Wednesday, I did something I haven’t done in almost 40 years; I went horseback riding. To be precise, we were on donkeys. My wife is an avid horsey fan, but I’ve stayed off of the things since we were in our 20’s; forty-some years. Bill Mills, the owner of Rockin Ass Ranch in Palomas Canyon, New Mexico, is the real deal; a working cowboy with the kind of feel and skill with animals that you usually only get to read about. Plus, he’s a really cool guy with a minimal amount of bullshit in his personality. Bill has been a “large animal specialist” for the movies, for San Diego County, and is one of those guys who usually end up with a show on cable television.
Forty years ago, we rented a Dallas, Texas apartment from a guy who owned a wig company, an import business, and a horse stable. I grew up with horses in easy proximity, from friends in Dodge and an uncle in eastern Kansas who raised quarter horses and trained cutting horses. My wife is a wannabe horsey person who hasn’t had much experience on horses, but who has always imagined herself as a horse owner. I guess that’s pretty much every little girl’s dream. When our landlord asked us if we wanted to drive out to his ranch and see his horses, we went. We were poor and a little bored and we didn’t have much to do most weekends, so the decision was pretty much a no-brainer.
Mostly, the horses he had were brain-dead thoroughbreds who were about as much fun to ride as a Hayabusa with the steering locked and the throttle stuck on WFO. Bill would argue that I’m wrong, but I think thoroughbreds are brainless, fragile running machines. He’s probably right, but my experience tells me otherwise. I believe all animals, including humans, are capable of being bred for stupid and purebreds and thoroughbreds of all sorts are exactly those animals.
One weekend, we loaded up the trailer and his hired hand and I went off to pickup a couple of horses the local SPCA had asked our landlord to confiscate and care for. The hired hand was a real cowboy, a couple of years older than me, who didn’t have much to say but was a good guy to work with. The horses were a mare and her yearling colt who had been abandoned in a field for about a year, living on grass and weeds. They were wormy, half-starved, weak and the colt was downright wild. Our only saving grace was that he was still nursing, since there wasn’t enough nourishment available in the field for him to live without his mother’s milk, so he sort of followed her into the trailer with a little encouragement from a cowboy’s rope and me pushing from behind. She was close to collapse, so we had to support her with ropes and an inverted harness strapped to the trailer rails to keep her from falling on the trip back to the stable.
After the two horses had settled into their stalls, a vet examined them and prescribed a deworming regime, antibiotics for assorted sores and infections, and a really nasty ointment that we had to administer daily for a week or so to kill the worms when they broke through the hides. A combination of the worms, a reaction to the medications, humidity-caused skin infections, and general misuse caused the horses to lose their hair as we brushed them out. By a day or two, both horses were bald and we were “combing” worms out of their hides. It was creepy enough that an experienced cowboy closed his eyes when it was his turn to work with these two horses. When we learned that the mare had been a state champion cutting horse, I took over working on her as much as possible. She fell a few times in the first weeks we had her and she had to be hauled back on her feet with harnesses and pulleys to keep from suffocating. After a month of critical care, she began to gain weight and strength. I walked her every day, even when “exercise” for her was a couple of slow laps around the fenced track. When the vet said she could be ridden, I saddled her up and we started walking around the track with the saddle on or bareback. She regained strength incredibly quickly and started to look like a real horse in a few months.
One afternoon, the day clouded up fast and it started to rain. The thoroughbreds all clumped together under a stand of trees and appeared to be trying to create a biological lightening rod. We usually brought them in with a pickup and a couple of us walking the outside of the herd to keep them grouped, but I decided to ride the mare out and see if some of that cutting horse sense could do the job. Everyone else stayed in the barn to see if I could bring them in by myself. I didn’t bother to saddle her up, we’d been riding bareback with just a rope halter for a while and I planned on walking her up and back. When she realized that I intended to let her do the herding work, she took care of the whole process, pushing the thoroughbreds into a tight group and getting them moving toward the barn. A bolt of lightening hit the trees about the time we were halfway down the path and the thoroughbreds panicked and took off in the general direction of the barn. The mare jumped to the lead and the dumb purebreds went into follower mode. I hung on and started yelling, “Open the barn door!,” which turned to “Get the fuckin’ door open, now!” as we got closer to the stable. The doors started to slowly open when we were less than one hundred yards away but a lot more energy was applied to the work when the hired hand saw a stampede headed his way. The mare pulled up short of the stable, stopping the herd in its tracks, and she led the bunch into the stable as orderly as if it were a planned excursion returning home. My contribution to the outing was purely coincidental. She could have done the work by herself, probably quicker, without my dead weight on her back.
After that episode, I rode her every opportunity I got. We explored the ranch, fixed fences, herded horses in and out of the stable, and I learned more about horses and animals than I had in 20 years of passive exposure. The hired hand rode her a lot, too. We were a pair of skinny kids (imagine that) and she was turning back into a powerful horse with more horse sense than either of us possessed.
The landlord had a fat assed brother who was mostly a drunken asshole who bragged about being a horseman, but none of us had ever seen him ride. One afternoon, when we were somewhere else, he had the hired hand saddle her up and he went for a ride. Supposedly, he tried to get her to jump a stream on the ranch. He’d seen me and the hired hand make that maneuver and wanted to show off his expertise. She jumped, but landed wrong and broke her right front leg so badly that she had to be put down.
I never went back to the ranch. We moved out of the apartment and out of Texas not long afterwards. Our plan was to move to my wife’s grandfather’s eastern Colorado ranch and I’d be his hired hand for a year or two, but her relatives thought we were making a play for his ranch and squashed that. I probably rode rental horses a half-dozen times in the next five years, but it wasn’t much fun and I decided managing one dumb animal was easier than two. I’ve been on two wheels, exclusively, since.
As you can see by the picture, we didn’t exactly go riding in the ordinary sort of place. On the banks of the Rio Grande River, in a pretty remote place with nothing but the sound of the river, birds, our donkeys, and the breeze as an accompaniment. Bill is an entertaining character and his animals are his friends. He doesn’t take just anyone for a ride, regardless of how much money you might wave at him. I don’t see this as a huge change in my outlook on horses vs. motorcycles, but I am glad I re-experienced riding with Bill in such a fine environment. I wouldn’t argue four legs being better than four wheels. I don’t have any sentimental or emotional attachment to motorcycles, though. If I bust up a motorcycle, it’s just time and money. Screwing up an animal that might be smarter than 9/10ths of the human population is something I’m not equipped to do.