The Breaking of Horses

Horses can teach young people so many life lessons. Caring for them is an excellent way to learn responsibility, consistency, and the need for funeral planning. In fact my experiences with horses in my early teen years taught me so much that I have rarely had the desire to go back and relearn any of those lessons.

As a child, I was exposed to the magnificent creatures through the typical trail rides, fair exhibits, and horse shows. However the most formative experiences came in my early teen years at the farm of some family friends. There we had free reign with the horses, two of which were able to be saddled and ridden.

We would prepare and situate the tack, sit in the saddle, and then hold on for dear life. The reigns were of little consequence, even if someone larger than a thirteen year old was holding them. We would hold on to the pommel and pray to our Maker. I am sure the horse was only overjoyed at the fact of being able to give this young person a ride on its back, but at times I got the distinct impression it viewed me more as an annoyance. Our trail ride consisted of a sprint down the driveway, then onto the rutted track to the field, then up the rise, brush past the barbed wire fence, and a mad dash back to the pen. I actually have no idea how long the path was, nor any reasonable idea about the length of time it took. My memories are, however, very fresh in reference to how hard you had to grip the saddle horn in order to survive the whole ordeal. By the time we made it back to the corral our parents would have to peel our fingers off, one by one. Eventually after a few hours the frozen expression of horror would diminish on our faces.

Once my father saw how these rides were such a hit, he decided that we should work at training a few of the younger horses so we could all ride together. The wisdom of this decision would later be reevaluated, however we started with eagerness and anticipation. In preparation we checked out some resources from the library and began learning the ropes of training horses. My father had grown up out West and had experience with the old method, namely, hold on until they stop bucking. We tried that approach first.

We took one of the untrained horses and began to get him used to the weight of a saddle. We tied him to a fence post and slowly got him calm enough to wear the saddle blanket and then the saddle. He showed us how pleased he was by teasing us, acting like he wanted to bite our hands while we were stroking his neck. Horses are such gentle creatures.

Eventually we got to the point where the saddle was on and secured. The next step was to add extra weight so he would be ready for a real rider at a later point. We could have put a sack of grain up on him, but it was decided that since he was so fond of us that he would probably respond negatively to some unknown object on his back. In addition, since there was no danger of him running away, it was clear that he would rather have one of us in the saddle. He had taken such a liking to us with all the friendly nips, and the way he would step on one of our feet and then try to grind it into the ground. Our bond of friendship had grown quickly.

In the end, I was chosen for this privilege position for two reasons. The first was that I was the lightest. The second is because my older brother claimed he was wearing his good pants and wouldn’t want to get them dirty with all the fun this was going to be.

My dad helped me get my foot in the stirrup while my brother distracted the horse on the other side, the two of them teasing each other with barred teeth and humorous threats on each other’s lives. When I finally did get my other leg over, I did what I had been trained to do and gripped the saddle horn for all I was worth. It was a little anticlimatic because it appeared that all our training had worked. The horse didn’t even realize I was there. He just kept going on about what he would do to my brother if he ever found him alone in an alley, and my brother kept teasing him back about jello and dog food. They were such pals.

But those precious moments ended abruptly. As soon as the horse realized that everyone was looking up on his back, and I was nowhere to be found, he panicked. He was most assuredly concerned for my safety, and had he known I was on his back, he probably wouldn’t have thrashed in such a fashion.

I had seen enough covers of old western novels to know that in order to ride a bronco, all one needed was to lean back, put one hand in the air, and have an old cowboy hat. I didn’t have the hat, nor would anything have convinced me to release a single finger from the death grip I had on the saddle horn.

My rodeo debut was rather short, and I don’t remember much. What I do clearly remember is the sensation of flying. Not the type of flying one does in the best of dreams, a dipping and diving in exhilarating fashion. Rather, it was like the flying you would do if you were a baseball being thrown through the air, right at someone swinging a bat.

As my flying sensation was about to come to an abrupt stop, my dear friend the horse, tried to slow my descent by gracious kicking out his back leg. Sadly his act of kindness was for naught since instead of slowing my fall, his hoof planted squarely in my thigh. It is the thought that counts.

I crumpled to the ground, gasping for breath and wondering what it would be like to live with one leg, since the other was probably torn off. My father and brother rushed to my side, pulling me from the playful kicks of the horse. My former stead was obviously concerned about my well being and wanted to add a little levity into the situation.

Both my father and brother worked at remedying the situation through their counsel. There were two courses of action which were obviously of paramount importance to my well being at that moment, both of which they continued to repeat. The first was, “Don’t be a baby! Walk it off.” My older brother was always known for his encouragement and affirmation. It was obvious that I had gotten the best of the deal. It was I who got to be the first to “ride” the horse. It was I who got to feel the rush of being airborne. I should really be thinking about my brother, since he had been deprived of all that fun, just on account of the bad luck he has for wearing his good pants on the day we go to the farm.

The second piece of necessary council as I lay on the ground unable to breathe was, “Don’t tell your mother.” If I ever wanted to go horse riding again I had better stand up and act like this was all part of the plan. Stand. Smile. Wave. And wipe those tears off your face. All of which I did in good time, although I wasn’t too sure I was ready to start planning dates for more horseback riding.

That day marked an important shift in our wild horse breaking strategy. First, we decided to move to a different approach where we gained the horses confidence through pen training. It seemed like our friendly horse had grown so accostumed to teasing us and acting like he wanted to kill us, that he didn’t know how to really trust us. Second, I learned that while training horses I must never forget to wear my nice pants.

Over the weeks and months that followed we continued to take afternoon trips out to the farm. We would convince our four-footed friends to enter the pen through snacks and grain and then begin our training. We would have them run one direction and then the other, stop and start. They loved it. So much so that they would try to nuzzle up next to me and take a bite out of my bicep when I wasn’t looking. We were dear friends.

Eventually we progressed to the point where we could lay a saddle blanket and then a saddle on their back and lead them around the pen. Starting. Stopping. Changing directions. We had grown so close that we even learned how they would cock their ears right before they tried to kicked us in the kneecap.

The day finally came when my father announced that the two young horses were ready for riders. They had advanced so far that this was obviously the next step. And in addition, we would probably be safer up there where they couldn’t reach around and bite off any of our flesh. So it was with this confidence that both my father and I slowly pulled ourselves in the saddles.

At first it appeared that our extensive pen training had paid off. Besides the cursing and general lewdness out of the corner of their mouths, the horses were fairly calm. We thought we had won.

Then in reaction to something out of the corner of its eye, or merely demon possession, my father’s horse made a break for it. Since we were in the pen, its break for it consisted of several crazed laps. The burst of speed dislodged my father, leaving him in a heap. This added exhilaration fueled my own horse to leap and kick, knocking me off. However, in order to make amends for his erratic behavior, he moved to my side and planted his hoof on of my thigh and ground it around. The resulting effect was tearing both my pants and a substantial piece of my sensitive thigh. However, there was very little sympathy for me, mostly due to the fact that my father couldn’t breathe and had turned an odd sort of green. The resulting X-rays revealed a variety of broken bones and the end of our horse training days.

I am sure those friendly beasts still miss us, although the cards we get at Christmas are full of their coarse joking and scrawled pictures of hospital beds. We laugh and send them pictures with spurs and whips on them. Such fun.

I wouldn’t be truthful, however, if I didn’t confess that the whole experience left me rather disappointed. It just doesn’t seem fair that my father received all the attention at the hospital and during his convalescence. True, he did break his collarbone and a handful of ribs. However, it was me after all who had ruined my good pants.