Scotty’s “Natural” Horse Training


Wrote this a while ago- it’s a little out there, but fun nonetheless. KYHD!

Originally posted on Sam Finden :

A few pieces of thread, spun ‘round one another, make up a string. A few pieces of string braided together make up a piece of twine. A few pieces of twine wrapped around one another make up a rope. And a rope, when dallied around the mulehide-bound horn of my wade tree saddle, can spell disaster in a straight line and a big hurry.

That’s what was going on now- I was reading disaster in the eyes of a sultry dun mare, her nose pointed up to the sky and turned in a sinister, sideways direction. The loop I’d tossed around her thick, muscled neck was biting into the skin beneath her mane. Every time she made a break for it, only to be slowed by the tightly braided rope, more of her beautiful dark mane would tear out and fall to the ground.

My saddle horse on this day…

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Full Curl Optimism

Here’s another little ditty that got put on the back burner by a magazine. If you’re looking for this sort of storytelling in print, please let your favorite magazine’s editor know. Anyhow, I hope you like it! Keep your heels down.

Full Curl Optimism

Beads of sweat ran enthusiastically down Nathan’s face like raindrops on a double-hung window, starting quickly toward the sill of his brow line and heading as gravity dictated, slowed by a weathered screen of stubble, dirt, and yesterday’s grease paint. Here, on the ridge, nature was making him earn anything that came afterward, and requiring payment in advance. Six days and nights had passed since an optimist had left the parking lot with a heavy pack and a sheep tag in his pocket. In another seven, if that tag was still unfilled, a very beaten pessimist would return.

The tag Nathan had drawn, finally, after nine years of playing the state’s slanted lottery, was for a daunting, remote expanse of publicly-owned backcountry wilderness that hadn’t changed since the Nez Perce haunted and hunted there. As a younger man, Nathan had ventured back into this country with an elk on his mind.  Little regard was given to anything but the hunt back then- even safety and security had taken a back seat.

Now, with a number of years and close shaves between him and his starry-eyed college days, Nathan knew how to live in the backcountry. In the ever-present balancing act between weight of gear and necessity, the scales had been tipped toward safety and survival equipment. When a good job presented him with more money, he replaced his cheap tarp with a sound, weatherproof tent. And when that job begat another, better one, Nathan bought an ultra-light frame pack to replace his weathered canvas rucksack. And so it went.

Nine years after that first hunt back there, and he’d turned the tables on Mother Nature- or so it seemed. To see him on the ridge, one would suppose the opposite. His rig was in tatters, from the water filter that gave up the ghost two days in to the soft-shell jacket that wouldn’t zip any longer. And his socks were a wholly different disappointment.

The wool socks Nathan wore were, after all, supposed to be intelligent. It said so right on the label. On a layover for work in Denver, Nathan had decided to kill some time in a trendy mountaineering shop. Never mind that he didn’t need anything, and never mind that the girl who had talked him into his particularly painful footwear was more apt to eat sushi downtown than trout in the mountains. He thought she was cute, and she thought his commission was attractive. The deal was done, and he trusted her opinion.

Nathan thought about this, cursing his stupidity as he sat down for the umpteenth time this afternoon to loosen his laces and hike his socks back up. Carefully, he shrugged off his pack on the uphill side and laid it down securely. His rifle was leaning against a resilient mountain mahogany, low-slung against a bitter wind that was noticeably absent at the moment. Oh, how good a breeze would feel!

His unfortunate routine completed, Nathan shouldered into his straps and sling once again and mounted the unseen staircase toward a summit that hadn’t gotten any closer while he wallowed in self-pity. He knew the sheep were there, over that ridge. His spotting scope hadn’t lied when he saw a ram with full-curl horns and a wary disposition two days earlier, and Nathan could only hope that they hadn’t moved on. Or that they had moved on, but had come back. That seemed more likely, as the wind was the same as two days ago.

Onward and upward he went, chasing a dream that he’d first acquired on that elk hunt years before. The grayish hides and white rears had looked like shadowy mule deer through his dime-store binoculars then, and he’d paid them no mind. It wasn’t until he’d found an ewe, recently dead and half-eaten by some opportunistic cat, that he’d realized what was possible in those daunting hills. And now, cresting the ridge, he knew exactly what he’d do to make his dream a reality.

The summit sloped more gradually than he’d reckoned from below- they always do- and he’d nearly blown his chance. There, grazing casually just below the cornice-holding peak, a few small rams. Nathan hit the deck swiftly and took a moment to compose. Would they still be there when he looked up? When his eyes could again focus, and his heartbeat could be felt instead of heard? Slowly, agonizingly slowly, his senses returned to him.

When he was finally able, Nathan scanned the country above him. There they were! The desolate ground between tree line and blue sky was pockmarked with Bighorn rams. Cautiously, Nathan slid out of his straps and down the slope, allowing him to use his surprisingly rock-shaped pack as a means of cover and, God-willing, as a rifle rest. With his movements concealed, he began to search in earnest for the wary old stud he’d spied two days and fifteen miles ago.

The big ram was lying down some distance behind the group of smaller sheep, having grazed itself into a slumber on the choicest of the sparse grass and Knapweed that, somehow, managed to take hold on this desolate peak. With a steady rest and a markedly accurate rifle in his hands, Nathan figured that the worst was over. He’d spotted the rams, stalked to within 249 yards (according to his angle-compensating rangefinder,) and now had to simply wait for the long-awaited Bighorn to present a clear broadside shot.

Suddenly things changed for the worse- the sweat on Nathan’s neck began to cool in an instant. A sky that was clear blue one minute could easily be grey, black, or even green in no time, weather in the mountains being what it is and should be. But now, unfortunately, the wind whipped up below Nathan and sent a blast straight up the hillside- toward the rams. In a moment, he knew, his scent, his hard-won stink, would be on them and they would be gone. He’d have to make the shot quickly when the big sheep regained his feet, and it would have to count or all would be lost.

The smaller rams stirred about, having caught a quartering whiff of something very un-sheep-like, and Nathan had to steel his nerves and stay in the gun, in the scope, with his crosshairs trained on the big boy. Sure enough, the ram’s hindquarters began to rise. Nathan exhaled lowly. The forequarters followed. Squeeze. Just as the sheep’s head came back to level, the bullet hit him squarely in the boiler room. Nathan never heard the rifle.

His socks slipped again and again on the way down the mountain until, finally, Nathan removed them. Lived-in boots are an unfriendly place for bare feet, and by the time he got back to the truck there was a fair amount of blistering on his heels and soles, but it made no difference. Up on the mountain lay a rack of bones that once held promise for an adventurous young man. And on Nathan’s back was a pack full of meat from those bones, a full-curl skull and cape, and a bright yellow tag, stained with blood and notched in accordance with regulation. The backcountry had not beaten optimism out of him.



Good and Cheap (Horses)- Fiction

I wrote this about a month ago for a magazine on spec- it wasn’t what they needed, but I think it’s a decent story anyway. Please read and, if you would, please share. And keep your heels down.

Dissention in the ranks was not an uncommon thing for Cole. From the teachers he’d resented as a youth, the ones that couldn’t “do,” so they taught, to the glad-handing colleagues he’d hated outright as a young executive, champion do-gooders with poorly-cloaked ulterior motives, there had never been much time in Cole’s life for things that were less than honest. He wouldn’t play their games. He wouldn’t blindly kowtow to authority, or go along to get along. And, as a result, he couldn’t settle. He wouldn’t settle.

The bald-faced sorrel he’d picked up at the sale barn in the spring, now three horses back in a heavy four-horse string, shared his owner’s disdain for all things unfair. He’d looked the part, sure enough, coming through the sliding arena doors with a skinny Idaho flat-hatter on his back. The gelding went through his paces with indifference- up and down the fence, backward, sideways. Something about the horse’s eye caught Cole- there was more in there. More than a big buckle and a big moustache cared to let on while moms and dads sat in the first row of seats, looking for their kid’s first show pony, and much more than the meat buyer was offering back in the barn alley.

The auctioneer had warmed up his microphone with a few ridiculous prices- two thousand, who would give him two? Now fifteen…lots of horse there…help yourself. The price came down rapidly and, with each new try, the cowboy in the saddle kept smiling. Professional traders like him didn’t worry themselves silly over one bad auction. If the price came down to less than the per-pound average, he’d just no-sale the nag and put him on a truck bound for the border.

Just when it looked like that would be the way of it, the gelding humped up and neatly deposited the buckaroo on the arena’s sawdust-covered floor, sealing the deal Two hundred… one fifty… anybody? No sale. Cole bought the sorrel for fifty dollars and a case of beer from the meat buyer in the alley an hour later, and had ridden two full sets of shoes off him that summer in the backcountry. He turned out to be a real go-getter, but didn’t play well with others. A horse after Cole’s own heart.

Now, in early October, the zeal that had endeared “Crank” to his new owner was causing problems. The trip had been a good one, with both Cole and his father connecting on cow elk during the early backcountry rifle hunt. That was why Cole had horses, why he put up with them- to get back where fat guys on four-wheelers and lazy guys with bigger guns than hearts either couldn’t or wouldn’t go.

Cole’s dad didn’t ride unless necessary, preferring to deal with hunting boot blisters as he walked on ahead over saddle soreness. It was a good excuse- Rheumatism- and Cole couldn’t fault the man, but it did leave him with his own hands full on a narrow trail. Snow from the night before wasn’t helping matters any, either, as every rock and tree branch on the trail became dangerously slippery.

When the string began to pick its way across a broad talus slide, following a faint half-path that elk, surely, made look nonexistent as they crossed without breaking stride, Crank could take no more. The sudden lack of trees on either side, combined with a slight curve in the trail, gave the sorrel a good view of something other than the back end of Jake, the stout draft-cross he was tethered to. When Crank saw open country ahead, he decided to go, come hell or high water.

The eerie, hollow sound of rocks tumbling down the slope below drew Cole’s attention instantly, and he turned in his saddle just in time to see Crank rolling in a convoluted half-moon, his head and neck still nearly on the trail, his hindquarters lunging in what seemed to be every direction. Instinctively, Cole turned loose of his lead rope and dismounted. Rosie, the squat roan mare who always rode shotgun while packing game, unconcernedly began searching the misshapen rock crevices around her front hooves for something to nibble on.

Cole carefully picked his way around Rosie and got to Jake’s head, which was pointed slightly uphill. The big grey gelding looked to be leaning, and it was then that Cole realized what was occurring. Below, ten feet off the trail, Crank was upside down and trashing the elk quarters in the panniers on his back. Luckily, all of their camping supplies were still in the woods, and would require a second trip. The horse was still tailed up to Jake by a length of stout twine, and it was requiring all of the big mount’s strength to keep from being pulled over the trail’s edge and down into the mess of leg-breaking holes.

In a moment, Crank calmed somewhat and refrained from thrashing about. His muzzle was twisted upward at an odd angle, and his eyes looked to be rolled back in his head partway. Cole reasoned that the choice, at this point, was one of multiples: go down and try to right Crank, and potentially lose two decent horses to the talus when Jake gave up his hold, or cut Crank loose and ease the formidable grey’s already-quivering muscles. Resigned to the fact that this situation was almost assuredly going to cost him at least one horse, Cole unsheathed his hunting knife and, with a forlorn look at his soon-to-be dead horse below, severed the tailing twine.

Crank slid down the slope for what seemed like an eternity, still upside down and backwards, until the rings of his Decker saddle hooked a deadfall lying among the rocks. In one fluid motion, the sorrel flipped and turned sideways, landing on his belly with his legs tucked underneath him as if he’d simply laid down for a nap. Calmly he stretched his forelegs and found purchase among the rocks, and he stood up. There were a few easily-identifiable cuts on the horse’s rump and shoulder, but he appeared to be little worse for wear than he was as they left camp that morning.

A short minute passed with neither man nor beast moving. Cole and Jake leaned on each other, both breathing heavily, and below, Crank seemed to be admiring his path of travel and looking for a way back up. With his wits back about him somewhat, Cole went about the business of untying the remaining horses’ lead ropes. He didn’t want to deal with having to find a way back up onto the trail for yet another member of his pack string.

Just as he was about to lead his saddle horse across the remaining talus and into the trees beyond, Cole spotted something up the trail. It was his dad, coming back to see what was taking so long. With a loud shout from the edge of the uneven rock slide, the older man asked if everything was okay.

Crank saw Cole’s dad as well, and let out a shrill whinny that bounced off the jagged rocks and echoed through the trees. Both men watched as the sorrel lit out across the basketball-sized stones, steel shoes clattering and sparking as he lunged upward and over, upward and over. The horse seemed fixed on the trail above and paid no mind to the dislodged rocks thundering toward oblivion below. In less time than it took him to fall, he was back up on the path. And, what’s more, he was in the lead.

Cole’s heart had skipped a beat when he’d seen the horse fall, and it had swelled with pride when he saw him regain the trail. As he checked the sorrel for damage from back to front, he was pleased. Yes, scrapes, cuts. And surely some stiffness would come soon. But when Cole checked the horse’s head, he saw the same prideful look in his eye that he’d seen that day at the sale barn. He was glad to have Crank back in one piece-This horse was worth, at least, two cases of beer.