There’s some sort of mystical bond between young girls and horses. It’s rare to see this in boys, but it often happens early in a girl’s life. They’re drawn to horses, even before they set their hand or hearts to one. On the outside, especially from the viewpoint of a male it looks like girls can go horse crazy.
And all of our girls grew up with them—some had more of a heart for it than others. Maddy is one of those deeply hearted ones, and with her steely and dedicated resolve, she decided to start one from scratch. It’s not for everyone; it takes a certain amount of steel to forge a close relationship with equus. Sure, there were sparks. But Maddy has that metal. And Flint, her gelding is one that melded with her. Here’s her story about him!
I was terrified, but at the same time, incredibly happy. I put my cowboy booted foot into the stirrup, and, gathering up the soft halter rope, boosted myself into the saddle. It creaked slightly, and Flint’s ears shifted back, but he didn’t move. He stood quietly as I slowly slid my leg over the cantle of the saddle for the first time.
I stroked his speckled roan neck, murmuring softly to him, and my mind flashed back to that day I had first seen him.
It was a brisk morning in late summer, with just the slightest tinge of autumn coming on. I pulled on my worn cowboy boots and grabbed a sweater too.
It had been weeks now since I had begged Dad to take me to look at those foals that I had seen in our neighbor’s field. Leggy little critters, just born this spring, still tagging on mama, but old enough to be weaned. Finally, I had gotten a dubious ‘maybe’ out of him. ‘Maybe’ in parent terms, meant ‘maybe as in possibly, but most likely no.’ But we finally nailed a date down on the calendar, and Dad made the phone call to set up a time with Parker. I was ecstatic.
And today was the day. Of course, Dad still had things to do. He was always busy, but somehow, even when his agenda was piled with work, he never failed to make time for us kids. Melanie would come too. Everyone on the ranch respected her for her talent and natural ability in horsemanship. She had a good eye for the nice ones too.
Annie, less than 2 years older than me, tagged along too. Annie and I hopped into the cramped back seat. Even at thirteen, I was tall, and leggy too, and I had to sort of fold myself up to fit. But I didn’t mind the tightness of the backseat: nothing could squash my excitement.
We exited the ranch by the bailing-twine-hung panel gate and turned onto the potholed pavement. Driving down Dowton lane, Dad slowed down a bit and glanced past Melanie to give the cattle his usual once over, just to make sure there was no one lying down, or off by themselves. Then he sped up again, seeing that everything was all right and all the critters were fine.
We drove for another mile, turned at one of the only stop signs in the Pahsimeroi Valley and headed down the straightaway. Willow trees flashed past the foggy back windows. After another couple of curves and slowing down for some pheasants to cross the road, we turned into our neighbor’s place. Border collies exploded from the house, jumping around the truck and barking.
Dad found a convenient place to park in the matrix of tractors and trucks, and climbed out, ruffling the fur of the dogs that jumped up on him. After a moment, they realized he wasn’t a threat and wandered off to mark their territory on our truck’s tires, smelling our pack of dogs that marked territory on the same sidewall earlier this morning.
Parker Hatch came out of the house a minute later. He’d been expecting us. Dad had given him another call that morning to confirm.
“Hey, Glenn, how are you?” he asked, pulling his hands from his coat pockets on the cool morning and reaching out to shake my dad’s.
“I’m good, how’re you doin’?” They talked for a moment about a new truck Dad saw parked by the house. It wouldn’t look new for very long; they never do in ranching.
I was nearly bouncing up and down in frustration. All the days waiting, only to wait some more!
But then Dad was turning to me. “This is Maddy. She’s my youngest. Couple of weeks ago, driving home from church, she saw some of your colts in your field. She’s been talking about them for weeks; I think she wants one.” He laughed, and Parker laughed with him.
I shook hands with Parker, smiling slightly. “Good to meet you,” I said.
He nodded in that sort of quiet way of his, then turned to the corrals. In the jumble of the log fence, I could spot some horses.
“We can just head over there and have a look at these.” He looked over his shoulder as we headed towards the corrals and added, “There’s a couple still out in the fields, but we can look at these first.”
We slipped through a panel gate and Melanie shut it behind us. The corrals were big. There was a trough positioned under a fence so both sides could drink, and a big metal hay feeder in the middle. I couldn’t stop the smile on my face.
There were about three pairs in here, and a couple of yearling horses. The first pair was a big black mare, with maybe just a touch of blue roan in her coat, and the filly next to her was black too. The second one was a brown mare that must’ve been at least seventeen hands (about 68 in at the withers) with a blazed buckskin filly at her side. The last one was another brown pair, though not as large as the other one.
I liked them all. Of course. Picking one was going to be impossible.
Parker began to describe each horse, pointing out details that I don’t remember. Finally, he got to the black pair.
“I was halter-breaking that filly and she got tangled up in the rope. A little rub on her front leg, but she hasn’t limped since. Can’t see much sign of it either. I also sold a half-sister of hers to another guy and he said she was a bucker. So, if you get this filly, she could be a bit jumpy.”
“Probably not for Maddy then,” Melanie laughed, then added, with a look at me “Unless that’s what you want.”
“No.” Definitely not. The idea of riding a horse that might buck scared me.
“There’s more out in the field if you guys want to come take a look,” Parker suggested. Even more to choose from.
After another minute of looking at the pairs, we followed Parker back out of the corrals. He hopped on his four-wheeler, and we climbed back into the truck.
He led us out of the barnyard and drove on a dusty field road for a half mile or so and opened another gate and we drove through that too. We crossed another field, and finally parked the truck in the shade of some cottonwood trees that grew along a creek. Parker brought them down to us on his ATV; foals bucked and frolicked alongside their mamas as the whole bunch trotted down to the watering hole. We assembled around the bunch, surrounding them to keep any from bolting. After a little while, they settled down by the water and watched us curiously.
A couple of the foals were still too young to wean. One, with a ragged blaze covering most of its face looked only two or three months old.
A small bay roan colt caught my eye. He looked at me from behind his mama with soft, intelligent eyes. His coat only bore traces of roan color, but I could tell he would be one when he grew up a little. There was a splotch of white on his face too, right above his eyes, but exactly in the middle of his forehead. The longer I looked at the little guy, the more I liked him.
I could hear Parker began to describe the foals, their mothers’ temperaments, so and so, but I wasn’t really listening. I already knew exactly which one I wanted.
“What do you think of that one, Maddy?” Melanie asked, pointing towards the white-faced one. “She’s a flashy little girl, isn’t she?”
“She’s okay,” I replied, tearing my eyes away from the bay roan to look at the white-faced sorrel. She was small but would probably be stocky like most quarter horses are. Every person who doesn’t know bloodlines or confirmation very well wants a flashy, colorful horse like a roan or a grey; something pretty.
I liked the little bay roan because he would be pretty, but it wasn’t just that. Personally, I didn’t care what the horse looked like. It would be beautiful no matter what color it was, so long as it was built good. I wasn’t so stubborn that I didn’t a spare quick glance at the rest of them and they were all pretty, and all nice looking, but by then, I already had my heart set on the bay roan.
I pointed, and he turned his head to glance at me from behind mama. “I like him.”
Everyone else had noticed him too, but they weren’t as single-minded as I was. “Yeah, he looks nice,” Melanie said, and I knew she meant it, but she was looking at more than just color.
“That one’s papered,” Parker said. “I might have to ask a little more for him.”
“How much would you be thinking?” Dad asked.
“$600, maybe,” Parker replied. A perfectly fair deal. In fact, more than fair. Parker’s horses had pretty good bloodlines, and even if they had never been touched, every young horse we’ve bought from him has turned out great.
Dad nodded and turned to me, eyebrows raised. I was still circling the little roan, trying to look as if I was still deciding.
$600. I had enough.
We left the field again and headed back to the corrals, where Melanie and Dad agreed to take the blue roan filly in the first pen and split her $400 price, to each have a share. If she turned out to be difficult and lived up to what Parker had told us, Melanie would buy out Dad’s share and the filly would be Melanie’s. If she turned out calmer, and didn’t have much buck in her, Dad would buy out Melanie and turn the filly into another horse to add to our range string.
We left Parker’s place in high spirits, but it was another month or so before we went to pick up the colts, as they weren’t ready to be weaned. During those months, Melanie and I had worked our butts off making a small pen for them under the shelter of the lean to, away from the other horses and out of the wind. Strangles had recently gone around all our horses on the ranch too, and, though this disease is not lethal or dangerous to most horses, it can kill colts and make old horses really sick.
Even though our school had started by then, I managed to make time to spend with the colts every day. I made friends with them by offering bits of grain, and gradually, they learned to trust me.
It took a few weeks to name them, but Melanie and I finally decided on Flint for mine, and Spark for the filly.
When winter came howling down the valley, I fed them hay every day, and during those cold months, they finally decided I wasn’t a threat. It was Spark who, for whatever reason, let me touch her first. Flint was a bit more grudging, but he came around too.
When we first started halter- breaking them, I was too timid to get anywhere, but Melanie never puts up with a half-ass job, and she got after me until I was encouraged enough to get after Flint. He progressed rapidly whenever I worked on him, but it took a lot of time working him from the ground before I was confident enough to think about riding him.
Flint was turning 3 in the spring of 2021 came. Spring is busy: getting ready for our summer range riders, receiving new calves from partner ranches, getting tack together, and putting rides on the lease horses we rented. Every evening though, with about an hour of dusky light left, Melanie and I, and sometimes Linnaea, would work on horses.
And on one very chaotic and busy day-the day our new tack room came on the truck, and a bunch of new cattle came in, and we’d spent half the day riding other horses- at the end of that long and tiring day, I got on Flint for the first time.
He’d been saddled a couple of times before, but for the first time I put my foot in the stirrup and swung up. I didn’t get all the way on yet, just hung on the saddle, feeling awkward and unstable, but if I was only halfway on, it’d be easy to bail if he started jumping around.
“Now get his hindquarters moving,” Melanie said, from her place by the fence. She was holding Spark’s lead, and the filly stood quiet behind her.
I gathered up the halter and waited for him to move. He didn’t though, clearly uncomfortable, and uncertain about this situation. I didn’t blame him.
“Make a little noise,” Melanie said, and I began clicking my tongue. Flint took a hesitant step to the left.
“There you go! Pet him,” Melanie instructed, and I eagerly rubbed his neck.
I got his hindquarters around again, then stepped down, petting on his neck once more. I stepped around his head, pausing to scratch the star on his nose and got up on the other side. A few more times of going back and forth and getting him moving and I was swinging my leg over and placing both feet firmly in the stirrups, my halter lead tied in a loop to give me the slightest bit of control.
“Get your heels down, and just be ready to sit deep if he does anything.” Melanie had already unsaddled Spark and put the filly away. She held Spark’s halter in her hand, ready to use it to get Flint moving around the small square corral.
“You ready?” she asked. I nodded, my pulse thundering in my throat. To the faint growl of the truck unloading the tack room, Melanie clicked her tongue. Flint tossed his head as he moved out and Melanie urged him up into a trot. I have no shame in saying I kept one hand firmly on the saddle horn as he trotted slowly around the corral.
“Do you want to try a canter?” Melanie asked. I nodded. If Melanie thought it was fine, I did too. That sort of became my mantra every time Melanie pushed me out of my comfort zone. If she hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.
Flint grudgingly switched into a lope, and my hands seized on the halter rope.
“Don’t pull him back!” Melanie scolded. “Don’t touch those reins unless you need to pull him around.”
“Okay,” I said, though it took all my control not to do it again. When Flint loped smooth around the corral, Melanie finally stopped.
“You want to call it a night? I’d say that was pretty good.” She hung the halter on the fence and stood with her arms folded.
“Yeah sure,” I agreed, slowly getting off, still breathless. I started unhooking the breast collar and undoing the back cinch.
My heart was still going hard when I led Flint back into the main corral and turned him out. I watched him walk away, then followed Melanie out of the corral.
Linnaea and I went feeding after that in the growing darkness. Unfortunately, I high centered the flatbed trailer on a swell, and Dad had to get the backhoe out to lift it free. But even that didn’t pop my elation.
Training a horse takes place in long days and then milestones. First haltering. First saddling. First ride. First time out of the safety of the corral.
When I took him out of the ranch for the first time, along with Melanie on Spark, and Linnaea on our trustiest gelding, George, Flint tried to buck me off. I pulled his head around and sat deep, like Melanie had told me. Oddly enough, while he was bucking, I was at my calmest, but for nearly a half hour after that, my mouth was dry, and my heart rate refused to slow down.
On our second ride out of the ranch, up Lawson Creek, it was just Melanie and I, on the two colts. Nearly the whole ride, Flint was edgy, mostly because he was missing his buddies. It was when we were just a third of a mile from the ranch he finally flipped out. He broke into a run first, jumped a big sagebrush, which halfway unseated me, then broke into a couple of hard and fast jumps. I went over the saddle horn, banging my thigh on it and earning a nice bruise there. I tried to catch the reins, but they slipped through my fingers. I had landed for the most part on a sagebrush, so was unhurt besides the bruise I knew was growing on my thigh. Flint had nearly stepped on me; I had seen his hooves only inches away before he had galloped off in the direction of the ranch. I was lucky to be so unscathed.
“What happened? Are you okay?” Melanie walked Spark up and slid off the filly. With Flint disappearing in a cloud of dust towards the ranch, she knew that it would be easier to hold Spark from the ground.
“He jumped a sagebrush and started bucking. I’m okay though,” I said, hauling myself to my feet. I brushed off my jeans and green hoodie and turned to face Melanie. I wasn’t that mad at Flint, he had just gotten scared, and I really didn’t blame him.
We started walking back towards the ranch, picking our way through the tall sage. We saw Flint tear into the stack yard to be gathered up by Linnaea and Annie, who were getting ready to feed. I resolutely kept walking.
They met us at the gate, and I could see the concern in their eyes. “You okay, Maddog?” Linnaea asked, handing Flint’s reins back to be. His head was up, but he didn’t seem like he was going to bolt again.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I told them, leading Flint out of the gate once more.
I got back on, because everyone knows the saying ‘if a horse bucks you off you get right back on’. I was certainly a little bit leery about it, but we only rode the horses up to the mailbox and back, and by then Flint was much more settled.
We rode to the hitching rail and unsaddled. Flint’s back was lathered from his frenzied run back to the ranch and I regretfully found myself thinking, serves you right.
And then the last milestone: riding out on the range moving cattle. I remember my first day riding him up there. It was exhausting, because I was always waiting, waiting for him to do something, and always trying to be ready for it. Sometimes my crew needed me too, and I couldn’t be there because I was trying to deal with Flint. After a short time, I realized he also wasn’t afraid of anything: climbing over fallen logs, crossing creeks, scrambling up rocky shale, and fighting through six-foot sagebrush was all a breeze.
It’s September now and it’s been nearly a month since the cows have come down from the range, but just this Monday I used Flint for sorting. He doesn’t have any cutting skills yet, but he’s sort of cowy, and he’s soft off my hands.
He gets better every ride and sometimes I think he might even like me. It’s been a long time since he did anything dumb, but every time I’m on him, I think back to our first rides and realize how far he’s come.
But I’ll never forget the moment beneath the dappled shade of the cottonwood trees, with the creek bubbling in the background, when I first saw the little guy. Soft eye, diamond shaped star on his forehead, and his fuzzy coat that was just starting to show signs of roan. So, I pray that he’ll be my partner for many years to come, because I think I choose a good one.