The memories of my dad which I treasure the most are of days we spent riding together on the ranch where my folks raised me. He took me along with the cowboy crew from the time I was little, and I value each of those experiences. But it’s the days when I was an older teenager, when he was helping me to train my 4-H colts and when I was capable enough that he and I could do a job alone together, that I remember most fondly.
I knew from an early age that I wanted to train a colt to show at the 4-H fair. I specifically wanted a red roan colt because my older brother had a red roan. I was considered to be of “getting age” when I was 13 years old, in 1995. That summer when we visited family in Minnesota I fell in love with a downy-soft roan foal named Ranger, raised by my cousin Charlie and his wife Jill.
Perhaps against Dad’s better judgment (weren’t there plenty of horses to choose from in Montana?), he and I traveled to Bismarck that fall to meet my cousins halfway and pick up the weaned colt. We hopped him into our trailer in front of a gas station, and I paid a thousand dollars for that leggy little fuzzball. I borrowed part of the money from my parents and for the balance cashed in a CD I had inherited when my Grandpa Arvik passed away. I figured he would deem it a good investment. Twenty years later, I’d say that Ranger was, indeed, a worthy investment.
I was 15 years old the year I started Ranger under saddle, and 18 the year I started a palomino named Chives. (There were two colts in between that I wasn’t quite cowgirl enough ride, making my colt-starting success rate 50%. But hey, I never said I was a professional.) Starting a colt is not the sort of thing you do without a mentor. And Dad was mine.
Dad has never been long on verbal instructing. But he was long on miles. And that was how he taught both me and my colts: we logged miles. There wasn’t a lot of finesse involved. There was just a lot of me trying to stay on and my colt dodging sagebrush, greasewood, and cactus as we trotted across miles of prairie, trying to keep up with Dad’s horse.
The goal was to get these colts broke enough that I could show them in the ring at the county fair. As 2-year-olds they were expected to walk, trot, back, and lope in both leads. Each year that a colt returned to the fair, he was asked to perform increasingly difficult maneuvers.
Though I don’t specifically remember the first ride on either colt, I do remember riding both of them as 2-year-olds at a place called Ali’s Corner.
Years and years ago when the Milwaukee Railroad ran along Highway 12 between the now-ghost-towns of Vananda and Ingomar, Ali’s was a railroad siding, but today it’s nothing more than a county gravel pile on the edge of the highway. When I was a teenager it represented the remote northeast corner of the PV Ranch, and was a place we seldom went — that’s probably why it sticks out in my mind. The ranch has grown since then, though, and these days I drive by Ali’s Corner every time I head to town from the cow camp where my husband and I live. And I am always reminded of being there, on a colt, with my dad, years ago.
I remember being astride a young Ranger on a hot July day, just a couple weeks to go ’til fair time. The cows had been content at pasture for more than a month already, and the bulls had been turned out for breeding. My memories are foggy — at 15, I would imagine most of my thoughts were pretty foggy! — but I think Dad and I were trailing in a few relief bulls to liven up breeding season. We unloaded our two horses at Ali’s Corner from the back of the trailer, then the bulls from the front of the trailer, and we started trailing the bulls out toward cows in the distance. It was an easy job — the bulls wanted to go where we were taking them — but for a wide-eyed girl on a wide-eyed colt, it seemed huge. I was never fearless on my colts; my stomach would be wringing and my shoulders would be tense as I tried to navigate those little guys with every bit of control a hackamore would allow.
Ali’s is at the head of Starve-to-Death Creek, and the hardpan country there is cut with deep ravines as the stream begins its (intermittent) rush toward the Yellowstone River. I remember there were only a few muddy puddles in the creek that day, but there were plenty of deep cuts — almost cracks in the earth — to cross as we followed the cow trail. As many colts would be, Ranger wasn’t real keen on crossing water or cuts. So Dad, on his own horse, led Ranger, carrying me, across several of the wash-outs. Then it was time for me to do the hard work, showing both the colt and myself that I was in charge. A 15-year-old girl, I pleaded with Ranger and squeezed my knees and clucked and smooched and pounded on his sides with my heels until tears came out of my eyes. But he stubbornly refused to cross; he knew what I wanted but wouldn’t comply. Dad reminded me that I couldn’t give up; if I did, Ranger would grow accustomed to not having to do what I asked of him. I would have to get serious.
Getting serious meant spanking him, much to my horror. I’m not sure if I had a quirt or just the tail of my mecate that day, but the plan was for me to ask Ranger once again to move, and then follow up with a whap on the butt if he didn’t immediately obey. Oh how I dreaded spanking him, because I feared what he might do when he came unlocked: buck, or take a giant rearing leap, or wheel around while my hand was detained in the spanking and not holding on for dear life.
I’m not sure exactly what happened next. I don’t think it was pretty. It was certainly not a hallelujah-we’ve-fixed-it moment. But I must have gotten Ranger across at least a few cuts that day. I do know I was sure relieved to load him back in the trailer and have that day’s ride under my belt.
Dad may not be big on the spoken word, but many lessons from those days still ring in my ears.
Lessons I Learned With Dad:
*Sometimes you have to force yourself to do something you don’t want to do. Your stomach might be hurting with anticipation, your heart might be racing, but you just have to power through it and get ‘er done.
*A spanking is effective in reminding everybody of who’s in charge.
I remember being at Ali’s with Chives, the palomino, on another crystal clear summer day. We weren’t turning out bulls this time, just checking a reservoir for bogged-in cows. I was three years older now, 18, with three more years’ experience to my credit.
We trotted across the hardpan together — Dad taught me to ride at a trot as much as possible, to keep both my colt and myself from falling asleep (figuratively) — and climbed a high hill on the south side of the Starve-to-Death basin. Then, up on top of the Froze-to-Death Grazing District, we continued traveling to a muddy pool of water called the Bassett.
At that time there were wild horses on Froze-to-Death. They were actually feral; someone had lost track of a mare and stallion sometime in the ‘70s, and they were never gathered up in the 100-section pasture, and their progeny flourished. By 2005, when the horses were finally captured and sold, there were about 40 head — but that’s another blog for another day. They were of Arabian descent, mostly grays and roans.
That day in the year 2000 was hot and still and I can just barely remember how good it feels to have a slim, athletic 2-year-old colt underneath you. Dad and I rode within sight of Bassett and there was a reflection of sunlight on silver. There, on the opposite side of the reservoir, the wild horses were watering — and the sun was glinting off white manes and mottled backs. They watched us as we approached the north bank, some wearily and some with curiosity. My colt, Chives, looked on with tremendous curiosity, and Dad indicated that we should try to keep our saddle horses from whinnying. The concern was, of course, that the wild horses would either stampede and cause our horses to do the same in excitement, or that a stallion would approach us territorially. So we kept our eyes down, the heads of our horses centered, as we rode close enough to discern there were no cows bogged in the reservoir. And then we trotted away — me and my colt not without some amount of difficulty. But I wasn’t too distracted to look back at the wild ones. Their nostrils widened with interest, their hooves stomped flies on hollow-sounding ground, their tails swished and caught the light… and they watched us go.
Lessons I Learned With Dad:
*Nature is beautiful. But it can be dangerous, too. It should be approached with great care.
*Dad taught me to constantly remind my colt that I was on his back, reasserting that I was in charge by weaving a resolute path through sagebrush or by stopping and backing or by purposefully patting the horse’s butt (Dad taught me to never pet a horse absentmindedly, but to keep my pats short and aggressive and reward-based, with both human and horse very mindful of the petting). Dad also reminded me often to take better hold of my reins; I was pretty apt to get to day-dreaming and flopping around in the saddle with a barely-there grip on my greatest method of control. Dad taught that if you let what you’re riding fall asleep — if you let him get to thinking he might be one of the wild horses — he could suddenly wake up and think what in the heck is on my back and explode. And I’m not going to say that’s never happened to me!
Especially with my first colt, when I was 15, I wanted to be pretty dependent on Dad’s help. When we were riding, I found it easiest to just let my little colt follow Dad’s horse step for step. This couldn’t continue for a couple reasons:
1) Dad was usually on a green horse himself, and my colt tended to step on the heels of Dad’s horse, continually causing Dad’s horse to react.
2) Neither my colt nor I were learning anything as we simply followed along.
Finally Dad had to break me of the habit. Never, ever have I seen Dad lose self-control, and I’ve seen him in a lot of tight spots. But one time I do remember him speaking a little more harshly than usual: when he finally got it through to me that I was putting us both in danger by letting my horse follow his so closely. After that, he figured out a good way to solve it: we’d be on the way home from somewhere in the pickup and trailer, and he’d stop on a lonely dirt road and unload my horse. I’d get on, he’d get back in the pickup and point a couple miles ahead to where he’d be waiting for me… and then he’d drive away. I had no choice but to get myself and my colt to the meeting spot. I always did it, but not without singing “Jesus Loves Me” loudly and endlessly, thinking I was scaring up birds and praying all at the same time as we bounced over hill and dale. Soon, though, my colt and I both adjusted to riding our own circle, and we were able to be independent help when working with the crew.
Lessons I Learned With Dad:
*You can’t always depend on somebody helping you through something. Sometimes you just have to buck up and do it by yourself. Be brave. Be self-sufficient.
*You don’t have to be totally prepared, have all your ducks in a row and have it all thought through, in order to just go ahead and do something. In fact, it might be best if you don’t even have the chance to overthink things. Dad applies this approach in his own life and has influenced every person who’s ever worked for him in the same way. For instance, every year as summer neared its end and basketball season approached, all of a sudden one day he would decide it was time for me to start running and getting in shape. We’d be on the way home from riding somewhere and about a mile and a half out from the barn he’d stop the pickup and tell me to hop out and run the rest of the way home. I’d be wearing boots and spurs and jeans and everything… and he’d drive away in a cloud of dust, leaving me to jog the rest of the graveled way. (Maybe this is why I’m not much of a runner still today?)
Dad knew that I, a teenage girl, was no match physically for the young colts I was riding. They were lean and slick, full of green grass. I wasn’t going to be able to overpower them, so I would have to outsmart them instead. First of all, Dad taught that persistence and consistency were fundamental to riding colts. He backed up his words by providing opportunity for me to ride every day, though that opportunity often came at 5 a.m. I’m sure I rode Chives every single day for more than a month leading up to the fair — and that consistency paid off in the show ring. Dad said it was important not only to keep the colt ridden down to give myself an edge, but also that a short and positive ride would keep the horse’s mind (and my bottom) in the right place.
In contrast to his cavalier approach to accomplishing tasks, described above, Dad did also teach me to think ahead. He reminded me again and again that horses behave differently at different times of the day and different times of the year, and in changing weather, and depending on their feed, and depending on how recently they’ve been ridden. He taught me to be aware of these circumstances and to always set myself — and my horse — up for success. He wanted us to succeed together… but he was pretty sure it wouldn’t happen just by luck.
Lessons I Learned With Dad:
*Practice makes perfect.
*Wet saddle blankets make good horses. Still today I subscribe wholeheartedly to this maxim.
*Training is a mind game. Think ahead and put yourself in a position of advantage to outdo your opponent (or your colt).
I realize now, 15 years later, that those miles and those horses were incredible gifts Dad gave to me that most girls wouldn’t even dare to dream of. I had so much of what many daughters can never have: the colts, the big country, and most importantly a dad who spent time with me.
Dad’s not big on words, and you might say that words are my love language. I don’t think he would ever recognize that a love language is a real thing. But I suppose, if I had to guess, I would say that miles are his love language. You see, those miles converted to time with him. Time he invested in me. He didn’t have to take me with him as he did his daily ranch work — he could have gotten as much or more done without me — but he did take me. I see now that he was not only getting me and those colts ready for fair, but he was getting me ready for life too.
Those good years with my colts were unique for me and Dad. Things got tougher for us when I came home from college with a few too many opinions, then promised to spend the rest of my life riding beside a younger man (one who gave me a ring). My colts are old kid horses now, and my relationship with Dad has never quite found new footing. But what we did have I can always have… in my heart.
Because at a time in my life when my horses and I needed them most, Dad gave me what he knew how to give, and that was miles.
Thank you for the colts, Dad. And for the miles. And, most of all, for your time.
© Tami Blake