Riding 29 year old Sandy in 1997

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Memories of Bonnie

I had occasion to see my old riding buddy, Diane, at a birthday dinner yesterday.

She was the riding buddy of my youth -- I was about 21 when I met her, and we were riding buddies for about 8 years when we shared a back fence in a horse-allowed suburban neighborhood in west Phoenix from about 1976 to 1984.

We trained horses together, barrel raced together, trail rode together, battled a developer together, spent nearly all our spare time together.

While reminiscing about horses we'd owned, she reminded me of Bonnie -- the only animal I've ever been afraid of. I thought I'd share part of the "Suburban Horse Trainer" chapter from my book here:

I’ve never been afraid of any animal in my life. When I was three years old I stared down a bull -- a bull who was staring back at me across a distance of maybe twenty feet. We found this bull roaming loose somewhere on the Arizona desert near a spot my dad had chosen for an impromptu picnic on the way to California. No doubt his cows were nearby, but we did not see them, only the bull. This was not some tame Ferdinand on Grandpa's farm, but a herd animal whose only contact with man was branding time. I remember no fear, only a desire to pet it. I had no reason to be afraid of the bull; I had no way of knowing it could hurt me.

My mother, on the other hand, was screaming.

Growing up with a wildlife biologist for a father, we learned to love and respect but not fear animals at a very early age. We learned to identify and avoid the poisonous snakes and lizards and scorpions of the desert, but not to fear them. We learned that the larger animals, from coyotes to deer to bears, were "more afraid of you than you are of them".

Animals were my life, at least in my fantasies. But while my father's footsteps led into the forest where the Bambis and Thumpers of the world lived, my heart led me to follow the path of Roy Rogers and all my other cowboy heroes.

I wanted to be a cowboy.

And a cowboy couldn’t be afraid of a little old bull with big brown eyes. I knew this even at the age of three.

Twenty years later, my best friend Diane and I were the neighborhood horse experts, and we had some success breaking our various horses of their various bad habits, using those books and magazines as our guide. We had been lucky and never had any accidents of any importance. We thought we were pretty good "cowboys".

Until we met Bonnie.

Diane’s children had outgrown their pony so she advertised it in the paper. Someone who was interested in the pony had a young Appaloosa mare that was only green-broke, and they wondered if Diane would take the mare in trade for the pony. With the idea of finishing the mare's training and selling her at a profit, Diane agreed to the deal, never guessing what would be the outcome of that optimistic decision.

Bonnie was a pretty little mare, red bay with a nicely spotted blanket. She was basically sweet and easy to handle, but had not been ridden much and had not been handled properly up to that point. No problem. We would soon have her eating out of our saddlebags, so to speak.

As we began to work with the mare, we discovered she had one teensy little bad habit that manifested itself whenever she was scared. She would do a backward somersault. She didn't exactly rear up and fall over backward, but she would scramble backward so fast she would get her hind feet up under her belly and she'd sort of sit down and roll over backward. This was all accomplished at lightning speed.

This usually happened when we tied her up (she would throw herself backward and break the rope) or saddled her. But she never did it when Diane tried to mount or after she was in the saddle.

We worked with her for several weeks and she got a lot better. Our saddle club organized a trail ride in the desert one weekend, and Diane decided to bring Bonnie to see how she would be around other horses.

Actually, she was fine – perhaps the tiniest bit skittish, but it was all new to her, and Diane handled her patiently. Up till then, Diane had been the only one riding her, and my role had been largely that of advisor. (I had this authoritative way of leaning against the corral fence, one foot on the bottom rail, arms crossed on the top rail, saying "Pull her head up a little," and "She's on the wrong lead". You know – the really helpful stuff.)

As the day wound to an end, some of the riders wanted to ride over to the faucet at the other end of the picnic area to water the horses, so Diane grabbed a water bucket and started to climb on Bonnie's back. I was on the other side of the horse trailer and didn't see what happened, but I heard later from Diane that she had mounted awkwardly with the bucket on one arm, it rattled as she was in the middle of swinging up, and Bonnie just stepped sideways and Diane landed right on her tailbone in the dirt.

X-rays showed that Diane didn't break anything, but she did bend that tailbone and was unable to sit a horse for some time after that. So here we were with a green horse in the middle of training, and the last thing the horse remembers was stepping sideways and losing her rider.

Well, any good book will tell you that you can't let the horse have the last word like that, so somebody had to keep riding that mare or the combination of that mishap and a prolonged lack of exercise would make her even more skittish than before. We'd be back to square one.

Now, you have to remember, I had been a witness to this horse's progress and I knew she had those little quirks about flying over backward for no apparent reason. I also knew she wasn't a malicious horse, only nervous, and simply needed some gentle but firm handling so she could develop confidence in herself and her handlers.

One week after the mishap, I confidently groomed and saddled the mare with Diane looking on. There were two things going through my mind. One, I had no idea what this mare might or might not do (or maybe the problem was that I DID have an idea what she might do!) but I knew if I didn't get her training right back on course she might never be fully trained.

The second thing on my mind was my best friend, standing there (because she couldn't sit) a week after a fall, and knowing she hadn't been able to get back on after the fall, and that the longer she stayed off the horse, the greater the risk that she would develop a fear, if not of riding in general, then certainly of this mare.

But I wasn't afraid. I had never feared an animal in my life, going all the way back to the bull I had met at the age of three, and I certainly wasn't going to let this upstart of a mare be the first.

I led the mare into the front yard to mount her, and just as I put a foot in the stirrup, she blew up, throwing herself onto her back, legs flailing in the air, the saddle pinned beneath her. Luckily my foot slipped back out of the stirrup and I was able to jump out of her way. Heart pounding, I watched her struggle to get back up, and for the first time in my life, I knew what it felt like to have my "heart in my mouth."

I also knew for the first time what if felt like to be absolutely terrified of an animal. I really did feel like I was choking on my own heart as I gritted my teeth and scolded, "Bonnie! Get up from there, you idiot horse!" Of course, I had to laugh and smile around the lump of heart that was trying to climb out of my lips while I was saying that. In the two seconds the horse was on the ground, I knew that there was only one thing I could do if I ever wanted my friend to ride with me again.

I had to pretend this was no big deal. With a nonchalance I did not feel, I tugged the reins authoritatively and said, "Now, stand still, you silly horse. Nobody's going to hurt you!" To Diane I said, "That was my fault. I pulled on her mane when I went to climb on. I must have scared her."

"Easy, girl, it's okay." I stroked the mare's neck, which was already damp with perspiration, and tried to choke down the fear that was screaming at me, "You idiot! That horse could kill you! What are you trying to prove? Get away from this lunatic! She's not even your horse! You don't have to do this!" Fear is a very talkative companion.

I glanced at Diane, who was watching my every move, and I saw the flicker of fear in her eyes. I knew what I had to do. I swallowed hard, took the slack out of the reins, grasped the saddle horn, and swung quickly into the saddle.

Bonnie danced around a little when my weight hit the saddle, then she settled down. My heart returned to its proper place in my chest, and I crossed the road to the empty lot and began to work the horse.

It was years before I could admit to Diane that I had been terrified of that horse that day. She had bought my confident act and believed that if I wasn't afraid of Bonnie, she didn't need to be. She eventually rode Bonnie herself and finished her training before selling her several months later.

I look back on that time with mixed emotions now. I know if I had it to do over again, I would do exactly the same thing, but I can't help feeling the whole thing was very foolhardy. Diane’s two children watched the whole incident, and I wonder what they carried away from the episode.

Did they think I was brave or foolish? Or did they learn that sometimes you have to face fear and conquer it in order to live with yourself later?

Hopefully they learned that animals are usually "more afraid of you than you are of them" and that overcoming that very mutual fear is the first step to understanding them – and ourselves.

And maybe my mother had good reason to scream when I started to toddle toward that bull.

And that's the latest reminisce from the Ranch.

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