A Barrel Horse

I dreamed of being a barrel racer as a kid but should’ve considered saddle bronc riding instead. I got a lot more practice in on that kind of horse event.
The horses of my youth weren’t papered, fancy, or always the soundest, and they each had at least one character flaw but every family member had something to ride. One was head-shy and a bugger about getting his back feet shod, one foundered easily, another had a penchant for eluding anybody holding a halter and one had a mountain ridge for a backbone making it impossible to ride him bareback.
When I was about eight, my dad bought a couple of horses that were inseparable. One was a buckskin mare named Pretzels and the other was a lot to be desired. He was a rough looking, fat, barrel-bellied swayback chestnut gelding named Scruffy who lived up to his name.
Pretzels wasn’t well broke when we got her and Scruffy knew only a tad more than she did. Namely tricks. He liked it best when I wasn’t on his back and was always trying to get me off my saddle by any means necessary so he could do more enjoyable things like scratching his belly on one of the shrubs in front of the house (which annoyed my mother). He also habitually used me as a rubbing post to get his bridle or halter off.
Scruffy demonstrated his behavioral skills with fervor. When my dad and I went to help a neighbor and his two boys gather some cows, the oldest boy rode Pretzels but made the mistake of getting off to fetch a chew can that dropped on the ground. In the process, Pretzels got away from him and bee lined for the barn so Scruffy bolted to follow. I pulled on the reins hard but it wasn’t enough and got dumped. The last thing I remember before the lights went out was seeing a flat rock in the tall grass and hearing my dad hollering, “Pull on the reins…pull on the reins!” When I came to, I was sprawled out on a couch looking up at the neighbors’ two daughters talking and hovering over me; and fuming mad that I got left behind.
Scruffy preferred sticking to his old ways when I tried to introduce him to showmanship, which he really didn’t care about. He excelled more at fighting my commands and being uncooperative. What I remember the most about showmanship was the time he started bucking while practicing and riding him for a couple of jumps before bouncing off the ground. I watched a dust trail billow behind him and my little black stirrups flapping wildly as he bucked and high-loped it into the setting sun.
He was used to doing things his way and at times it was a battle for me to control him or stay in the saddle. He’d try peeling me off on low-hanging tree branches or use friction to serrate my knee on the nearest pine tree or post and jumped vertically like a leap frog to cross creeks. It generally took wearing him down and sweating the resistance out of him to make riding him less work. In the end, the closest I ever got to riding around barrels was settling for riding a round barrel instead.
column originally published August 2-8, 2009

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