Back to school for a woman-broke horse
September 8, 2006
The woman was standing in the chute before the auction door, holding the reins to a handsome little Arabian gelding. He was the first horse that Saturday morning, which is not a good placement if you want to make money selling your horse. Too many of the buyers are still out looking at the other 120-or-so horses in the pens.The little bay was saddled with an endurance riding saddle, and I called out to the woman, “Tell me about your horse.””Well, he’s a 6-year-old registered Arabian, good bloodlines, and I’ve been using him as an endurance horse,” she said, “But I think he’s decided that he’d rather be an arena horse than a trail horse.” The woman looked like the typical suburban housewife who was married to a successful man, had some money to spend, and enjoyed horses. She was probably 20 pounds overweight and didn’t look athletic at all. She wasn’t about to put a foot in the stirrup and ride that horse, either.”So he’s a spooky bastard, huh?” I said.”Well, that’s one way of putting it,” she said. “Is he sound?” I asked.”He’s sound,” she answered, verifying that the horse didn’t suffer from any lameness or lasting injuries.I went and found my wife and explained the horse to her. “It’s a 6-year-old Arabian, sound, and he’s spooky,” I said. She looked at the horse.”Buy him,” she said, and I did, for very little money. Let’s just say that the saddle she had on him cost five times more than I paid for the horse. For $10 less, he would have gone to the killer, for dog food.I took the horse to our pasture in Crawford and turned him loose on 51 acres with 40 other horses. “Fallon” was the name on his papers, and I decided to keep that name. I knew what would happen next. This was a horse that had been denied his existence as a horse. He had never been in a herd before. He had never been in a big pasture, he had probably seen running water only a few times.His teeth, by the sharp hooks and points that develop in a horse’s mouth when they are denied their natural grazing, showed that he had been fed hay his whole life. So much for that.It was pretty clear to me that Fallon had been spoiled by a woman, which is what we call a “woman-broke” horse. That is not a kind term. It’s a sad situation when a woman decides she’s going to love a horse to death, giving him cookies and treats all the time, and never really recognize the fact that he’s a 1,000-pound beast of burden that can easily kill her. Horses, dogs, children – they all need discipline and structure. Mind you, I didn’t say they need abuse and hardship, but they do need a clearly defined set of rules of good conduct.For example, many women like to let a horse rub against them when the horse’s head itches. “He likes me! He loves me!” they’ll say, and all it really means is that the horse has exactly the same respect for the woman as he’ll have for a fence post, which he would use to scratch his head if she weren’t there. Try that sometime when you’re trying to take a picture and the horse knocks a $5,000 camera out of your hand onto the rocks, or if you’re at a show wearing your finest clothes, and now you’re covered with green slime. Fallon was one of those horses that was always too close, sticking his face in your face. I hate that. So I gave Fallon two weeks of being a horse before I even put a halter on him again. He was covered with nicks and scratches from getting hammered by all my tough old horses, but he was looking happy. We had to round up the whole herd, and Fallon was the last to come into the corral. It took 20 minutes to catch him. I took him outside, saddled him up, and put my foot in the stirrup. He let me mount up easily enough, and stood there quietly. Once I asked him to move, however, he rebelled.I don’t know how many of you have experienced a horse rearing up on you, but it’s very scary. You don’t know if the horse can keep his balance with your weight on his back, or if he has misjudged and will fall over backward, on top of you, with a saddle horn gouging in your guts with 1,000 pounds of weight on top of it. He reared up five times, stabbing me in the solar plexus with the saddle horn, but I rode it out. He stood there, blowing, and I urged him forward with my heels, and I knew exactly why the woman was willing to let him go for dog food. He bucked. And bucked and bucked and bucked. In fact, he bucked for 500 yards. Then he smoothed out and rode nice. The next time I rode him was up in Marble, and the river was running at about 1,400 cubic feet per second with spring snowmelt. It’s running about 80 cfs today. I already knew he was going to rear up, so I had a plan. I rode him to the edge of the river, and I knew he wouldn’t want to cross. I urged him forward and, sure enough, he reared up. This time I shucked out of the stirrup and slid off the back, and yanked the reins down hard, throwing him sideways on the ground. He didn’t like that one little bit, and he struggled to his feet, blowing, looking at me with new respect. I got on again and rode him to the edge of the water, intending for him just to get his feet wet. He bunched up all four feet, and before I could say boo, he sprang 25 feet into the river, landing in the middle of the current, giving me a lapful of snowmelt, then churning through to the other side.That was it. That was all it took, other than giving him a set of rules to live by, handling him every day, brushing him and riding him a whole bunch. If you know the lady who used to own Fallon, tell her it all turned out fine. My wrangler Dwight has made Fallon his favorite horse. We floated his teeth and knocked off all those painful points and hooks, he’s gained weight, and he loves being in the herd. He never spooks. He doesn’t push himself into your personal space, and he has the heart of a lion. He’s been on a half-dozen four-day pack trips, he’s crossed countless streams and rivers, and he’s crossed 12,000 feet in elevation several times. The main difference is now he’s a horse, not a pet.Gary Hubbell lives in Marble, where he and his wife, Doris, operate OutWest Guides. They offer summer horseback rides, fly-fishing trips and autumn big-game hunts.