July 29, 2020
Author: Chilton Williamson
Neither Art Antilla nor I felt like getting drunk. We stood away from camp on the cliff edge above Devil’s Hole Canyon, drinking black coffee while the Commissary Commandos huddled around the campfire with their whiskey bottles and someone pitched a bowling ball over the talus slope to the creek bottom 800 feet below for some sheepherder to find and marvel at. The ball struck first 100 feet down, bounced, soared another 300 feet, struck a boulder, and flew on like a cannon shot, taking with it the top half of a small pine tree before lodging itself in the creek bed. The Commandos cheered lustily, and everyone had another drink. When I was able to make myself heard again, I went on with the story of how Saab Star had broken his picket line one evening at Elbow Lake in the Wind River Mountains a couple of summers before and made his way out through more than 20 miles of wilderness to the trailhead.
“You ought to try hobbling him next time,” Art said.
We watched while the gelding, lifting his feet, carefully untangled his legs from the picket line as he grazed in a clearing on the far side of camp.
“I’ve had that horse since he was 18 months old,” I said. “I broke him and finished him, and I know him well enough to be 90 percent certain how he’ll react in any situation. He isn’t like other horses. If I put hobbles on him he’d panic and throw himself, and I couldn’t get close enough to take them off without getting my head kicked in. I’d never get him on his feet again without Steve Walker’s backhoe to lift him up.”
Art was dubious. He said he’d never known a horse not to take to hobbles without a lot of trouble. Art remarked that he had a seven-year-old mare that had been saddle-broke, and then foaled before anyone got around to bridle-breaking her.
“She did real good under saddle,” he said. “We snubbed her to a post and got up on her, and during elk season that fall we ponied her while she carried one of my boys. I don’t have a whole lot of free time this summer,” he added. “If you could finish her for me, I’d be willing to make it more than worth your while.”
“State your price,” he urged me.
“You just want her bridle-broke? That shouldn’t be a tough job. I’ll do it for … let’s say a set of good leather hobbles.”
Art was surprised.
“That don’t sound right to me.”
“Why not? It’s easy work.”
“All right then, a set of hobbles.”
Art introduced us at Chester Buck’s ranch on the Hams Fork below Lake Viva Naughton Dam the week after the Commando trip. My pupil was a fleabitten Quarter Horse mare, not tall but stockily built. Her name, Art said, was Stormy. He brought the saddle and blanket from a horse trailer parked against the barn and together we snubbed her, placed the blanket and pulled it up on the withers, and set the saddle carefully on the blanket. I reached under her belly for the girth, put the end of the billet through the ring, and drew on it, taking care not to fix the strap too tightly. Then, standing by the mare’s head with my right arm under her chin, I took the bridle Art handed me, set the snaffle bit gently against her front teeth, and pulled back on the headstall. The mare took the bit easily, and I slipped the brow band in place and fastened the throatlatch.
“Good girl,” I told her.
I untied her from the post and led her onto the turnaround in front of the ranch house, well away from outbuildings, parked vehicles, and fences. While Art looked on from a distance I stood by her left shoulder and drew back, very lightly, on the reins. The mare looked bored. Holding the reins in my right hand, I set my left foot in the stirrup and stood in it, letting her feel my full weight before stepping down. I did this four times. On the fifth I swung my right leg across without touching the croup. I stepped down, then up again, and thrust my right boot firmly into the stirrup. When the mare didn’t respond I urged her forward with a light pressure from my heels. She stepped out instantly and went five or six paces before I let her feel the reins with a touch light as a butterfly’s.
The mare went up on her hind legs as I leaned into the mane, lost her balance, and went over backward on the turnaround. Art claimed afterward that I saved my life by kicking out of the saddle, but it’s more likely I simply fell from it. I landed on my back on the hard red clay with the wind knocked out of me and the mare alongside in the same position, as if we were a couple in bed together. She rolled to get her legs under her, scrambled up, and stood with the reins dragging while I lay staring at the violet sky and fighting to regain that hollow feeling in the chest that means you have air inside of it, not solid bone. When I could breathe again I got on my feet and retrieved my hat, lying in the dust a few yards away. On the one hand, I didn’t want to get up on that horse again. On the other, I knew I had to. When I did though, I made a big point with her about not pulling back on the reins. Instead, I mounted and dismounted several times before snubbing her again, removing the bridle, and pulling down the saddle and blanket.
“Round one goes to you,” I told the mare. “But tomorrow is another day.”
When I returned to the ranch next morning I had along my own, lighter, saddle and blanket; also two 20-foot lengths of smooth nylon rope and a driving whip. The mare was off grazing in the willows away from the fence with the other horses, pretending not to have noticed me. I approached her carrying a handful of sweet grain in a tin bucket and making a noise like an oat, slipped the halter over her nose, and brought her out of the pasture to the snubbing post.
“Today we go back and start from the ground up,” I told her.”You’re in kindergarten again.”
I saddled and bridled her, knotted the ends of the reins together, and dropped the loop over the saddle horn. I tied the ropes to the snaffle-bit rings and ran them back through the D-rings above the saddle skirts until I had better than ten feet of free rope to work with from behind her rump. Finally, I untied her from the post, gathered the rope ends in one hand, and took the whip in the other.
“Get-up now,” I told the mare.
After two days of ground driving–start, stop; left, right–I tied a 40- pound grain sack across the saddle and worked her another day with that. By week’s end she was docile and obedient, though less than enthusiastic, and I felt ready to try her again, stepping on and off several times before taking a deep seat and giving her my heels, very gently. She stepped out gingerly, and I allowed her to advance 25 or 30 paces before drawing rein. The mare stopped, and looked back at me with a long sour face.
“Tch,” I said, nudging her in the flanks, and we started forward again.
“How’s Stormy doing for you?” Art Antilla asked when I spoke with him that evening.
“Pretty good. I think she was giving me a wink this afternoon.”
“Better watch out then. She’s probably up to something. Women almost always are.”
“I’ll show her something to occupy her mind,” I promised him.
The second day following I arrived later than usual at the ranch. This time, besides the saddle and blanket, I had along a martingale and saddle bags containing a water bottle and a packet of jerkied elk meat. It was a fine afternoon in late summer, with a light breeze driving small white clouds in a high blue sky. I saddled up and added the martingale, running the reins through the rings at the split ends and securing the single one to the girth. Two blue tick dogs followed at the mare’s heels as we rode out from the ranch yard, then fell back as we approached the river.
The water ran high and fast at the ford, rising to the stirrups as the mare breasted the current. We came up dripping on the other side and followed the wagon trail above Fish Creek, climbing toward the western bluff. The mare stepped tentatively, but she kept moving and responded nicely to the signals I gave her. The gray face of the dam ran parallel half a mile to the north, beyond open pasture where six palomino horses grazed. They moved like studs, and because the mare was in estrus I looked for the fence separating the pasture from the wagon trail. It was out a few hundred yards, the gray weathered posts standing erect in a straight line across the field. The horses paid no attention to us as we rode by on our way up Fish Creek Canyon to the plateau above the bluff, where I dismounted to drink from the water bottle and eat a piece of the jerky while the mare cropped the grass between the sage bushes. Beyond the sweep of the green-gold plain, forested ridges converged on the upper reaches of the Hams Fork draining south to fill Lake Viva Naughton, its blue corrugated surface scratched by the white wakes of power boats. I remounted and rode on across the plateau toward Dempsey Basin for a couple of miles before reining the mare around and returning along Fish Creek to the Hams Fork valley.
The horses were grazing nearer the fence as we came up, and this time they noticed us. One of them raised his head to stare, followed by the other five, and suddenly they were all in motion across the pasture, their tails lifted and their heads flung back. I reined in and sat the mare, the two of us watching as they pounded toward the fence line which would bring them up short in another hundred yards. Then they were on the fence and through it, pouring in a golden mass between the unstrung posts as the mare, trembling with anticipation, flared her nostrils and screamed.
I dismounted fast and attempted to hold her from the ground as the stallions swirled around us, biting at one another and kicking out at the mare with their heels. I held on as long as I could before dropping the reins and retreating a safe distance as the dominant horse, having run the others off, tried to mount her, and she repulsed him with a double-barreled kick and sprayed him. Kicking and biting, they continued their foreplay for several minutes before the mare broke away and trotted off in the direction of the bluff pursued by her suitor who, though covered with sweat and bite marks, remained passionate.
Cursing, I followed through the sagebrush and caught up with the mare an hour later on the rise of ground anchoring the western end of the dam to the bluff. Both reins had been torn from the bridle, the saddle bags were ripped open, and the blanket and saddle were damp and stinking with musk. I tied the ends of the martingale over her neck, took up the rope hanging under the halter, and led her downhill, across the pasture and through the phantom fence to the wagon trail. Ahead, the river was chest deep and running too swift for a man on foot to ford. From the martingale and what remained of the lead rope, I jerry-rigged something like reins to give the mare the illusion of control. Then I remounted and rode along the trail to the ford, where I put her across at the deepest place to wash off the foul-smelling tack. Going on through the willows we were greeted by the blue ticks, waving their tails and grinning at us from the sides of their mouths.
From town I called Art Antilla, who’d just come off work at the power plant.
“I’ll take her out for a couple more spins around the block, and she’ll be finished,” I said.
“Is she going to make a good horse?”
“You can take that horse to war and she’ll never bat an eyelash,” I promised him.
We met at the ranch several days later and Stormy and l gave an exhibition, trotting and loping in circles, backing, and performing figure eights. When we finished, I dismounted on the right side. Art was impressed, but he did notice an unpleasant odor, which lingered. I told him about the encounter on Fish Creek, and he look chagrined.
“I ought to have warned you about those stallions,” he said.
Art reached through the open window of his truck and lifted a set of leather hobbles from the seat.
“I figure you’ve earned these, and more.”
I took the hobbles from him and examined them.
“Are those okay?” he inquired.
“Very nice. They look like work to me, though.”
“I can probably find you a backhoe if you need one,” Art Antilla said.
(This story first appeared in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.)