by Laura Crum
I’ve written a lot on this blog about going trail riding with my son on our supremely trustworthy trail horses, Henry and Sunny. In fact, I’ve gone so far as to call these horses “bombproof.” And by my standards, they are. They pretty much don’t spook at much of anything, let alone buck or bolt…etc. They have consistently been good, steady, confident trail horses—for hundreds of rides in many different places, for over four years. It’s wonderful to own such horses. But there is another sort of trustworthy horse.
This other sort of horse is much harder to describe/define, and only other horsemen are likely to recognize what I am saying. To a non-horseman, what I’m about to say will sound simply silly. But its still true. Some very flighty horses, with more than a few behavioral issues, can also be trustworthy. Take Twister, for instance.
Twister is a middle-aged (15 years) gray QH gelding who belongs to my friend, Wally. Wally boards Twister with me, so I take care of this horse. I was also the one who convinced Wally to buy Twister, back when the horse was six. Wally uses Twister for team roping and trail riding, and Twister is light years away from what most folks would call a bombproof horse. I wouldn’t call him a bombproof horse, either. Twister is spooky, touchy, prone to pulling back, and cinchy. He’s also ampy in the box, where he does a lot of dancing around and mini-rears. He’s hyper sensitive and requires a very light hand or he freaks out. No spurs. You can’t hit him—ever. You can’t even yell at him. And this can be very aggravating when Twister is doing something you wish he wouldn’t do, like grabbing for grass, or refusing to approach the chute at the roping arena, because its “skeery.” And lots and lots of things strike Twister as scary. In short, not a bombproof horse. But, as he proved the other day, a horse worthy of our trust.
In order to understand this story, you need to understand that most of the other ropers think Twister is a flake. They don’t ride him, so they don’t know what he “feels” like, and he does look like a flake. He humps his back when saddled and acts very “high” in the heeler’s box; he isn’t terribly well-broke (Ok, not at all well-broke), and frequently has his head right up against the tie-down. Lots of the ropers think Wally (who is 79 this summer) is crazy to ride such a horse. I know differently, but that’s because I’ve ridden him. Despite what he appears to be, Twister gives you a really good “feel” when you are on his back. You feel safe on him. And in nine years of riding/roping on Twister, Wally has never once hit the ground from Twister’s back. Or been hurt in any way. That’s a pretty good track record. And last week, Twister made it even better.
The first I heard of it was when Wally pulled his truck and trailer into my barnyard, home from the local roping. He unloaded Twister, gave him a pat, and said to me, “This horse saved my life today.”
Well. There’s a story here, I figured. And yep, Wally was eager to tell it.
Apparently it had been an ordinary sort of day at the roping, when all of a sudden the unexpected happened. (I think all you horse people are familiar with this type of scenario). Wally had heeled a steer by two feet and the ropes came tight. In the same instant the tether that attaches the back cinch to the front cinch broke. And the back cinch immediately swung back and “flanked” Twister.
For those who don’t know, flanking is how bucking horses are encouraged to buck. The flank cinch is pulled tight right around the horse’s (you guessed it) flanks. MOST horses will buck if this is done, even truly gentle horses. A good many horses will buck really, really hard. And now Twister, the goofy, ultra-sensitive, cinchy horse, had just been flanked. Wally thought his life was over. Actually the specific thought he had was “This horse is going to buck me off and my roping career will be over.” Wally knows good and well that he wouldn’t likely come back from hitting the ground hard at his age. Never mind that I would have been worried about my life being over. We’ve all got our priorities. Wally lives to rope.
So there he was, sitting on what felt like a time bomb. Twister was shaking like a leaf in the wind, every muscle tensed and quivering, but he still hadn’t actually exploded. Wally was scared to dismount, as that action might trigger the explosion, and the moment of swinging a leg over the horse makes the rider most vulnerable. But Wally found that the trembling Twister was actually willing to take a couple of steps at his urging, and he was able to guide him with the bridle.
Wally encouraged the horse up to another rider, who very gently steadied Twister’s head—and Wally was able to get off and loosen the back cinch, with a huge sigh of relief and a heartfelt “Thank you” to the horse. And all the other ropers grinned with him.
It doesn’t sound like much, written down. But you horse people will understand how overwhelming the impulse would have been to buck, especially for a sensitive horse like Twister. Why didn’t he buck? How did he manage to hold it together despite being flanked, and continue to obey his rider? I think I know, but it’s obviously just a guess.
Despite all his goofy behaviors, Twister is, at heart, a horse who means well. He wants to do what is right. This is what struck me about him when I first saw him as a six-year-old. The horse was green as grass. He had had thirty days as a four-year-old with not-very-handy ranch cowboy who didn’t care for him. As a five year old, a rope horse trainer had made a ninety-day-wonder out of him (this means teaching a horse to be a rope horse in three months—trust me, this is VERY stressful on the horse). In his whole entire life, nobody had ever thought much of him. His current owner just wanted out of him and had him priced cheap so he would sell. But I watched the horse make run after run with a tough young cowboy and I thought that green as he was, Twister was trying hard. And I turned to Wally, who was looking for a horse, and said, “Buy that gray horse.” And Wally, who liked the horse, too, made the deal that day.
Yes, Twister was ill-broke. He had no idea how to give his head. He couldn’t lope a circle. He didn’t even know how to hold a gait. And he was high-headed, flighty, and prone to pulling back. And yet, oddly enough, both Wally and I felt safe on his back. It’s a hard thing to describe, cause its just a feeling, but if you’ve ridden enough horses, you’ll know what I mean. Twister gave you a good “feel.”
Anyway, over the years, Wally grew to trust Twister, and Twister grew to trust Wally. Twister likes to be rubbed on, and we rub on him a lot. We don’t scare him—we tolerate his little pulling back incidents, we walk him until the hump is out of his back after we saddle him. And Twister has never once dumped, or even come close to dumping, his rider, despite covering hundreds of miles on the trail and competing every week at the rather exciting and unpredictable sport of team roping.
What I think happened that day Twister was flanked is the horse’s deep trust in his rider caused him to resist the overwhelming urge to buck. Despite the fact that he was shaking with strain, Twister honored the partnership with Wally that he trusted in. What’s certainly true is that this very touchy, cinchy horse DID resist the urge to buck and let Wally climb off and uncinch him. I think Twister knew that it was “wrong” to buck Wally off and put all his effort into NOT bucking and tried to trust that his rider would work this very scary situation out. He continued to listen to Wally and did as he was asked to do.
Twister honored the horse human partnership, even when he was put in a pretty much intolerable position. What more can a horse do than that? No, he’s not bombproof, and most of the other ropers are afraid to ride him, but Twister IS trustworthy. And Wally and I will honor our half of that bargain.
Wally has told me (and he’s a man of his word) that he will retire Twister when the horse is ready for that, and keep him until he dies. And if Wally dies first his will states that Twister is mine, and I will honor that promise. Because Twister has put his trust in the right people. Just as he has come through for us, we will come through for him. And you can call me naïve if you want, but I think that horses really do sort of understand this bottom line, and a flighty little horse like Twister, who never knew a human that cared about him before Wally, has recognized at some deep level that this is a partnership worth throwing in with. And he has truly thrown in. And I honestly feel that it is partly our honorable commitment to being trustworthy for a horse that makes a horse choose to be trustworthy for us. Or am I simply daydreaming, having read “Black Beauty” once too many times? Feel free to give your own take on it.
Wally and Twister in February of this year.