her mind more on going back home than on the job at hand. If her rider had to head off a cow and was traveling for a brief time in the direction of home, Scrappy would rather try to keep going toward home than stop to turn the cow and head it back to the herd. Her rider had to be firm at times, to convince her that it was not yet time to go home.

Little sis on Scrappy in the corral, with Nell waiting
to be ridden and Nosey in the round corral

She always took the most direct route home if we were headed in that direction. She’d rather go straight over a log or a big rock or across a bog or gully (rather than go around it) if the obstacle lay in her path toward home. She had an automatic and very strong homing instinct. My brother and I jokingly claimed that a person could blindfold her and put her anywhere in the mountains and she would still know exactly which way to go to reach home. Her rider had to be her “brains” and guide her over the trails in the best logical fashion. Otherwise, Scrappy would head straight home, even if it meant tripping over a big sagebrush in her way.

Sometimes Dad, my brother, and I all rode if we needed to move range cows.
Here's Rocky (on Scrappy), Dad (on Possum), and me (on Ginger, when I was
still training her) heading out from the ranch on a summer day in 1957 to go to the range.

But everyone in our family enjoyed riding her because she traveled so freely and willingly and had such a smooth gait. She was a very nice mare except for her nervous eagerness to get home again. Whenever we had horse-riding guests — such as some of my friends from school who came out to the ranch to stay overnight with me, or cousins who came to visit — they invariable chose Scrappy to ride because of her wonderfully smooth gait and eager attitude. Even if they weren’t very good riders, they managed just fine on Scrappy, as long as they could keep her from rushing home too fast. When my baby sister was old enough to ride, she also enjoyed riding this gentle sweet mare.

[to be continued . . .]

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