Most people who like horses have stories to tell.
Having lived and worked with horses half my life, they taught me lessons I can best describe as “horse sense.”
My first lesson occurred at age four. I proudly “drove” Dad’s team of Belgian draft mares during July oats harvest while Dad and a teenaged lad loaded oats shocks with pitch forks onto the wagon to be hauled to the McCormick-Deering threshing machine.
I yelled “Giddap” or pulled back on the reins to slow their pace so Dad and his helper had enough time to stack the oats bundles onto the wagon.
Helping with farm work this young might be termed child mistreatment today, but back then it was normal and I felt important.
Suddenly a large, blood-sucking female horsefly landed on the rump of a mare before Dad could shoo it away. When it bit the horse painfully, she energetically swished her tail and bucked, unable to shake the fly.
The Belgian mare began to run wildly. Her behavior alarmed her yoked mate to join in the escape.
I pulled with all my four-year-old strength on the reins and shouted “Whoa,” while Dad raced to catch the runaway outfit. Our rig disappeared over the hill leading to the horse barn a quarter mile away.
I should insert here that a runaway team of horses was, and still is, a dreaded event that has resulted in many carriage/farm implement tip-overs and injuries to people and horses.
Just as the horses approached a closed gateway into their corral, they skidded to a stop, nearly thrusting me off the front of the loaded wagon.
Dad caught up with us as I wiped away tears and the heaving horses gathered their breath. The event was “the talk” among the threshing crew for the rest of the day, but it was the horses that deserved the credit, and I knew it, even though several of the threshing hands said I was a brave little boy.
Years later I learned running is one of the ways horses rid themselves of biting insects. These horses knew what they were doing and meant no harm to me or Dad, or any deviation from their work expectations.
Since Dad had raised colts every year and “green-broke” two-year-olds for sale to lumber harvesters or other farmers who kept draft horses for farm chores, it seemed natural for me to raise riding horses when my family moved from Virginia to our Iowa farm in 1979.
While growing up, my brothers and I frequently rode saddle horses to gather cattle, check gopher traps, and just for fun. I wanted my children to experience the same enjoyment.
I purchased a filly and an 18 year-old registered American Quarter Horse mare. I joined the AQHA to learn more and to register the colts we raised.
I used the horses to check cows during calving season until I figured out it was easier to get a new mama to follow her calf as it rode in a cart trailing an ATV where she could see and smell it than when the calf was slung over a saddle.
It also was easier starting and driving the ATV with its lights around the calving field at night than saddling a horse and holding reins, a flashlight and perhaps a calf as well while riding the horse.
The horses were relegated to pleasure-riding. The older mare figured out how to dump the kids by purposefully scraping their legs when circling fence posts too closely and by running under low-hanging tree branches when they rode her.
The wily animal never tried these tricks when I rode her. I began to wonder if we needed the horses, especially after getting bucked off a few times by colts as I broke them to ride.
One summer day a neighbor called to say one of my bulls was running with his cows and asked me to get the animal out of his field.
I took the ATV to separate the bull from his new harem and drive him through a gateway to my farm. Every time he drew near the pasture opening, he bolted and ran at me.
I had to hightail it away to avoid getting butted. The bull trumpeted to his new kingdom as I returned home to retrieve the experienced quarter horse mare.
When I encircled the bull, now on horseback, he predictably charged us but the experienced mare dodged him adroitly every time and chased after him, sometimes biting him on his tailhead when she drew close enough.
After a couple hours of this game, the bull wore down and stood facing us, gasping for breath. I flung my lariat at him like a whip. He turned and steadily ambled toward the gate he knew he should exit.
Enough said. The horses remained with us for a few more years until the kids’ interest in riding was replaced with teenagers’ activities they deemed more important.
Michael Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa clinical psychologist (and fly-fisherman) who lives on the farm he shares with his wife. Contact him at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.