The Burden of Hoof

Posted by Sharon Labels:

"Horses have a way of keeping us young… and mostly broke” a friend of mine commented on Facebook last week.

“You’re right about keeping us broke,” I answered, “But I’m not sure about keeping me young!”

Her comment triggered a train of thought though, one I've travelled on many times - why do we, people in the horse business,  choose a career that demands much and pays little (notice I didn't say "offer little")? Horse trainers and breeders work long hours seven days a week; they rise early and go to bed late; they administer to sick and injured animals, often in the middle of the night; they freeze their hands thawing out water lines and sunburn their faces picking up bales in the field; they rub liniment on over-worked muscles and sometimes eat dinner at 10:00 PM (or not at all!). We drag ouselves to the barn when we are sick; we drag ourselves to the barn too soon after surgery; we drag ourselves to the barn when it’s blistering hot or bone-chilling cold. Why have we signed up for a lifetime of never-ending work and sometimes unbearable heartbreak? And why have we shouldered so much responsibility? The answer is . . . because most of the time we don’t drag ourselves to the barn – we stride to the barn with anticipation, spirit and joy! And that joy makes the  inevitable times of heart-wrenching pain (Beam me up, Scotty!) bearable.

A Time of Joy
There has to be a reason why we do what we do. It’s not the money and the prestige is fleeting at best and almost non-existent at worst. It has to be about the animal - the horse.

A Time of Caution

A Time of Commitment
Last week isn’t the only time I marveled at the tenacity and commitment of people in the horse business. For some reason, it seems obvious to me why I chose horse training for my career but harder to understand why others do. Not sure why that is. Maybe I believe that most people want more - more money, more toys, more holidays . . . and less responsibility. They won't get that if the horse business is their business. So… when someone tells me how lucky I am to do what I do and asks me about becoming a horse trainer, I give it to them straight.

“Yes, I am lucky," I admit, "But I this is my job and some days, when I feel like a day off, it's still my job - rain or shine, summer and winter. If you want to be a horse trainer, you must be willing to work much longer days than an office job for seven days a week for a very small paycheck. Horse shows will be your holidays and there probably won’t be a boat parked in your yard, just a horse trailer. You must accept the responsibility that comes with caring for horses in your care and be willing to attend to their needs ahead of your own. On the other hand, there is not much in this world that can compare to the soft nickers that will greet you when you go out to feed in the morning. If you can live with that, you have what it takes to be a horse trainer.”

A Time of Peace
Maybe my Facebook friend is right after all. Maybe horses do keep us young - at least in our hearts and heads, if not our bodies. As far as keeping us broke, they're worth it.

Just "grade" or just plain great?

Posted by Sharon Labels: , , , , ,

My business is the horse business. For almost 40 years I have raising, training and selling registered Quarter Horses. On Thanksgiving weekend, as I watched my 2011 weanlings leave the yard with their new owners, I thought back to the beginning of my relationship with the Quarter Horse.

Feather, Timber and Whiskey with new owners.
That was a long time ago – 1966 – and since that time have bred, raised and ridden many. But what about the horses I rode (and loved) before? What about the “grade” horses in my life? And… are these purebred, “Cadillac” horses I ride now as tough as the mixed breed models I rode all day on roundups then hauled to horse shows in the back of the truck on the weekend? Or are they better?

Grade horses settled the west long before I came on the scene. They carried riders, pulled wagons, sleighs, mowers, rakes and stone boats, they packed unbelievable loads into areas not accessible to wagons. They endured hardships beside their owners. Most of all they willingly served. They had to be tough to survive . . . and sound! Although the definition of “soundness” remains the same today, the importance of a sound horse in those demanding conditions was much higher. Whether in the unsettled, vastness of Saskatchewan (where I grew up) or the harsh wilderness of the Chilcotin (where I live now), horses often meant the difference between life and death – and those horses were always grade horses, the result of select breeding all right, but of the "toughest and most sound", not the prettiest! One has to admire and respect those horses. Call them what you will – grade, unregistered, mustangs – they contributed to our ancestors’ survival!

The first horse I remember is a plain brown mare with a kind heart. Pronto belonged to my mother but she was the first horse I rode by myself and, of course, she was grade.  Mom's favourite was one of Pronto’s daughters, Pride, and that black, grade mare was one of the gutsiest horses I will ever know. To say she had “heart” does not adequately describe her courage in the face of a variety of adverse conditions and expectations. Mom rode her almost every day in the spring, summer and fall. In the years she taught school, she used her to get there; she checked cattle, cut anything out that needed to come home and rounded up huge fields on Pride; and she rode the six miles out of the ranch to pick up the mail on her – summer and winter! Mom often said Pride would never quit – she would keep going until she died trying…
Mo with Pride and Charm (Pride's sister)
Dad rode Tex in those years. I don't remember Tex very well although I have a picture of dad holding me as a baby on him. I think he must have died when I was very young. Besides ranch work, Tex carried Dad in the calf roping event at the Calgary Stampede. Do you think any calf ropers ride horses that are not registered today?

Dad and Tex

When I was about fourteen, Mom and Dad decided I could ride Rocky. Like Pride, he was not a purebred animal: like Pride he was black; like Pride, also, he was high energy with a never-quit attitude. I loved it. Rocky carried me over the Coteau Hills on roundups, fun "free" rides bareback in the paddock, through the snowbanks on not-so-much-fun rides to the farm where I boarded to go to school in the winter and around barrels and poles at rodeos and horse shows. I ran him the last time at a rodeo at Clearwater Lake when he was twenty years old. He won the pole bending and placed in the barrel racing. He had six happy years of retirement on the ranch before I had to say good bye.

Eventually, my parents gave me a horse – a grade, but with a Quarter Horse sire. They had invested in a Quarter Horse stallion, Copper Red Boy, and he had sired my Cheetah. Her dam, however, was a grade mare we called Cherry. I was told she had Thoroughbred and Standardbred blood and certainly that made sense since a few good Thoroughbred stallions had come in to the country. Cherry had not been ridden much. A hired man started her one winter and described her as “the roughest horse he had ever ridden” He said the saddle jerked forward and back when she walked. I guess we can credit Red for taking that out of her colts because she had several by him and they were not rough-gaited.
Cheetah was another Pride or Rocky. She was small, only 14.1, and fine-boned but she was tough. She handled the cold, snow-deep trail I rode in winter with just as much guts as Rocky had. I barrel-raced, flat-raced her and anything else I wanted. She remained sound until, retired and raising foals, she was kicked in the knee.

So . . . as I look around at my herd of registered Quarter Horses I have to ask myself if they would have what it took to do the work I did with those grade horses. I can’t be sure, but I think not . . . except for one. Wildwood Soul O Silk would carry me until she dropped. She has many of the same qualities of Pride, Rocky and Cheetah - one tough little horse!

Silk "going down the fence"
"Just a grade," I would say when someone asked me about Cheetah, but I think now I sold her short. I should have left out "just" and said, "She's grade," with the pride she deserved.

Those Handy Hands

Posted by Sharon Labels:

Have you ever thought about all the things your hands have done? Or how valuable they are? In the middle of a fall project, I did…

For the past week or so, I’ve been working on two new flower gardens for my yard. The work entails digging out sod and replacing it with topsoil and rotted manure (no shortage of that around here!), spading it and finally, working out the lumps with my hands. Most gardeners wear gloves but I do not. I like the feel of the cool, moist earth running between my fingers. As I crumpled the lumps, I stopped and looked at my hands – really looked!

“These hands have done so many things!” I thought. “How amazing that they still work?” I started thinking back…

I suppose when I was a baby I looked at my hands in wonder (most babies do…), then reached for toys or my mother’s hair, all part of learning to use my hands to do what I wished them to do. As I grew up, I learned to feed and dress myself and a hundred other necessary things. I picked up a pencil, then a pen, learned to write, to throw and catch a ball . . . with my hands. My hands produced music on the violin, guitar and piano. I prepared food; I learned to knit, crochet and embroider; I guided horses with my hands. In the winter my hands sometimes got so cold that my fingers turned white but the circulation returned when they warmed and they continued to work for me.

Hands holding, protecting...

I married and had babies. Now those hands would serve one of the most important jobs of their life – to care for my children – changing diapers, feeding, washing. I grew a huge garden in those days too and my hands were almost never still with hoeing, harvesting, shelling, canning and freezing. Still my hands did not complain – they worked tirelessly all day every day.
The hands that rock the cradle...

These hands have delivered puppies, calves and foals. They've picked up toys and picked berries; they've tied shoelaces and hooked rugs; they've kneaded bread and whipped cream; they've guided trucks, tractors and horses. The list could go on and on...

I remember one time my hands gave me away. It was Halloween and a friend and I dressed up and went to the local bar. Of course everyone tried to guess who were. We did not speak and were completely covered, except for hands. One man looked at mine and said, “Working hands.” He knew it was me.

Working hands to be sure. One thumb has a huge bump from a “bucking-off’ (guess it was broken!) and two fingers are a little dented from an accident loading a horse. A thumb nail is growing out after connecting with a hammer and I have calluses on both palms, but these hands can still do the job! They’ve been bruised, torn and smashed and they’ve ached with chill-blains and injuries but they can still tighten their grip on the halter shank of an unruly weanling foal or caress the silky softness of a horse’s nose and the top of my puppy’s head. As a matter of fact, they can still do every job I ask of them. For that, I am thankful . . . and truly amazed...

My career depends on my hands!