Wednesday, January 27, 2010

An Old Cowboy and a Blaze-faced Horse

by Laura Crum

Led and Lad. That’s who I’ve been thinking about lately. Led was the cowboy who taught my uncle to rope. And Lad was the horse who taught me to ride. The two of them are connected in more than one way.

Led was the last working cowboy on a famous old ranch in these parts. In the end this ranch became a state park, and Led ended up living on my uncle’s small horse ranch. Led was not only a working cowboy, but also a competitive rodeo team roper—in the 1940’s. As an old man, he taught my uncle, just beginning his team roping career, the value of a good rope horse. And thus we come to Lad.

Previous to Led’s instruction, my uncle, raised on a dairy ranch, bought cheap trading horses and tried to rope on them. The horses had no experience and neither did my (then young) uncle. The results were not spectacular. It was Led who began to teach my uncle the basics of team roping and helped him to find and buy Lad, a registered Quarter Horse who had been trained to be a competitive team roping horse.

Lad may have been the first registered horse my uncle bought. For sure he was the most expensive horse my uncle had ever purchased to that date. Lad cost six hundred dollars, the equivalent of six thousand these days, a fair price for a middle of the road rope horse.

Lad was not a fancy horse. Foundation bred and fairly coarse and common looking, Lad was dark brown and had a plain head and a big blaze. He had been raised on a ranch and was nobody’s pet. But he knew his job and was well broke enough that a kid could ride him (and I did—though he spooked occasionally and dumped me once in awhile). Lad and another old rope horse named Tovy effectively taught me to ride.

Both Led and Lad were a constant part of my life for many years when I was young. The old man and the horse gave me the background that is still my basic footing in the horse biz. They knew, none better, the true cowboy way. They were tough, effective, fair, unsentimental critters, and from them I gained a sensibility I still have, though I’ve modified it a bit over time.

My uncle, the most unsentimental of the lot, did give Lad a good long retirement and kept him until he died. As for Led, his story is sadder. In his old age he fell in love with a young woman and left my uncle’s place to live with her. She eventually found a younger man and essentially threw the old cowboy out, leaving him to end his days with a nephew who lived in a big city. Led wrote me a letter before he died, saying that he little thought he’d meet his end so far from horses and all that he’d loved. I wrote him back, but I knew that no words of mine could change the pain of that situation.

I often think of Led and Lad and am grateful for the tradition and way of life that they brought to me. Though Led was an old man when I knew him, we often talked horses together, and I learned a great deal from him. And the knowledge he passed to my uncle, my uncle passed to me. From the time I was very young, I knew how to tie a proper horseman’s knot and how to get along with a snorty old rope horse (this would be Lad). I rode my uncle’s many trading horses, I brought in the cattle, I helped my uncle start young horses. By the time I was eighteen, I was starting colts on my own. I spent two years working on a commercial cattle ranch and several summers working for a mountain pack station. When I went to work for professional horse trainers in my late twenties, I had a background that helped me to evaluate what I saw and take the parts that worked for me and discard the rest. Eventually I progressed to training my own cutting horse and competing on him (reasonably successfully-—see my previous posts titled “Winning” and “Once Upon A Time” for that story), and finally to breaking and training team roping horses for myself and my friends. I made some pretty nice rope horses, if I say so myself. And it was essentially because of Led and Lad that I had this knowledge.

Today, it is this foundation that helps free me to make my own choices. Because I know how the cowboy thing is really done, I’m not buffaloed by others’ opinions. I feel comfortable following my own path. If I enjoy trail riding on my steady bombproof horse (wearing my cozy Ugg boots) and don’t need to compete and train any more, I’m OK with myself about that. And I owe this confidence very largely to the old cowboy and the blaze-faced horse. I still take my son to the roping arena to ride with my uncle and the other ropers, even though I no longer care to rope. But I want my son to absorb the same tradition I absorbed, to learn how the thing is done from people who can really get the job done. I’m hoping this will free him and give him confidence, just as it has for me. (And no, I’m not saying that team ropers are more skilled than people of other horse disciplines. By and large—this is a generalization—they are practical, competent horsemen—if you really can’t ride and deal with a horse it is pretty much impossible to go full blast down the arena and rope and turn a steer. Thus the event itself weeds out those who have no horsemanship skills at all. On the other hand, many ropers know little about the fine points of working with a horse and their horsemanship can be a pretty crude thing. However, people who rope have to do more than just talk the talk.)

I’m guessing that lots of you in other horseback disciplines have had a mentor or a special horse that really gave you a grounding in the horse biz. Certainly many people who write in here have given very helpful, insightful opinions in the past, when it comes to training and relating to horses, and just life in general. Anybody have any stories to share on this subject? I’d love to hear your take on it.

PS--It’s a good thing I’ve got an indoor activity right now, as it has rained non-stop for almost ten days and no riding is happening here at all. My riding ring looks like a holding pond. My hairy, muddy horses are squelching through the slop. So far all are sound, healthy, eating well, keeping their weight on… knock on wood. The saddle horses don’t seem to mind the break from work. My thirty year old pasture pets are warm and dry under their blankets. During a brief lull yesterday I pulled on my rubber boots and walked around all corrals and pastures, ascertaining that every horse does have plenty of dry ground where he can get out of the mud (and I could see by the signs that they were spending time there). So things are going reasonably well, considering. But it is not fun horsekeeping weather.

It is, however, ideal weather for writing, and I have been getting quite a bit of writing done on book #12. And, as you can see by the sidebar, I’m also getting ready to announce the arrival of book #11. Yep, “Going, Gone” comes out this spring; I’ve put a short synopsis on my website, for those who are interested. This book centers around the murder of a livestock auctioneer, and involves a rescue horse, nefarious kill buyers, and a heroic horse blogger, as well as a thrilling (if I say so myself) horseback chase scene, so there should be something there for everybody. Not to mention “Going, Gone” features illustrations by Janet Huntington of Mugwump Chronicles, so all you fans of mugwump won’t want to miss her very nice drawings.

The book will be available in April, and I believe that you can already preorder it from Amazon and/or the publisher. However, I am planning to announce a special offer for horse bloggers only, so stay tuned for that. Until then, stay dry. Cheers--Laura


Susan said...

Great story. I love reading about influences from the past. It gives me ideas for stories on my own blog. Speaking of which, check out my latest blog post. I put up pictures of the horse I have in training. I have to brag and show him off because he's so cool, and very photogenic. Also, congratulations on your latest book! I'm trying to work on another one, but as of yet haven't gotten the tone(?) right. Plus, it seems I do better figuring the story line out in my mind before writing. I have no idea if others do this.

Laura Crum said...

Susan, I definitely "sit" on my stories for a good long while before I write them down. It's like a gestational period, I think. I just know I need to wait awhile (usually about a year) until I'm ready to do the writing.

I will try to get my cranky old computer to check out your blog. Thanks for the nice feedback.

Laura Crum said...

Also, to find out how you can get a free review copy of my new book, "Going, Gone", go to the Oh Horse Feathers blog, where Mrs Mom has posted the info.

Laura Crum said...

Susan, I did make it to your blog. I couldn't get the comments page to come up, but I wanted to tell you that is one handy looking colt. And boy oh boy does it look cold there. And to think I was moaning about rain. I am oh so sure I would not ride at all if I had to bundle up like your horse trainer. But they were lovely photos and I enjoyed them very much.

Shanster said...

Hi Laura - my special past and the basis for all I know comes from my old gelding, Brandon - a grade QH appy cross that was a solid dark bay. He was mistaken a lot for a Morgan or an "old timey QH" ? by many.

I found him in Yankton, SD with a woman I was training with then named Nancy. I really enjoyed Nancy and she helped me a lot but she moved home to the East Coast and we lost touch.

She helped me buy Brandon tho' and for that I will be eternally grateful!

I took Brandon with me to CO when I started school and I found this awesome, awesome family that was steeped in horses.

I heard there was this trainer... so I found her house one day and knocked on the door - fresh faced goofy kid.

Carol was of course busy and getting herself and her family ready to head out the door to church but I got her number, arranged a lesson and the rest is history.

She taught dressage, her son is a true cowboy and cattleman, one daughter evented until going to vet school and is now an equine surgeon, another also rode dressage and while I'd sorta dabbled in dressage - sorta - I'd mostly ridden hunt seat and hunter over fences with Nancy back in NE.

Anyway - I was hooked. I was amazed at how my stiff, crooked - but always willing - horse became soft and supple under her instruction.

I was 17 or 18 when I met Carol and her family. Carol no longer teaches regularly tho she gave a clinic last year.

Now I'm working with her daughter Rex and I'm 39... so yeah, long, long history and anything I know about riding and working with horses comes from that family.

It's pretty cool.

Laura Crum said...

Shanster, you are always a real inspiration. I love reading your comments. I read your post on mugwump's blog awhile back about your history, and it sounded like you overcame many obstacles to be where you are today. And yeah, its pretty neat to look back at the special horses and people who gave us what knowledge we have. That's what got me thinking about Led and Lad.

I remember one day not so many years ago when I was watching three bay geldings graze--who between them had pretty much given me my adult life with horses. (This would be Burt, Flanigan and Gunner.) They did so much for me and I owed them everything. I was struck by how lucky I was to be standing there watching them graze together as retired horses. I took a photo, which I still have on my wall. Now two of them are dead--I still have Gunner, who is thirty. So treasure every moment with your old guy (I know you do).

Susan said...

Laura, I sent an email about reviewing your book, and am looking forward to it! As for riding in the cold, it's not that bad. It was in the mid twenties that day, but the sun was shining and there was no wind. Obviously you have to be used to cold weather, but we just bundle up and don't plan on riding more than an hour or so.

Laura Crum said...

Susan, I'm a wimp about cold. I once hauled Gunner to a series of cuttings in Nevada in the early spring. It snowed (hard, blowing "corn" snow) and I still remember how miserable I was with the icy wind blowing the stinging snow in my ears all day. I don't think I ever got over it. My ears hurt at the very thought. So its a good thing I live here by the Monterey Bay. I did live in the northern California mountains (where twenty degree winter days--and snow--were the norm) when I worked for two years on a commercial cattle ranch. It was really lovely country, but the cold and snow got me down after a couple of months of winter. I was oh so ready for warm weather by February, and it was usually late April before it ever really got warm (!)