Thursday, December 26, 2013

Heather Smith Thomas: Memories of Molly—Endurance and Heart

In this final installment memorializing beloved ranch horse Molly, regular blog contributor Heather Smith Thomas tells the story of Molly’s heroic rides during a dangerous forest fire, reflects on the qualities of a good, all-around ranch horse, and remembers Molly’s final months. Read Part 1 and Part 2 of Memories of Molly.

An Important Job to Do

Molly got pulled out of semi-retirement for a really tough job in July 2003, when a forest fire threatened the cattle. Lightning started a fire on the mountain above our cattle range and was soon out of control. The Forest Service started dumping water on it by helicopter but it continued to grow. Michael and Carolyn went up that afternoon to try to gather all the cattle in the right fork of Withington Creek, in case the fire came down in that direction.

“That first day, I grabbed Molly, even though she was fat and out of shape and had no shoes on, because she knew the range so well and I’d ridden her many times up there, on long days moving cattle. I felt confident riding her,” says Carolyn. “We knew it would be a hard, fast ride, probably getting home after dark. I didn’t have another horse at that time that I trusted that much after dark. I rode her that day and she got me onto the trails and out of there safely even though it was pitch black bringing the cows down out of there. We cleaned all the cattle out of the right fork canyon to get them out of harm’s way, if the fire came on down.”

For the next several days, Michael and Carolyn rode daily to monitor the fire, watching the fire on the mountain from across the ridge. The Forest Service crews had pumper trucks filling helicopter water tanks, dumping water on the fire, but it continued to grow moving toward town.

Helicopters filled their buckets at the temporary tanks to dump water on the fire.
“On those days, I rode other horses, but the day the fire blew up and the wind brought it back toward us, we had to hurriedly clean the cows out of there,” says Carolyn. “The 4-H horse show was going on, and the kids had their horses at the fairgrounds, so I had to grab Molly once again. That day, as we were hurrying up Baker Creek and Michael split off to gather cattle out of Basco Basin, Molly knew there was an important job to do and she just flew. She could sense the urgency and gave it everything she had.”

After they had the cattle gathered in a fast and furious roundup, doing in three hours what usually takes three days, the fire nearly overtook them and the herd as they came down the ridges. It roared up out of Withington Creek and hit the ridge they were coming down, but miraculously, the wind changed and it stopped.
This is the ridge where the fire stopped, just before it got to the riders and the herd of cattle coming down it.
Molly was a little tenderfooted without shoes, after the hard ride through rocky country a few evenings earlier, but she didn’t hold back. “She just continued to do the job, whatever I asked her to do. Coming down the rocky ridge following the cows after we finally had them gathered, I got off and led her part of the way because she was sore-footed, to give her a break and let her catch her breath. We knew there was the possibility of another hard push. It’s a good thing she had tough feet!” They got home with the cattle after dark. None of the cattle were lost in the fire. Going back later, after the fire was out, we were all amazed at the devastated rangeland. Any cattle left behind in the Withington Creek drainage would have perished.
Devastation in Withington Creek after the fire

A Good Saddle Horse

The whole family enjoyed Molly, her versatility and durability. She was smart, and took good care of herself and her rider.

Carolyn on Chance and Michael riding Molly, summer of 2001, climbing up through our 320-acre pasture to check cattle on the high range.
Carolyn riding Molly to go move cattle
“She was always a pleasure to ride, and was up for any job you asked her to do.”

“She had so much endurance and heart, and was the first horse I’d even ridden that would give you everything she had, and then some, when there was a tough job to do. She’d keep going even when she shouldn’t.”
Nick moving cattle with Molly on the range.

Nick checking cows on Molly in the field after coming home from the range.
“She was a versatile, all-around ranch horse and we all rode her to do various jobs.”

“We packed fencing materials on her, and salt, and packed game during hunting season. We could do anything with her. That’s when I learned that a good saddle horse isn’t really complete unless it can carry something besides a rider. Molly wouldn’t even blink at whatever we had to put on her,” says Michael.

“She was a incredible horse, whether you were going full speed through a gopher colony to head a cow, or packing an elk. If she did stumble, she always caught herself and never fell down.”

Molly was great with kids. Young Heather and Nick used her riding range and moving cattle.

Nick on Molly and young Heather on Jon Boy, helping ride range to check cows, summer of 2003
On one occasion, young Emily got to ride with Carolyn on Molly when we were on a short ride moving cattle from our lower fields. 

Carolyn taking Emily for a ride on Molly, summer of 2000

Final Farewell

In the late fall 2012, it was obvious that Molly and Chance (young Heather’s first horse, also retired for several years) were nearing the end of their days.

“We knew they would have a hard time getting through another winter,” says Michael. They both had stiff joints, and the cold weather bothered them. They also had bad teeth and even though they managed fairly well grazing green grass, it was hard for them to maintain body weight on hay. It was up to Carolyn to take care of the two elderly horses, blanketing them at night, taking the blankets off during the day, and feeding them pellets soaked with water to make their food easier to eat. This was a labor of love, all by herself. She worked part time in town at a veterinary clinic, and on the bitterly cold days that she had to leave for work before the sun came up, we drove to their place later in the morning to take the blankets off.

Those two old horses were happy together that winter, and they did have one more good summer together.

Molly grazing our stockyard during her final summer, 2013.

Those last months with the old horses, whether it was Carolyn taking care of them last winter, or young Heather patiently devoting part of her day to feed them extra during the summer, was a chance to have some time with them, remember all the good times, and come to a point where it was easier to say good-bye.

“This gives a person a chance to reflect on all the things that make a good horse more than a horse. You remember all the reasons you put them through those final years of retirement, because they truly earned it,” Michael says.

By fall, it was time to let them go.

“I feel that prolonging life is our selfishness,” says Michael. “To be completely fair to the animal that is suffering, you have to let it go. There’s a point where we need to make that decision, and it can be hard when we are emotionally attached to the animal. We want to keep them longer, for our own emotional needs.”

Michael shouldered the unpleasant but necessary task of giving those old horses the final kindness, honor, and respect they deserved, by giving them a swift and painless death, releasing them from the discomfort and infirmities of failing bodies. The family chose a final resting place and Michael buried them at the edge of a meadow where they had grazed in their final years.

“Some people might feel that burying them was frivolous, that we should have put them out somewhere in nature where the coyotes could recycle them. But this is our human way of honoring them, in a safe place where no one would build a house or a road in the future. There was a really nice huge rock nearby, and I placed it over their grave with the backhoe. Marking the grave was something special I did for Carolyn, Heather, and Nick because those horses meant so much to them,” he says.

Nick was in college in Iowa at the time and his biggest regret was that he wasn’t home. “I didn’t have a chance to tell Molly good-bye. She was part of the family, a very special character, and she was always there for me.”
Nick loved to clown around with Molly, and one day, while he and his sister were waiting in the corral while their parents sorted cattle, he put his hat on Molly.

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 HorsesStorey's Guide to Training HorsesStable SmartsThe Horse Conformation HandbookYour CalfGetting Started with Beef and Dairy CattleStorey's Guide to Raising Beef CattleEssential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook. She blogs at

No comments: