Old as cut nails (the education of a wrangler)

NOTE: This is one of a series of posts that I am writing about my experiences at the ranch, not in any particular order. So far they include “Shooting Emma“, “High, wide and handsome” and “A family I knew“.

“That one’ll be trouble,” said Arden, pointing to a big, dark, beautiful bay grazing next to another, lighter horse. His voice was raspy and feather-soft at the same time — he was truly a hoarse whisperer. “That’s Champ. You’ll want to approach him slow.”

It was early in the year, just a few weeks after I’d arrived in Ohio, and Arden the old farm manager and I had gone over to Winter pasture to gather up the horses that were still wintering over there and worm them. The first task was to catch them. In my dotage now, I don’t recall precisely how this went. We wormed them in the lower portion of Farmhouse Barn, and I remember being in there with a good number of nervous horses — they weren’t tied up, just milling around — who were indisposed to having a tube of cold paste shot into their mouth. I don’t recall if we drove some of them in and went out to catch the stragglers one by one, or if we had to catch all of them individually and lead them in. I do know that we spent a whole day there, which leads me to suspect that few if any of the herd just walked into the barn, especially since they had been left alone in this pasture all winter and were a little sour.

Amy and friend, 1991. Photo courtesy of George P., used by permission.

The day after I arrived at the ranch I was put on a horse for only the second or third time in my life. I was nervous, but this was why I had come, so I mounted up like they showed me. The horse was a large buckskin named Skippy. As is often the case with giants, Skippy was a gentle horse, the most gentle horse in the stable besides Thunder, who was even bigger. Arden assigned me to Skippy and put me at the end of the trail. “Trail” in this sense means a line of horses, not the earthen pathway. Each trail had at the minimum a lead, who rode in front; ideally there would also be someone at the back of the line called a drag and someone riding alongside the trail called a float, who moved up and back making sure everyone was in good shape. Amy, who was to join us that summer as a counselor and wrangler, was out at the ranch that weekend with her mother for a ride, and during the course of it we all chatted. When they learned midway through the ride that this was my first time on a horse as an adult, they expressed surprise and said you could never tell I was a greenhorn, I looked that comfortable in the saddle. Good, I thought. I was able to hide my fear. I felt very proud that day.

Of course, Skippy was the perfect horse for a a spanking newbie. Things did not go the same way when Arden put me on Scirocco a day or two later. George was leading a trail up the south edge of Ring pasture on the way to the gate into Lake. I was in back again, riding drag. Scirocco suddenly decided she wanted to eat grass and put her head down. She would not go. Transfixed with fear at the sudden realization that I was sitting atop a huge animal with a will of its own, a will that had suddenly gone orthogonal to mine, I became powerless. I could not keep her head up by any amount of yanking on the reins, and she eventually started drifting back toward the stable. I was extremely embarrassed at my situation, but I didn’t know what to do. There was no float on this trail. I called out for George, ever my rescuer, it seems. George left the head of the trail to ride back to me, which meant that instantly all the horses stopped and turned left or right off the trail a step or two to eat grass, deaf to the plaintive cajoling and rein-tugging of the campers riding them. It looked like a no-injury pile-up on the freeway, an endless fenderbender, everyone at crinkly odd angles to the path. From a distance this fiasco probably would have looked hilarious.

George yanked Scirocco’s head up and instructed me to be firm with her and keep her moving at the same time, the kind of impossible advice that you find oddly reassuring. He was basically telling me that there was nothing wrong with the horse, nothing wrong with me. This was what horses did. I must simply override her will. He then rode ahead to straighten out the line and get the trail moving again. I felt useless that day.

I learned quickly. One day a little while later I had another showdown with Scirocco while again dragging a trail. George sent me back to the stables to fetch something or deliver a message, I can’t recall now, but I was riding back through Lake and came to a place near the road where the trail crossed a little creek issuing out of a culvert in the hillside. It made a gurgling noise and Scirocco did not want to cross it, even though she had done so when we came the other way with the other horses. Now she had me alone, though, and she planted her feet. I made my butt heavier and clucked with my mouth, held the reins a little wider apart wide and taut so she could not turn away. She backed away. I used my weight again, as I had been taught, to drive her forward. It slowly worked. She whinnied and argued, and danced a little, but then she hopped over the trickle and we were on our way again. I felt elated that day. I had triumphed.

Soon I was floating trails, and within a short while I had learned the basic routes enough to lead them, even alone. I quickly picked up the phrases and assurances and bits of instruction we used to keep the riders from freaking out, or to get them going when they were stuck. There were still challenges to be faced — the first time a horse reared under me was a particularly educational experience — but I was over the initial hump.

Now Arden and I loaded our pockets with dry kernals of yellow corn and went into the pasture. The horses were grazing on the long sloping meadow next to the road. I had never seen these horses, in fact I did not know that the ones I had been riding and putting riders on for weeks were not all of the ranch’s horses.

He knew trouble when he saw it. Arden around 1999. Photo courtesy of George P., used by permission.

At the time I didn’t think Arden thought much of me, and I thought this for two reasons. One, he didn’t give overt praise, and two, the very first day I had worked with him he had delivered himself of a speech — unprovoked as far as I could tell — about how people think they know a thing or two but they generally don’t know anything. (That is a summary. The actual speech took as much time as the saddling of a pony.) I took this to mean that he thought I was one of the so deluded. If so, he was wrong. I knew I didn’t know anything, and I rather resented his hasty judgment of me. What I realized later was that Arden had seen ’em come and he’d seen ’em go, and the odds, he knew, were that they’d come and stay for a while and then they’d see how hard the work was, or they wouldn’t be able to take orders, and they’d go. I don’t know how old he was — once when we were gutting a house I came across square nails in the studs, and he said that they used to cut nails out of square rod and pound them sharp, and when I asked whether he knew this from experience he grinned and said, “I’m old, but I’m not as old as cut nails!” — but he was pretty old. He had been a dairyman and had lived through hard times — the Great Depression at the very least — and he had retired from his own business to serve at the Ranch. I imagine he was grateful for a place to be useful and three squares and a roof over.

Arden was known for several phrases he used when he heard someone complaining. One was “Suffer, baby!” and the other was “You’ll be fine when you feel better.” Once while Arden was loading spring rams into his pickup truck to take to the market Geo came running into the kitchen of the ranch house with a look of astonished amusement on his face to inform George and me that we would not believe what he had just seen.  One of the sheep had dove out a side window of the canopy. Quick Arden had caught the little bleater and was wrestling him back through the same window when the ram kicked loose one of the old man’s teeth. With great facial animation, Geo showed us how Arden paused, still wrestling with the animal, to spit out the tooth and a spatter of blood, before shoving the ram back into the truck. It was events like this that made Arden a legend among us younger hands.

I also learned to read the subtle tonal changes in his commentary on our achievements. Sometimes he was offering encouragement or acknowledging a job well done simply by refraining from making us feel like an ass. Once while mowing a field in Lower Barn I drove the Allis-Chalmers into (what I now know was) a swamp, and had to go fetch Arden and tell him what I’d done so he could tow me out with one of the other tractors. I was ready for an earful, but he simply told me what to do with the chains and related a story of when he had performed a similar stunt. It was his way of telling me not to feel too bad about it, that if you didn’t drive a tractor into a swamp at least once you probably weren’t doing a thorough job.

Champ, at left, many years later as an old horse, standing at the rail with Sunny, whom I also knew. All but the youngest of the ponies I knew are gone now. Photo courtesy of George P., used by permission.

I approached Champ slowly with some corn in my outstretched left hand and a hay-twine loosely balled in my right hand. He moved away a few paces and resumed nibbling at the sparse grass. I approached again and he trotted off pointedly, swishing his tail a few times and moving a good distance away. “Leave me alone” was what I read in this behavior. Arden worked on some of the others. Once a horse put their mouth to your hand to eat the corn, you gently put the hay-twine around its neck and that was that. As soon as they felt that encirclement — a secure feeling for horses — they were all yours and you could lead them away with just the twine. But getting them to your hand took patience. In some cases it took a very long time.

Champ ran away from me possibly a dozen, maybe twenty times that day, but horses eventually tire of this. You can win with the illusion of eternity. They don’t know that you’re hungry and tired and that you want to give up and that you really can’t afford to waste a whole day following them around a field. If they knew that, they would be indomitable. But their imagination is inferior to ours. I kept at it because I knew I would win eventually. Champ eventually gave in because — well, for Pete’s sake, I was following him around with a treat that he really wanted to eat, and for all he could tell it was going to be like this forever and he was starting to forget why he was resisting. I patted the huge, handsome triangle of his dark neck when he finally bent to nibble the corn out of my hand, and slowly dropped the hay-twine over the other side of him, then pulled the two twine-ends together and he was mine.

Once we had them in the barn, we put their bridles and lead ropes on and had to hold their heads still long enough to squirt a tube of something called Zimecterin into their mouths. This we did by working the end of the tube into the side of the mouth far enough back that they couldn’t push it out with their tongue. They weren’t frightfully keen on this process, and there was a lot of rearing and tugging. Arden and I both got knocked around in there quite a bit that day, but they weren’t kicking us, not even when the sky turned dark gray and lightning flashed and thunder struck loudly and rain started hammering the barn’s state roof and wooden sides. I learned a lot that day. Horses, like me, are avoiders. They could easily rear up and kill you with a well-placed kick to your skull, but it is not in their nature to do this. Their preference when faced with danger is to run away. God made them fast for this reason. They will only strike out if you put them in a situation where they can’t run and then frighten or torment them. They knew Arden, and while they didn’t yet know me, I didn’t threaten them. I held on but let them rear, used my hands as comforters and not threateners.

Farmhouse Barn back in the day. I hear it was later leveled by a storm. Photo courtesy of Bonnie W., used by permission.

Arden was impressed by the patience I displayed that day, I found out later from Uncle Bill. He told Bill I had “a good way” with the horses. This came up weeks later after we had lost the volunteer who had been slated to be stablemaster for the summer. Her name was Tammy, and she knew a lot about horses, and she brought a singularly magnificent dapple gray with her, but when she saw how the horses were treated at F– Ranch, or maybe when she saw how the staff was treated, she bolted. (Bill did not pamper the horses, and in this I applaud him. It’s true they could have used more regular attention by a ferrier, and once or twice it would have been nice not to have to twist his arm to get a vet out to the ranch, but he knew that if you give horses plenty of room to run and graze, they pretty much take care of themselves.) Tammy’s horse was a show horse. Tammy stayed less than a week, as I recall. This left Bill wondering whom to put in charge of the stables for the summer. Rebecca was certainly capable, but she was only seventeen. George, at nineteen, might have been the next, or even the first, choice, but with his knowledge of both the herd and the trails he was too valuable in the saddle to be stuck in the stable putting kids on horses. So was Bonnie, a woman about my age who also helped run the office and worked with Judy and others in the kitchen. Arden was the default stablemaster, but he had the Ranch’s cattle and sheep to tend to and whatever other mysteries he was involved in.

Bill and Arden discussed whether they thought I could do the job and then Bill asked me if I would be willing. I demurred a little, because I knew Rebecca would have given anything to have that job, but I also knew it was a done deal. I was the least experienced rider and the least experienced instructor, so virtually all the other staff were more useful than I in the ring and on the trail, but I could keep my head in a corral full of large animals and small children, and I was old enough that Bill wouldn’t get in trouble for putting me in charge. That’s how I ended up being “master” of about 96 horses and ponies that summer of 1991. The stables were the occasion of many adventures I’ll tell you about later. I rode a horse for at least some portion of the day — sometimes eight hours, sometimes just a few minutes — almost every day for over a year.

There was a girl, I think her name was Janette or Jeanette, who would come out to the ranch with her father to ride. They didn’t go out in a trail with one of us leading. Her father was one of the very few customers that Uncle Bill trusted to take out the horses without supervision. She always wanted to ride Tandara, and they would call a couple hours ahead of their visit and request Tandara. One day in winter, a cold gray day when the fields were frozen, I got word that they had called and would be arriving in an hour or two. There was no camp going on, so most of the horses were off in Lake pasture somewhere, and we had not even kept any round-up horses in the night before. I bundled up, took Tandara’s bridle from its peg in the stable and threw a few handfuls of corn into my pocket, and headed out on foot through Ring. I would have to find Tandara, catch her, and ride her back bareback. Going up the far slope, I suddenly saw myself laterally, that is, I became fully aware of both the tactile details and the larger context of my existence in that moment. I realized how lucky I was, and how grateful I was to be doing exactly this thing. The cold air lashed at my cheeks and it felt good to be outside. There was grass crunching under my boots, not the click of dead pavement. The real leather of the bridle, oiled and well used, felt honest and purposeful in between my fingers. I was on my way to relate with an animal that I knew and could identify out of all her companions from two hills away, just by her size and shape and the way she moved and the company she kept, an animal that knew me, my smell and my voice. I knew, suddenly, deeply, that I always wanted to be doing this, that this kind of life was vitally important to me. I always wanted to be walking on bare earth, touching real things, relating with God’s creatures and knowing the weather with my face and hands.

It was not to be, or at least, it has not yet been. From the day I packed Little Nemo and drove away from the Ranch in May or June of 1992 until now, I have never put my foot in a stirrup.

Arden and Norma at home. Photo courtesy of Bonnie W., used by permission.

As for Arden, he was still the farm manager until a year or so ago. George went back to attend his funeral. He told me that the old cowboy went for a walk to the post office one day, came home and lay down to rest and just never woke up again. He was plum wore out. Once George and I were heading home to the house we lived in when we saw Arden in a hillside pasture next to the road trying to help a cow give birth. He had his arm into the cow’s uterus all the way up to his shoulder. George stopped the car, we piled out and hopped the fence to help. She was lying with her legs uphill, which wasn’t working out, but she couldn’t help herself. Arden told us to rope her legs and pull until she rolled over. It took both of us all our strength. I’m sure Arden was relieved we’d showed up just then, but if we hadn’t, he’da just done it himself.


15 Responses to “Old as cut nails (the education of a wrangler)”

  1. 1 Amy Kiene May 13, 2010 at 11:20

    Awesome, Matthew! I love reading your memories, because they make me relive mine.

    • 2 jstwndrng May 13, 2010 at 12:34

      Gosh, Amy, thanks for sayin’. If these ramblings are sparking your own memories that tells me that I’m not completely making all this stuff up.

  2. 3 Kip May 13, 2010 at 18:29

    Wow! Again, another amazing post abaout life on the Ranch. I can’t get enough!

  3. 5 George May 13, 2010 at 19:32

    Dude, there are SO may lessons in this one post! I suppose that anytime you speak of Arden, you learn something, however, this is incredible. (And not just because you speak fondly of me!) The clarity of your memories is amazing. I wish I could remember yesterday that way! Keep it up.

    • 6 jstwndrng May 14, 2010 at 08:09

      Arden was one of those guys, as you know, that you could learn so much from simply by following him around. I came to admire his economy with words, because I think he knew that you can’t really tell people stuff. So he kept most instructional dialog to the simplest, most important things. I remember once shortly after my tractor incident when we were driving in his pickup up the road that led to the Farmhouse, he pointed to the cattails in the wetland on the south side of that road and grinned…”you drive a tractor in there, you’ll let it.” I never forgot that line. “Let” means “leave”, and he meant you’ll have to walk away from it.

      I’m sure that my memories are befouled. Just last night I found a journal entry from my Ranch days that described the morning that Josh and Velvet and the herd ran Amber McP and me around in circles in drifted snow in Lake Pasture. In my mind, I clearly remember Amber riding Tasha, the paint, and I see myself on Montana, as usual. But I’m wrong. According to my own report written that very evening, I was riding Tasha and Amber was riding Nutmeg. So that tells me that my memories are evolving and eroding and changing, that in fact I cannot fully trust even the most vivid memories I have. All that to say, I write this stuff, but I’m hoping that you folks who were there will feel free to say, “No Matt, it was thus and such, not so and so.” Because now that I’ve written these things, they’ve sort of become history. That’s how it happens. Scary, huh?

  4. 7 Invisible Mikey May 14, 2010 at 09:10

    What a wonderful story, and with such well-chosen illustrations! This is everything I want when reading memoirs; unforgettable central character, good plot, a mix of drama and comedy all ending in love and life-lessons. Bravo, Matt.

    • 8 jstwndrng May 14, 2010 at 10:30

      Thanks, Mikey. Coming from you, that’s tall. I am fortunate in regard to the illustrations, in that I have managed after eighteen years to reconnect with a good number of my co-vaqueros who have retained a better grip on their old photos, bein’ as how I lost almost all of mine from those days or got rid of them in a fit of idiocy. I now have access to and permission to use more photos than I’ll ever be able to write about from my days in the saddle.

      [Readers, click on Mikey’s name to read his startlingly vulnerable posts about the journey to being a more human bean.]

  5. 9 Rachael K-S May 15, 2010 at 10:24

    I saw your blog from your facebook page, and its been so nice to read about your memories, which are so beautifully written. I was a young camper at the Ranch when all this was happening, and now that I’m grown its funny to sort of overlay your thoughts and memories with my own. I remember you that year.

    The Ranch was a sort of magical time for me, but one that seems like a lifetime ago. Seeing all those old pictures and hearing those old stories sort of reminds me that it was real.

    I have been in touch with Becky (Axl), my camper best friend. She’s well, studying to be a doctor now. I’ll send her a link to your blog, I’m sure she’ll get a kick out of it. Thanks for preserving and sharing these stories.

    Hope you’ve been well.
    Rachael (Roachie)

    • 10 jstwndrng May 15, 2010 at 18:43

      Thank you for the kind words about my writing. Nice to have you here and I’m honored that you would read this. I remember you too. You were one of a core group of campers that seemed to be at the Ranch nearly every weekend, all year. I remember we called you Roach. Also, my favorite picture ever of my old buddy Montana is of you riding away on him. I’m going to write a post just about Montana soon, so you’ll see that photo if you haven’t already, but I imagine you have. George sent it to me in the same group as the ones I used in this one and I think it’s on Facebook.

      I’m so glad this sparks magical memories for you. I imagine that since you were so young, that time is interwoven with an unspeakable wonder, and hopefully, you were not even aware of some of the ranch’s dysfunctions. I remember Axl as well. She picked me to be her “camp dad” (yours was George), and months after I had left the Ranch she sent me the coolest tie-dye tee-shirt ever — it changed color with heat. It was a startlingly original and creative gift, and made of good stuff. I wore if for many years and thought of you crazy campers who made working at the Ranch so much fun, but heel that I was, I’m not sure I ever wrote to thank her for it. Glad to hear she’s on a good road. I hope you are too. Mine was a dark and weedy one for a long time, but as you can see if you’ve looked at my blog at all, I walk now through a valley of sunlight and laughter.

      Come back any time and join the fun.

  6. 11 Louis May 17, 2010 at 11:24

    I´ve never been to the ranch, yet I miss it immensely. Thanks Matt.

    • 12 jstwndrng May 17, 2010 at 13:34

      Louis, I think all of us are headed toward, healing from, or trying to get back to the best parts of some kinda ranch experience somewhere. What was yours? By the way, I think you’da made a good wrangler. I get the feeling the campers would have loved you.

  7. 13 Bonnie May 22, 2010 at 08:16

    Awesome job! I agree with Amy that reading your stories brings back good memories.

    Thought you would like to know that Skippy is still around and still making at least one gaunt out on a trail on the weekends.

    • 14 jstwndrng May 22, 2010 at 11:03

      Bonnie, hi! Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m so glad to know old Skippy is still there. I never want to ask about the horses I remember because most are probably gone, except the ones that were just colts and fillies. Now I think about it, I believe Don the cook liked to ride Skippy whenever he had to go out on trail, didn’t he?

  1. 1 Horse « Just Wondering Trackback on July 15, 2010 at 16:01

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