Scotty’s “Natural” Horse Training

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 was a stout and steady draft cross gelding named Scotty. His mother was a full-fledged work horse, pulling the plow for years in a nearby Amish community. She came to our ranch by chance, and the boss’s frisky Quarter Horse stud had jumped the fence and done the rest. That was nearly a decade ago, long before I came to ride for the Crete Ranch.

Scotty wasn’t your typical cow-horse. For starters, he easily weighed thirteen hundred pounds, and not a bit of it was fat. He had feet that dwarfed a normal horse’s, hooves as big across the bottom as my hand when opened fully. Scotty’s pasterns were draped with long, feathery hair that collected burrs and mud, hair that could have been trimmed off easily enough. We didn’t bother- he looked good to us. His head was beautiful, with a roman nose accenting the wide blaze that ran down his face. Scotty wore a beautiful chestnut coat and an unusual flaxen mane and tail that emphasized his movements.

Having a steady mount like Scotty was just what the doctor ordered on this day, as it turned out. The boss had sent me up to the pasture in Long Prairie to round up the saddle stock we’d turned out for the winter. It was coming on April now, and our dozen winter horses were ready for a month off after a busy calving season thus far. We aimed to bring in the cavvy this week and set a few of the boys to topping them off. Then we’d shoe ‘em up and give them some on-the-job training before selling a few in the fall.

The dun mare I had my rope on was one I didn’t recognize- she was in with our remuda, but didn’t wear the Crete Ranch’s lazy-CR brand on her hip like the rest of our mounts. I could tell she was of good breeding, though, and she was on our land. Loose horses around here belong to whoever is feeding them, and at the moment, we were. That was enough reason for me, and I tossed my loop over her ears.

I’d planned on taking her out of the stand of trees we were in slowly, on a short rope. Once out into the open, I figured she’d see the rest of our horses standing around where I’d left them, and she’d join up. My plan was to catch her first, then work my way down the rope by slipping my dally in its tracks, until I was within a dozen feet or so. From there, she’d have little choice but to follow Scotty out of the woods.

My plan was not going so well- she objected wholeheartedly to being caught, and tried to run several times. Once, she strung my line around a tree and hit the end of the rope so hard that she flipped over. It was quite a sight. She got back to her feet and charged toward me and Scotty in a panic. It was clear that this horse had never been handled- she may have been feral, just living in the wild like the mustangs of old. Whatever the case, it was plain to see that she’d never been led by anyone, anywhere.

I worked Scotty around the trees in an effort to straighten out my rope and shorten my lead on the wild horse. When I got him around the last thick aspen trunk and into the clear, I looked down my rope and saw the mare turn and charge again. In my infinite wisdom, I popped my dally as she ran by, barely a foot away, and tried to shorten the rope. It didn’t work out so well- the increasing slack produced by the mare charging toward me had found its way around my shoulder and across my chest. As she ran by, the rope tightened up and sent me into a less-than-graceful somersault. I landed on my rear end, out of breath and scared to look up.

When I did finally turn and take stock of the situation, I was pleasantly surprised. Despite my being an idiot and catching myself up in the slack, I’d still managed to dally around the horn. When I was thrown over Scotty’s shoulder, I’d carried the rope far enough sideways to cause a bight at the horn. The mare had hit the end of the rope so hard that, now, it was a tight half-hitch at the saddle. Scotty hadn’t even moved when the mare hit the end of the rope, and now, as I sat in a daze by his feet, I couldn’t believe what I saw.

The open pasture was nearly a hundred yards away through the trees. Scotty began to walk straight for the big clearing, pulling the dun mare with him. He kept perfect tension on the rope and walked at a brisk pace to keep her coming right behind him, rather than darting between the trees. A few times, she tried to set her feet and pull back, but Scotty would have none of it. He simply kept moving and pulled her, set hooves and all, through the muddy undergrowth.

I was in awe of my horse at this point, and picked myself up off the ground to follow them out of the woods. When they got to the edge of the pasture, Scotty kept going, slower this time. The mare began to trot around him toward the herd, but he wasn’t done teaching yet. He cut hard to his Gee side and brought her with him. When she tried to come around that side and go to the other horses, he came hard to Haw and she followed.

This went on for several minutes- a wild horse on one end of a rope, a riderless saddle horse on the other, and a muddy cowboy standing around watching. After a while, Scotty came close to my station at the edge of the woods and stopped, and the mare came up next to him. He turned to look at me as if to say “That’s how it’s done, boss.” I stepped aboard and, gingerly, reached over to the mare and loosened my rope. She ducked out of the loop and trotted off a few steps toward the herd, then stopped and waited.

The rest of the day went off without a hitch, and the Crete Ranch horse herd was stronger by one. When they asked about the new mare at the ranch, I didn’t have much to say. I did tell them, though, that she was broke to lead.