Rid­ing Out­side the Cir­cle

Horse & Rider - - Contents -

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.

That’s it!

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 Process

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...

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