THE RED HORSE
What I am going to describe here happened over 50 years ago so I hope you will forgive me of some things I either can’t remember or get a bit wrong. I will try and inform you when I am not exactly sure of something.
This is a story about a small bay horse. This little horse was number three in a series of attempts to get a colt from my little pinto mare, Trixie. After Ann and I married and moved to the city, I had given Trixie to my father-in-law, Lyle Hart, so he could have her bred and get himself a new colt.
The first attempt was a breeding by an Arabian stallion belonging to a neighbor of Lyle’s. Lyle never told us what the stud fee was but the owner of the stallion was a well-known breeder of Arabian horses so I’m sure it was not cheap.
The breeding resulted in a pregnancy but also in an unfortunate birth of the colt. While there were no eye witnesses the evidence indicated that the foal was born on the edge of a small creek running through Lyle’s properly and it promptly fell into the creek and drowned.
We also never knew the financial arrangements for the second breeding of the mare. Most arrangements for stud fees do guarantee a live birth or re-breeding, and since we technically had a live birth, I suspect Lyle paid another expensive stud fee.
Nonetheless Trixie was again bred to the Arabian stallion. After the requisite 11 months of the equine gestation period, a little blue roan foal was born. This colt turned out to be a male and was happy and healthy until about a year old, at which point we had another death in the family. My recollection is a bit hazy on this but I believe the conclusion was that he was wounded by a stray bullet which ultimately killed him.
At this point Lyle decided to breed Trixie to an American Saddlebred stud owned by another neighbor. To this union was born a little bay colt. This one was healthy and remained so into adulthood. My mother-in-law, Vivian, named him Brownie. Ann, Rick, and I originally called him Colorado, but that was latter shortened to Red.
This little guy did not have much hands-on attention as a foal and pretty much ran wild in the pasture on Lyle’s Farm. When the little bay was just over a year old, Lyle and I decided he should be brought in, halter broke, and then gelded as he reached maturity.
On a weekend visit to Lyle and Vivian’s, Lyle and I trekked to the pasture with an old lariat rope to try and catch the horse. Having never been handled, he was pretty wild and did not want to be approached by humans. We finally got him semi-cornered against a fence, and as he tried a fast break down the fence line, I managed a lucky throw and got the lariat around his neck.
With me pulling and Lyle hazing from behind we finally got the little horse to the barn lot. After most of the day working with the little horse we had him halter broke and leading pretty well. The finale for the day was mounting the horse’s back for the first time. At that time, I was only about 140 pounds heavy so even though the horse was a bit young for a rider, I climbed on above his front shoulders and Lyle led him in a circle for a few minutes. After a couple of trips around the circle the horse decided that he did not like the creature on his back and attempted to run away. The combination of hitting the end of the lead rope and my weight on his back caused him to tumble to the ground as I bailed off to avoid being rolled on.
After Red was gelded at about two years old, it was time for some more serious training. By this time in our lives I was able to afford a decent saddle and with the appropriate tack began training Red to be a working horse.
I recall that one of the first rides occurred in a freshly plowed field west of Lyle’s house. The soft footing of a plowed field makes it difficult for a horse to buck hard, not to mention providing a softer landing should one get thrown. In this case Red’s attempts to buck were only half-hearted and we were soon loping around the field learning to turn when I wanted instead of him.
I should point out here that I was not much more than a ‘wannabe’ cowboy, and have never been more than that. Apart from roping critters standing on my own two legs in Dad’s and Grandpa’s barn lots, I never roped from horseback until I traded a milk cow for Trixie when I was a teenager. At that point the passel of bucket fed calves Dad was raising sometimes got a roping workout when my parents were absent.
To move Red’s training closer to home, I rented a little pasture and barn in Excelsior Springs, Missouri where we lived at the time. As I recall the rent on the pasture, including the barn was an exorbitant five dollars a month.
When I was a teenager, our friend Bill Weddle had shod some horses for us and after watching him a couple of times, I began shoeing my horses myself, beginning with Trixie. Armed with this likely dangerous knowledge, Red was soon the proud owner of new shoes courtesy of my amateur farrier efforts.
After this summer of training Red was neck-reining, changing leads properly, tolerating a rope being thrown, dragging and pulling heavy objects, backing, and stopping.
As to disposition and intelligence, Red was one of the most pleasant and quick learning horses I have ever worked with. He seemed to genuinely like people and was eager to do what was wanted once he understood the commands. He was so people friendly, it once nearly got him in trouble.
I used a little granary in one corner of the barn to store my tack, grooming supplies, and farrier tools. The granary was also home to several bundles and coils of various fence wire belonging to the property owner. I was in the space working on some tack, with the door open, when Red decided to just be friendly and come in to see what was going on. So, he climbed the three concrete steps into the room and joined the miscellaneous wire on the floor in order to put his nose directly into whatever I was doing. A very careful turning and easing him away from the wire and out the door was fortunately accomplished without tangling or injury.
At summer’s end, Red was brought back to Lyle’s farm to rejoin Trixie in the pasture.
This brief history now brings me to the actual story I set out to tell when I began this project.
I mentioned our friend Bill earlier. Bill was one of only a handful of real cowboys in our community, as it was more of a crop farming area than cattle ranching. Although most area farmers had some cattle, most did not get into the riding, roping, and horse training as Bill did. Those skills put him as the perfect summer manager of the Winston Cattle Company operations.
Winston Cattle Company was owned by a consortium of Hollywood elites who leased thousands of acres of summer prairie pasture near Hatfield, Missouri, where I was born and raised. I do not recall the number of Hereford cattle they annually hauled into the area, but it was certainly several hundred that spent the summers there.
Bill was responsible for the health and welfare of the cattle, which included periodic cattle drives over the county roads to rotate to fresh pastures as needed.
So, after I brought Red home, I called Bill to ask if I could tag along one day to expose Red to some actual ‘cow work’. Of course, he said, “Yes,” and a day was settled upon. Had I known what was coming, I might have had second thoughts!
I hauled Red into the vacant farmstead where the barns and corrals served as headquarters for Winston’s summer operation. I unloaded and tied, and Bill soon arrived with a four-horse sized stock trailer containing one palomino quarter horse mare. (Bill called the horse by name that day, but that is one of the details that faded away with time.)
You’ve heard me refer to ‘little’ Trixie and ‘little’ Red. That’s because somewhere back in their lineage, had to have lurked a small pony. Breeding with larger horses over the generations had increased the size, but Trixie and Red were definitely not regular quarter horse size. While I never weighed him, I’d be surprised if Red weighed more than 750 to 800 pounds soaking wet. The palomino mare Bill backed out of the trailer must have gone a well-muscled 1,100 to 1,200 pounds! It would prove to be needed!
As we mounted up, Bill said, “We need to move a bull that got into a neighbor’s pasture with his herd. I noticed him missing when we moved the rest of our herd to the Eckard place the other day.”
So, off we rode. Back in the day, most adjoining properties had at least one gate in the separating fence lines and we utilized one to ride into the neighboring pasture. Bill soon located the straying bull which, upon our approach, ran into a tangled wild plum thicket.
Noticing this bull had horns only about 3 or 4 inches long, I asked, “Bill, why are his horns stubbed off that way?”
In his laidback way Bill replied, “Well, sometimes he likes to fight a little and I was afraid he’d gore a horse. So, I roped him, tied him down to a fence post, and sawed the sharp ends of his horns off with a chainsaw!”
Do you see where this is going? I had envisioned cutting this animal out of the neighbor’s herd, driving him to the home corral, and hauling him to join the rest of the Winston herd.
Bill said, “I’ll bring him out of the brush, rope him and choke him down, then you take this extra lariat, get off and tie his feet so he can’t get up.”
At this point both Red and I are wide eyed and thinking, OH SHIT!
With extra rope in hand, Red and I watched Bill enter the brush patch. He brought the bull out all right, but Bill was in the lead! Yep! I’d say that bull does tend to fight!
Maneuvering around the bull and avoiding those stubby horns, Bill got a loop around his neck, dallied on the saddle horn, and rushed ahead of the bull until the rope tightened.
Once a bovine feels a loop tighten around its neck, they will almost always plant their feet and pull back. This behavior will continue until the loop cuts off their air supply to the extent they essentially pass out. That’s exactly what happened with the bull. That big palomino leaned into the rope and pulled for all she was worth. What a sight; muscles bulging and rope tight as a fiddle string! (With a heavy animal, the horse pulls on the rope headed away from the critter, rather than the classic ‘head pointed down the rope’ as seen in calf roping.)
Meanwhile, Red and I are both wide eyed, taking in the drama and awaiting my part in the saga. After the bull went down, I stepped in to try and do my job. I envisioned a process much like what is seen in tie-down calf roping at the rodeo: hang a loop around one front leg, cross both rear legs over the front, take two or three wraps around the juncture, and throw on a half hitch.
Dream on Baby! That process works fine on a 150 or 200-pound calf, and I’ve done that, but try it on a three quarter ton Herford bull! With that big fat belly and legs the size of railroad ties, my skinny little ass couldn’t force two legs together, let alone three!
Watching my struggles from his saddle, Bill could see I needed help. After all, there is a limit to how long an animal can be safely disabled in this manner without permanent damage, and time was becoming important. So, Bill slipped his leg from under the rope and jumped down to show me how this is done on a big animal.
Combining our strength, we looped a rear leg, pulled it as close to a front leg as we could, threw a clove hitch on that one, tucked up the other rear leg with a second clove hitch, and then wrapped and tied the tag end of the rope to the tethers so nothing could loosen.
About mid-point in the tying process, Bill noticed that the mare was beginning to relax, and the rope tension was easing. With both of us on foot it would not be a good time for the bull to get up! A shouted word of encouragement, resulted in renewed horse effort until we were finished!
After the tie-down excitement, Bill removed the rope from the bull’s neck, we re-mounted, and watched as the bull struggled enough to convince us the leg restraints were gonna keep him down. Then we headed back to the barn.
The next part of the plan was a bit unclear to me at that point, but seemed to include transporting the bull in some manner to join the rest of the herd on the Eckard place.
When we reached the headquarters barn, Bill informed me, “We won’t need your horse for now, so put him in the corral and we’ll get him later.” We then loaded the palomino into Bill’s trailer and took a roundabout route back to the pasture and location of the disabled bull.
When we arrived back on the scene the bull was lying quietly but the physical evidence on the torn-up ground told us he had given our tying job a serious workout. After unloading the mare, the trailer was backed up near the bull’s head and the rear door propped open.
At this point the construction of the trailer becomes important. Above the wooden floor, the basic material for sides and gates consisted of rails of one-inch square steel tubing spaced about 6 inches apart. In addition to the tailgate there was a gate amidships to enable separating the front and back halves. There was also a little wooden door in the front.
Here we go! We put one lariat rope around the bull’s neck, ran it inside the length of the trailer, out through the little front door, and tied off to the trailer hitch. This was the safety valve to prevent complete escape if something else went awry and we lost connection with the second rope.
That second rope was looped around those stubby horns, routed between side rails near the front, and dallied around the palomino’s saddle horn. The idea being to untie the feet, get the bull up, and yank him into the trailer before he knows what is happening. The trailer floor was only about a foot above the ground, so even if the bull stumbled as he was yanked forward, he would more or less fall into the trailer.
With Bill on the big mare, poised to pull, I untied the rope from the bull’s legs and prodded him in the butt with my foot. Nothing! Further prodding and still nothing. Just what we need, he’s decided to ‘sull’. This occasionally happens with an animal when we can imagine them trying to say, “Just go away and leave me alone!” The best-known example is probably the Opossum from which we coined the expression, ‘playing possum’.
Okay. Plan “B”. There was a grain scoop in the back of the truck and a few pokes with the edge of that along the backbone encouraged the bull to lumber to his feet. Again, the strength of that palomino mare was exhibited as she literally dragged that stumbling bull into the trailer. I quickly shut and fastened the rear door!
I do not remember how we got the ropes off the bull, but assume we hooked them with something to get them loose. The next chore was getting the bull to the front of the trailer to shut the center gate and separate him from the horses who would soon be in the back part of the trailer. In the first attempt to close the gate, it touched the bull’s backside before completely closing. This resulted in a resounding kick which slammed the gate back against the side of the trailer. Would have easily broken an arm if caught in the crash!
We finally did get the gate latched and had the bull confined to the front half of the trailer. We then loaded the palomino and headed back to the barn to pick up Red. Now Red was well trained to load into a trailer or truck, including jumping into a full-sized pickup truck from ground level. As I led him to the back of the trailer he stopped dead still!
There glaring through that slatted center gate, was the creature that already scared hell out of him out in the pasture. If horses could talk, his words would have been, “I am NOT getting in the trailer with that son-of-a-bitch!”
There are ways of handling that. A halter rope around the gate slat and back to hand allowed a pull toward the interior, and Bill and I pulling with locked arms beneath Red’s hips, resulted in him either stepping into the trailer or falling on his nose. He did step into the trailer, but one could tell he wasn’t pleased!
A 4-mile trip west on state highway 46 put us at the gate to the pasture where the rest of Mr. Mean Bull’s herd was currently located. We pulled into the pasture and unloaded the horses.
Bill said, “Let’s mount up and I’ll reach through and unlatch the gate to let him out. I think we took the fight out of him but be prepared to stay out of his way if he still wants to get ‘proddy’.”
An open trailer and a little yelling encouraged the bull to vacate and head for the hills. I believe he wanted nothing further to do with us that day.
The next hour or so had us riding around the pasture and through the timbered hills checking cattle for injury or illness. I did observe something I thought a bit odd. I noticed that the bulls had several different brands on them. I don’t remember what they were with one exception. That being a large 39 on the left side of one.
When I questioned that one, Bill explained, “The Cattle Company owns the cow herd, but the bulls are individually owned by some of the big shots with shares in the Company. The ones branded 39 belong to Jack Benny.”
Well, you learn something interesting every day!
Only one more event to describe in Red’s exciting day. As I’ve said Red was a small horse, and by this time we were both getting tired. The ride back to the truck after checking the pasture, included either crossing a deeply eroded ditch or a lengthy detour. Red and I were just following along when Bill and the palomino mare dropped over the lip of the ravine, and slid to the bottom.
Well, that turned out to be no problem. Without hesitation, Red just dropped over the edge, sat on his haunches and slid down like a pro. Going up the other side was a different story! Bill and his mount made it up with a lot of leaping and lunging, and Red and I followed gamely along. This ditch bank was steep and long, with loose dirt for footing. About two thirds of the way to the top, I could feel Red’s strength wane.
About the time Red was hesitating, I bailed off the saddle hoping he could finish the climb without my weight. I was too late! Red’s rear legs folded and he proceeded to go over backward and tumble to the bottom of the ravine. Damn glad I wasn’t still aboard!
I slid back down the bank, took my rope off the saddle, tied it to the bridle reins, climbed back up, and tried to lead Red up. He just planted his feet and said, “No Way!”
With a grin, Bill started back down, saying, “Hang on, I’ll get him started.” With Bill behind and a little smack on the ass with a rope end, Red decided to try the climb again. Without my weight he made a successful run.
Back to the trailer, and then on home, thus ended a very eventful day for Red and I.
Red, or Brownie as Vivian called him, spent the rest of his life on Lyle’s farm. His pleasant disposition continued as did his liking of people.
Vivian had pictures of some neighbor kids going in the pasture and climbing all over Brownie with no halter or tack of any kind. He would just plod carefully along with any number of kids on his back. Yet, when saddled and mounted by an adult, he would come to life, ready to run, work, or play at the command of the rider.
I’d like to report that Red/Brownie lived into ripe old age in retirement on the farm. Alas, continuing the hard luck saga of Trixie’s offspring, not long after the neighbor kid’s fun with him, he was struck by lightning and killed.