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How to handle a horse with attitude

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Author’s note: This is part one of a three-part column series about my recent elk hunt in Colorado.

Not until I took some lessons in riding and horse handling from Nichole Rackcliff at M & N Ranch in Dedham did I dare undertake a horse rental for my Colorado elk hunt. A patient horse lady, who taught me much in a short period of time, her horse knowledge proved invaluable during an incident that I will relate in a minute.

“What’s its name?” I asked the cowboy who adjusted my stirrups and tightened the cinch on my rent -a-horse before handing me the reins.

“Danged if I know,” the cowboy quipped. This was probably a dumb greenhorn question to put to a wrangler whose rental firm handles so many horses during the Colorado elk season. Mounting this horse, I noticed a piece of duct tape behind the saddle cantle with the number 734. “Hmm, I thought. “This horse is identified by its number. If I’m going to get to know this horse, though, it must have a name. I’ll call him Harold.”

The six-mile ride up Switchback Mountain went smoothly. Harold performed well, following the other horses and responding to all my cues.

That evening, right after supper, as we settled into camp and gave Harold his required three pounds of high protein grain and bucketful of alfalfa cubes, Greg, my hunting buddy, said, “Hey, Paul, you can’t call him Harold! He is a mare, not a gelding.”

Sure enough. A quick glance of Harold’s underside revealed that he, indeed, was a she. “You are right, Greg,” I confessed, feeling a little silly. “Let’s call her Harriet.”

For the next few days, Harriet earned her keep. With no complaints, she willingly hauled back to camp, in her saddle panniers, the forward and hind quarters of three different elk. Showing our appreciation for her yeoman’s work on the trail, Greg and I fed, watered and groomed Harriet morning and night.

On day three, my son, Scotty, decided to ride Harriet a ways up a creek bed to visit some fellow campers. He and Harriet were back at camp not long after they had left. Scotty wore a scowl. “What a worthless nag this is,” he said. “She refuses to cross the creek. I tried everything. She will not cross that creek for anyone!” He dismounted in obvious disgust, handing me the reins.

“Imagine that,” I said, “An airline pilot and you can’t even coax an old mare to cross the brook.”

“Give me a big flying machine anytime,” he said. “It will do what I tell it to, unlike Harriet here. I think you misnamed her. From now on, she will be called Hillary, at least by me.”

“Maybe if you had shown her some attention, like grooming and feeding, she would have done your bidding,” I said. “Horses are tightly wound, sensitive creatures, unlike a flying machine. They tune you in,” I offered.

Greg and I, for whatever reason – maybe to humor Scotty- started calling Harriet, Hillary. She didn’t seem to care one way or the other. On the last day of the hunt, I was elected to make the six- mile ride with Hillary down Switchback Mountain to meet up with the pickup wrangler from the horse rental firm.

Half way down the mountain a creek crosses the road. Approaching the creek, I could tell that the dirt covered ice approaching the creek was making this horse skittish. At the creek’s edge, Hillary put on the brakes. Despite my gentle and then firm urging, she was not about to cross. I dismounted and tried to lead haltered Hillary to step into the two inches of creek water. It was not to be. With a wild look in her eyes, she shook her head reared back and gave me that look that said, “You can yard on my halter all day long, you drugstore cowboy, but this horse ain’t goin’ one step further, period.”

I had a problem. The clock was running for the pick up rendezvous with the rental folks. My 170 pounds was no match for a thousand pounds of obstinate horse flesh.

The words of Nichole, the horse lady, came rushing back. “If things don’t go well, Paul, between you and the horse, take a break. Give you and the horse time to calm down.”

Backing Hillary up away from the dreaded creek, I gave her some time to munch on grass. I talked softly to her and to myself.

In a few minutes, with nothing to lose, I put on a nonchalant air and slowly led Hillary by the halter to the creek. Wouldn’t you know it? She walked right across as if nothing had happened! Go figure. The rest of the trip down the hill was uneventful, despite a number of other creek crossings. Hillary and I kept our appointment with the rental folks.

What happened up there on that creek crossing? Why did that horse have such a sudden and drastic change of heart after all that fear and struggling?

As the cowboy said when I asked about Hillary’s real name, “Danged if I know.”
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The author is editor of the “Northwoods Sporting Journal.” He is also a Maine guide and host of a weekly radio program — “Maine Outdoors” — heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on “The Voice of Maine News – Talk Network.” He has authored three books; online purchase information is available at www.maineoutdoorpublications.com.

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