Unconsciously my chin lowers slightly, followed by an imperceptible movement of downcast eyes in answer; “Oh, yeah – he’s just a trail horse.”
“Just a trail horse.” How many times have I been set back by that simple statement? The same statement heard time and again that sets my blood to boil. The same statement I am ashamed to admit has come from my own lips.
When I decided to start riding again, I of course needed to find a horse. Not just any horse, my horse. Not a horse that was picked out for me. Not a horse that I would fall in love with only to have sold out from underneath me. Not a horse that fit somebody else’s definition of a good horse. This would be my horse. I would know my horse when I saw it. I perused the farm section of newspapers, Craig’s List and bulletin boards at the local feed and seed for months. I put the word out to several known horse traders and cringed at the inevitable question; “what kind of horse are you looking for and what are you going to do with it?” Unable to answer, I dismissed any future searches involving face-to-face interaction. More unconventional methods were in order. I tried winning a horse in a raffle…that was not productive. I considered adopting a wild mustang; too many restrictions. I contemplated going all Wild West and capturing my own mustang. Did you know that horse stealing is still a hanging offence in Idaho?
About the time I was starting to feel as if I’d spend the rest of my life horseless, I came across an internet site called “DreamHorse.com .” Potential buyers search for horses based on specific criteria. Sellers post flamboyant narratives of their mighty steeds complete with profile pictures. It sounded a little like internet dating. How desperate does a horse have to be to find themselves on an internet site? How desperate must I be to create a buyer profile? Desperate enough.
I went through the motions of clicking on preferences narrowing down potential candidates. I didn’t particularly care what type, color, breed or sex – after all – I would know my perfect horse when I saw it, right? Wrong. I was lying to myself. I realized I had a preconceived image in my mind when I visualized my ideal horse. If I didn’t come clean I was destined to search millions of homeless equines looking for a “forever home.” I began to check the options based on the image in my head of my very own dream horse. Dave Stamey’s “She always wanted a buckskin horse” played over and over in my mind.
“Click her to submit your search.” Modern technology is amazing isn’t it? The search engine crunched through three pages of options in a matter of seconds. It seemed to know what I wanted before I did. Out of thousands of available equines, two pages of potential steeds splayed across my screen… and there he was. The one: my dream horse; a striped backed quarter horse buckskin colt. Old Dave couldn’t have sung it any better.
The first words out of the breeders mouth when I arrived to check out the horse was, “So, what are you planning to do with him?” I started to ramble, “Um…well, ma’am, I’m not positive just yet. I like to rope a little. I suppose it depends on what he has a propensity for. I know I won’t barrel race – maybe calf rope. I’ve been told I have a natural dip in my throw that suits breakaway calf roping. Maybe team roping. I started to learn to team rope years ago.” Good hell, what did it matter what I intended to do with him? Who cares? What if I planned to turn him out in the pasture and stare at him every day and never ride him? Would she refuse to sell him to me? Then it happened: I sheepishly lowered my voice, avoided eye contact and mumbled,” I don’t know…maybe just trail ride.” “Oh, I see,” she sighed. Was that disappointment in her voice? It sounded like disappointment. Was she displeased with the idea of one of her well bred performance horses going through life as “just a trail horse?” Never-the-less, cash talks and doesn’t give a damn what you plan on doing with the purchase.
Jack’s first hoof trimming experience went well. The farrier took his time and exhibited patience. We exchanged small talk as he worked on my colts’ feet. “Nice weather we are having. Nice looking buckskin. Sure is big for his age. Sure seems to have a good mind. What are you going to do with him?” There it was again. Anticipating the inevitable question, I had prepared a speech earlier that reeked of confidence, possibly due to the fact that it was comprised primarily of bull shit. I stood just a little straighter and presented my speech: “Well… I thought I’d get back into team roping – maybe try penning, sorting or cutting competitions. If none of those disciplines pan out, maybe he’d make a fine jumper!” Yep – I was on a roll. “I’ve thought about checking into shooting horse competition – you know. I love to shoot – I love to ride – seems like a natural combo.” As it turned out, the farrier happened to be in the top rankings in the Idaho shooting horse competition. Huh, what are the odds? Not only that, but he holds practices right there on his ranch! Hearing my feigned interest, he kindly invited me to a practice session. Busted! I had no intentions of wielding firearms and shooting off my horse at high speeds. Hell, I hadn’t even put a saddle on him yet. My head drops, shoulders droop, and I hear the words escape my lips in a whisper of defeat, “…maybe he’ll just be a trail horse.”
Over the last couple of years I have attended numerous equine based clinics and seminars. It’s always the same. The clinician rides in on a peanut pushing, immaculately groomed shimmering bundle of equine composition. He or she rides into the center of the arena and begins mind boggling demonstrations of expert horsemanship and athletic prowess. Horse and rider float across the arena in effortless leg yields and side passes. Haunches in…haunches out- shoulder in – shoulder out. Seconds later and the duo dashes across the arena at lightning speed, only to screech to a skidding halt mere inches from the arena edge. The audience is mesmerized. Then, get ready for it…the grand culmination of all that is “natural horsemanship.” The horse begins to spin on its rear-end like a 1200 pound tornado; faster and faster until the audience is both mesmerized and nauseous. Seriously, if my horse did that, I’d throw up. I will admit it is impressive to watch. However, I do not know where the natural horsemanship comes into this particular maneuver. The closest thing I’ve seen a horse come to such a feat in nature was when a dog ran underneath my Aunts Horse. Addie spun around so fast, the centripetal force sent my Aunt shooting into a large sage brush.
Once the finale is over, the clinician addresses the crowd. “Ladies and gentleman, you may wonder how you too can apply these horsemanship methods to your particular discipline. Mastering these maneuvers can be beneficial to cutting cows, barrel racing, and team roping, reining competitions and sorting. Why… they can be beneficial even if your horse is… just a trail horse.”
I am in no way belittling the skill and athleticism demonstrated by competition performance horses. I appreciate the discipline of a good calf horse that keeps perfect tension on the rope during a winning run and little compares to the tremendous lateral movement and stopping power of a champion cutting horse. I take nothing from these horses when I say that a comment like “just a trail horse” puts me instantly into defense mode. I’d put my “trail horse” up against any horse I’ve seen in the arena any day of the week.
Trail riding does not offer the luxury of a confined arena within a controlled environment. A trial horse is expected to perform under extreme weather conditions from the searing sun to rain, snow and wind to thunder and lightning. What the wind won’t throw at a horse to scare them to death, a thunderstorm will.
A trail horse is required to safely navigate miles of unforgiving terrain. Trail horses are asked to tread on sharp rock covered trails not much wider than a single hoof. There might be an insurmountable mountain on one side and a 60 foot vertical drop to a raging river on the other. The only thing keeping horse and rider from plummeting over the edge is a lot of trust and a little prayer.
At any given moment a trail horse might encounter Elk crashing out of the tree-line, bushes coming alive with an explosive flight of birds, uncontained barking dogs and pissed off rattle snakes. What they can’t see can be equally as terrifying for them. A trail horse must be able to handle the scent of bears, cougars and other predators while filtering out a host of unknown and equally spooky sounds lurking in the forest.
A trail horse never knows what might be coming at them or behind them from one turn to the next. Potential horse eating hikers with colorful backpacks piled high on their shoulders – bikers with reflective spokes flashing with every spin of the tire. Roaring ATV engines and racing dirt bikes. My personal favorite: llamas. You have not truly experienced the fear threshold of a horse unless you have happened upon a pack string of Llama’s coming at you. I don’t blame my horse because frankly, llama’s scare me too.
The trail horse doesn’t get to run down to the end of an arena, do a few impressive spins and go home for the day. A trail horse hits the trail from sunup to sundown and is expected to carry a rider and/or gear ranging from medical supplies and food to chain saws – all the while being asked to navigate obstacles from river crossings to bogs, logs and bridges.
The working trail horse has been asked to drag logs and pack cumbersome loads up and down steep, slippery terrain. He’s willing to be tied, hobbled or high-lined in the most precarious of situations. At the end of a long day of service, she will be content to drink from any available water source and graze upon sometimes scarce mountain grass.
Moments before dusk, the orange sun begins to sink into the western horizon. Silhouetted against the glowing sunset, horse and rider return to camp after a long, strenuous day on the trail. You can bet your silver spurs that as I return; I will reach down and pat my horses’ sleek neck. I thank him for carrying me safely home from a job well done. Not bad for “just a trail horse,” not bad at all.