by Laura Crum
Riding gentle horses, as my son and I do, can fill you with a sense of complacency. The horses are always steady and reliable, and you get to thinking the horse is never, ever gonna do anything “wrong”, or anything that will surprise you. And this is a big mistake. As we learned the other day.
I mentioned in my last post that we ride a couple of days a week at my uncle’s practice team roping arena with a bunch of friends. These friends include the four old cowboys I wrote about in the previous post, a couple of women more or less my age, a thirtyish horse trainer, and a guy and his son—the son is just a little older than my kid. The son, I’ll call him L, is eager to learn to rope, and last year the father bought a said-to-be gentle rope horse gelding for the kid to learn on. And L has been riding this horse and chasing cattle on him ever since then.
I never liked this horse. I tend to respond to horses intuitively at this stage in my life, and I didn’t get a good vibe from this chunky sorrel gelding. He seemed to be a competent rope horse, he was said to be kid gentle, he seemed sound and reasonably well broke, but I didn’t like him. No real reason. Just a feeling. I didn’t care for the way he moved; the horse was a cribber, and I thought he had a sulky, resentful expression. But really, just a feeling. Still the guy bought the horse (spent a lot of money), so his son would have a horse to learn to rope on. And I never saw this horse do anything terrible. He packed the kid and seemed gentle enough, and obviously knew how to be a rope horse. So Ok then.
Last Thursday we were all up at the arena—business as usual. Here’s the gang driving a recalcitrant steer into the stripping chute. (Does that steer look a little outnumbered to you?)
My son is the one with the helmet—as you might guess, in this crowd, no one else wears one. Anyway, everybody was having fun and L made a couple of dry runs on his horse. L isn’t actually roping yet, just chasing cattle on his horse, and roping the dummy from the ground.
I was working the chutes and talking to friends and keeping half an eye on my son and his horse, and I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to L and his horse. L’s dad and some of the other ropers were coaching L, so he was getting plenty of supervision. Anyway, L tied his horse up for some reason. I went down to the far end of the arena to put some cattle through the chutes, so I wasn’t anywhere near him when it happened. I didn’t see it, so am relying on what my friend told me.
Apparently L walked back up to his horse and untied him, preparing to get back on him, and at the same time one of the many dogs running around bit down on a plastic water bottle it was carrying and made a scratchy noise right behind the horse. The horse jumped away and fired with both hind feet and caught L in the chest—in the rib cage, right near the sternum—hard enough to throw him to the ground and knock the wind out of him. After some careful examination (and L catching his breath), he was pronounced bruised but OK. Though sore and kind of shocked. And we were all vastly relieved. Because a kick like that can seriously damage you, if it catches you wrong.
The thing is, none of us imagined the horse would ever do something like that. As a group, we were just too complacent.
I had never noticed that this horse had a tendency to kick, but my friend told me she had seen him kick hard at the ropes, when they dragged by his back feet. Most team roping horses ignore the dragging ropes, it’s a pretty normal thing in the course of a roping run. But there are a few rope horses that don’t like them. These aren’t horses I would choose for a kid to learn to rope on.
In any case, excuses were made for the horse, that he had been kicking at the dog, and caught the kid by accident (which is almost certainly true), and that it was known that he didn’t like things (like ropes and dogs with noisy plastic bottles) by his back feet. L said he should have been more aware. This may be so, but my thoughts are a bit different.
I would not care to have my own kid ride or handle a horse with this issue. I would not care to have this horse in my barn, period. For my money, an older solid horse that is willing to fire with his back feet (hard) in the direction of a human (even if he isn’t aiming at that human) is going to be sold. Its not like he’s a young horse that doesn’t know better. And its not likely that you’ll train an older horse out of this behavior. A broke horse either knows better than to do this, or he’s forever dangerous.
I have had to make this decision before. Several years ago, before he bought Twister, my friend/boarder, Wally, bought a bay gelding we called Sammy. Sammy was twelve or so, and a competent rope horse. He seemed well broke. For a while Wally and I were perfectly happy with him. It was obvious Sammy wasn’t a very outwardly friendly horse, but we’ve had several horses like this that turned out to be great horses—notably Flanigan (a real grouch) and Pistol (very stand-offish). We did not count it against Sammy that he wasn’t friendly.
As time passed Wally grew less happy with Sammy as a performer—he didn’t think the horse’s heart was really into trying hard. And over the course of the year he was here, Sammy made two extremely aggressive gestures toward Wally. Both times there was an excuse. Wally walked into the horse’s stall at a roping while Sammy was dozing, and the horse lunged at him hard, mouth bared. If Sammy had connected, as he clearly intended, Wally would have been missing a chunk of flesh. Wally dodged, and we all made excuses. Even gentle horses will act aggressive when startled from sleep (this is true). But a few months later Sammy had a cut on his hock. When Wally tried to examine it, the horse fired at him—hard. Again, if it had connected, Wally might have been missing a knee cap. Again, there was an excuse—that cut clearly hurt and the horse didn’t want it messed with. But…
No horse in my barn has ever behaved like that. I can say with reasonable certainty that all of our horses, including grouchy Flanigan, aloof Pistol, and flighty Twister and Gunner, knew/know better than to ever make a seriously aggressive gesture in the direction of a human—no matter what. Neither Wally nor I wanted to have a horse around that was willing to kick hard at a person. Especially since my then three year old son was often down in the barnyard. Yes, I always watched my kid carefully, but still, it just wasn’t worth it. And Sammy was sold.
(On the other hand, I tolerate Sunny’s willingness to make a bluffing “fake” kick in the direction of a person he thinks he can maybe boss around. Sunny has never hurt any one. His kicking gestures wouldn’t hurt if they did connect, and they aren’t even meant to connect. Sunny is bluffing. And I was easily able to intimidate him out of this behavior—we haven’t seen it in a long time.)
I would probably sell L’s horse, if I were L’s dad. I’d try to find one that was a little more trustworthy for a kid, even if he wasn’t as good a rope horse. And yes, I would make L wear a helmet.
But here’s the rub. A helmet wouldn’t have helped L when the horse kicked at him. Most of us take our helmets off when we dismount—my son certainly does. And even if L had been wearing a helmet in the moment he was kicked, the blow landed on his chest, not his head.
The truth is a helmet does NOT keep you safe, as so many people imply/say. It protects you from a certain type of head injury (hopefully). We all know Christopher Reeves was wearing a helmet when he broke his neck. The only horse fatality that occurred near me in years was at a nearby boarding stable during a lesson. Several children were in the ring at one time and one horse kicked at another horse and caught the child on that horse just wrong and broke her neck. All the kids were wearing helmets. I could go on and on. Most of the serious/fatal horse wrecks I have known over the years would not have been helped by a helmet.
This isn’t meant as a defense of helmetless riding. My son wears a helmet, as you can see. Despite the fact that none of my team roping/cowhorse oriented friends wear helmets, I bought one and wear it on the trail (thanks to my blogging horse friends). Helmets are a good idea. But they do not “keep you safe”. What keeps you the safest is riding a broke, trustworthy horse. And NOT riding with people who ride ill-broke, untrustworthy horses. If I had to choose between my son never wearing a helmet again but only riding Henry, or wearing a helmet but riding an assortment of riding school horses I didn’t know in the ring with other children riding other horses I didn’t know—I would choose Henry sans helmet every time.
And here I get down to the point of my post. I am a little upset that L’s horse, now known to be willing to kick in a dangerous way, is going to be present at our practice ropings. Previous to this incident, we all made the assumption that the horses there (all broke geldings and one very gentle mare) were safe horses to be around. Various friends/relatives bring their very small children to the arena. We let our dogs run and play during break. And now those of us who are reasonably responsible will have to be very careful that no child or dog gets near L’s horse. I will have to caution my son not to ride too close to L, and be sure that he complies with this. Which will not be easy as he and L are the only two kids who ride up there regularly. But it is not lost on me that if L’s horse fires hard at a rope near his back legs and catches my kid just wrong it could do very serious damage—and my kid’s helmet is not likely to help him a bit.
Has anybody else out there had experience with a horse who had this issue? How did you handle it?