Thursday, February 6, 2014

TTTT: Muffin

I can't remember a time when I didn't wish for a horse with all my heart. My earliest memories are of riding with my mom all over the wild grasslands of the Fort Hall Reservation in Southern Idaho. All of those horse memories originated with Uncle Merrill, who had his breeding farm at the end of Wolverine Canyon, about 15 miles from where we lived. At that point in my life, fifteen miles was forever, and it felt like a magical world when we were at his place.

One of the first horses I became attached to was a Palomino Appy mare, three years old and green broke, that he had raised from a foal. She was sweet tempered and already going pretty quiet under saddle, except for when my father would try and ride her. We kept her at our place for a spring and summer and I remember the dust rising in a big cloud as she bucked and kicked until my father flew from her back and landed on the roof of our chicken coop. She didn't like him much, but would graze for hours with me perched on her back, six year old hands wrapped around the saddle horn.

My very first ride by myself was on her back.

It was for my sixth birthday. We had trekked to Uncle Merrill's ranch to go on a trail ride. For the very first time I was going to ride by myself, instead of riding behind my mom. I was set up in a saddle that was too big for me, with about fifteen feet of reins for me to handle. Uncle Merrill told me to keep the reins short, but he didn't explain what that meant. I did. They were about 10" long from where I had my six year old fists clenched to the end of the reins, leaving a loop of rein that hung down almost to the ground between my fists and the bridle. My father, mounted on the big red mare with my little sister in front of him, didn't pay any attention. Instead he turned the horse and led the way down the dirt driveway.

The road cut next to a high ditch bank lined with stubby Russian Olive trees set so close together there was only a couple of feet between each trunk. This is one of the ways in which Westerners build fences . . . by planting trees so close together that the branches grow into and through each other, creating a living barrier of bark and twig and in this case, three inch long knife sharp needles.

Leaves are alternate, simple, with thorns or spines.

The Russian olive is a shrub or small tree, often leaning or twisted and distorted.   It  has an open crown and often thorny branches.  Itis native to Europe and western Asia.  It is commonly used as a windbreak and wildlife cover and food.

This particular ditch had Russian Olive trees on both banks, leaving a wide, deep channel for the water to flow for flood irrigation. At the end of the drive, there was a dirt track that cut up the bank and headed up into the hills behind Uncle Merrill's place. (In my teen years I went dirt biking on that trail. Such a strange juxtaposition, in retrospect.) Muffin followed the big red mare as we headed up that trail. My mom and Merrill were still in the stockyard with their horses. 

I can't tell you why my father didn't notice the reins. You'd think if your six year old was riding for the first time you would pay attention to that sort of thing, but he didn't. We climbed a pretty steep trail that switchbacked up the hill until we came to a little curve in the trail that widened out and overlooked the stockyard. I remember looking down the sloping hill to the multitude of corrals and lean-tos, seeing Uncle Merrill and my mom just leaving the barnyard. The hill down from us was sloping and grass covered, but basically pasture land between where we sat watching and waiting for the other horses to catch up to us. Muffin saw them too.

The most direct route between two points is a straight line. That's pretty much all horses know about geometry and all they really care to learn about geography.

Muffin headed home. Straight down the hill, slower at first because it was steep, then picking up speed as we neared the bottom of the curve. By the time she hit the flat she was galloping. I had my arms stretched as far over my head as I could, trying without success to pull back on the reins. I did manage to keep them off the ground so they didn't trip her up as she galloped her way to the other horses.

Remember the straight line premise? Yeah, that applies to Russian Olive Trees as well. She ducked her head and started to thread her way through. I gave up any attempt to try and slow her down, and instead I ducked behind the saddle horn. I must have looked like a monkey. I drew my legs up to my hips, grabbed the horn in both hands (still holding the ends of the reins) and tried to hide my body behind the horn of the western saddle I was riding in. The horn is about four inches tall and maybe six inches wide at it's widest point.

The thorns in the trees ripped at my, tearing clothes and hair. I was in a short sleeve shirt, and I watched the thorns scratch bright red tears in the skin of my arms and shoulders. I pressed my face into the pommel of the saddle as Muffin scrambled down one side of the canal, with it's corresponding lack of tree limbs to duck, then lunged back up the other side, branches whipping past me. By that point I was crying in big heaving sobs.

On the far side of the canal, Muffin slid down the canal bank, finally freed from the trees, and plopped herself into the middle of the road right in front of my mom. I was damn near hysterical at that point, blood spotting my face, both eyes still intact (thank goodness), tears splashing down onto the horn of the saddle.

I think my mom would have comforted me, if it had just been the two of us. However, Uncle Merrill's bellow knocked those thoughts out of existence.

"Stop your bellowing or get off my horse! You gonna cry, you don't get to ride my horses."

I stopped. Immediately. I smothered the pain and bit down on my lower lip. There was nothing I wanted more than to ride. (And do I really need to wonder where my stoic acceptance of pain when it is linked to horses came from? Hurt or not, bleeding or not, you stay on and ride.)

"Shorten those reins!" Merrill snapped.

I tried, but really had no idea what he was talking about. In disgust he moved his dun forward and showed me how to shorten the reins, where to hold them in relation to the pressure on the horse's bit, and how to properly thread them through my fingers so I had control, even at the age of six.

My mom suggested that he tie a knot in the reins, so I would have a marker that would tell me where I should hold them.

"No one rides my horses with a knot in their reins. If she doesn't want to ride properly, she can get the hell off."

I still can't ride with a knot in the reins. I don't remember the rest of the day. I would assume we went on our trail ride and everything was fine. It certainly did not curb my desire to ride. Or to own a horse. Or to ignore my own physical discomfort when on horseback.


  1. Its funny what'll shut you up as a kid. HORSES OR NO. Mums the word! I was the SAME way. "ELIZABETH IF YOU DON'T STOP YOUR CRYING YOU WON'T GET TO RIDE TODAY/TOMORROW/NEXT WEEK." *silence.*

    The magic of horses!

  2. Tough as nails = you. A similar argument is what saved me when I was a teenager with issues: "IF YOU DON'T EAT, YOU DON'T GET TO RIDE." I ate. And I got over my issues for the horses.

    Agree with Liz: horses are magical like that!

  3. I'm going with "Truth" on this one!

    I need an Uncle Merrill for my son!