Riding Outside the Circle
LAST YEAR, AT our annual county fair, my family and I watched the beef show. As my children’s friends and acquaintances jockeyed their steers around the arena, my son declared he wanted show one next year. We’ve done several 4-H projects: horses, swine, leather craft, shooting sports, even dog. At 13 years old, it was natural for my son to want to move from showing hogs to steers. I showed steers at my county fair when I was his age.
But between the purchase price of a competitive animal, set-up cost to keep a show steer, time required to properly prepare the animal, and unpredictable return on investment, I wasn’t in favor of the idea. But I was noncommittal in the moment. I needed time to figure out a reasonable way to weasel out of this predicament.
Fearing I’d have to take the plunge, I talked to some good friends in the show-steer world, and my hesitations about the idea were confirmed. A lot had changed since I’d shown steers. When I found what I’d have to pay for a good prospect, I knew we were out. Our only chance to get our money back was to win grand champion—not likely our first year. Shoot, I could buy a well-bred, well-started young horse for the money I’d have to put up.
The Ah-Ha Moment
Rather than a steer, what about a colt? We could find a wellbred yearling and do the whole thing together: from halter breaking to the first ride. We could take our time, and there wouldn’t be any additional costs other than feed. I floated the idea to my son, and he went for it immediately. The next step was finding the right horse.
We looked at some sale catalogs, but none of the horses
seemed like the right fit. My brother manages the Spade Ranches (2010 AQHA Best Remuda award winner), so I called him to see if they had anything we could consider.
He came up with a perfect choice. The little stud colt, Spade Wesley, was out of the division manager’s favorite mare, but she’d gotten old and this colt was a runt. None of the cowboys would pick him as a future ranch mount, and truthfully, he was a bit of an ugly duckling. Figuring he’d be hard to sell anywhere else, he gave us a deal.
When my brother delivered the colt, this little rascal was wild. He’d never been touched—only run through a chute for vaccinations, deworming, and freeze brands. He had bug eyes; his ears almost touched at the tips; he was skinny (most likely wormy), cow-hocked, and ewe-necked. Marty Robbins could’ve written a song about this little bay colt. But to my son, the colt was the prettiest thing he’d ever seen. He named him Big Enough, after the hero of the Will James book of the same name.
The colt wasn’t mean or dumb, but he didn’t have any reason to trust a person. To halter him, we had to put him in our stripping chute. Then we left a long lead rope tied to it so we could catch him every day and try to get some pets on him. Luckily, the colt was a sucker for treats, so before long he allowed us to enter his space. In a couple of months, we had to shoo him away when we went in his pen during feeding time.
Together, my son and I took the colt through all the “firsts,” then I let my son do his best to continue the
lessons on his own. There were plenty of setbacks. As we worked our way from his head down his body, gaining mere inches each day, the colt would begin to feel trapped and bolt. I could stop him, but if my son was by himself, the colt was gone. Slowly, though, we worked through most of the issues the horse had on the ground.
I did my best to show my son how to handle whatever problem we faced— and those moments created a bond and learning opportunities for both of us. My son began learning the steps to starting a colt, and I learned my significant deficiencies as a teacher and lack of patience. The most special moments, though, came when my son grasped whatever lesson I clumsily tried to impart and then applied it himself with success. He’d beam, and I would too.
Before long, my son could catch, brush, saddle, and longe Big Enough all on his own. It was time to swing a leg over him. I saddled my horse, and in the round pen together we slowly worked the little bay colt around until my son was able to crawl on him. For 10 minutes, he rode him around— both of us feeling like top-hand cowboys. I thought the colt could handle the rest of the process without me and my horse in the pen, so I stepped outside to get some video and photos. Within seconds, Big Enough got lost and frustrated, bucked, and put my son in the dirt. Everyone felt bad. Of course, after calming all parties down, my son got back on.
The wreck was bound to happen. Since then, we’ve slowly rebuilt everybody’s confidence. The next time we step aboard, the existence of a rider won’t be so sudden for the colt—and my son will be better prepared to head off any bucking before it gets bad.
They’re both growing up, and it’s an incredibly bittersweet process for me to watch. I couldn’t be more proud of the courage, skill, and dedication my son shows. (And the colt has grown from the ugly duckling to a nice-moving, decent-looking—though still small—ranch prospect.) But, sadly, I can see my son growing up and slowly needing less of my help. Where he once imagined he and I together riding through the West, he now imagines he and his colt topping out to see what’s over that next hill.
I guess that’s the way it ought to be. I only hope I’ve prepared them both for the trials they’ll face.
Bob Welch has spent his career writing and thinking about horses, riders, and the West. When not sitting at his computer working through writer’s block, he and his family enjoy being horseback, working cattle, and competing in ranch horse shows and ranch rodeos.