Saturday, May 11, 2013

Getting Broken

From Horsemanship Through Life by Mark Rashid:

"Pretty much anyone who has been around horses for any amount of time can tell you - it isn't if you're going to get hurt, it's when. I don't want that to sound worse than it is, because the truth is that most horse-related injuries boil down to nothing more than stepped-on toes or minor cuts and bruises, particularly when it comes to the average backyard horse owner. However, there's always the chance of more serious injuries, and I suppose there just isn't any way around that."

My earliest memories are of riding. My parents had a friend who owned a horse ranch where he bred Appaloosas, back before the Appaloosa was cross-bred to the QH to create these stocky, big butt, spotted QH-looking animals. Uncle Merrill, as he was known to us kids, still bred the original Appy horse, sparse mane and tail, mottled skin around the muzzle, occasional blue eye, striped hooves and lots of spots. Appaloosas were more greyhound than pit bull, in comparison to the QH, and had great bottom line stamina. Uncle had 60 or 70 head of riding horses and we spent a lot of time on the weekends riding with him. I was riding tandem behind my mom by the time I was four and a half. From that moment, owning a horse was my deepest desire. It became my secret refrain every time I blew out a candle, saw my first star or sat on Santa's lap.

At the age of six, on the weekend near my birthday, we went to Uncle Merrill's ranch to ride. I was giving a palomino appy mare name Muffin to ride by myself for the first time. We had taken care of Muffin for a few months between the time I was four and a half and six. I think she was with us because my father was supposed to "break her" while we had her. Most of the time she was there that I remember was spent throwing my father into the chicken coop, or grazing peacefully while I was sitting in the saddle on her back. I could do that for hours. So, being able to actually ride her on my birthday was awesome.

I remember Uncle Merrill telling me to keep the reins short, but not really saying much else. I took those cowboy reins (this was in the 60's and the reins had to have been 15' long) and kept them very short. I had about eight inches from the end of the rein to where my fists were. The reins sagged in a long loop between my hand and the bit in her mouth. My father, with my little sister in front of him, led the way out of barnyard and down the road, then turned left and started climbing a hill to the ridge behind and above the ranch. Muffin, like any horse being given no direction by her rider, followed right up to the point where we were directly above the ranch on a trail that overlooked the corrals. At that point Muffin realized there were more horses down below than currently with her, whinnied loudly and started down the slope. I could hear my father yelling at me to pull back on the reins, which I was doing. I had my arms stretched above my head, lifting the reins as high as I could possibly lift with my six year old arms, which had no noticeable effect on the horse. Muffin, taking no more notice of me than she would of a bird perched on her back, moved from a walk, to a trot, to a full blown canter down the hill. At that point I grabbed for the saddle horn and held on.

At the bottom of the hill was a fence which lead to a irrigation ditch that was dry and about eight feet across. Along the tops of both banks of the dry ditch were planted Russian Olive trees. Muffin reached the fence and turned right toward the ditch. On the far side of the ditch was the dirt road, down which my mom and Uncle were riding. Muffin took the shortest road between two points by snaking her way through the Russian Olive trees, down the ditch, scrambled up the far side, through another line of trees, down the far side of the ditch to end up in the middle of the dirt road right in front of my mom and Uncle M. During that tumultuous ride, I had hunkered down behind the saddle horn and hung on for all I was worth. The long, sharp needles of the Russian Olive had cut my arms, legs and face as I went through. They had also pulled out some of my hair. I was crying and scared and in quite a bit of pain.

The first words out of Uncle M's mouth were a shock. He snarled at me to sit up and stop blubbering if I wanted to be allowed to ride his horse. I did. He then commanded me to shorten my reins, which I was still holding onto, by the way. I shortened them to where I had them before and he angrily moved his horse forward and showed me the proper length. My mom suggested he tie a knot in the reins so I would have something to hold onto and he replied that no one rides one of his horses with a knot in their reins. Nothing was said about my state or the blood flowing freely from the scratches on my arms. I think that was the moment when I recognized that riding horses could be a painful process, that sometimes you bleed, and you just have to accept that as fact, if you are going to ride. I learned that lesson, plus I am physically unable to ride with a knot in my reins. (In my 40+ years of riding I have only knotted the reins once and that was because of extreme circumstances.) The experience didn't put a stop to my constant request to become a horse owner, however.

On my eighth birthday my parents got me a shetland pony. In my opinion, Shetlands are the horse equivalent of a chihuahua. They are short and mean by nature. Seabisquit was purchased from my Uncle on my father's side, who talked him up a lot. He didn't mention the fact that Seabisquit was mean, had horrible ground manners, had a mouth deader than a doornail and loved to run under trees and clotheslines whenever he could to scrape his rider off. We were told he was a great beginner horse, had a lot of show experience in 4-H and would be a great mount for someone who had never ridden before. (I still do not understand my father's family. I wonder if they would have felt any remorse if I had been killed because of the pony they sold us. Probably not, because you know, I am gay.)

Anyway, we got him home and unloaded him. I brushed him off and put the pad saddle we had got on his back. Now, for those of you who don't know, a pad saddle is like a thick saddle blanket shaped like an English saddle, with a girth similar to a belt, stirrups attached on either side and a canvas loop for a horn. We put on the bridle and away I went. That little shit bolted at a dead run and went under all thirteen apple trees we had in the pasture. The saddle, not really secured very well, slipped sideways, and so I spent a good three minutes hanging off the side of the horse at a ninety degree angle dodging apple tree trunks with my head. I finally gave up the ghost on the far side of the field when he ran for the fence. It seemed at that moment that letting go and falling was a better option than meeting the fence with my face. So, once again, pain and horses.

Things with that piebald piece of shit never got any better. Going away from home was usually okay. Heading home resulted in hell-bent-for-leather all out run with the bit between his teeth. There was no stopping him. If you made it home on him, he would run for the clothesline and off you would go, which wasn't fun. I learned to stay on until we were within walking distance of home, then I clubbed him upside the head with my hand, which caused him to toss his head up, allowing me to yank the bit from between his teeth. Having limited control of the bit for a short period of time provided the opportunity to slow his dead run enough I could bale off with limited risk. This was effective until I broke my hand. I was also thrown face first into a slat wood gate I closed between where I was riding and our house. It didn't keep me from riding - it just made me get creative with my dismounts.

When I finally got Queenie, we sold Seabisquit as quick as we possibly could. I spent our first winter training her and by the following summer, she was an awesome horse. At the county fair in August we placed with four blue ribbons and two rosettes. The following winter I had my first real serious riding accident. I was riding my horse home from a ride, bareback as was usual. I was riding on the shoulder of the road at a canter. There was a storm rolling in and Queenie wanted to get home. My neighbor drove up next  to me and I turned my head and saluted them. Queenie slipped right then and went down. I ended up standing on the asphalt looking down at the ground while Queenie rolled to her feet next to me. I grabbed her and led her toward the house. I ended up injuring the part of my back where the spine goes through the pelvis. I also got 37 stitches put in my face. I was thirteen.

I got thrown off steers, horses, bicycles and had a pretty serious accident on skis. We did the Little Britches rodeo every year, without helmets, and I got thrown a lot. I started riding horses for other people and got tossed a time or two off of them, as well.

When I got Keile in 1992, I got thrown some more. She was a half Arab, half Saddlebred. There were times when we would be cantering, I would see something half a second before she did, tuck and fly through the air to land on my heels if I was lucky, my butt or back if I wasn't. But the final fall that really messed me up happened riding a dude ranch horse in Yellowstone. I got tossed when I pulled my feet out of the stirrups and extended them past the horse's shoulder. I had a camera with an expensive lens and I opted to hold it and get tossed, rather than drop the camera and try to save myself. I didn't remember I was wearing a lumbar camera pack, with a solid edge along the top edge against my back. When I landed on my butt, I still had a hold of the reins and the horse jerked me back over the edge of the lumbar pack. I tore muscles in the left side of my torso. They are now bunched against the edge of my lower ribs on the left side. I bruised my kidneys and spleen. I damaged the muscles that ran on either side of my spine. And I partially slipped the disc at the L5. It was almost a year before it slipped completely. When it did, I told J I would never ride a horse again.

It has taken six years of chiropractic treatment for me to be mostly pain free.  It took less than that for me to decide maybe I needed to do horses again.

I rode today with the Back on Track back support and that seemed to help.

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