Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Escape Artist---and a Disaster

by Laura Crum

As some of you know, I ride several days a week at a local arena where my friends practice team roping. I used to be a roper, but gave it up when I got pregnant at 43, and I’ve never taken it back up again, having decided I prefer trail riding. But I do love moving cattle on horseback, and I enjoy being with my friends, and its also nice to lope circles in a big, well groomed arena once in awhile, so my son and I go ride with the ropers a couple of times a week.

Our favorite chore is gathering the cattle. This is not exactly a real big deal, as the cattle are in a twenty acre pasture. But they can be resistant and the pasture has steep hills and a several acre section of redwood forest, so this can make things interesting. Last time we gathered, we had to do a bit of loping to and fro across the field to deter the leaders from making a break and it was all great fun. Then, when the herd was safely in the catch pen, my friend Wally said, “We’re missing one.”

Sure enough. The dark red brindle steer was missing.

This was not good. Those of you who are cow people know that cattle are herd animals, and they seldom leave the herd unless they are sick or injured.

But another friend, Mark, said, “That steer is an escape artist. He probably got out.”

Oh dear. Because on one side of this pasture are some suburban houses and on the other is several hundred acres of unfenced forest land. Neither scenario was a positive one.

Obviously we had to go look for the steer. Some people rode the fenceline. My son and I rode into the section of the pasture that was forested, to see if the steer was hiding out.

Down the hill we went, riding into a dark gully full of redwood trees, with a steep little creekbed at the bottom. I was not on my steady Sunny horse, but on my friend’s six year old blue roan gelding, Smoky. Smoky is a good, level headed young horse, but he is not Sunny. He jigged a bit and fretted, looking anxiously into the bushes as we crossed back and forth through the dark, hilly forest, trying to find a dark red steer. (So, why couldn’t it have been a white steer, ya know?)

My son, on Henry, was his usual fearless self. “I’m right behind you, Mama,” he said as we slogged up yet another hill to the very top corner of the pasture.

I still didn’t see the steer anywhere. But Smoky was focused very intently on the redwood tree at the top of the hill and his whole body was tense. I’m not going to kid you, I took a good grip on the saddle horn, and felt of my horse’s mouth. “What’s up, Smoky,” I said in a meant to be calm voice, hoping quite strongly that he would not spook and try to take off down this steep hill.

“He sees the cow, Mama,” said my son.

“He does? Where? I don’t see him.” And I didn’t.

“He’s lying down. Right behind the redwood tree,” said my sharp eyed kid. “I see him. So does Smoky.”

I urged Smoky to take a step forward and I looked down. Sure enough, right behind the tree, not ten feet from me, lay the dark red steer, holding perfectly still, looking right at me. Well, damn. Its not many cattle that will purposefully leave the herd and then hide from you like that. This was obviously one wily steer.

“Get ready,” I told my kid. “We’re gonna get him up.” And I stepped Smoky toward the steer and slapped my leg with my hand, yelling, “Here now,” or something equally meaningless.

Smoky was tense but willing. He didn’t spook when the steer hopped up under his nose and he didn’t run off when the animal took off down the mountainside. My son and I followed at a more sedate pace and I yelled to let the others know where we were and that we’d found the missing cow.

Some ten minutes later, with several friends helping, the wily red steer was herded into the catch pen to pay his dues as part of the roping herd. And my son had a grin a mile wide.

“We’re good cowboys, aren’t we Mama?” he said. And, I guess, in a manner of speaking, we are. Though I can tell you, I quite sincerely wished I were riding Sunny a few times while we were trekking through that forest.

So that’s my little adventure for today. Does anybody else out there suffer from nerves when their horse gets tense? Man, all a horse has to do is get on the muscle just a little and I tense up inside. I know better than to get tight with my legs or pull on the horse too much, but inwardly I am just as anxious as can be. I can hide it pretty well, but its still there. And this is why I value Sunny so much. He doesn’t get tense—and so I don’t either. But I am riding Smoky a lot, so I need to work on this. Any suggestions?

PS—I wrote this post on Friday. On Sunday my friend and boarder, Wally, took Smoky to a practice roping—I didn’t go. When Wally came home he had a sad story to tell, and both he and I are puzzled and, I will admit, distressed. Because after three years of absolutely no indication that he’d ever do anything violent, Smoky blew up—shortly after being saddled, while tied to the trailer. Bucking and bouncing off the end of the leadrope. Wally untied him, thinking to spare the horse getting hurt on the trailer, and also thinking he could get his attention and get him under control. Not so. The horse was bucking blind, for what reason we don’t know; he acted like a cinchy horse, but this horse has never shown one indication of cinchiness in his entire life. Whatever the reason, he bucked over the tongue of the trailer and got himself hung up in the safety chains. He ended up on the ground, with half his body under the truck and his leg still in the chains. Wally thought he would simply have to find the quickest way to kill him.

The other ropers gathered around and were able to immobilize the horse. They actually had to jack the trailer up to free his leg and drive the truck off the top of him. To Wally’s amazement, Smoky stood up and walked off sound, though with a nasty cut on his pastern. The vet who came said she thought the cut did not go the joint. The next day Smoky was slightly lame and sore, but not excessively so, for what he had been through.

We’re doctoring him, and healing him up, but both Wally and I are really sad. Because if a horse will do this once, for whatever reason, he’s capable of doing it again. I, for one, am not game to ride him any more. At least not until someone else has ridden him for a good long time, and it has been clearly demonstrated that he’s safe. I don’t think Wally should ride him either. Wally is 77 years old. Neither he nor I have any business messing with a horse who is capable of being violent.

But it makes me very, very sad. Because we put a lot of effort into bringing Smoky along and the horse was doing so well. As evidenced by the first part of my post, I trusted him. I never, ever thought that he would be capable of violent, blind bucking. I never saw one sign that he was the least bit prone to being cinchy. I’ve been wrong before, so that’s no surprise, but seldom have I been this blind-sided by a horse.

Anyway, there’s my horse story for today. Any thoughts?


Unknown said...

Hmmm, sounds like a mystery. I don't think any horse that is stable suddenly does something erratic without a reason. I can recall a trail ride with a friend. Her horse was being perfect the whole way and suddenly exploded. If I hadn't glanced at her horse a second before the explosion we would never have known that a huge bee landed on his neck and bit or stung him. He only had a small welt from the actual bite and she might have missed it if we hadn't looked for it.

Possibly, something similar happened with Sonny?

Laura Crum said...

Angelia--I had the same thought. We examined the horse closely but could find no sign that he'd been stung. This doesn't mean that he wasn't. However, I've been on horses that have been stung before, and it doesn't usually make them blind. They may try to bolt or buck, but I've always been able to get things under control. In Smoky's case, he was bucking blindly, not controlable. This fits the model of a cinchy horse--but Smoky has never shown the least sign of being cinchy. We examined the saddle blankets and saddle carefully, but could find nothing. The bad part, from my point of view, is that I have known two other horses that had a similar "psychotic break", if you will, and they both repeated the behavior. Its as if it goes into their bodies and becomes part of their lexicon, so to speak. I'm probably not putting this very well, but based on my experience over the years with horses, I'm guessing Smoky might do this again. Of course, I hope I'm wrong.

Funder said...

Ugh. No comment on the bucking - that really sucks, and that's a problem for a talented 20 year old to handle.

But as far as being scared - I think that's how horses inadvertently make us better people. I know I'm so much braver than I was five years ago, and I think it's because I keep doing scary stuff on a scary half-ton prey animal. People today, especially women, don't have many opportunities to do scary stuff. Don't get me wrong, I am really glad that I live in cushy modern America, but I'm also glad I can choose to be brave, over and over again.

Laura Crum said...

Funder--Yes, Iam trying to convince Wally to send Smoky to a young trainer we know for awhile. This guy is capable of sorting out the bucking issue--if it is an issue.

As for being brave, I am comfortable (sort of) with the level of courage needed to go trail riding on my steady horse, including across the road, and on the beach, and on new trails and in places where mountain lions are often sighted. All of these things can make me pretty nervous--see my two previous posts, but I appreciate that the "scary factor" is part of what makes these experiences memorable. But I am totally not comfortable and not interested in dealing with a horse that has shone he is willing to be violent. I've been there, done that, in my youth, and I never did like it. I have to admit, at the moment I'm feeling pretty anti-horse. Its going to be ninety something here today (unusual for us) and my son and I just decided our planned trail ride is not happening. Partly because of the heat, but I'm looking at the whole horse thing with a jaded eye, I suppose. Which is too bad, as Henry and Sunny have done nothing wrong--they weren't even there when Smoky "blew up".

I'm sure I'll get over it, but at the moment horses do not thrill me.

Mikey said...

Dang, that's not good. Odd how he's been fine this whole time and then does that.
I too own a blind bucker and I don't attempt to ride her anymore. The last fall was without a helmet and I smacked my head on the dirt road, with my daughter sitting bareback on my big 16hh "safe" horse. If I'd been knocked out, who knows what would have happened. I got a helmet and got back on, and went back to the bench that set her off in the first place. She was fine, but I sent her to a trainer who told me "Don't ride her, she'll kill someone someday" so I don't. She'll live out her days with me. I'm afraid to sell her and have someone get hurt, not realizing what she's capable of. I've seen her personally tear down a round pen, and the trainer said the same thing happened in his round pen. Upon saddling, she blows and runs into anything and everything.
As for the tenseness while gathering, personally I like that. I like a horse that sees things and "points"(because I don't see so well anymore, lol). I always listen, and like you, take a good hold of that horn :)
Pregnant at 43? You give me such hope!! We're still trying for another child :)

Laura Crum said...

Mikey--Yeah, odd doesn't begin to cover it. This horse never bucked when he was started--every year he was turned out for a good long time and he never bucked when he was brought back in and saddled. He's been ridden in the mountains, and trained to be a rope horse (and you know that involves some pressure) and he's never once come unglued, never bucked at all, let alone bucking blind. At no time did he ever show any sign of cinchiness. I still can't quite believe he did this.

And yeah, got pregnant at 43, no artificial aids. I know others who have done the same. It can happen. I think sometimes it happens when you let go of wanting it, which was what happened with us.

Mrs. Mom said...

Well, there's gotta be a reason, but I'm stumped. I know you and Wally will sort it out in time.

Sure darn glad he didn't blow when you were on him Laura, and I'm equally glad Wally was not hurt too.

Take care out there.

Anonymous said...

The weird bucking sounds like a sudden pain issue - maybe a sting of some sort or something that got under the saddle pad, particularly in a horse without a normal tendency to buck (not that that's normal) - pretty scary.

joycemocha said...

I'd check him over for a bite or sting. I've seen an old reliable plug blow up out of the blue like that because he got bit. And this was the gelding that my neighbor rode up to two weeks before delivery, and then again six weeks after delivery, baby in front, three-year-old in back.

He never blew like that again. Of course, she'd rescued him from a man-killing rep. Supposedly he was a killer but I never saw it in him.

Fantastyk Voyager said...

I wonder what could have caused him to go crazy? And how awful that you now have that "unsafe" feeling. I'm hoping for the best for all of you, that Smokey stays sane and you can get feeling comfortable again.

Laura Crum said...

Mrs Mom, Kate, joycemocha and Voyager--Thanks for the support. I hope Smoky got stung and it won't happen again. But I really feel quite confused about the whole thing, not least because I wasn't there and didn't see it. I can tell you one thing, I won't be riding the horse for awhile. Sunny could use more exercise than I've been giving him, since I've been riding Smoky quite a bit. But for the next few weeks, at least, I'm sticking to my faithful little yellow mule.

Breanna said...

This sounds very similar to one of my horses. I had been riding him for three or four years and he had never been cinchy or anything, and then one day I saddled him and he blew up. I took him out, lunged him, rode him, and he was fine. The next time I saddled him, the same thing happened, except this time he bucked through a fence. Again, you could lunge him and get on him and he was fine. He has slowly been getting better, and now is at the point where I lunge for a bit and then saddle and he doesn't buck. I haven't tried saddling him cold in a long time. It's the strangest thing, and the only thing we can think of is that something hurt him. He is getting better, but I definitely won't be getting on him any time soon.

Laura Crum said...

Breanna--Unfortunately, my instinct says that this may be something similar to your situation. Smoky's "cinchy button" got pushed somehow, who knows why, and when that button gets pushed, a horse has a whole body reaction that says "My God, a cougar is on me--I have to get it off, have to get away, or I'll die." And they buck uncontrolably, willing to hurt themselves, because the downside is death. Over time, you can teach a cinchy horse to deal with this reaction a little more sensibly (or so I've found, with some of them, anyway), but I have not found that you can make the basic reaction disappear. Some horses are much more predictable in the way they are cinchy than others. Perhaps my favorite horse of all time, Flanigan, was cinchy, but I could deal with it and he never bucked me off or hurt me in any way. However, unpredictably cincy horses can be terribly dangerous.

We'll just have to see how it goes. At the moment, we're giving Smoky antibiotics and wrapping him and the sutures come out next week. He seems to be doing fine. It won't be until the next time he is saddled that we'll learn more.

Shanster said...

Wow - you guys WERE good cowboys! And yes, I always freeze on the inside when a horse gets tense on me... I hate that. I wish I was more confident about what to do.

And then the 2nd part of your post... how horrible. I'm glad no one was hurt and it had to have been really awful to see. Hate it when animals that big totally lose control of their minds. Hope you figure it out and I wouldn't be climbing up on him at all either! I'd certainly have a jaded eye after witnessing that as well.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks, Shanster. Smoky is healing well so far--sutures come out in a few days. We've been keeping him confined so he can't tweak himself (on the vets recommendation), so though I can tell that he's not real lame, I haven't trotted him to see if he's really sound. Once we determine that, I guess we'll make a plan for how to go on from here. For the moment, I'm riding Sunny and enjoying him (see my next post). So I got over being jaded pretty quick. I pretty much always do.