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.
I have seen the abuse too. The trainer that just left our barn used to literally tie the horses noses down to their knees for days. They would wonder around the arena or round pen for hours unable to get any relief. It was heart wrenching.
horsegenes--It soured me for life on that part of the horse biz. I know not everyone is abusive, but so many trainers were (by my standards). It was just not worth it to me to participate in that world with those people.
Perfect timing for "Hoofprints" I just finished "Cutter" last night and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Having never really been into competing or serious training, I have only heard of some of the harsh things people do to "train" their horses. I am just getting started in trying to teach my paint horse to compete in Ranch Horse Competition's. There is just no amount of money or prestige in the world that could get me to try something like that on my guy. (or any horse) As it is, he doesn't tolerate being treated or ridden harshly at all. The kid I got him from said he got dumped in the dirt all the time, after seeing the kid ride I know why. If someone rode me like that I'd dump them too. :)
Cindy D-- I admire your stance. If you interact much with reined cowhorse trainers in your quest to show in Ranch Horse competition, you are likely to run into some of the same abusive methods both horsegenes and I mention. Don't assume that because someone seems "nice" that they don't use these methods. Unfortunately, these abuses are pretty common in the trade. Glad you enjoyed Cutter. Any reviews you would be moved to post on Amazon or Goodreads would be very much appreciated.
What a sad story. You have alluded to witnessing abuse by trainers, and now we know exactly what you mean. UGH. I'm glad the poor filly survived her impalement, and also that YOU were not injured.
I just bought Gunner a handful of Senior Feed, as I purchased "Hoofprints" just now. Looking forward to reading it and all the rest of Gail's adventures! :-) (I already have Going Gone, and Cutter)
I forgot to say, how extremely cool that you got to see the Queen! What a bizarre thing to happen by the side of the road in California while sitting on a horse... I'm sure she was tickled as could be that she saw you three, too.
I knew someone who was spectating at a 3-day event as a child and when she stepped backwards trod upon someone's toes. There was a polite, "Oh, excuse me!" in a British accent, and this girl realized she had just attempted to cripple the Monarch herself. Talk about embarrassing... :-)
Thank you RiderWriter--Hope you enjoy Hoofprints. The real trainer featured in my blog post plays a role in Hoofprints, though he is given a different name and a different life story. But I'll bet you can recognize him.
RiderWriter--Well, we hoped the queen would enjoy seeing some "cowboys." Who knows? Maybe she does remember us just as I remember seeing her wave--but I doubt it. She's seen a great many things in her life, after all.
well obviously even though you were so young, you knew (and cared) a helluvalot more than that trainer. too bad there are so many of those in all horse sports. you wish you do unto them like they do unto horses, so they know just what it feels like!!
oh, but YAY on the Queen!
- The Equestrian Vagabond
Merri--Yeah, I feel pretty hostile to all those trainers I knew who were so hard on horses. Some of them won a lot and were big shots in the business. And I didn't even get into the buting lame horses to make them work and then dumping them when they just couldn't go any more aspect. But hey, the queen did wave at me. I've never forgotten that moment. Silly, but true.
How absolutely terrifying. I'm so glad neither you nor the horse were killed. I was cringing reading this... start to finish.
Dom--Well, you can see why I rather quickly decided that the reined cowhorse biz wasn't for me. I also really got fed up with the callous attitude of most of the professional horse trainers I knew. It was a rough business much of the time.
It amazes me how brain washed young people are as far as obeying authority. I had the same sort of experiences that, looking back, I can only shake my head and be grateful that now I could tell the jerks where to go and walk away. I can only hope that parents now are teaching their kids independent thinking so these things will no longer happen.
Good point, Susan. I know my son is far more able to sort out what he thinks about something and be clear about it than I was at his age. The difference between a home-schooled kid and a girl brought up in Catholic school, I think. I was taught a healthy respect for authority from a young age and independent thinking was actively discouraged. I had to learn to be independent as an adult. Though I have tried to teach my son to be polite and respectful, I also support him in being clear about what he does and doesn't like--and I think this will serve him well in life.
You make me think of my Californian ex-wife who would attach a standing martingale to the curb chain of a wire-wound bit "because it taught the horse to give respect". I didn't stand up to her as much as I might, mainly because she could be frightening when roused. There again what can horses expect when the humans are just a few generations removed from enslaving fellow humans and wreaking genocide?
Gee, WHP--I hope I don't remind you too much of harsh training methods...Its true that I have seen a lot of harsh stuff done, and the story I told in the post is quite true, but when the decisions were mine to make, I have always erred on the side of caution and kindness. That said, I do believe a horse must respect the human handler, but I have never found it necessary to use a standing martingale in the way you describe. Ouch. That is truly harsh.
Hell of a position to be put in.
And the Queen?! Lucky you, once in a life time deal there.
Love all your books :)
Thank you, Kellie!
Post a Comment