I’ve heard it said, “Life is a journey and you should enjoy the ride.” I’ve always kind of figured it depended a hell of a lot on what kind of horse you were on.
Everywhere you turn nowadays there’s a guy in a hat with all the answers to what makes a horse tick, telling you how to create the kind of bond Walt Disney would’ve been hard pressed to create. The truth of the matter from where I sit has a different slant to it than most would have us believe.
I know I don’t know all there is to know about horses. If I were to state my best attribute as a horseman, it would be that I’m still impressed by my own ignorance.
When I was a young puncher growing up breaking horses, we weren’t politically correct. Being tough wasn’t just something you said; it was a way of life.
I realize now that I was living the life a lot of folks dream about, a wide open Arizona cattle ranch where you could have a new adventure every day you rolled out of the sack. One of my earliest memories was of my dad telling me “God hates a coward.” That stupid saying got my ass whipped more times than I can count. I finally grew enough to add one more line to the saying, which brought things into a little better perspective: “God hates a coward, but he hates a fool worse.”
This was the mindset that prevailed during my younger days. We were as rough a crew as you could imagine. If a colt bucked us, or pawed us or just gave us a good fight, hell, we enjoyed it. Why should we care if we were rough and inconsiderate? We were that way to people, so why would you think horses were going to fare any better?
We wore our bruises and scrapes and broken bones like badges of honor. We raced to be first to the tough jobs. We set the style. We were the boys.
I’ve grown older now, but not so old that I still won’t race to be the first to stick a loop on some maverick busting brush across a mountainside. Yet, I’m old enough to have changed my outlook on a lot of things, and the one thing that’s never been far from my mind nor out of my life is horses.
Horses are our mirrors. If you look deep enough into a horse, you’ll see yourself. That’s why I can always smell a hint of snake oil when I listen to a lot of the folks who are selling modern-day horsemanship. The truth is, there ain’t much new in this game. There were great horsemen around before Jesus was a glimmer in his daddy’s eye.
Horses haven’t changed much, and neither have we. The best teachers are still the horses, and if you can’t look in the mirror and like who you see, the odds are your horse won’t like you much either.
I could tell you stories about the things I’ve done wrong with horses. Instead, I am going to tell you about the first thing I did right.
His name is Cinco.
The first time I laid eyes on this big black SOB was when they kicked him off a cattle truck. There were two horses with the load of cattle my father had traded for sight unseen, and Dad asked me which one I wanted to put in my string. Why did I pick Cinco I asked myself many times afterwards?
He must’ve looked like a boulder-bustin’, cow-catchin’ machine is all I can figure. Seventeen hands tall and black as a coal miner’s ass. He had an eye on him, that horse did. Lord, it was as big as a hen’s egg, and full of more fight and life than anything I’d ever seen in my short existence.
And short it looked like it was going to stay. I walked down that alleyway with a halter in my hand to catch up this guy and see what he was made of. I found out real fast what he was made of, and I didn’t like what I saw, not one little bit.
He banged his head into the gates at the end of the alley, and after he figured he couldn’t get out, he spun around . . . and I still remember it to this day.
His front feet were spread, and his head was as high as he could lift it. He looked at me with those big brown eyes and snorted as loud as any bull elk. Folks, I am here to tell you I saw my death making a stand right there in front of me.
I don’t like to admit it, but right then and there is when I added that second line to the little saying of my dad’s. My powder got damp, I’m telling you, and I walked away.
This was a shock. I’d never run into a situation in my life that I felt was bigger than me, not if it involved horses or cows. I looked deep into that black horse’s eye and saw my demise. He was ready to die, and he was going to take someone with him.
Right there is where I trace my initial glimmer of this thing called horse-manship. For the first time, I was being forced to think instead of react.
I turned around and opened the gate into a pen, and making sure I gave him plenty of room, I kind of herded him in. I didn’t do much with that horse for a few days. I was trying to figure out what it would take to reach this fella. The more I thought about him, the more I admired him. I understood that kind of toughness. I’d been where he was myself.
So what I did by accident turned out to be the first thing I’d ever done right with a horse. I did nothing.
I would feed him and then crouch down in a corner and watch. He’d try to eat and watch me at the same time. I would say something soft to him, and he would spin and snort. And every time he did, the pen would shrink to half its size.
I kept it up, and kept moving closer, and kept talking to him. And after what seemed like months but was only weeks, he allowed me to sit next to the feed bin. Then one day I reached out and touched him . . . and he let me.
I could carry on about those years with Cinco, but I won’t. Suffice it to say, we became friends. I never disrespected him, and I always knew that I was riding him because he allowed it. My Lord, the country we covered. That big bastard could run through the rocks like a deer. I never saw another horse that could catch a cow in as rough a country and do it as effortlessly.
Cinco was a loner. Even with the other ranch horses he was by himself. I never saw him pick a fight with another horse, but I never saw him lose one either. It didn’t take long before the other horses figured out that he was a little different, and I think they all called him “Sir.”
He didn’t trust but one other creature in this world, and that was me. I remember the day I left about daybreak in the truck to go fix waterlines. I saw him when I fed, standing out in the desert by himself. I didn’t think anything of it at the time; he was often like that.
About 10 hours later, I drove back to the headquarters and there he was. Only this time, he was obviously looking for me.
I walked out there and he was standing with all four feet entangled in an old iron-framed gate that was covered in page wire, not a hair out of place, just waiting for me to come get him out.
Well, I finally moved away. I was a pro rodeo cowboy then, and other places were calling my name. I left Cinco behind. He belonged to the ranch, and I was roping professionally off a different horse, one that could handle the stress of competition, so Cinco was again alone.
I’d been gone for a year or two when one day my phone rang. It was my father. He said, “Son, do you still want this black horse? Cuz if you do, you better come get him, or I am sending him to the killers! There ain’t a cowboy here that will ride that sorry SOB.”
I said I would be there the next day to pick him up. I did, and Cinco and I were once again pards. Like I said, I was a rodeo cowboy, and I began to wonder if I could make a pro-quality roping horse out of this big psychotic beast.
It was slow going, and he taught me more than I ever taught him. He would stand for absolutely no abuse. If he felt I had overstepped my bounds, he let me know.
Things were progressing well. I was actually thinking this could work when suddenly something happened. He’d been doing so well, and I’d been thinking of breaking him out for a jackpot or two when suddenly I was riding a complete jerk.
My first instinct was to start training on him again to get him back up to speed, but then I had another thought .
I asked myself what had changed? We were doing so well and now it had all turned to crap.
Well then it hit me. I was different. I’d gotten busy trying to make a living, and with the time constraints that go along with that, I’d quit being his friend. I’d become his boss, and he wasn’t buying it.
I’d always taken a few minutes in the morning and evening to stop and talk to him, to scratch his favorite spots and let him know he was still loved.
I’d quit. Now I was simply tossing his hay over the fence and going on. He was no longer waiting at the gate for me to come by. Instead, he was standing in the farthest corner of the pen with his butt turned towards me and his head down when I went to catch him.
Instead of going into more training, I called things off. I took a brush down to his pen and left it on a post. Then every morning and evening when I fed, I’d go over to his corner and talk to him and brush him for a few minutes.
He made me pay for it, he did. For the first few days he never lifted his head or looked at me. I swear that black sucker was pouting.
Then about a week later, I walked down to feed and there was that big head with those soft brown eyes hanging over the gate. I caught him and went to the arena. He worked as well or better than he ever had.
I’d like to say Cinco and I went on to great things together in the rodeo arena, but we didn’t have that luck. He made as good a roping horse as I’d ever thrown a leg across, and while I won many ropings and rodeos, Cinco was getting older. He’d led a tough life, and his front feet were going bad.
I just couldn’t stand to see my buddy limp out of the arena after a run, and I finally realized that his days were done in that field.
About then, something amazing happened. A friend of mine came to see me and brought his young son. We were fooling around in the practice pen, and I had put Junior on Cinco.
I looked up just in time to see Junior take down his little rope and swat Cinco on the rear. I thought, “Oh Hell, here’s where they part ways.” But it was not to be. That dang horse just pinned his ears and barely got out of a trot.
I realized then what a good heart that horse actually had. The same horse that at one time had told me in no uncertain terms that he would squash me like a bug was now a babysitter.
Junior owns Cinco now. I knew I could never sell him, so instead he made a hell of a gift. He’s roped off of just enough to know he has a job . . . and with his own pasture and a mare to keep him company.
The life of Riley he has, and he deserves every bit of it. He taught me more about horses and myself than anything else I’ve ever known.
Craig Hamilton is a ranch-raised cowboy and a third generation NFR (National Finals Rodeo) finalist in team roping. He currently trains horses and teaches Considerate Horsemanship Clinics across North America. He lives in Golden Valley, Arizona with his wife, Anna, and their one-year-old son, Chase. Craig will write a column on horse training exclusively for upcoming issues of True West.