“FIDDLE, n. An instrument to tickle human ears by friction of a horse’s tail on the entrails of a cat.”
Ambrose Bierce (1842 – 1914) American journalist and short-story writer: The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911
My father’s claim to fame is that an incident in his life made it into a book, Sagebrush Homesteads, by Laura Tice Lage. In this passage, Lage describes how my grandfather was working in his hay field when he spotted a pesky wabbit. At that time, rabbits were destroying crops so completely that many farmers near Crab Creek were being ruined. Grandpa Oscar was prepared, though. He snatched up his twelve gauge shotgun and fired at the bunny. The book doesn’t say if he hit the thing, or not. The most dramatic result of that shot was that Oscar’s horse was spooked. It galloped away, towing the wagon along with it…and my child father in the wagon.
My father always detested horses.
I’m wondering if that trait isn’t hereditary. Not that I detest horses, but that horses seem to have a thing about me! I first noticed that problem when I was a teenager. Years before, I had blithely told my mother who it was that I someday hoped to marry. Let’s call her Julie. As a teenager, I would never have revealed such a secret, but the feeling remained. Julie was still the woman I most wanted to impress. She was my age, so I knew her well, since all the children in that end of Adams County attended the same schools. I had been, for a time, her brother’s best friend–had even spent some sleepovers at her house. So when I ran across this beautiful, statuesque blond at the local fair, I considered it a matchless opportunity to impress her. But Julie was on horseback, and as I stood close by, chatting her up (as the Northern Irish lads would have described it), Julie’s horse decided to dispose of the suitor: it took a deliberate step in my direction, and it landed on my foot. Have you ever had eight hundred pounds dropped on your toes? My courtship ended suddenly and dramatically.
Do horses have an innate conviction to discourage suitors? When I met the woman who would become my wife, she kept a few horses at her home. On my first visit to the place I now inhabit, Boris, one of her muscular brood, galloped past me, chased by a barking dog. Instantaneously, he planted a blow in the ribs of the dog and then for good measure, Boris laid a strong kick into my upper right thigh. I collapsed in the horse poop and sand. Was it the fact that I didn’t sue her that convinced my wife to marry me? I limped for days, carried a huge swollen bruise on my leg for weeks.
Given these two incidents, then, is it any wonder that I addressed the situation in a pre-nuptial letter I sent my fiancee? That letter was perhaps the best idea I ever had. I explained to her that I didn’t really care much for horses, although I had nothing against living near them. I made it clear that she was welcome to keep her horses…but that they were indeed her horses, and that I didn’t intend to take over their care and maintenance. She has seldom asked me to feed and water them, and I haven’t ever had to clean out the barn. What’s more, I explained that I had an inherent trait of laziness. That revelation has given me immense relief over the years. In spite of what I told her, she married me, but she has never forgotten that I can be a lazy person, so I have escaped many an ugly chore or complicated project. She must really love me!
My sister kept a horse or two when we were young. That was fun for her…more hard work for my father. I remember the year 1968 very clearly–probably the year when I developed an understanding of how distant events can influence lives at a local level. That year a boy appeared in the back of my class. He wore a striped blue and white shirt and sported a head of close-cropped hair. He spoke no English at all, and it was a wonder to me that he even dared to come to school. It turned out that he was a Czechoslovakian, an escapee from the Russian invasion that Life magazine chronicled with a series of dramatic photographs. What’s more, Cestmir (with apologies to the purists–the correct symbol for the first letter of his name doesn’t exist in the bank of symbols available to me on this blog) wasn’t the only new student. There were a number of other new Czechoslovakians in our school that year, drawn to our community in the back of beyond by the grace of sponsorship from a successful local businessman of Czechoslovakian origins.
Cestmir and several of the other Czechoslovakians became my good friends. I was always interested in what lay beyond the sun-baked boundaries of my desert home. I was impressed by the stories these newcomers brought with them. As they learned English, I found out that they had been forced to leave everything behind at the Austrian border as they fled the Iron Curtain. Years later I took a study tour to Eastern Europe. It was 1978, and Brezhnev was in charge of the Soviet Union. In spite of thousands of miles of travel through Russia, Siberia, Uzbekistan, Armenia, the Ukraine and Moldova, the most intensely sobering moments occurred as we exited Czechoslovakia on the train into Austria. At the border, Austrian guards armed with machine guns searched our compartments. I remember thinking about what it must have been like for Cestmir and his family to leave their vehicle and their goods behind as they fled across that border in 1968.
Cestmir and a few of the other Czechoslovakians became my buddies. One afternoon, when he and Lado and Pavel were visiting, my sister allowed them to saddle up her horses and take a ride. In today’s litigious society, I can’t imagine such a thing happening, but Lado mounted Rex, my sister’s spirited younger horse, and took to the trail. The vivid image of Lado galloping down a desert hillside, screaming a Slavic war cry as he rode me down, persists to this day. Said horse survived until a year or two ago, living a long and active life. I haven’t heard about Lado, though.
Around here, lots of people make a way of life out of keeping horses. Some people keep horses at their homes, using them for riding lessons or trail riding. Others use horses for extended trail rides, packing camping gear and food into the mountains. Some use their horses for hunting. I have a distant relative whose horses are used for competitive trail rides in the roughest conditions. The horses on my home place are for a variety of uses: two ponies for children to ride, a couple of fjords that have potential as trail riders, a huge friesian who might pull equipment or logs, or even compete in dressage, and a mother and child set with good prospects in dressage or racing. Virtually none of these seven beasties actually lives up to its potential, though. Mostly, our horses just eat. Twice a day.
Okay, my wife has ambitions for some of these horses. Unfortunately, she just doesn’t have have time to realize those ambitions. And she has decided to trim back the herd, so you can expect to see a few of our horses on the block in the next few months. But it’s hard to dispose of any of them on sentimental grounds. My twins rode the ponies when they were young. The big black has always been picturesque and handsome. The colt, probably our most valuable horse, may one day win at competitions (his sire was a Hanoverian champion whose semen was expressed from Kentucky, flown to Seattle where I rushed to pick it up, scurrying north and dispatching a phone call when I got close to home).
In fact, the only occasions I can recall when we actually did get rid of a horse around here were when the horses in question hurt somebody. On both occasions, the somebody was me, but honestly–I didn’t complain. I didn’t insist that we get rid of them! That was something my wife decided to do. The first of these occasions was after Boris laid into me when he galloped past me on my first visit to the farm. The second occasion was more memorable.
We had relatives, horse-lovers of great repute, visiting on that Christmas morning a few years back. Of course they had to view our remuda, so we took them out to the barn where we had mama fjord, Katrina, in a stall with Julio, our elderly grey, to keep her company. We had only recently acquired Katrina. The previous owners decided to sell her because she had been mysteriously impregnated, and they couldn’t say who the sire actually was. Even though chances were good that the sire was also a purebred fjord, they wouldn’t be able to certify the offspring. So we bought mama fjord, complete with unborn baby horse.
Julio (pronounce it HOO-lee-oh) was a gentle, well-ridden old fellow. He was gentle enough for even me to ride. I had trailed on him on several occasions, notably the time when my wife led me down a steep dark trail criss-crossed with fallen timber. Or the other time, when I was in the lead on a trail through a dense stand of invasive butterfly bushes as tall as my shoulders on horseback. Coming around a twist in the trail, Julio threw his front legs into an arch and snorted with surprise. When he came down, I was still aboard somehow. And the herd of elk moseyed off into the bushes, leaving the trail to us. I grew to trust Julio.
That’s what made it so much worse that Christmas morning. As we leaned up against the window of the stall, petting Katrina, Julio made quick lunge at me. Did he mistake my graying beard for a hank of hay growing off my chin? Or was he protecting the mother-to-be? It was just one quick nip, a pinch. I stepped back, my hand flying to my neck where he bit me, and when I took my fingers off the wound there was blood on them. I knew it was only a nick, so I excused myself to go wash up. But when I raised the damp washcloth to scrub the wound, I felt my finger drop through the hole in the skin and penetrate into my neck. I wandered back to the barn with a cloth pressed to my neck. I’m sure was completely dispassionate as I reported the wound and said farewell: I would have to visit the emergency room.
Half a day passed. I was finally treated: shots (including tetanus) and stitches (fourteen of them in total). Christmas Day memories are always so sweet, aren’t they?
Julio decamped. It wasn’t just that he had gone vampire on us. He was getting too old for the type of riding we were doing. But come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve done any riding since then…several years ago. Maybe I’m getting too old, too.
I started off this entry with a quote from Ambrose Bierce because, although I haven’t done much trail riding lately, horses still contribute to my leisure time. Every time I pull the bow across the (steel w0und) strings, I’m riding a horse across them. I feel secure in the knowledge I won’t be kicked, bitten or thrown off. I probably won’t break any bones. This is a type of riding I can enjoy without fear, even if I’m not always in complete control. There’s always a little horse left in that horsehair.