Tales of a Golden Heart, Chapter 4: Star the Horse

–When a dog comes, whistle. __B. Feldman

The second star to come into our lives at the ranch was less phenomenal than the blazing radiance hung in the heavens. Acquired in one of Dad’s frequent horse trading expeditions, the three year old gelding was tall and strong but nothing much to look at. The youngster’s head was too large for his body and too plain of line to be horse beautiful. Nevertheless, I chose him as an animal I would like to train. The first thing he needed was a name. Our namings at the TV Bar ranch were logical, not fanciful. We had a pinto named Dot for her spots and another named Baby for her beauty and loving personality. Ginger was a tall, deep red mare with a lot of snap. Naturally, the big black young gelding with the white patch on his forehead became Star.

Star’s training began in early March, a difficult yet inspiring time on western Montana ranches. Weather then is unpredictable, varying from late season blizzards to brief, balmy, snow melting times that create minor floods, slush, and the clear promise of spring. Into this time of change comes the calf crop, spraddle legged newborns equally at risk from soaking chill and periods of subzero nights that freeze the tips of ears and tails.

Ranchers prefer steady, cool weather or a spell of warmth long enough to dry out land and animal alike, but seldom are they consulted by Mother Nature. Herds of potbellied cows are helped by being brought into central locations for calving and monitored closely on a daily basis. Some small ranchers, including our hundred cow operation, move the entire pregnant herd into one large corral, sort of a bovine maternity ward with cowperson midwives.

There was evidence that all of us looked forward to this time of challenge, promise, risk, and interrupted sleep with enthusiasm whether or not that enthusiasm was openly acknowledged. Mom’s energy, though not normally high, somehow dipped into bountiful reserves at calving time. Frequently she retired to bed by ten p.m., rose in the middle of the night to make the pitch dark, half hour, flashlight guided corral tour known as Two O’Clock Cow Check, returned to bed, and was up in time to have the house warm and breakfast on the table by seven a.m.

Harriet, the baby of the family, developed an uncanny knack of knowing which cow would be next and when. Donna, the middle child, also had a sharper eye than my own, and Dad could pull more tricks out of his hat to deliver a calf in trouble than magician David Copperfield demonstrated in walking through the Great Wall of China. My own forte consisted of being able to move fast. Called from a sound sleep to assist in an emergency calf pull, I could be dressed and out the door in under two minutes flat, chill night air briskly slapping the body awake with every step.

Despite calving season, March remained the logical month for breaking horses. Though cold, temperatures rarely remained below zero Fahrenheit for weeks on end as they might in January. Just as important, basketball season was over. Later, in July, haying season would start a three month cycle of mowing, raking, and–after Dad did the baling–stacking the finished product that meant cow fodder at livable prices for another winter season. That left four months between March and July in which to green break and then polish a saddle horse, teaching him to trust and to understand a nominally competent rider.

Star loved me at once. During our get acquainted period, he only offered to buck once, and then only half heartedly. By early April, he had become the only horse on the place that would come willingly at my call, abandoning the relative freedom of the horse pasture without requiring our family’s “I’ve got grain for you” whistle, sort of a standard horse bribe.

The big black young fellow also learned rapidly, within days doing great stop-and-go’s and learning to neck rein fairly well. As Star’s responsiveness increased, the tall crescent of ridges cupping the ranch’s outbuildings beckoned more and more impatiently. Temptation soon overcame caution, and one Wednesday after school found horse and rider free of corral fencing and tiresome reining. We headed across Chokecherry Gully for The Test.

Our ridges presented challenge to a trail horse, especially a half trained one. Their circumnavigation required trust, hard work, sure feet, and attention to detail. Once east of Chokecherry Gully, we turned left near the fence bordering our neighbor’s property and began the first steep climb.

“Come on, Star, attaboy. No, not that trail, this one. You can do it. Easy now, stay on the trail. Good. Good.”

He snorted and blew, unsure of surrendering to his rider as so many of us in human form are unsure of surrendering to the Mahanta.

He wants me to go here? But that trail looks better. Why do I have to work so hard; this is such a steep climb. But I want to do things right–uh-oh, that part was muddy and slick; better watch my footing, too. There’s grain back at the barn, and it’s downhill. Why do we have to go up, up, up?

At the first and only resting spot before ridgetop, Star is allowed a two minute breather to catch his wind. He’s done well so far. Now comes the BIG test, plunging down sharply into the upper reaches of Chokecherry Gully, then slanting up and out the northwest side. Here there is no trail, only granite and shale and more granite. Scrabbling for footing, urged upward, he feels his rider’s heels tucked into his ribs.

“Up, boy! Go! Go! Go! Come on, up, up, up! You can do it!”

One misstep here means disaster, a slip and fall that could seriously injure, even kill horse and rider alike.

“Yo, big fellow–up! Up!”

Thumb sized rocks shake loose, rattle ominously downslope. The slightest consideration of failure means–no! My concentration narrows to a single thought–UP! Force of will fires through in a barrage of determination, a laser focused on the next few uncertain steps. There is no way back; it is up and forward or nothing. One last effort of will, one last lunge by the laboring horse, and the worst is over. Fear vanishes; from here on, one only needs to be careful, not concerned.

At ridgetop we move easily, with quiet joy and confidence. A multicolored sunset splashes across the mountains, turning our summit to gold and shadow. Joy is quietly absorbed into my being. This is what it’s all about. This is the young man who has chopped wood since he was four, who conquered his fear of horses at age nine. This is the teenager who rode his first real bucking horse at age twelve and later rode the same half-gentled animal through miles of timbered mountain lion country well after dark, leading two other equines through places he’d never been, one hand on the butt of a holstered .22 caliber revolver as passage is made through a narrow slot bounded by high rocks ideal for hiding a big hungry horseflesh-loving cat. Never mind that heeding his father’s instructions would have gotten him home during daylight hours; he conquered, successfully trailing through strange country at night and bringing in his little horse herd unscathed. I love that boy who is me, and today on this ridgetop I have with the help of gentle Star added to his accomplishments.

Happy as a kitten following a leaking cow, I broke into song. Big John Cash had a hit song titled Don’t Take Your Guns to Town and I had won a copy of the record in a radio station’s free drawing, being in those years a lucky young fellow. Don’t Take Your Guns illustrated the consequences of wild youth, of anger, and of failing to heed good warnings from one’s mother. A quiet, gentle tune, it had become the first I’d voluntarily memorized and a fine horse breaking tool. It soothed mount and singer alike, eased off on adrenalin rates, formed a voice bond between the two of us. Star pricked his ears forward, happy now, sharing his rider’s joy as we picked a trail down the western slope. Just before dark, we arrived back at the barn, confident in our newly cemented relationship born of upslope struggle.

June arrived, the last breather before July’s sweat and hay dust. Irrigation, fencing, and machinery maintenance required time, but calving season was over and the weather at its finest. June rains in western Montana are a byword but not an everyday occurrence in an area averaging less than fifteen inches of annual precipitation. One fine sunny day, Dad and I met in lower Garden Gulch to do some fencing. He drove the red Ford pickup loaded with tools for the job and entered the gulch from the highway, accessing the narrow dirt road by going through a series of gates belonging to our neighbor. I arrived from the other direction, exercising Star in a climb that dropped us over the ridge by Red Clay Springs on one slope of Garden Gulch’s upper reaches, then riding steadily down the gulch-bottom trail.

By the time Star and I met Dad and the pickup, we’d discovered an intruder. Another neighbor’s Angus bull had slipped through the fence between Garden Gulch and Mulkey Gulch and was firmly planted in a shady spot on our range, chewing his cud calmly and methodically as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Which most likely he hadn’t until we came along. His presence presented a problem, as bulls have one special springtime mission. Dad’s herd planning that year did not allow for black calves; he had to go.

A bull is a curious critter. Given a few companions of his own species, the big bovine will generally mosey along without too much fuss. Find him alone in a shady draw with a tummy full of fresh chomped spring grass–well, he’ll resist beyond all common sense. Dad and I formed a smooth livestock working team born of long practice, but the bull wasn’t impressed.

“Yo! Bull!” Dad called sharply, leaving most of the close work to his son who could dash and duck and dodge more easily on four legs than the older man could on two.

“Hya! On out of there!” I yelled, moving Star in close to the brush. “Hya! Hya!”

Mr. Bull turned to face us. Hya? What is this hya stuff? He turned away, spooked slightly, trotted a few steps, turned to look again. That’s sure not much vocabulary, boy. What language is that, anyway?

“Git! Git! On out of there!”

Now you’ve done it! Angered at being pestered from his sanctuary, the bull charged back into his favorite spot, forcing me to jerk Star to one side or get run over. This sort of thing always looks like fun in the movies.

Ten minutes later, all we had accomplished was to get four Souls thoroughly hot under the collars, or in Star’s case under the saddle blanket. Smack dab in the middle of his first real livestock-moving chore, facing a thoroughly irritated bull whose only saving grace was his lack of horns. Ridden in quick, tense moves by a rider gone silent except for intermittent shouts at the fire breathing he-cow…it was too much for the young horse. His nerves began to shatter, showing in the way he tossed his head, rolled his eyes, laid his ears back, fretted with his feet. Such symptoms lead to runaways, bucking fits, or horse heart attacks.

Dad spoke. “Talk to him, Fred.”

“Easy, Star. Steady, boy. It’s okay; you’re doing fine, just take it easy.” I love-talked him, watched and felt him settle under me, relax, catch his wind, cease his equine version of hyperventilation.

“He sure responds to your voice.” The approval evident in my father’s tone touched me. Appreciation for both the man on the ground and the horse with the Golden Heart swelled in me as Star took a much needed breather.

Years later I would realize the parallel we had just enacted: Dad as the Father, the Sugmad. Me as the Mahanta, Sugmad’s agent. Star as the chela of Eck trained and tested under fire. The black Angus bull as the mind which always resists change and prefers its own rutted calf paths.

Long after the bull gave up and moved to his allotted pasture, the picture came clear. As an Eck chela, I’ve frequently felt as Star felt in attempting to redirect the bull-mind: Tense, uncertain, afraid blind habit would get past me or just plain run over me. Knowing the certain guidance of the Master as Star knew the guidance of knee pressure, a quick jerk on the reins, or even a thought form, I’d still become fearful and uncertain the test would be passed. And just when all seemed ready to fall apart, the sudden slackening of pressure and the Mahanta’s voice in my ear telling me he loved me and all was well.

The inner melodies of Eck are the voice of God, yet so are the Master’s words. Years earlier, I had seen the Light in the form of a shimmering Christmas Star. Now, as a teenager in the mountains of Montana, a young cowboy mounted on a three year old gelding and battling a neighbor’s bull, I had heard the Sound. Unrecognized at the time, the voice of the Master had spoken.

That voice was my own.

4 thoughts on “Tales of a Golden Heart, Chapter 4: Star the Horse

  1. Beautiful story of growing up. Your father’s words reminded me of several times my father just spoke a few words and put me back on the right road.

  2. Dad was good that way when we were working together…except when he’d send me to find a tool or part or whatever from, say, the machine shop, and I couldn’t find it. Then it was more, “Knucklehead”, “Bonehead”, and/or “Do I have to draw you a blueprint?” Fortunately, I was smart enough NOT to point out that a blueprint would be really helpful at such times, and he did teach me well enough that I had no problem running the entire ranch the summer he broke his back and had to have it fused (when I was seventeen).

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