by Laura Crum
True story. Well, maybe not the worst wreck of my entire life, but if not, close to it. I remember it perfectly, because it happened the day Queen Elizabeth waved at me. That’s right, the queen of England waved at me. I’ve never forgotten. And I never forgot the wreck that followed, either.
This would be thirty years ago on the outskirts of a foggy town in California’s Central Valley, right about this time of year. I’d been working all winter for a well known reined cowhorse trainer as his assistant, mostly in the chilly (40 degrees), gray fog that is so typical of the Valley in winter. This particular trainer had won the prestigious Snaffle Bit Futurity a couple of years ago and was a BIG player in the reined cowhorse game. He probably had 50 horses in training. And he had three assistants to ride them—myself, another young woman, and an equally young guy. All three of us were in our twenties and were paid minimum wage. We were all working there because we wanted to learn how to train horses.
All of us could ride pretty well, and we were given the greener horses and the retrain projects—the trainer rode the horses that were scheduled to be shown. As a matter of fact, the trainer didn’t ride all that often. Mostly he watched us ride and yelled at us. He had a huge voice and as someone else said of him, “He could be abrasive, to say the least.” Most assistants lasted only a few months. He frequently reduced me to tears, still I kept sticking it out. I wanted to learn to ride cowhorses in the worst way, as did the other two kids working for the trainer. The three of us had all been there six months on this particular March day, and we were friends, of a sort. At the very least, we were comrades.
The trainer had gone to town for the morning, as he often did, and the three of us were working our way through our respective “strings” when the neighbor came driving in the yard, very excited. Apparently Queen Elizabeth had been visiting Yosemite Valley and was on her way to the airport. And the neighbor had just heard (via police scanner—which everybody seemed to have in those parts) that the queen’s convoy would be going down the road in front of our ranches. In ten minutes from now.
This was big news. As we understood it, the queen’s route was kept secret until the last minute, for fear of snipers. So there was no crowd lining the roadway. We three training assistants had the bright idea to saddle the most “western looking” horses we had and wave at the queen—who we all knew was a horsewoman. I grabbed a loud-colored paint, the other gal took a blanket Appie and the guy saddled a buckskin. We put our cowboy hats and chaps on and lined the three horses up at the end of the driveway, on the shoulder of the road, facing the street, right under the wooden crossbar that marked the ranch driveway. We looked western as hell.
And shortly thereafter the police convoy came down the road, with a big black limo sandwiched in the middle. We took off our hats and waved and waved and I distinctly saw the queen’s face peering at us through the back window and she gave her signature wave back. So, the queen has waved at me (!)
Anyway, after that excitement, it was back to business as usual. The trainer came back from town and decided to have me work all the upcoming snaffle bit prospects “checked up” in the round pen. Not the real round pen, because that was a lake, after a rainy winter. But a makeshift round pen had been set up in the covered arena—rusty old portable panels baling wired together. Not ideal.
The sort of “checking up” the trainer had me do is kind of touchy. The reins are run from the snaffle bit down between the horses front legs and then up to the horn, one on each side. The reins are then tied around the horn. When the horse walks or trots, the movement of his front legs works the reins in an effect that is similar to a rider scissoring the reins. The horse must bring his head down, and/or break at the poll to get relief from the pressure. If he raises his head or throws it, the reins, tied fast at the horn, will give him a harsh jerk in the mouth. There is no escape. If the person doing the checking up is not skilled, it’s common for a colt to flip over backward. This event is not for the faint-hearted, and it CAN be very abusive. Every single reined cowhorse trainer I ever knew used it at least occasionally. I had used it before and knew how to do it. But I tended to err on the side of kindness and caution.
I usually started with the reins pretty loose and gave the colt a lot of space to figure out what was wanted. If he seemed upset, I loosened the reins further. Only when I was sure that the colt had figured out the desired response and was comfortable with it, did I drive him into the bridle—which was the goal of this exercise. It is, to be frank, a little like rollkur (sp?).
Anyway, I was working my way through the three-year-olds, one at a time. Most understood the exercise and didn’t struggle with it. I worked them for fifteen-twenty minutes or so at the trot, as I had been told to do. And I finally got around to Lynn’s filly.
Lynn was a non-pro with very little money, but she had a three-year-old she wanted to show at the Snaffle Bit Futurity in the Non-Pro class and had put the filly in training. Think about this for a minute. She had very little money, she wasn’t going to have the trainer show the horse, she was going to show it herself. The trainer had at least a dozen Futurity prospects in training that he WAS going to show himself. Take a guess how much Lynn’s filly got ridden. Yep. If you guessed almost never, you’re right.
The trainer didn’t ride her because he wasn’t interested in her. The assistants didn’t ride her much because we all had plenty of horses we were assigned to ride and the filly was a flighty, goosey little critter, afraid of everything. Lynn rode her occasionally. The filly was WAY behind the other horses in her training.
I got her out and saddled her and checked her up with some trepidation. I wasn’t sure she’d ever done this before. And sure enough, she reacted by being freaked out. I had the reins adjusted so they were very loose and I was just sort of babying her along, hoping she would relax and get the idea. But she kept throwing her head against the pressure and running backward. I was worried she would flip over and I soothed her and loosened the reins further. At this point, if I had been in charge, I would have been happy to have her take a few calm steps forward at the walk and I would have put her up.
But I was not in charge. And the trainer chose just this moment to come lean on the fence and observe what I was doing. In no time at all he was yelling at me to tighten the reins and drive the filly forward into the bridle. I protested, saying that I thought she’d freak out. He yelled louder, telling me that he was the boss here and if I wouldn’t do it he would, and to get my ass in gear and do as he said.
Well, I should have quit him right there. But I was young and he was a big name, and yep, he was in charge. So I did as he said.
I shortened the reins under his direction—much shorter than I would ever have chosen to do with this filly. With the trainer yelling at me every second to drive her harder, I used the whip to force her to trot, despite her wildly rolling eyes and attempts to throw her head in the air and run backwards.
“Drive her harder!” screamed the trainer.
I understood the point. She couldn’t flip over backwards if I could keep her moving forwards. So I drove her hard. And the filly, out of her mind with panic, tried to jump out of the round pen, with her head virtually tied down to her chest.
She didn’t make it. She landed on top of one of the old rusty panels, which fell apart. The filly impaled herself on an upright. Blood poured out of a gaping hole in her chest.
The trainer dove into this mess, and got the horse untangled and out of the panels. The vet was called, the filly survived, though she was out of commission for a couple of months. I felt terrible. And the worst part was that I absolutely knew that the trainer would tell Lynn that I was to blame for the wreck. He would say my inexperience caused the problem.
Lynn was a nice gal. I told her I was sorry, and I very softly said that I had been doing exactly what the trainer told me to do. I did not add that I never would have driven her horse like that by my own choice, and that I had warned the trainer that I thought it would be too much for the filly. Lynn said she didn’t blame me. But she didn’t have much money and now she had a huge vet bill, and her horse, already behind in her training, was going to be even further behind. As I said, I felt terrible.
Three months after that, and after witnessing many more very abusive things, I quit that sorry son of a bitch of a trainer and finished training my horse, Gunner, for the Snaffle Bit Futurity on my own. We placed in both the Non-Pro and the Ladies, and I was happy with the results. But I never became a star at reined cowhorse, and shortly thereafter I switched to cutting, which was (in my opinion) easier on the horse. And one thing I can tell you for sure. Though I checked up other colts in my life, I was always very careful how I did it, and I never again had a wreck of any sort in the process.
If you’d like to hear more adventures from my past life training horses, there are many woven into “Hoofprints,” the second book in my mystery series. Hoofprints is on special right now as a Kindle edition. Only 99 cents. Here is the link, if you’re interested.