Is it possible for a writer as passionate about the old west as I am to not love horses? The short answer is, no. While I am an overall outdoor enthusiast and respect and admire all sorts of animals, the “Equus ferus caballus” or horse, is probably my favorite. Although horses date back over a million years, I prefer to focus on the so called “domestic horse” we all know today. That said, let’s take a quick look at the general history of horses in the United States.
It appears the “American” horse was actually introduced to what would become the United States by the Spanish explorers, specifically a fella named Hernan Cortes in the year 1519. Initially, the smaller breeds were brought over, then eventually the larger, draft horses followed. From those relatively few ponies, along with additional animals coming from Mexican breeding farms, westward expansion of large wild herds eventually roamed the land from the mid to late 1800’s.
Unfortunately, what seems to be a common story with various wildlife in America, the large horse herds began to dwindle from an estimated twenty million in 1915 to a fraction of that number by 1959 when the Wild Horse Annie Act was passed to promote the humane treatment of wild horses on Federal lands. While the “act of congress” was a good first step, the subsequent 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act furthered the cause by establishing the National Adopt-a-Horse and Burro program. With these government acts and the numerous efforts of private charitable organizations, the horse population in the United States is currently estimated at over nine million with the greatest numbers found in Texas, California and Florida respectively.
So, enough with the facts and statistics. Let’s talk about the “fun” things about horses, like the feeling you get when you’re in the saddle at a full gallop, rocking to the rhythm of a four-hoof walk or just gazing at these marvelous animals grazing in a pasture. Sometimes just being in the presence of a horse is all I need to put a smile on my face. It’s no wonder both medical and psychological professionals recognize the soothing power of horses and thus use them in a variety of therapeutic ways.
When I began riding horses, my cowboy buddy informed me that horses respond to the emotional state I was in, such as happy, nervous or sad. I was also advised that horses do not hide their emotions. They will act in accordance with the sentiment I am feeling and or displaying. Now most of us have experienced this with family pets such as a dog, but a 1400 pound animal taking an emotional rollercoaster ride with me? Now that’s excitement!
Another tidbit gem of sagacious wisdom that was bestowed upon me was the reality that if you ride horses long enough, you will fall off. It’s almost a badge of honor to have fallen off your horse. Well, it didn’t take me very long to earn my “badge of honor!”
One fine sunny Texas afternoon I had the privilege of being seated in the saddle of a tall horse named Big Al, my favorite at the ranch. We had just finished working a barrel course and were returning to the corral at a full gallop when I realized we were a little too close to the trail’s edge where thick tree branches reach out like the dark scaly arms of a terrifying monster in a child’s nightmare. As we approached one such monster limb, I knew its ghastly appendage was about to make a most unwelcome contact with this cowboy. Too late to rein Big Al toward the middle of the trail, I braced for what I knew would be a painful adventure. Sometimes it’s not good to be right, and this was one of those times. The dark scaly arm hit me like a boxer’s punch which subsequently launched me off the friendly confines of my saddle into the narrow sun drenched Texas trail. Having eight to ten feet of space beneath me and the rock hard trail floor, I was provided with approximately three seconds of conscious anticipation before landing. I used these seconds to verbally chastise myself for making such an error as this misadventure could never be blamed upon my innocent equine partner. Crashing to earth with what I’m certain was an astounding thud, I managed to bounce and roll more distance than I cared to measure. Accumulating a mouthful of pine needles, dirt and other trail debris I didn’t care to identify along the way, I watched Big Al never lose stride and keep galloping onward around the bend. My final resting place turned out to be a prickly bed of pine needles that had seen fresher days. Flat on my back, staring up into the proud, albeit bottom branches of a statuesque southern pine and gasping for the return of breathe that had been driven from my lungs, I pondered my position amongst laughter that was no friend of my ribs at that moment.
After several reflective flashes, I rolled out of my pine needle bed and managed to get to my feet when the pain in my side alerted me to an injury beyond my hurt pride. Gathering up my favorite Stetson, I gingerly made the short walk to the coral where my horse wrangler flatly asked what happened. After an animated blow-by-blow description of the event, I advised that I was okay despite the growing pain along my ribcage. Satisfied, with my diagnosis, I was instructed to get back up on Big Al and ride him around the coral a few times because he felt bad about me being launched off his back. Not wanting Big Al to feel bad on my account, I jumped back into the saddle and let him know everything was alright. A couple of months later, after my two cracked ribs and bruised spleen healed, I was back in the saddle at a full gallop, rocking to the rhythm of a four-hoof dash down a sun drenched Texas trail on my favorite horse, Big Al.
I’ll end here with one of the observations I enjoy most about being with or around horses. They consistently appear calm and confident. There is something about a horse standing straight and tall that appeals to me. Maybe it’s the image I want to perpetually project, or at least be known for. Maybe it’s just we don’t see enough of that in today’s society. Nevertheless, if you’re in need of that elusive “something” to brighten your day, lift your spirits or just put a smile on your face, give horses a try. Chances are you won’t be disappointed.