A cutting horse

A cutting horse

I was eight when I started to ride alone or with my girlfriend, Maggie, who was only five. Her horses were pastured on 400 acres in a canyon that had been homesteaded by her great-grandfather. We were growing up in the Black Hills of South Dakota in the 50’s and horses were the biggest influence in my life. They would remain so until I was thirteen…then boys took over.
We never had riding lessons or any formal training. Horses were a part of my father’s family going back to our ancestors in Ireland. Grandpa Garrett was a horse rancher. He ran cattle for money but horses were his passion. He rode every day and trained matched pairs to ride in parades and rodeos. He gave me my first horse, a pretty sorrel with a white face I named Blaze.
Grandpa’s best cattle-cutting gelding was named Star. The week after Grandpa lay down on the couch and died of a blood clot to his brain, Dad and I went out to round-up his cattle to take to sale. Dad gave me Star to ride. It was the spring of ’62. The horses didn’t get ridden as much through the winter plus Grandpa had died following a surgery which had kept him off the horses for a few days. Left to pasture, even a well-trained horse, Star was a champion cattle-cutter, will remember its wild roots.
We saddled the horses (no bare-back riding for this job) and I climbed up on the tall quarter-horse and we started walking in the direction of the cow pasture. There was a shallow ravine to cross and I led Star down into it. When a horse climbs a hill, they use the power of their back legs together to push themselves up. It becomes a jumping action rather than the usual walking or running action of their legs. I leaned forward into his neck as Star powered up the side of the ravine. But when he summited the top, he didn’t stop jumping. Dad was behind me laughing at the sight of Star crow-hopping and the light between me and the saddle growing with each hop. On the third round, I went flying and landed on the ground. Star stopped and stood looking down at me as if to say, “What are you doing down there?”
Dad said the same thing! Then he told me to get back in the saddle. Without hesitation I obeyed knowing that to maintain my alpha position with Star, I couldn’t let him know that I was afraid of getting thrown again.
I remember that day as a highlight of my childhood not because I got bucked off but because I got back on and riding a good cutting horse is a thing of joy. You don’t have to do anything much…just give the horse his head, pay attention and enjoy the ride. Like a sheep dog, the horse has an eye for the stray and herds the cattle with a back and forth scissor action. Going in the direction you determine, the horse keeps the cattle together and moving. I was riding along in this easy back and forth clip when all of a sudden Star spotted a steer moving in the wrong direction and took off like a race-horse out of the gate. I hung on while Star sprinted to bring the wayward back into the herd. What can I say?  That was fun!
Mostly I rode at Maggie’s cabin. No open pastures here. Pine covered forests covered the mountains that lifted from the valley where the cabin sat. A creek ran through the valley beside the cabin and access was a rutted 4-wheel drive that came in for about two miles from road. That gravel road ran down Vanocker Canyon to my home town, Sturgis. Civilization?
I led the white mare to a tree stump, stepped up and jumped on. She stood patiently while I lay across her back wiggling myself into a balanced position so I could straddle her. Upright, I clicked my tongue letting her know it was time to move. Together we walked into the woods. Riding that bare-back horse into the woods alone when I was a child, I felt safe, relaxed, and completely at peace. Horse taught me to be at home in my power. I knew this lesson as a child…I forgot it when I turned thirteen.


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