There exists deep in the hearts of many women an abiding love for horses. Yes, there are men who share this love, but I believe there is something deeper in the woman psyche that draws her to a horse. It begins in her heart as a little girl. Or maybe before that.
Why this strong attraction of woman to a horse?
Is it in the noble eye mirroring ones soul? Or the puff of warm breath on a cheek? Or the nuzzling of a buttery soft muzzle? Could it be the vibrant life pulsing beneath a silken coat? Are we drawn to the wild flowing mane and tails of free galloping horses, longing to feel the same wind through our locks? How many men encircle their horse’s neck with their arms for a horsey hug and feel the cares of the world slip away? Inhaling the earthy-oak smell of a horse quells the tumult of a tortured female soul.
Millions could be made if Equine Essential Oil could be bottled and diffused into our surroundings.
For as long as I can recall, I have loved horses. It was as if God himself placed a dropperful of some potent equine elixir into that first fusion of cells and soul. As these replicated, the elixir spread like a virus, until my whole being was full of nothing but tissue magnetized to all things equine.
I share my home here at Cedar Rock with Smoky, who at this time is the last horse in a long line of horses with whom I have shared life with. Reaching back in memory, which seems to happen more often these days as I grow older, I savor sweet recollections that seem to rise to the top like cream, allowing the not so important memories to settle to the bottom where they belong. My first horses lived in the pastures of my mind, galloping across the fields, wind in their manes. However, I had a few props to assist my imagination.
My brother had one of those bouncy plastic horses suspended with springs. Why he was given the horse and not me, is a gross mismanagement of gifts on my parents part since he cared little for horses, plastic or real. No matter, I confiscated the horse for myself. It was my first act of horse thievery. (I will tell about my second act another day)
By the time I stole the horse, he was in sad condition. Horse people might call him ‘foundered’. This word foundered is used to describe a malady affecting horses’ hooves which causes great pain and lameness. Running a horse on hard surfaces, over-eating, drinking too much water when hot, etc can cause this to happen. The term foundered is a nautical term meaning that a ship sinks. When a horse is foundered, or gets laminitis–the veterinary term, a part of his hoof begins to sink and rotate downward toward the bottom of the hoof, separating from the hoof wall, which is the part we see the horse standing upon like a super tough fingernail. It is as painful as it sounds. I imagine it is similar to having a fingernail ripped off. Constantly.
My plastic horse was not in pain, but he was certainly foundered. No longer suspended in the air by springs, he lay upon the ground immobile. I sat upon him and further rode him into the earth over time as his foundered body crumbled. This horse, hitched to my imagination, carried me miles, racing across wildflower dotted prairies, crossing cool, babbling brooks and chased many a wayward cattle back to their herds. The adventures were boundless, limited only to a child’s imagination and chore time.
Eventually, he was put out to pasture. I was too large for him and he was pretty much used up. I was old enough to read and discovered the world of horse books. More fuel for my imagination! More fodder for my addiction. I can still remember those horses I read about. Not content to just read about them, I became those horses and galloped about our pastures at home and the school yard acting out adventures.
In the fourth grade, I roped several of my classmates into this world. We each chose a horse name and spent recess charging around like a bunch of wild horses. My herdmates grew up and left the herd behind to enjoy new pursuits such as boyfriends, sports, etc. But for me the horse fever never broke. To my schoolmates, to mention horse, was to think of me; to think of me was to think of horse. It was my identity. I lived and breathed horses and dreamed of one day owning a living, breathing horse.
Prior my ninth birthday, my dad enlisted my help in building a large pen and shed for a new pig. In the back of my mind, I wondered why a pig would need such a large shed and pen. But I knew little of pig necessities. The day came when we went to get this pig. I climbed into the cab of the old pick up with Daddy, the trailer hitched to the rear. Enroute, I was babbling on with my usual horse chatter. I happened to glance behind the truck seat and saw a horse halter hanging there on the gun rack. My heart stopped, skipped and then raced as I realized the true identity of this ‘pig’ we were going to get. I knew I could be mistaken about the size of pen and shed needed for a pig, but I knew beyond a doubt that people did not put horse halters on pigs. That could only mean one thing. I did not ask him if we were really going to get a horse. I think I felt that if I were to ask, this dream would pop like a soap bubble.
We soon arrived at a house and I overheard my dad at the door asking a lady, “Where is the little horse?”. Confirmation! There would be no pig in our trailer this day to live in the large pen with a tall shed, wearing a horse halter. Blackie, was a Welsh pony who came to live in my heart that day. He had been foundered by overeating too many acorns, and could not walk very well. Knowing what I do now, I hurt for him, knowing that he hurt anytime I asked him to go for a ride. I was not able to make him move much anyway due to his pain. We just thought him lazy.
But I was content to know that I had a horse of my own. I had spent my early years riding a foundered plastic horse, so a real live one was a step up in my estimation.
Like dominoes falling, Blackie set in motion a long line of horses coming and going in my life. My heart was broken one day when I came home from school to learn that Blackie had been traded off for a vacuum cleaner! Bad trade by my account. My mom may have thought it a good trade–a working vacuum for a damaged pony. A new vacuum was no consolation to a young girl who loved horses and despised housework.
A couple years later on my twelfth birthday, Dusty, a blood-bay smallish horse came into my life. Not being foundered, or lazy, Dusty was quick to move forward, or sideways, whichever direction he deemed fit for the occasion. I had to learn to really ride. I had no saddle and rode bareback with a saddle pad to protect my legs from scalding horse sweat. One day, thinking I would emulate a cowboy, I attempted to ride Dusty through our yard gate which had a spring attached to keep it closed. I managed very well, until we were through the gate and it slipped through my hands, landing a sound whack on Dusty’s dusty bottom! He squirted out from under me, leaving me sitting on the hard ground, cushioned a bit by the saddle pad still beneath me. I was ‘prematurely dismounted’ several times by this horse, but Dusty always came back for me as if in apology.
I received a gift horse from my uncle one November. We went up at Thanksgiving to get her. He was a fence builder and had received her in partial payment for a job. Lady, a sorrel mare, was bred to a registered Quarter horse—my favorite breed! She was due in March of the following year. I excitedly began to make preparations for the new foal, learning all I could. After bringing Lady home, I rode her in a trail ride the next weekend. She was unable to keep up. I had borrowed a saddle and thought perhaps she carried too much weight. Someone in a truck and trailer following the trail ride picked us up and carried us to where the rest of the riders were taking a lunch break. I stripped the saddle from my horse and we finished in fine form the rest of the day. It was a couple of weeks later when I realized the real reason why my horse had trouble keeping up.
As I got off the school bus December 13th and walked up the driveway, I saw my mother out in the pasture trying to catch Lady. Something was wrong. Dusty was causing a fuss with the mare. And then I saw it—she was protecting her newborn foal from Dusty’s curious advances! No wonder the poor girl had so much trouble keeping up. We had no idea she was so far along in her pregnancy. The early birth was a surprise, but the baby was even more so.
She was a MULE! I was not adept at nomenclature, so she was named, “Muley”. Sigh. Muley was true to her stereotype and was truly stubborn. Years in the future, people would remark that I was so patient in training horses. I would laugh and reply that my first training was done on a mule and everything since was a piece of cake. I did learn much from her. She would kick and bite and was dead set against learning to lead. Forget about getting in a trailer or picking up her feet to have her hooves trimmed. She fought everything but a feed bucket.
Once when the farrier came to do her hooves, my exasperated father decided we would put her in the cattle chute so that she would be immobilized and allow the farrier to trim her hooves. So he and a group of men jammed her into the chute. She rebelled and tried to leap over the head gate blocking the path in front of her. She managed to get most of her body over it. One hind leg stuck in part of the gate’s mechanism. I stood watching in horror, thinking my baby was about to break her leg. The head gate came loose and they both crashed to the ground. Muley then dragged the head gate until she miraculously freed herself. Luckily, she only had a bad wound, which I had to tend for weeks. After that day, she would not allow any man to touch her and would kick viciously at my dad any chance she got. Afterwards, when the farrier came to do her hooves, I had to hold her hooves up for him. Later in life, she got over this. I traded her to a friend for a bay Morgan mare. Muley ended up in Colorado on a pack string.
Sundy was a buttermilk buckskin mare who came next and being a handful, stretched my riding skills. I had acquired a saddle by then, too. Sundy and I almost daily, rode all over our community, sometimes riding seven miles over to a friend’s house. There were dirt roads winding through the pine forest between her house and mine which gave me miles of good trails to enjoy. I learned to ride faster and faster. Sundy loved running and was quite willing to oblige me, especially if we were headed homeward. Had I stayed on the dirt roads, all would have been well. But I didn’t know any better and rode her flying down asphalt roads nearer my home. I look back now and think I am lucky to be alive. Sundy, too. She did not escape unscathed, however. She was developing what is called ‘road founder’. Her hooves were showing the signs of laminitis from running on hard pavement, my farrier informed me. Thankfully, she was in early stages and never took a lame step. I stopped running her on the pavement, a new lesson learned.
From Sundy, and a registered Quarter horse mare named Belita, I was to get several foals. The first was Chaps, sired by a black saddlehorse. There was also Scout, a line back dun, Lena, a bay, Lita, a red dun. I trained a few horses for neighbors and bought, trained and resold a few colts. I traded, bought and sold a few riding horses, too. Runner was one of these, purchased by my uncle for me to tune up and resell. She lived up to her name and loved to run as much as Sundy.
A horse trader sold me a slick black barrel racing mare I named Sheba. She had a nasty habit of tossing her head from her knees up into the air all the while she was being ridden. I tried different bits and devices to help her curb this habit. When I tried to sell her and needed to get the required ‘Coggins test’, she tested positive for the disease, Equine Infectious Anemia. This meant she could only be sold for slaughter! Another hard lesson. I never bought another horse without the required test first.
Poco was a solid black saddlehorse who belonged to another uncle. I kept her awhile to ride on trail rides and around our community.
“Trail Rides” where I come from were not ‘riding trails’. Trail riding is a huge event where large groups gathered to ride down the bar ditches of major highways to a destination. One trail ride I dreamed of riding on went from Logansport, LA to Houston, TX, arriving at the Houston Stock Show and Rodeo. One year I was prepared to make that dream come true. I was going to get to ride a day or two–not the full week to Houston–but I was content with the abbreviated version.
For years, I had grown up watching the trail riders parade through the little town of Logansport during Frontiers Day as they headed out to Houston. My time had arrived to join their ranks. But when I went to load my mule, she refused! I had fed her in the trailer every day in anticipation of this event. But this day she knew something was up. Spending a day or two riding down the side of the highway was not on her agenda. I cried in anger, frustration and disappointment.
We had a two day ride which usually began near Logansport and ended at Shreveport for the annual State Fair Rodeo. We would ride in the Grand Entry at the opening night of the rodeo. Smaller, local rides were held as fundraisers from entry fees, donations and usually a BBQ dinner after the ride was over that day. They would begin and end at our community house.
The proper horse for these rides was called a “saddlehorse”. These were not registered horses, but a breed most likely brought to the area by early settlers who appreciated a comfortable ride. They were Cadillacs of horsedom. Saddlehorses are gaited horses and have a much smoother ride than other breeds such as a Quarter Horse. The test of the best saddlehorse on the trail ride was one whose rider could hold his cup of beer on the saddlehorn and traveling in high gear, not spill a drop.
I was a bit of a horse snob at the time and chose to own Quarter horses. Cowboys did not ride saddlehorses, I reasoned. While I did keep Poco the saddlehorse mare for a time, that was out of the norm for me. My grandfather repeatedly offered to buy me a saddlehorse, but I stubbornly refused! I chose to bounce along beside my saddling trailriders and keep my pride intact, though my body was being bounced apart. Since their horses had that nice fast-paced ‘saddle gait’, this meant that my Quarter horse and I must travel at a brisk trot. Had I been a drinker of beer, I am afraid I would have lost liquid and cup.
For one of the larger trail rides, I borrowed a Tennessee Walking horse from my horse trader friend. I arrived early to pick up the horse. We loaded him and I rushed off to the meeting place. As I traveled down the busy highway, I noticed that the nylon lead rope had come untied and the horse was loose. He turned to face the rear of the trailer as many horses will if left untied. I did not have far to go and since the horse was used to a trailer, he would probably not move around too much, so I kept going.
Then to my horror, I saw and felt him as he exited the trailer! The door had slid open and he stepped out onto the highway. He was killed instantly. In shock, I pulled over and ran back to the horse, collapsing beside him. The rest was a haze. Someone pulled over, and later a state trooper arrived. It was a devastating experience, but could have been worse. He could have been severely injured and suffered a slower death. It was a busy highway and he could have caused an accident injuring or even killing people.
My friend had closed the gate, and did not realize it had a pin to keep the slide closed. In my haste, I did not check it. Since then, I check and double check that lead ropes are tied securely, using quality leads that will not slip loose, make sure the hitch is hitched, and that all doors are secure. I had saved up some money to send a colt to cutting horse training. Instead, I bought my first and hopefully last, dead horse.
Over the years, I acquired other horses. There was Kid, a Quarter horse race horse I got in trade for one of Belita’s colts. That colt went on to win state in the 4-H competition. Kid ran off with me and I barely got him stopped just short of a major highway intersection. I had fastened the chin strap on the wrong part of the bit causing the bit to be pretty much useless on the high strung gelding. I learned the proper way to put a bridle together.
I rode him at a horse show once. Pleasure horses were trained to keep their heads very (artificially) low, and all gaits were slow and easy. To me, that kind of horse was no pleasure to ride. I liked spirit. So I entered my high-headed, high strung ex-racehorse in the competition and lapped them like a greyhound to a Basset Hound. I showed them my idea of a pleasure horse.
One day while riding a filly I was training, my bridle fell off! Luckily, she was well-trained and I was able to stop her, dismount and reassemble my bridle. I learned then to check my gear before riding. My teen years to twenties followed suit with a parade of horses in and out of my life, adding to my experience and knowledge. I was fortunate to continue to work with horses in some of my jobs.
My first horse related job was as a groom and exercise rider at a racehorse farm. It was a physically taxing job, rising early to saddle the horses, work them on the track, wash and cool them out, and then spend the rest of the day applying necessary medications or treatments and grooming them. Exercising the horses was like a daily barely-controlled runaway. It was all I could do to remain in control of some of them. There was never a dull moment at this job.
One filly named Dusty Skirts, fell with me as we went around the bend in the track. The track was deep dust on the inside rail where she went to her knees. We both had dusty skirts that morning. Another colt fell with me one day, but it had been raining, so all the dust was turned to mud. When he fell, he slid sideways, with me still on his back, never coming off as he rose again to his feet. Our left side was completely clean, while the right side was covered in mud! I left this job to open a small country store in our community and plans to open a horse riding rental facility.
Tiring of the boring grocery business and the horse rental facility never becoming a reality, I went back to work with horses on a broodmare farm where they raised cutting horses. I took care of around 30 broodmares and their offspring of varying ages. The offspring were trained to lead and be handled and when old enough, to be ridden. Some of the better colts I later hauled over to another farm where I started them on cattle—meaning that I began their training as future cutting horses. It was at this broodmare farm where I first met a foal I would come to know as Smoky.
As a teenager, I had discovered western novels in the vein of Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour and Will James. Will James penned a book titled, “Smoky, the Cowhorse” which I loved and vowed that I would someday have a cowhorse named Smoky. Fast forward to the cutting horse ranch one early morning when a pregnant mare did not come up to eat. I knew that meant she either had given birth, or was in the process.
I saddled a horse and rode out to look for her. In a far meadow with dew sparkling on the grass, I first laid eyes upon a small smoky-gray foal. It was love at first sight. I wanted him. I knew he was my ‘Smoky’. With little money at the time, I never dreamed I could have this cowpony for my own. But I asked my boss anyway what he wanted for him. To my surprise he told me I could have him for $300 with a discount of 20%, which was my commission for selling his horses. And I could work extra hours for him—I would not have to buy him with cash. I quickly agreed to his terms.
So the little smoky foal became my cowpony. He grew up and had quite the personality. He had a lot of ‘cow’ as they say in the cutting world, meaning that he would watch a cow and was interested in moving with it and was possessed of his ancestors’ cowhorse spirit, but he lacked in the physical department. He never was able to move well enough to make it in the cutting horse show business. Smoky was useful in many practical ways helping others work cattle in real life situations, however. He would go wherever I pointed him. Being small, he could get in brush where the cowboys on their big roping horses could not go. He would go into any body of water as deep as I asked, would stand ‘ground-tied’ when I dismounted to tend to something, and would go all day if needed. We had a great partnership.
The broodmare farm job brought Smoky and me from Louisiana to Texas, where I continued working with cutting horses as an apprentice with the trainer who had my boss’ stallion and was showing him. After a few years, I decided my body was not going to last at the rate I was going, and decided it was time to ‘retire’ from horse training.
I worked in a western store for awhile before going to work at a ranch where they had plans to open a guest ranch. I was to manage the horseback riding aspect. These plans never came to fruition, but I savored my time there tending the cattle, working in the hayfield and living pretty much by myself on 2,000 acres. My girlhood dreams of being a cowgirl were fulfilled living that life. It was a wildly beautiful place and I took every free moment to explore. We had purchased several horses, who I used on the place, but when I needed a dependable mount, Smoky was the one I saddled up.
One cold, sleeting January day, a heifer had trouble giving birth. After helping her deliver, I needed to get it and momma home to the barn after the difficult delivery. They were across a creek, so I could not drive a vehicle to where they were. The only way I could figure to accomplish this task was to put the calf up on Smoky like I’d seen pictures of cowboys. I hoped momma would follow, and if not, I could drive her to the barn. Smoky took this in stride and allowed me to put the calf on his back along with me, too. Thinking back, I don’t know how I got a calf up on my horse, but I did. Headed home, things were going well, until I felt a warm sensation on my leg. The calf urinated down my leg into my boot! It was nice and warm at first, but by the time we arrived back at the barn, my wet leg was frigid in the winter wind. The calf survived thanks to a good cowpony. We all got warm and dry.
Smoky has taught several kids to ride. Our first granddaughter has ridden him, making three generations now of Smoky riders in the family. He is a good therapist, too. Should I have a bad day, I could go out and hug him and he would bow his head down over my shoulder, seeming to hug me in return. I have spent many happy hours exploring the countryside from his back on the gorgeous ranches we have lived or visited. I have pounded through the Texas brush chasing wayward cattle. On Smoky’s back, those little girl dreams became reality.
This year, 2018, marks 30 years together. We have traveled from Louisiana to various places in Texas, settling here on Cedar Rock 18 years ago. Before coming here, my family lived in a subdivision and had to keep Smoky and our cows on a leased place nearby. This land was covered with lush spring grass. That is where I learned that a horse can founder on too much spring grass. How this bit of information had escaped me, I did not know. I was an avid reader and had by then been around several foundered horses at the farms I had worked but had never heard of this common cause of laminitis.
I was faced with the thought of having to euthanize my beloved horse. I could not bear the thought of losing him, but I could not bear the thought of him living in pain, unable to walk. His was a severe case—not like Sundy, or even Blackie. One night when I could not sleep because of sorrow over him, I reread, ‘Smoky the Cowhorse’. The rest of the night I cried and prayed for him. My pastor’s wife was a horselover and she understood how I felt and joined me in praying for him. I had a good farrier and horse veterinarian. They helped me keep him more comfortable, but gave me no hope that he could improve. I had never seen a foundered horse get better in all the cases I had experienced. But get better he did. It took time, but he did improve. We were able to ride him again and you would not know that he had ever taken a lame step in his life in the years since that time. For the most part, he has been healthy as a horse. But the foundering incident was nothing like his next illness.
We had big plans to make a camping trip out to Big Bend National Park. I had camped there with my family as a 13 year old and always dreamed of going back. The wide open vistas touched my young girl soul so deeply that when I got back home, I wrote a story about a girl who ran away from home with her horse to go out West to a place like I had experienced. I yearned to stay in that wild, wide open country. Now years later, I was about to return to that place which had called to me over the years. But it was not to be. Smoky came down with a mystery illness that kept him sick and close to death for a month. He ran deadly high fevers and would stand swaying in sickness, never lying down as if he knew if he did, he would never rise again. The midline of his belly was swollen and he had a few other symptoms. Blood testing was inconclusive. I was out of money and the vet out of ideas of what could be the trouble. We just rode it out the best we could.
A month later, Smoky was all better, but by then, we had spent our vacation money and time. I was glad to sacrifice the trip for my friend. I had used the same vet who years before had helped during the founder incident, and again, he gave me small hope for a good outcome. But ol’ Smoky wasn’t ready to go yet. With lots of nursing and prayer, he recovered once more.
Smoky has shared our home with other horses: Pepper a gray broodmare, Rusty, my sorrel riding horse, Dakota, my husband’s bay gelding (he rode only about 2 times, so I guess he was my riding horse), Dusty, my son’s small blue roan horse, (he rode only a handful of times, so I guess he was my riding horse, too), Frisco, the tiny paint miniature pony (a pasture ornament) and two horses who we boarded here for a friend; Patches and Winchester. Rusty and Winchester died here and the others went to new homes.
After Rusty died, Smoky has been the only horse here but he doesn’t seem to mind. He seems content to wait at the gate for me to come feed him. Should he get lonesome, he has cows and goats for company, or he can walk over to the neighbor’s fence and visit horses there. I don’t think he goes to the trouble anymore.
The day I took Smoky to the vet during his long illness, the vet said to me in preparation for the worst, ‘someday soon, we will be standing here with you crying over this old horse’s passing’. The vet has since retired, so I can’t call him up and tell him that Smoky is still with us and I’m not crying yet.
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