Squaw

Many years ago, I worked on a ranch of several thousand acres in northern California. The family of three generations owned and operated a lumber mill. They intelligently harvested the timber from their own property. I was hire to live on the the property, and to manage their cattle and horses, especially, but also all of their other large livestock.

The middle generation had five daughters. I taught them to ride, balanced seat. They all belonged to 4-H, a rural American association encouraging the training and development of skills and experience in animal husbandry. Each of the daughters had an animal for which she was responsible. The eldest had a horse, a filly,  Quarter horse; the second, a cow, a young heifer, Hereford; the third, a pig, a young sow, or gilt, Duroc; the fourth, a sheep, a ewe, Suffolk; and the fifth, a hen, Rhode Island Red. I have raised all of those animals myself; so I was able to direct the girls in the best, the most humane, the most didactic approach to the care of their animals.

I lived in a small cottage in the woods, on the bank of a stream, only a short walk from the home of the grand matriarch of the family, then in her nineties. We became the best of friends. My cottage had no electricity, no running water, no toilet. Next to the cottage, there was shed where I bed my own horse for the night.

The ranch had over a hundred head of Hereford cows, steers, and bulls. The management of the herd was entirely my responsibility. I worked alone. My duties included the delivery of calves, and the steering of bulls. The heard grazed on open pastures; so I had to rotate them from pasture to pasture, to allow the grass time to re-grow.

The family also kept a small herd of horses, including three stallions, and fourteen mares. Again, their care was entirely my sole responsibility. I bred the mares, delivered the foals, and attended to all veterinary concerns.

One day, Lud, my boss, came to me with a special appeal, a special project. Someone had requested that a ‘damaged’ horse, a rescue, be dropped off, given to the family, free of charge, with the warning that the horse had been badly abused, and may never take a rider again, which would necessitate its being ‘put down’. Lud asked if I would be willing to tame, to heal the five year old mare. Of course, I agreed to do so.

The mare, by all appearances, had not yet been bred; so she was still a filly. She was a dapple gray. Her name was Squaw. She could hardly be approached. She was head-shy, withers-shy, leg-shy, rump-shy. She certainly could not be ridden; she would not even take a halter, let alone a bridle.

When she was delivered, with difficulty, with a lasso around her neck, I got her into the largest of the stalls of the barn. I talked to her the whole time. I commiserated with her. I felt her pain, her fear. That night, on a pile of straw, with just a woolen blanket over me, I slept in the stall right next to her. She snorted and pounded the ground with her hooves. She was simultaneously frightened and enraged. I talked to her. I sang to her. I told her the whole story of how we were going to become friends, how I was going to heal the wounds in her heart. She was tired. It had been a long day. Eventually, she lay down, her nose very close to the wooden barrier separating us, the planked wall between our stalls. She was twitchy, but, trusting her sense of smell, she could feel that I was no threat to her. Eventually, she fell asleep. I, too, then slept.

Squaw could also smell my own horse on me. My horse was also a filly of five years old, an Appaloosa. Her name was Tawana. I had raised her from a foal. Young fillies of the same age would pose no threat to one another. All of the most crucial warning signs of possible peril – age,  oestrous cycle, pregnancy – could be detected in the scent of the animal. In the scent of Tawana, then, Squaw would detect only another filly, which would likely be a comfort to her.

Early the next morning, Squaw awoke first, then I awoke. She was hungry. I gave her fresh timothy and alfalfa hay, and fed her my finest crimped oats from a bucket. She would still not allow me to touch her. She would not eat from my hand. I also freshened her water. As I needed to clean her stall, I had to persevere in my attentiveness. Her second night with us, I again slept next to her. Again, she rested her nose as close to me as possible. I was still in the stall next to hers. That second night, though, I put my hand through the siding of the stall that separated us, and I delicately stroked her nose. I talked to her the whole time, whispering. I got as close to her as I could; so that she could feel me more intimately. At first, she appeared cautious, then she relaxed, she sighed, she seemed relieved; I cried.

The third day, I told her that I would have to clean her stall. I prepared the clean straw I would need, and with a rake I entered her stall. She backed away from me, and I quickly raked out the soiled straw, replacing it with the clean, fresh straw. Back again in the stall in which I had been spending the nights, I rewarded her good behaviour with a mixture of Calf Manna and freshly crimped oats with small chunks of freshly cut apple. I held it out to her in the palm of my hand. I did not put it in her feed bucket. She came to me, and she ate out of my hand. The fury in her eyes was gone. They shone instead with gratitude. I reached up and stroked the bridge of her nose, her cheeks, her forehead, her ears. I gently cupped my hands over her eyes. I fed her more of my special treat. I was crying.

Though it may not seem like it, the best and perhaps the only way to find out if you can trust someone is to trust him or her. It is essential, though, that you, too, demonstrate that you can be trusted. Trust begets trust.

I told Squaw that on our third night together we would have to trust one another, because I was going to sleep next to her in her stall. That is what I did. Throughout the night, we shared our breath. I whispered to her, I stroked her. I touched, and patted, and caressed the exposed side of her body that I could reach. She surrendered. I surrendered. There was no longer merely a truce between us; there was peace. Again, I could not withhold my tears.

Bright and early the next morning, I told Squaw that I would have to halter her; so that I could take her out for a walk. I was very careful. Her ears were still sensitive. Horses have very acute hearing. Because of this, their ears are a place of greatest vulnerability. She trusted me to halter her. In her stall, I rewarded her again. Then, I gave her fresh hay, and her morning grain from her feed bucket. While I was cleaning her stall, I told her that I had a surprise for her. I was going to lead her to the paddock, and let her have a run. The surprise was awaiting her there.

Her surprise was her first meeting with Tawana. I had told Tawana that she would be meeting the filly whom she had been smelling on me. She was excited. Together in the paddock, getting to know one another, Tawana undoubtedly comforted Squaw, assuring her that I was a good man, that she could trust me, that I would never hurt her. In an hour of intimate interaction, they were as sisters.

I led Tawana out to pasture, then returned to Squaw. I put her on a longe line, and encouraged her to encircle the paddock. I spoke to her the whole time. We worked out for about an hour. Then I tied her to a railing, and brushed her lovingly, neglecting no area of her entire body. I picked up her feet, one by one, and cleaned her hooves. It was as if she were ticklish, as a child is ticklish, because, though pretending not to want the attention, she really did. She got playful. So did I. We began to have fun.

On a longe line, we trained a second day. I had again spent the night with her. She had good moves. She would be easily trained.

The next day, after a third night together, I told her that it was a very important day. I was going to  bridle her, first, then ride her. In the paddock again, with bridle installed, I placed a bareback pad on her back. I had removed the stirrups.  I tightened the girth of the pad, but not too tight. With the reins of the bridle fastened to the pad at the withers, on a longe line again, I gave her some time to grow accustomed to the pad on her back. When we were done with that exercise, I brought her again to the railing of the paddock, tied her loosely, then held her head in my hands, my nose on her nose, and I whispered to her, ‘Are you ready?’ I looked into her eyes. They glistened in approval. ‘Okay, my dear Squaw, here we go.’ From the top railing of the paddock, I swung my leg over her back, and set myself upon her in a perfectly balanced seat. With the reins in hand, we walked, first, then cantered, around the paddock.

It had been a full day. Squaw was appropriately rewarded for her co-operation. The next day, I would saddle her. I told her that, as we slept again together, as nearly in one another’s embrace as we could be.

In a week, Squaw and I had grown from complete strangers wary of one another to the best of friends. She took the saddle without complaint, then she took me upon the saddle, again, without complaint. For a week, we rode together, often with Tawana following along at my invitation. We rode all over the ranch. We spent the night under the stars. We talked together, confiding in one another. We worked and played together. We became one. She was not a cattle horse yet, of course, but had potential.

After that week, I told Lud that Squaw was ready. He wanted to see what I had done – just the two us, before the girls were either ticked pink or disappointed. I presented to him an animal fully redeemed. She was a sweetheart. She had so vastly surpassed his fondest expectations, his eyes, too, were wet with tears. ‘I knew that you were magic with horses, but this is miraculous.’ He did not know the details of the previous two weeks. He would never know. With his hand on my shoulder, he asked me, earnestly, if I would entrust Squaw to Diana, his second daughter. She was twelve, and it was time she had her own horse. I knew that Squaw had been been healed. Love had healed her. It was not entirely to my credit, perhaps not at all. Destiny had brought us together. We needed each other. Without hesitation, I assured him that it would be a perfect match.

Diana, in Roman mythology, is the Goddess of the Hunt. Diana, the daughter, was fiercely her own person, defiant, courageous – secretly my favourite of the five. I had been the second of four.

Only eighteen, three months so, I was drafted into the Vietnam War. I had to leave the ranch. They kept Tawana for me. The years passed. Diana grew up, got married, had children of her own. She bred Squaw to one of their Quarter horse stallions, raised her foal, then bred her again. She also bred Tawana. At every stage of her life, Diana wrote to me. I was at her wedding. She named her first daughter after me – Morgan. Now her children have children. Squaw and Tawana are but history, but the memories remain indelible.

In illness, I lost my memory ten years after I left the ranch. Every evening, though, while there, in my cottage, or in the barn, I wrote in my journal, recording the details of a relationship I never wanted to forget. I saved Squaw’s life. Since then, more times than I could ever have hoped for, the memory of her has saved my life.

sfhk17