|A lesson well learnt|
The big stallion stopped. His muscles quivered from the effort, there were those tell tale signs of foamy perspiration on his front flank. Slowly he turned his head trying to look at the rider. For one brief moment I saw confusion and then fear in his eyes. He had just experienced something that he did not quite understand. Even the rider looked a little pale. I denoted a shaking in the arm muscles. It had been a magnificent struggle, the stallion determined to dislodge the rider; the horseman through skill, balance, knowledge of horses, and a profound desire to survive the ordeal was determined to stay the course.
I heard a movement beside me. It was the French stable master. He touched my arm, I turned slowly as I did not want to leave the scene of the rider and big stallion. Both exhausted, enveloped in their private thoughts, the winner, and the now quite stallion. They looked like some mighty statue that had been created to honor a noble battle. From nearby I heard the stable master say “ I have never seen anything quite like that ….why, why didn’t he get off the horse.”
Before I answered, a clear, absorbing images flashed across my mind. Wyoming, a dudes ranch nestled in the hills around Sheridan. At that moment I even smelt the West, the perfumed grass, the hot baked soil, the quite magical evenings. I saw the weather patterns that play across plains, the big skies, the star light nights. The big, beautiful, unconquerable West. The horses, leather with its special smell, a rugged hard life lived by strong silent men and women who know the value of effort. It seemed so far away, yet so near. The images started to fade as I concentrated on the matter at hand. “ If you have got five minutes I will tell you a story, them maybe you will understand the answer to your question.”
He looked at me with baited expectancy; clearly he had to know the reason. In his eyes I saw he had witnessed something special, he realized this was not just skill, this was something to do with survival. Was it man’s fascination to dominate, totally and completely the animal kingdom? Or did it come from another overpowering desire for man to prove himself? The stable master leaned forward. In a slow deliberate voice so that I was sure he understood, I told him the story.
Some years ago we had lived in New York. We are a family of five, three boys and my wife. The hot, stifling summer days cover the city. Its inhabitants have one irrepressible desire to leave. The eternal summer holiday question, where, when and how to please everybody? I had always dreamed about playing the urban cowboy, traveling to west, seeing what the Western states were like. Following the in the foots of the trailblazers, imaging the wagons rolling, smoking around the campfire, looking into the cool nights and seeing the sky ablaze with stars. In my mind I was already on holiday. This was getting out of hand. I even started saying good morning to the Marlborough Man posters. The decision was made. The choice, a dudes’ ranch in Wyoming. Family, are you ready? Except for Thomas, my oldest boy, I detected no great outpouring of enthusiasm. It needed hiring a cowboy movie to spark a tiny, “might not to so bad.” Thomas was already a confirmed horseman having spent summers in France amongst the horsy crowd. His only reservation was not riding English saddle. Little snob! My wife had definite reservations, two weeks on a ranch, she didn’t even like horses, they seemed unnecessarily big, awkward, and definitely uncontrollable. I had to get the tickets quickly.
Baggage packed and with not too much fuss we left as planned .Six hours later we were standing outside Sheridan airport waiting for somebody from the ranch to pick us up. To keep the boys spirits up I had told them we would be picked by an open wagon drawn by four horses. Having said this I spend a lot of time hiding in the airport’s bookshop dreading the truth of what would probable turn up. Finally I heard the boys arguing with a long, lean, rangy cowboy. As expected he was dressed for the part, well-tapped jeans, the famous Stetson and a pair of snappy looking cowboy boots. I heard the boys saying they were sure he had made a mistake, they were waiting for a wagon. As I stepped forward the cowboys and my eyes met, an understanding wink, followed by friendly smile, satisfied our host. I heard a deep voice say “next time, dudes we will put on a show for you.” We all go into a dusty old Ford break. I open car window, the stream of hot air that rushed in gave me the sensation I had dreamed about, dry, hot, the fragrant scent of adventure. The whole family caught the magic. Space, big skies, and as we drove forward the land seem to stretch out forever before us. Now, none of us could wait to get to the ranch. The idea was becoming a reality; spirits soared in unison to us sighting our first golden eagle.
As we drove up the long drive to the ranch I knew we had come to the right place. A lovely old ranch house surrounded by small cottages, nestling in the foothills of a range of mountains. Stetson hats, horses, magnificent trees confirmed the image of my dreams. An idyllic setting that later I learned covered up a hard life, family disputes and broken dreams. But that’s a story for another day.
After registering we were told if we wanted to make the afternoon ride we should report to Big Frank. I contemplated the word report. The word gave a special ring of discipline for the boys, but I was not sure about myself, in today’s organized world we do an awful lot of reporting. Big Frank lived up to all you would imagine in the Coral boss. Big, strong, he wasted no words, knew a man when he saw one, he had lived in a saddle most of his life. He was dressed for the part. The Stetson hat set the tone; the well-worn cowboy boots denoted a man of action. Under the hat was a rugged weather beaten face, dark, commanding eyes. A full, generous mouth that gave him the air of passionate, and understanding man. I learnt later you only had to touch a horse and he knew if you could ride. His family had been in these hills for several generations. I was intrigued, at the same time fascinated, with this way of life. Frank voice matched his big frame, it was gravely, deep throated and you could feel he liked to be obeyed. His word were direct, no waste of effort, straight to the point
“You dudes ridden before.” As the family head it was my turn to speak up.
I cleared my throat…” my eldest son rides, the second a little, as for me …pause “I been on a few horses”, trying to convey that confident air of an old hand. Who was I kidding, certainly not Frank? “My wife and the youngest are beginner.”
“ That so” came the reply, as if he was not at bit interested. Don’t you just love these strong silent types that think, I repeat, think, they have seen it all? I suddenly had a warm vision of my comfortable office in New York were I could call a few shoots.
The next move was being fitted out for saddles. Our resident rider started talking about the difference between an English saddle and riding western. At least this got a smile from the brown, weather beaten faces of some of the wranglers. I was learning a whole knew vocabulary. This performance completed, the next step, was the selection of the horses. I heard my wife saying in that charming kissable French accent. “Please for me, a quite, lazy horse.” Her youngest son piped up. “Mom, what about a three legged horse.” The wranglers were getting confused with this New York wit. “It’s alright madam, we heard you.” Big Frank was back on the scene having personally selected a horse for Thomas. “Say you can ride.”
“Yes sir” said Thomas. I like that; polite boys.
I thought Big Frank would be impressed. Thomas went up to his mount to take charge. As he stroked the horse I saw Big Frank eyes flash with the indication that this boy knew how to ride. It took a bit of time to get over the request from the boys that their father needed a bronco, as he thought he was the cowboy. I finally landed a big, strong, quite mount that seemed, maybe, controllable. Just in case this didn’t happen, and hedging my bets, I agreed to go on the afternoon ride with a wrangler accompanied by my wife and youngest son.
After a hearty ranch lunch all the guests gathered at an appointed time for the afternoon ride. This is one of the few ranches in American where if you are considered a good enough rider you can take the horses out alone, not accompanied by a wrangler. It was an exciting moment, little shiver running down the back, expectant faces, horses impatiently poring the ground. The group of guests seemed to come from many walks of life, with only two common threads, the love of riding and the ability to pay the bill. The two eldest boys had decided to go off together with some other young people. In the background I could see Big Frank watching carefully. This was testing time to see who could be given the keys to paradise. I do not use that extravagant word, paradise, lightly. Image dressed for the part, cowboy gloves that fit tight around the figures. Chaps, what a lovely sounding word, one can dream about that word, it conjures up all sorts of western scenes. A handkerchief around you neck, of course the Stetson, and maybe a rope slung loosely over the saddle. With a modicum of riding skill you are handed the keys. The door opens to balmy days galloping the horses over the plains, the wind-rushing pass as you fly towards your destiny. For me there is nothing like the thrill of the motion of a horse at full gallop. I have an irrestible desire to through my head back and laugh. I do, and I did, as that first afternoon I passed the litmus test.
That night at dinner, the “not so bad” had turned into “this is fantastic.” The tales came fast and furious. You could almost hear the warning sign of the deadly rattlesnakes, the hooves of the deer as they sped for the hills. The laughter of children, freed from parental control, which sounded round the valleys. As I looked round the dinning room I saw flushed faces, I heard excited voices, plans being laid. Even my wife was catching the fever. Thomas was in seventh heaven; this was clearly a new experience. The English saddle was a thing of the past, but not yet entirely satisfied with the western saddle tomorrow he declared he would ride bareback in a race against the Colonel daughter. How the young and ardent are so quick to find new found friends. It was merry evening; the first day had been a great success.
I meet the colonel and his daughter later that night. The old boy didn’t ride any more. They had been coming to the ranch for years; his daughter was one of the best western riders in the ranch. When I leant this it confirmed a suspicion that I have always had; people skilled in a particular field of human endeavor seem to find, within minutes, their soul mates in order enjoy the common pleasure. This appeared to be the case with my son and the Colonel’s daughter. She was a pleasant girl, straight backed, as you would expect. She had a handsome face, just missing being beautiful. In conversation her face lit up with an engaging smile, which showed an excellent set of brilliant white teeth common to most Americans. I not sure why I particularly noticed them, but maybe living on a ranch surrounded by horses teeth you tend to notice them on humans. With the Colonel blessing, Thomas and his daughter had agreed to ride together the next day. The planned race was not mentioned. The Colonel and I had a nightcap together before going to bed. I sensed he regretted very much not having a son. He was a comfortable man, with a sharp sense of humor, all his life he had been in the military so his stories tended to be of the offices mess room nature. He had lived very much in a man’s world, traveling extensively, many of his stories that night were about the great polo matches he had played. . As he said goodnight and I walked to my bunk house I felt that special atmosphere of just being around horses. I went to bed hearing the click of the polo sticks and the shouts as the polo ponies careered across the great lawn
The next day I found getting out of bed proved somewhat difficult. There is something about stiff bones, sore muscles that takes away the dream of throwing you head back and galloping to your destiny. Reality had set in. I had promised the boys to rise early and go with them to see the cowboys bring in the horses. We crept out the bunkhouse in the early dawn. Everything was quite, awaiting the first rays of the morning sun. It reminded me of the time I had crept out of college with some friends to steal a Christmas tree. A story I did not tell to the boys. We went out to the coral and looked up at the surrounding hills. We had been told that, if by magic, on the first ray of the sun we would see the lead horse coming down the valley. Sure enough as we squinted our eyes in the morning sun, there on the ridge about us silhouetted against the sky line, head held high, its tail up, was the lead horse. A stallion, proud of its position, arrogant in its movements. The American quarter horse at its finest. Strong, sturdy and fast. Within seconds several other horses followed it. We started hearing the cowboys riding up the back of the ridge, shouting to keep the horses moving forward in line. Within minutes the scene was full of some two hundred and forty horses moving down the valley to the coral. One could sense the cowboys were anxious to get home. It had been a long early morning ride to find herd. Every evening the horses were let out of the coral to roam in the back hills. This was a tradition, a sacred ritual that made this ranch and place special. The cowboys never complained, it was their special way of saying good morning to another day. The long ride, rounding up the herd and driving them back to the ranch was their way of life. Sometimes they found the horses more that ten miles out in the hills. As the horses slowly winded there way into the coral, the cowboys’ shouts got more excited. In the final act of this majestic scene all one could see were horses heads, dust, and a moving river of powerful muscles. Above it all the flying ropes, Stetson hats and flashing eyes of man and beast. Above the thundering sound of hooves, one heard the metallic click of spurs, and the comforting sound of well-worn leather. As the bolts of the coral closed the hoses calmed down, through the dust one could see smiling faces …a job well done. We walked back to the ranch house for breakfast with the sent of strong coffee in our nostrils. The sun was up: the day had begun. We had witnessed a scene that would be forever branded on our minds. The branding iron had been red hot; the imprint making a perfect, clear, indelible image.
I missed the morning ride. I just wanted to sit on the porch and bathe in the beauty of the moment. I learnt a lunch that the group of youngest had all ridden together in the morning. The planned race between the Colonel’s daughter and Thomas was being saved for the afternoon ride. That afternoon I when up in the back hills with my second son. As we climbed we could look back at the rolling plains spotted with cattle. On those warm summer days, the atmosphere of riding a horse in the cool hills of Wyoming is totally enchanting. Again the branding iron was used with devastating effect.
When we got back to the ranch one could immediately feel the tension. Some thing was wrong. People were standing around discussing the merits of some happening. Big Frank, I was told had gone out to find some horses that were running wild. He was in a dark mood. I asked one of the wrangles what had happened. He told me my son and the Colonels daughter had been racing the horses. The colonels daughter horse had spooked and she had been thrown off….nothing serious, but she was shaken up. It appears my son’s horse also took flight and became quite uncontrollable. He did what he thought was the best thing; he jumped off. Big Frank is out there chasing down the horses. He’s mad because the youngsters came back to the stable without the horses. Tell your son to come and see Big Frank when he gets back.
I listen to my son’s side of the story, it was pretty much as the wrangler had told me, except that he had been riding bareback and on approaching a steep corner he knew he would be thrown off. The quick decision he had taken was, better to jump off that to be thrown off. It looked like high noon with Big Frank. I told Thomas he had better go and see why he is so mad. The show down with Big Frank, as you would have expected, was short, sweet and to the point. One sided, passionate, tough, and it clearly made a lasting impression on Thomas.
It was held in front of the coral in the early evening. Frank did all the talking.
“Listen Dude, listen good, never forget. I have seen you ride. No horse can throw a man that knows how to ride. You are the boss, never, never, leave your horse. If you do in this country you are dead. Good night.”
That evening at in the dinning room the merry and excited scene of yesterday had been replaced with a certain anxiety, images of people being throw from horses, broken bones, flashing lights of ambulances. This was big country, subject to a hostile environment that the city folks didn’t quite understand. People seemed to be taking sides, cut and run, or stay with the horse. Thomas was viewed by some as the young man with a clear head, by others as reckless rider who had left his horse in a moment of distress. The faces in the dinner room showed people wrestling with similar moments in life when one has to make a split second decision. This was a call from the subconscious, to nightmares of bad decisions, if only? Voices had been lowered, people were whispering. I noticed the Colonel’s daughter was not at the table. I immediately went over to their table and inquired if everything was all right. “Yes” came the Colonel’s reply, “just a little shaken. Not to worry. Let’s hope they both learnt a lesson.”
The next morning Big Frank again made his point, this time not with words, he left Thomas until the last before going to select his mount. I could see Thomas thought he was not going to be allowed to ride. I was looking on hiding behind a bush. There was no way I could interfere. This was horsemanship play, they had drawn lines in the sand. Most of the riders had left the coral when Big Frank disappeared behind the barn. A minute later he came forward with one of the finest quarter horses on the ranch, the horse nobody gets to ride except the boss. In that slow deliberate western drawl he said “ dude, never forget what I told you last night.” Thomas extended his hand. Big Frank shook it. His voice rang out an order “Get out of here.” Not another word was spoken. His newfound friends were waiting at the bottom of the drive. Eyes popped, Thomas was 15 years old.
“Amazing” said the stable master. He continued “ when the owner of the stallion called and said you were coming down to ride I told her that I thought it was not advisable as the stallion had not been out for several days, even I was not prepared to ride him. We had planned to put him out to grass. Just amazing, the stallion tried everything.”
“True,” I said, “but then the stallion has never had a lecture from Big Frank.”