The Mountains by Stewart Edward White
III. On Horses
I really believe that you will find more variation of individual and interesting character in a given number of Western horses than in an equal number of the average men one meets on the street. Their whole education, from the time they run loose on the range until the time when, branded, corralled, broken, and saddled, they pick their way under guidance over a bad piece of trail, tends to develop their self-reliance. They learn to think for themselves.
To begin with two misconceptions, merely by way of clearing the ground: the Western horse is generally designated as a "bronco." The term is considered synonymous of horse or pony. This is not so. A horse is "bronco" when he is ugly or mean or vicious or unbroken. So is a cow "bronco" in the same condition, or a mule, or a burro. Again, from certain Western illustrators and from a few samples, our notion of the cow-pony has become that of a lean, rangy, wiry, thin-necked, scrawny beast. Such may be found. But the average good cow-pony is apt to be an exceedingly handsome animal, clean-built, graceful. This is natural, when you stop to think of it, for he is descended direct from Moorish and Arabian stock.
Certain characteristics he possesses beyond the capabilities of the ordinary horse. The most marvelous to me of these is his sure-footedness. Let me give you a few examples.
I once was engaged with a crew of cowboys in rounding up mustangs in southern Arizona. We would ride slowly in through the hills until we caught sight of the herds. Then it was a case of running them down and heading them off, of turning the herd, milling it, of rushing it while confused across country and into the big corrals. The surface of the ground was composed of angular volcanic rocks about the size of your two fists, between which the bunch-grass sprouted. An Eastern rider would ride his horse very gingerly and at a walk, and then thank his lucky stars if he escaped stumbles. The cowboys turned their mounts through at a dead run. It was beautiful to see the ponies go, lifting their feet well up and over, planting them surely and firmly, and nevertheless making speed and attending to the game. Once, when we had pushed the herd up the slope of a butte, it made a break to get through a little hog- back. The only way to head it was down a series of rough boulder ledges laid over a great sheet of volcanic rock. The man at the hog-back put his little gray over the ledges and boulders, down the sheet of rock,--hop, slip, slide,--and along the side hill in time to head off the first of the mustangs. During the ten days of riding I saw no horse fall. The animal I rode, Button by name, never even stumbled.
In the Black Hills years ago I happened to be one of the inmates of a small mining-camp. Each night the work-animals, after being fed, were turned loose in the mountains. As I possessed the only cow-pony in the outfit, he was fed in the corral, and kept up for the purpose of rounding up the others. Every morning one of us used to ride him out after the herd. Often it was necessary to run him at full speed along the mountain-side, over rocks, boulders, and ledges, across ravines and gullies. Never but once in three months did he fall.
On the trail, too, they will perform feats little short of marvelous. Mere steepness does not bother them at all. They sit back almost on their haunches, bunch their feet together, and slide. I have seen them go down a hundred feet this way. In rough country they place their feet accurately and quickly, gauge exactly the proper balance. I have led my saddle- horse, Bullet, over country where, undoubtedly to his intense disgust, I myself have fallen a dozen times in the course of a morning. Bullet had no such troubles. Any of the mountain horses will hop cheerfully up or down ledges anywhere. They will even walk a log fifteen or twenty feet above a stream. I have seen the same trick performed in Barnum's circus as a wonderful feat, accompanied by brass bands and breathlessness. We accomplished it on our trip with out any brass bands; I cannot answer for the breathlessness. As for steadiness of nerve, they will walk serenely on the edge of precipices a man would hate to look over, and given a palm's breadth for the soles of their feet, they will get through. Over such a place I should a lot rather trust Bullet than myself.
In an emergency the Western horse is not apt to lose his head. When a pack-horse falls down, he lies still without struggle until eased of his pack and told to get up. If he slips off an edge, he tries to double his fore legs under him and slide. Should he find himself in a tight place, he waits patiently for you to help him, and then proceeds gingerly. A friend of mine rode a horse named Blue. One day, the trail being slippery with rain, he slid and fell. My friend managed a successful jump, but Blue tumbled about thirty feet to the bed of the canon. Fortunately he was not injured. After some difficulty my friend managed to force his way through the chaparral to where Blue stood. Then it was fine to see them. My friend would go ahead a few feet, picking a route. When he had made his decision, he called Blue. Blue came that far, and no farther. Several times the little horse balanced painfully and unsteadily like a goat, all four feet on a boulder, waiting for his signal to advance. In this manner they regained the trail, and proceeded as though nothing had happened. Instances could be multiplied indefinitely.
A good animal adapts himself quickly. He is capable of learning by experience. In a country entirely new to him he soon discovers the best method of getting about, where the feed grows, where he can find water. He is accustomed to foraging for himself. You do not need to show him his pasturage. If there is anything to eat anywhere in the district he will find it. Little tufts of bunch-grass growing concealed under the edges of the brush, he will search out. If he cannot get grass, he knows how to rustle for the browse of small bushes. Bullet would devour sage- brush, when he could get nothing else; and I have even known him philosophically to fill up on dry pine-needles. There is no nutrition in dry pine- needles, but Bullet got a satisfyingly full belly. On the trail a well-seasoned horse will be always on the forage, snatching here a mouthful, yonder a single spear of grass, and all without breaking the regularity of his gait, or delaying the pack-train behind him. At the end of the day's travel he is that much to the good.
By long observation thus you will construct your ideal of the mountain horse, and in your selection of your animals for an expedition you will search always for that ideal. It is only too apt to be modified by personal idiosyncrasies, and proverbially an ideal is difficult of attainment; but you will, with care, come closer to its realization than one accustomed only to the conventionality of an artificially reared horse would believe possible.
The ideal mountain horse, when you come to pick him out, is of medium size. He should be not smaller than fourteen hands nor larger than fifteen. He is strongly but not clumsily built, short-coupled, with none of the snipy speedy range of the valley animal. You will select preferably one of wide full forehead, indicating intelligence, low in the withers, so the saddle will not be apt to gall him. His sureness of foot should be beyond question, and of course he must be an expert at foraging. A horse that knows but one or two kinds of feed, and that starves unless he can find just those kinds, is an abomination. He must not jump when you throw all kinds of rattling and terrifying tarpaulins across him, and he must not mind if the pack-ropes fall about his heels. In the day's march he must follow like a dog without the necessity of a lead-rope, nor must he stray far when turned loose at night.
Fortunately, when removed from the reassuring environment of civilization, horses are gregarious. They hate to be separated from the bunch to which they are accustomed. Occasionally one of us would stop on the trail, for some reason or another, thus dropping behind the pack-train. Instantly the saddle- horse so detained would begin to grow uneasy. Bullet used by all means in his power to try to induce me to proceed. He would nibble me with his lips, paw the ground, dance in a circle, and finally sidle up to me in the position of being mounted, than which he could think of no stronger hint. Then when I had finally remounted, it was hard to hold him in. He would whinny frantically, scramble with enthusiasm up trails steep enough to draw a protest at ordinary times, and rejoin his companions with every symptom of gratification and delight. This gregariousness and alarm at being left alone in a strange country tends to hold them together at night. You are reasonably certain that in the morning, having found one, you will come upon the rest not far away.
The personnel of our own outfit we found most interesting. Although collected from divergent localities they soon became acquainted. In a crowded corral they were always compact in their organization, sticking close together, and resisting as a solid phalanx encroachments on their feed by other and stranger horses. Their internal organization was very amusing. A certain segregation soon took place. Some became leaders; others by common consent were relegated to the position of subordinates.
The order of precedence on the trail was rigidly preserved by the pack-horses. An attempt by Buckshot to pass Dinkey, for example, the latter always met with a bite or a kick by way of hint. If the gelding still persisted, and tried to pass by a long detour, the mare would rush out at him angrily, her ears back, her eyes flashing, her neck extended. And since Buckshot was by no means inclined always to give in meekly, we had opportunities for plenty of amusement. The two were always skirmishing. When by a strategic short cut across the angle of a trail Buckshot succeeded in stealing a march on Dinkey, while she was nipping a mouthful, his triumph was beautiful to see. He never held the place for long, however. Dinkey's was the leadership by force of ambition and energetic character, and at the head of the pack-train she normally marched.
Yet there were hours when utter indifference seemed to fall on the militant spirits. They trailed peacefully and amiably in the rear while Lily or Jenny marched with pride in the coveted advance. But the place was theirs only by sufferance. A bite or a kick sent them back to their own positions when the true leaders grew tired of their vacation.
However rigid this order of precedence, the saddle- animals were acknowledged as privileged;--and knew it. They could go where they pleased. Furthermore theirs was the duty of correcting infractions of the trail discipline, such as grazing on the march, or attempting unauthorized short cuts. They appreciated this duty. Bullet always became vastly indignant if one of the pack-horses misbehaved. He would run at the offender angrily, hustle him to his place with savage nips of his teeth, and drop back to his own position with a comical air of virtue. Once in a great while it would happen that on my spurring up from the rear of the column I would be mistaken for one of the pack-horses attempting illegally to get ahead. Immediately Dinkey or Buckshot would snake his head out crossly to turn me to the rear. It was really ridiculous to see the expression of apology with which they would take it all back, and the ostentatious, nose-elevated indifference in Bullet's very gait as he marched haughtily by. So rigid did all the animals hold this convention that actually in the San Joaquin Valley Dinkey once attempted to head off a Southern Pacific train. She ran at full speed diagonally toward it, her eyes striking fire, her ears back, her teeth snapping in rage because the locomotive would not keep its place behind her ladyship.
Let me make you acquainted with our outfit.
I rode, as you have gathered, an Arizona pony named Bullet. He was a handsome fellow with a chestnut brown coat, long mane and tail, and a beautiful pair of brown eyes. Wes always called him "Baby." He was in fact the youngster of the party, with all the engaging qualities of youth. I never saw a horse more willing. He wanted to do what you wanted him to; it pleased him, and gave him a warm consciousness of virtue which the least observant could not fail to remark. When leading he walked industriously ahead, setting the pace; when driving,--that is, closing up the rear,--he attended strictly to business. Not for the most luscious bunch of grass that ever grew would he pause even for an instant. Yet in his off hours, when I rode irresponsibly somewhere in the middle, he was a great hand to forage. Few choice morsels escaped him. He confided absolutely in his rider in the matter of bad country, and would tackle anything I would put him at. It seemed that he trusted me not to put him at anything that would hurt him. This was an invaluable trait when an example had to be set to the reluctance of the other horses. He was a great swimmer. Probably the most winning quality of his nature was his extreme friendliness. He was always wandering into camp to be petted, nibbling me over with his lips, begging to have his forehead rubbed, thrusting his nose under an elbow, and otherwise telling how much he thought of us. Whoever broke him did a good job. I never rode a better-reined horse. A mere indication of the bridle-hand turned him to right or left, and a mere raising of the hand without the slightest pressure on the bit stopped him short. And how well he understood cow-work! Turn him loose after the bunch, and he would do the rest. All I had to do was to stick to him. That in itself was no mean task, for he turned like a flash, and was quick as a cat on his feet. At night I always let him go foot free. He would be there in the morning, and I could always walk directly up to him with the bridle in plain sight in my hand. Even at a feedless camp we once made where we had shot a couple of deer, he did not attempt to wander off in search of pasture, as would most horses. He nosed around unsuccessfully until pitch dark, then came into camp, and with great philosophy stood tail to the fire until morning. I could always jump off anywhere for a shot, without even the necessity of "tying him to the ground," by throwing the reins over his head. He would wait for me, although he was never overfond of firearms.
Nevertheless Bullet had his own sense of dignity. He was literally as gentle as a kitten, but he drew a line. I shall never forget how once, being possessed of a desire to find out whether we could swim our outfit across a certain stretch of the Merced River, I climbed him bareback. He bucked me off so quickly that I never even got settled on his back. Then he gazed at me with sorrow, while, laughing irrepressibly at this unusual assertion of independent ideas, I picked myself out of a wild-rose bush. He did not attempt to run away from me, but stood to be saddled, and plunged boldly into the swift water where I told him to. Merely he thought it disrespectful in me to ride him without his proper harness. He was the pet of the camp.
As near as I could make out, he had but one fault. He was altogether too sensitive about his hind quarters, and would jump like a rabbit if anything touched him there.
Wes rode a horse we called Old Slob. Wes, be it premised, was an interesting companion. He had done everything,--seal-hunting, abalone-gathering, boar-hunting, all kinds of shooting, cow-punching in the rough Coast Ranges, and all other queer and outlandish and picturesque vocations by which a man can make a living. He weighed two hundred and twelve pounds and was the best game shot with a rifle I ever saw.
As you may imagine, Old Slob was a stocky individual. He was built from the ground up. His disposition was quiet, slow, honest. Above all, he gave the impression of vast, very vast experience. Never did he hurry his mental processes, although he was quick enough in his movements if need arose. He quite declined to worry about anything. Consequently, in spite of the fact that he carried by far the heaviest man in the company, he stayed always fat and in good condition. There was something almost pathetic in Old Slob's willingness to go on working, even when more work seemed like an imposition. You could not fail to fall in love with his mild inquiring gentle eyes, and his utter trust in the goodness of human nature. His only fault was an excess of caution. Old Slob was very very experienced. He knew all about trails, and he declined to be hurried over what he considered a bad place. Wes used sometimes to disagree with him as to what constituted a bad place. "Some day you're going to take a tumble, you old fool," Wes used to address him, "if you go on fiddling down steep rocks with your little old monkey work. Why don't you step out?" Only Old Slob never did take a tumble. He was willing to do anything for you, even to the assuming of a pack. This is considered by a saddle-animal distinctly as a come-down.
The Tenderfoot, by the irony of fate, drew a tenderfoot horse. Tunemah was a big fool gray that was constitutionally rattle-brained. He meant well enough, but he didn't know anything. When he came to a bad place in the trail, he took one good look--and rushed it. Constantly we expected him to come to grief. It wore on the Tenderfoot's nerves. Tunemah was always trying to wander off the trail, trying fool routes of his own invention. If he were sent ahead to set the pace, he lagged and loitered and constantly looked back, worried lest he get too far in advance and so lose the bunch. If put at the rear, he fretted against the bit, trying to push on at a senseless speed. In spite of his extreme anxiety to stay with the train, he would once in a blue moon get a strange idea of wandering off solitary through the mountains, passing good feed, good water, good shelter. We would find him, after a greater or less period of difficult tracking, perched in a silly fashion on some elevation. Heaven knows what his idea was: it certainly was neither search for feed, escape, return whence he came, nor desire for exercise. When we came up with him, he would gaze mildly at us from a foolish vacant eye and follow us peaceably back to camp. Like most weak and silly people, he had occasional stubborn fits when you could beat him to a pulp without persuading him. He was one of the type already mentioned that knows but two or three kinds of feed. As time went on he became thinner and thinner. The other horses prospered, but Tunemah failed. He actually did not know enough to take care of himself; and could not learn. Finally, when about two months out, we traded him at a cow-camp for a little buckskin called Monache.
So much for the saddle-horses. The pack-animals were four.
A study of Dinkey's character and an experience of her characteristics always left me with mingled feelings. At times I was inclined to think her perfection: at other times thirty cents would have been esteemed by me as a liberal offer for her. To enumerate her good points: she was an excellent weight- carrier; took good care of her pack that it never scraped nor bumped; knew all about trails, the possibilities of short cuts, the best way of easing herself downhill; kept fat and healthy in districts where grew next to no feed at all; was past-mistress in the picking of routes through a trailless country. Her endurance was marvelous; her intelligence equally so. In fact too great intelligence perhaps accounted for most of her defects. She thought too much for herself; she made up opinions about people; she speculated on just how far each member of the party, man or beast, would stand imposition, and tried conclusions with each to test the accuracy of her speculations; she obstinately insisted on her own way in going up and down hill,--a way well enough for Dinkey, perhaps, but hazardous to the other less skillful animals who naturally would follow her lead. If she did condescend to do things according to your ideas, it was with a mental reservation. You caught her sardonic eye fixed on you contemptuously. You felt at once that she knew another method, a much better method, with which yours compared most unfavorably. "I'd like to kick you in the stomach," Wes used to say; "you know too much for a horse!"
If one of the horses bucked under the pack, Dinkey deliberately tried to stampede the others--and generally succeeded. She invariably led them off whenever she could escape her picket-rope. In case of trouble of any sort, instead of standing still sensibly, she pretended to be subject to wild-eyed panics. It was all pretense, for when you DID yield to temptation and light into her with the toe of your boot, she subsided into common sense. The spirit of malevolent mischief was hers.
Her performances when she was being packed were ridiculously histrionic. As soon as the saddle was cinched, she spread her legs apart, bracing them firmly as though about to receive the weight of an iron safe. Then as each article of the pack was thrown across her back, she flinched and uttered the most heart-rending groans. We used sometimes to amuse ourselves by adding merely an empty sack, or other article quite without weight. The groans and tremblings of the braced legs were quite as pitiful as though we had piled on a sack of flour. Dinkey, I had forgotten to state, was a white horse, and belonged to Wes.
Jenny also was white and belonged to Wes. Her chief characteristic was her devotion to Dinkey. She worshiped Dinkey, and seconded her enthusiastically. Without near the originality of Dinkey, she was yet a very good and sure pack-horse. The deceiving part about Jenny was her eye. It was baleful with the spirit of evil,--snaky and black, and with green sideways gleams in it. Catching the flash of it, you would forever after avoid getting in range of her heels or teeth. But it was all a delusion. Jenny's disposition was mild and harmless.
The third member of the pack-outfit we bought at an auction sale in rather a peculiar manner. About sixty head of Arizona horses of the C. A. Bar outfit were being sold. Toward the close of the afternoon they brought out a well-built stocky buckskin of first-rate appearance except that his left flank was ornamented with five different brands. The auctioneer called attention to him.
"Here is a first-rate all-round horse," said he. "He is sound; will ride, work, or pack; perfectly broken, mild, and gentle. He would make a first-rate family horse, for he has a kind disposition."
The official rider put a saddle on him to give him a demonstrating turn around the track. Then that mild, gentle, perfectly broken family horse of kind disposition gave about as pretty an exhibition of barbed-wire bucking as you would want to see. Even the auctioneer had to join in the wild shriek of delight that went up from the crowd. He could not get a bid, and I bought the animal in later very cheaply.
As I had suspected, the trouble turned out to be merely exuberance or nervousness before a crowd. He bucked once with me under the saddle; and twice subsequently under a pack,--that was all. Buckshot was the best pack-horse we had. Bar an occasional saunter into the brush when he got tired of the trail, we had no fault to find with him. He carried a heavy pack, was as sure-footed as Bullet, as sagacious on the trail as Dinkey, and he always attended strictly to his own business. Moreover he knew that business thoroughly, knew what should be expected of him, accomplished it well and quietly. His disposition was dignified but lovable. As long as you treated him well, he was as gentle as you could ask. But once let Buckshot get it into his head that he was being imposed on, or once let him see that your temper had betrayed you into striking him when he thought he did not deserve it, and he cut loose vigorously and emphatically with his heels. He declined to be abused.
There remains but Lily. I don't know just how to do justice to Lily--the "Lily maid." We named her that because she looked it. Her color was a pure white, her eye was virginal and silly, her long bang strayed in wanton carelessness across her face and eyes, her expression was foolish, and her legs were long and rangy. She had the general appearance of an overgrown school-girl too big for short dresses and too young for long gowns;--a school-girl named Flossie, or Mamie, or Lily. So we named her that.
At first hers was the attitude of the timid and shrinking tenderfoot. She stood in awe of her companions; she appreciated her lack of experience. Humbly she took the rear; slavishly she copied the other horses; closely she clung to camp. Then in a few weeks, like most tenderfeet, she came to think that her short experience had taught her everything there was to know. She put on airs. She became too cocky and conceited for words.
Everything she did was exaggerated, overdone. She assumed her pack with an air that plainly said, "Just see what a good horse am I!" She started out three seconds before the others in a manner intended to shame their procrastinating ways. Invariably she was the last to rest, and the first to start on again. She climbed over-vigorously, with the manner of conscious rectitude. "Acts like she was trying to get her wages raised," said Wes.
In this manner she wore herself down. If permitted she would have climbed until winded, and then would probably have fallen off somewhere for lack of strength. Where the other horses watched the movements of those ahead, in order that when a halt for rest was called they might stop at an easy place on the trail, Lily would climb on until jammed against the animal immediately preceding her. Thus often she found herself forced to cling desperately to extremely bad footing until the others were ready to proceed. Altogether she was a precious nuisance, that acted busily but without thinking.
Two virtues she did possess. She was a glutton for work; and she could fall far and hard without injuring herself. This was lucky, for she was always falling. Several times we went down to her fully expecting to find her dead or so crippled that she would have to be shot. The loss of a little skin was her only injury. She got to be quite philosophic about it. On losing her balance she would tumble peaceably, and then would lie back with an air of luxury, her eyes closed, while we worked to free her. When we had loosened the pack, Wes would twist her tail. Thereupon she would open one eye inquiringly as though to say, "Hullo! Done already?" Then leisurely she would arise and shake herself.