If ever I have met a horse that I wish could talk, it would be my eighteen-year-old quarter horse gelding, Shaunti. He is a veteran in the truest sense of the word as he bares the battle scars from a lifetime of hard use. I only wish I could hear his stories, perhaps I would be able to understand him better if I could but unfortunately I can only guess at what has had happened to him by witnessing the aftermath in his actions.
I bought Shaunti because he was as scared of people as I was of horses. The story of when, why and how I purchased him is best left for another day but I can tell you that with a lot of digging I was able to piece together his past. He was born on a cattle ranch in Oregon and spent the first 13 years of his life as a working ranch horse. His breeders told me that he was a "cowboys friend" and that in thiry years of raising horses, they had never met a horse that could walk out the way that Shaunti could. From there his story gets a little shady. I know that in the years after he was sold off the ranch, and before he found his way to me, he bounced his way through four different homes. Somewhere along the way he suffered abuse and was in some type of accident. When I purchased him he was over 200 pounds underweight, had a broken nose, healed fractures to his wither and shoulder and a grim outlook life.
Despite his issues, we were the perfect fit for each other. I was terrified that a horse was going to hurt me and Shaunti felt likewise about people. We would stand staring at each other, both worrying about what was going to happen when we came together. Over the past ten months we have worked hard to build a mutual trust in one and other. We spent hours and hours on the ground and in the saddle developing confidence and peeling away the layers of distrust that had accumulated over the years. I promised him that one day I would take him back to the open range and we would ride the hills together, as I had always dreamed of doing. I didn't expect that I would have the opportunity make good on that promise so soon but when one of my dearest friends, Barb called me up last Thursday and invited Shaunti and me to go camping with her on Monday, I was all to happy to accept. She knows me well so she didn't leave me much time to worry myself to death about it but did give me enough time to prepare. Or at least, in theory she did. She also knew that she would be away for the four days between when I agreed to go and when we were scheduled to leave and out of cell phone range, to boot. I still managed to find a way to cancel on her.... twice. As usual, she refused to take no for an answer.
I had been told by Shaunti's previous owners that he "absolutely does not tie" and that if I hauled him he "absolutely had to be hauled backwards." Barb's trailer is a three horse angle haul with no dividers and as we would be hauling with her mare, there was no way that we could not tie him. Barb is a good friend, which is to say she pushes me to go above and beyond what I think I am capable of. I would venture to say that I tend to be a worry wort. Actually, worry wort is a gross understatement. I think things to death...and then beat on them a while for good measure. I will think my way out of doing just about anything. I'd trust Barb with my life and know that she would never push me to do something that I was not capable of but, true to my nature, I couldn't take the heat and tried to bail on her. On Monday, she came to pick us up with a camper, horse trailer, her dog and a tough, no nonsense palomino mare named Cara. We were going, and thats all there was too it!
The past five times Shaunti was hauled, he was alone and loose in a stock trailer. Each time it had taken 10-15 minutes to get him in the door. As I don't own a trailer, I did not have the opportunity to work on him on loading but in the nine months since he had been hauled last we had developed a lot more tools and trust to get the job done. I had also been tying him without event but was worried that with the added stress of the trailer, things might go a little haywire.
On Monday, standing at the back of Barbs trailer, it was crunch time. There was no way I was going to tie him hard in the trailer while I was still in it, so the plan was for me to walk him in, hand his lead rope to Barb through the open slats in the side wall of the trailer and walk out. Like sensible women, we talked it over before giving it a go. I was halfway out of the trailer when the little freak blew up. He had tried to follow me out and naturally Barb had shortened up the lead and grabbed towards the snap of his halter. I had forgotten to tell her not to do so as he is still head shy with strangers and tends to panic when they grab his face. He had blown backwards, pulling the lead out of Barbs hands and had whacked his head on the top of the trailer on his way out. Part of the little star on his forehead was missing but as Barb pointed out, "it is not even bleeding and is long way from his heart." We tried it again.
This time Shaunti stayed put when I handed him off to Barb but when I went to close the door he once again blew backwards and scooted out of the trailer! Damn! A small sliver of white was all that was left of his star. What we needed was a different plan! I figured that if I were to turn him around and let him face the door before walking out, it just might work. He loaded for me without any fuss and when I turned him around I gave him slack and stood with him for a few minutes, waiting for him to relax. He was blowing and shaking his head. It must have been throbbing. When he looked a little more settled, I told him to stand and walked out, closing the door immediately behind me. He was in! From the outside of the trailer I walked him up the front and tied him hard. We both held our breath. Nothing. Not a twitch! We double checked that everything was ready to go before putting Cara in the trailer. We talked through the game plan twice before attempting anything. I climbed up the side of the trailer at Shaunti's head while Barb stood at the end of the trailer with Cara. At the count of three we went for it! Barb popped the door open, pointed her mare inside and slammed the door shut the second her golden butt was sufficiently inside. We quickly tied Cara, jumped in the truck and started moving. The first minute we both held our breaths but we heard and felt nothing. We looked at each other and burst out laughing, slapping each others back and bouncing up and down in our seats! I was actually giggling. I could not believe it! By the skin on our teeth we had managed to git'r'done!! We were going campin'!
I am not usually so reckless with my horses but I keep telling myself that they have to work for me, not the other way around. I always seem to be the one sacrificing my desires for their benefit but lately I have been making an effort to turn the tables a little. It took about three hours to get to Lundbom Lake near Merritt, BC. We stopped to check the horses along the way but they hauled quietly the whole way up through the mountains and down into the yellow bushed valley where we would spend the next three days. I had never been to Lundbom but had heard that it is a trail riders paradise. As we drove through the park towards camp, I was blown away but the natural beauty of the grasslands, pale blue lakes and White Birches. We managed to snag a campsite that was half tucked into a grove of Pine trees but that still afforded us a view of the lake and within thirty feet of the long pole horse corrals. I stepped out of the truck and in to the fresh air and sunshine.
Barb and I had talked a lot on the way up about how we were going to unload the horses and had a good game plan in place. The first stage went off without a hitch and Cara was safely unloaded and tied to the side of the trailer. We closed the door and untied Shaunti before letting him turn around to face the exit. Barb held his lead as I went to to open the door. I didn't realize that Shaunti had become nervous and turned himself around backwards. Before Barb could shout not to, I had opened the door. I watched in awe as my horse flung himself backwards and onto the ground at the foot of the trailer. He landed on his ass first, before rolling over on his back. All four legs were in the air, he neck cranked to the side. He leapt to his feet and shook himself off before turning to look at Barb, Cara and I. We all, including Cara, looked at him like, "What an idiot!". I swear he actually looked a little embarrassed. He hadn't moved a muscle since he had stood up. I walked over, picked up his lead rope and turned to walk away. I couldn't muster up the nerve to look behind me and see for myself if he was stepping soundly. I asked Barb, "Does he look alright?" She didn't answer at first. She watched him intently with a close eye, head tilted to one side.
After months and months of work and painstaking progress, had we seriously come this close to seeing our dreams become reality only to watch them come come crashing down in one dramatic fall?
To be continued.