Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast
My niece walking my 110 pound Rottweiler, Mickey, many years ago. Mickey would normally drag anyone walking her, but she just knew to be gentle with my niece.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Christmas Gift

To say my dad had a big heart, especially for family and children, would be an understatement, he was a pediatrician after all.  However, that big heart rarely extended to animals.  He was old school in that animals were just that, animals, things to perform a task with little affection being shown. Provide for their needs and use them as you will, anything else is wasted effort. I remember once when he was giving me a riding lesson he stated,

“Never be nice to your horse in the mountains cause it’ll get you killed.” 

He learned horsemanship from old cowboys where a heavy hand was the norm.  To be clear, my dad wasn’t cruel, he just rarely showed any affection for an animal. Try as I might to emulate that creed I just couldn’t.  Instead, I always connected with the animals on a deeper level than what appeared to be the case with my father. That isn’t to say I didn’t jerk a rein hard when the horse was being obstinate, it’s just that I preferred to work with the horse rather than against it whenever possible.  Perhaps it was the narrow mindedness that teens sometimes possess, but I just never saw my dad having that same point of view. Then one Christmas night he proved that he was much more than a heavy hand, when it came to horses, and that I should never look at the exterior gruffness of a person, but rather try to see the heart beneath.

It was early evening on Christmas Eve or Christmas day and dinner had ended.  My younger siblings were playing with toys or the latest football video game that had become a tradition at our house.  Whatever the case, most everyone was in the living room when I heard dad call me from the kitchen,

“Troy, come help me check the horses.” 

Always preferring the company of horses or dogs over humans, I left the festivities and joined my dad.  From the entry hall we went out into the cold garage and started putting on layers of wool and Carhart coveralls to fend off the single digit temps that we knew awaited us outside. 

“Is everything okay?” I asked as I zipped up my Carharts, knowing full well that for my dad to go outside on Christmas was unheard of.  He mumbled something about checking the horses’ water and feed, though I knew that was false, as I had set out a round bale for the herd just the day before and they still had plenty of hay.  I didn’t press the issue, though, as I had learned to just go with it and not question everything my dad did. Once outside, the chill snapped at any exposed flesh as the snow creaked with each step of our boots.

“Go get one of the kid’s sleds and meet me over at the tack shed”, Dad ordered.  I obeyed as I watched him trudge through the foot deep snow that had drifted across the path to the small log cabin serving as storage for all our saddles and horse related gear.  Digging out a long red plastic sled that had been snowed over, I dragged it to the shed with the long rope that was tied to the front.  “Here, help me out”, Dad requested, handing me a fifty pound bag of oats and then another one of alfalfa nuggets. Being the one responsible for the care of the horses and all the tack, I knew that these bags of feed were recently purchased and not by me.  It was then that I realized what my dad was up to. 

In silence we walked down the snow packed road toward where the horses stood huddled around the mound of hay, the laden sled dragging behind with both dad and I sharing the effort.  Breathing caused the cold to sting our lungs and form icy clouds with each exhale.  For almost three hundred yards we walked until dad was content with the spot.  The horses were in another field about a hundred yards from us, huddled around the swath of hay that I had spread out with the tractor the day before.  We were free of the bright lights that illuminated the house and now stood in the dark field with a sliver moon and a river of stars above us.

“Stomp down the snow”, Dad instructed me as he pulled out the big folding Buck knife he always carried.  As I formed a trench with heavy steps of my boots, I heard the tearing of the bags and saw dad start to pour out a long line of oats in the boot formed trench.  I went back and did the same with the bag of nuggets. As I finished, my dad let out a shrill whistle that echoed off the mountains surrounding us. 

The low rumble of thundering hooves was heard across the snow as the dozen horses responded to the call.  They had heard it before.  The whistles always coincided with food.  I used a different whistle than my dad but the effect was the same.  At the head of the herd were our two Belgian draft horses, David and Goliath.  After them came our various saddle horses, icy bellows blasted from their nostrils as their hooves shook the earth through the deep snow.  It really was a beautiful sight, the clear night sky above, a partial moon making it almost like daytime with the blanket of snow, and through it all a thundering herd of horses. 

Stomping hoofs and showers of snow halted the advance as nostrils sucked in the aroma of the oats and nuggets.  The herd ignored us as they necked down to their Christmas treat.  I watched as my dad went to each horse, patting their necks affectionately, and then quietly wishing them a Merry Christmas.  I had done this before, sneaking out during Christmas to wish the dogs and horses a Merry Christmas, but always solo.  I would load up my pockets with alfalfa nuggets to give as gifts but dad had taken it to a much higher level, as was his nature.  Once the food was consumed, the horses milled around for a little while longer, sniffing us to make sure we hadn’t secreted away another treat for them.  Satisfied that the food was gone, the herd meandered back to the hay they had left for their unexpected gift. 

Without a word I grabbed the rope to the sled, and together with my dad, walked back to the house.  The silence of winter always appealed to me but that night it was even more powerful.  I saw my dad differently that night and it forever changed my view of him as a person, as a horseman.

Going back into the house, the blessed silence of the outdoors was replaced with the noisy merriment's we had abandoned an hour earlier.  No one noticed we were back, and for that matter I don’t think anyone realized we had departed.  Neither dad nor I said a word, as none were needed.

Merry Christmas everyone.  May your family, your pack, your herd, all be blessed.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

What the hell do I have to be afraid of? I have Bo!

After founding Big Sky Rottweiler Rescue in March 1997, I began working closely with the Humane Society of Gallatin Valley in Bozeman, Montana.  Any Rottweiler that came into the shelter was my responsibility to evaluate, train, and find a home for, and it was no different when I came across a dog named Bo.

Part of my duties at the shelter were to do home checks for any Rottweilers that people wanted to adopt.  On one such occasion, while out in Three Forks, Montana, I was told by the applicant that I should check out a Rottweiler just down the alley from them.  They said that all the neighbor kids threw rocks at the dog every day after school and he really wasn’t cared for by the owners.  Finishing my home check, I drove down the alley and found an eight foot square pen made of sheep fence with a couple pieces of plywood rigged up in a failed attempt at a shelter.  Inside the pen was a dark dog with the markings of a Rottweiler.  I say dark dog because his coat was not the typical black but rather it was gray with dirt and grime.  Stepping out of my car, I started walking toward the dog causing him to slip into protection mode, his barks alerting the owner who was working on something in the yard. She walked over to me as I neared the pen. I introduced myself, saying I was with Big Sky Rottweiler Rescue and just loved Rottweilers and stopped to see hers.  She explained how Bo was her son’s dog but he could no longer keep him.  While we talked, the dog pushed his head through one of the deformed squares of wire. I could tell he was craving for any kind of human affection, but I didn’t dare approach as his eyes told me he was very protective of his space. The lady even warned me, telling how one of their relatives had reached in to pet Bo, only to be rewarded with a trip to the emergency room.  Bo’s eyes are what struck me most and when I see a picture of him today I experience the same feeling each time.  His eyes were intense and powerfully intelligent. Not the intelligence that you see with some dogs, a higher level, such that I swear the dog was thinking more than most humans I interacted with.  Deep in that powerful stare, behind the anger and rage of being kept in a small pen, there was a glimmer of desire.  The desire to be loved, to be a dog in a home instead of in an isolated cage.

Inside the kennel lay an empty water dish, its bottom and sides covered in green algae. I mentioned the dog needed some water and the lady shrugged her shoulders as if not caring but, perhaps motivated by my glare, grabbed a hose and filled the dish, not bothering to clean it out.  

At this point in my life I was well trained in various martial arts and the use of weapons. This is important because at that moment, it took every bit of restraint I had to not unleash each skill I had on the insensitive excuse for a human that was filling the filthy dish with water.  I kept telling myself that my goal was to save the dog and nothing else.  I had decided that very thing the first time I had looked in Bo’s eyes.  Even if he was aggressive and needed to be put down, I couldn’t leave him there to rot his existence away. Better to end life with someone who cared than to waste away unloved. With that in mind, I continued the conversation and learned that they didn’t want the dog and were thinking of selling him.  It took about twenty minutes of polite conversation before I convinced them to surrender the dog to the local shelter the next day. I say polite because that is one skill I learned in rescue.  Focus on the dog and saving it, regardless of what you want to say to the people.  Be professional, be polite, save the dog. With her promise on the deal, I left. While driving back to Bozeman I called the shelter and let them know that Bo would be coming in the next day. I also let them know we would need to handle him with care.  Thankfully the staff were top notch so I wasn’t too concerned.  Yet as I drove, the rage of seeing Bo in those terrible conditions still boiled inside me.  It took a long time for that rage to go away but sadly, in rescue that rage easily returns when you see the terrible things people do to dogs on a daily basis. The only counter to that is when a dog is saved. When a dog everyone had given up on is turned around and becomes an amazing member of a family and society.  This roller coaster ride of rescue is best summed up in one sentence which I share with anyone wanting to get involved with rescue.  The negatives outnumber the positives, but the positives outweigh the negatives.  The good things may be less frequent than all the bad things but when the good things happen they remind you why you do what you can to save a dog.  One of the best quotes I’ve seen that captures this is: “Saving a single dog won’t change the world but it will change the world for that one dog.”

Flash forward six months.  After Bo came into the shelter, under the expert care of the staff and myself, he became the shelter mascot.  Because he had a strong distrust of people and kids he was difficult to place but that was okay with the staff, who all grew to love and trust the Rottweiler who helped them with their chores every morning.  I will tell more about Bo and his long stay in future blogs, but there is one story that shows how strong an impact a dog can have on a person.

Jamie was a kennel tech at the shelter.  A young lady in her late teens or early twenties, she was perhaps a hundred pounds, if wearing heavy clothing and soaked with water.  She was a thin, gentle gal, who loved all animals, especially Bo.  Now, the shelter back then was located next to the East Gallatin River, with a labyrinth of trails local fisherman used to access the stream. Others that used the trail were homeless people who had taken to setting up camp in the thick underbrush. This homeless population became an issue when some of them began harassing others and even attempting assaults.  The police were concerned enough to give a warning to all the shelter staff and volunteers.

During this time, the shelter had just a couple fenced yards to put the dogs into during cleaning time and a limited number of volunteers to walk the dogs. Dogs like Bo were classified as gold star dogs because of their behavior issues, so only qualified staff and volunteers could walk them.  To offset the lack of exercise time for dogs like Bo, the staff would walk them early in the morning and then let them hang out inside while they cleaned the facility. Sometimes additional walks were provided by qualified volunteers like myself during the day. Finally, before the shelter would close, the staff would walk them again. 

On one of those walks, when it was still dark out, Jamie had taken Bo out on the trails by the river.  This was after one of the warnings by the police about the homeless people causing problems.  Jamie told me the next day that she was terrified as she walked and spent the entire time looking every direction, thinking she was going to be attacked around every corner.  Then an epiphany hit her.  Everyone knew that Bo was protective of his territory as well as those he cared for, so much so that when the staff were being threatened by an irate customer it was decided to keep Bo behind the front desk until the situation was resolved.  With this knowledge, Jamie stopped, Bo stopped and looked up at her.  Looking at the Rottweiler at her feet she said out loud.
“What the hell do I have to be afraid of? I have Bo!” 

With new confidence, Jamie proceeded on her walk as if there wasn’t anything in the world that could harm her.  You know what?  She was right.  Anyone that knew Bo, anyone who spent time with that amazing dog, knew that he would give his life for ones he loved.  What really was amazing about him was not only that devotion but also his restraint when he had to be aggressive, but that is another story. 

Bo ended up being at the shelter for almost a year before a home was found.  If I hadn’t already owned two dogs, Bo would have been mine.  He not only gave Jamie and the staff confidence when walking him, he also was the reason I met someone who would end up being one of my best friends.  All this because we shared a love of Rottweilers, particularly a steely eyed one named Bo.

For more information about Big Sky Rottweiler Rescue, go to and don’t forget to check out my novel, Stranger’s Dance, on Amazon. Bo was one of several dogs that helped inspired the character of Stranger. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

A Horse Named Jane

Many people don’t realize that I was adopted and that, as an adult, I tracked down my biological mom to ascertain some medical information.  Though I had no emotional interest in a relationship with her, we did become friends and in the subsequent years I learned how different my life could have been if she hadn’t given me up for adoption.  If she had kept me I would have grown up in upstate New York in a depressed industrial town where drug and alcohol abuse was the norm.  Instead, by putting me up for adoption, I grew up on a ranch at the base of the Continental Divide west of Helena, Montana doing things that most people only dream of.

Something I’m most thankful for in growing up where I did, was the interactions I had with the animals of the ranch, especially the dogs and horses.  Being an introverted child and not always welcome with my brothers in their activities, it was normal for me to be out by myself exploring our 200 acres with a dog or two by my side.  These outings regularly included visiting our herd of horses who seemed to tolerate the short human who would wander through the forest of legs and swishing tails as if I belonged there. 

One of my herd favorites was my mom’s horse, Jane.  A tall chestnut with a wide white blaze that ran from mane to nose down her beautiful head.  She was a natural cutting horse who had an intelligence beyond some of the others in the herd.  For those unfamiliar with ranch life, a cutting horse is one used to separate cattle from the herd.  A good cutting horse is nimble and quick on the hoof, and often they know the task better than their rider which makes for a fun ride. Even with this skill, Jane was a forgiving horse for a novice that might climb on her back. Tolerating jerking reins with the patience of an old mother when teaching her children.

What set Jane aside in my memory is not only her tolerance of me as rider and my visits to the herd, but her trust in her riders. Often when something startles a horse they panic, transitioning into flight mode, the primitive survival instinct that has served equines for eons.  Jane on the other hand was calm in the face of chaos and one instance stands out among all others.

During the summer months we leased land from the U.S. Forest Service on top of MacDonald Pass to graze our cattle while putting up hay on our ranch. This involved a cattle drive in the spring to drive them up and then another one in the fall to bring them back down. During one fall roundup, the family loaded up the horses into our old Chevy stock truck and drove up the long and winding road to the top of the pass.  Normally we would unload near a campground just west of the beacon that graced the top of the pass but for some reason that gate was locked and we had to go to an alternate place.  That happened to be the parking lot of the now closed Frontier Town.  It was the only place that provided an embankment suited for unloading the six horses safely. The problem with the location was that it was in a fenced in area with a cattle guard at the entrance.  My parents didn’t seem too concerned as there was a barbed wire gate next to the cattle guard that we would use.  So we unloaded horses and prepared the saddles for a long days ride and then lead the horses to the entrance.  My dad dropped his lead rope to his horse, Buck, and tried to open the gate.  Normally a gate would have a wire loop at the top that you would just slip off the post but this one had actually been wired closed.  So with gloved hands my dad struggled to undo the twisted steel. Wanting a better angle at the task, my dad stepped across the long metal bars of the cattle guard to the other side of the fence.  My mom was helping on the side the horses were on and had also dropped her lead rope to Jane.  Buck, seeing his rider on the other side, decided to join him, and Jane, not to be left out, followed in line.

For the city dwellers reading this (thank you by the way), a cattle guard is designed to allow vehicles to drive over but prevents livestock from crossing it.  This is accomplished by have long beams of steel running perpendicular to the road with about a six to eight inch spacing over a pit about three feet deep.  This lets wheels drive over but because of the gap, livestock won’t dare cross it.  At least that is the intent.

Buck, fear be damned, walked right across that cattle guard as if he was divinely inspired and walking on water itself.  By the time my parents saw what was happening, Buck was across and Jane was half way there when the worst happened.  As if a trap door had opened under her, Jane dropped like a stone with all four legs spearing down between the beams. Like any normal horse she started to panic and I remember my dad rushing over and yelling

“Whoa Jane!”

Jane did just that.  Propped there quivering, her belly the only thing keeping her vertical as her legs dangled in the metal trap.  Slowly, calmly, my mom and dad undid Jane’s saddle and removed it.  Then, all while talking gently to Jane, they rolled the big horse on her side so all four legs were free of the beams.  Then as a family, we pushed and pulled Jane across the cattle guard onto the dirt where she promptly stood up and shook excitedly, happy to be free of the snare. Other than a few scrapes, Jane was fine and after we got the gate open we all were on our way again to continue with the day’s work as if nothing had happened.

After my parents divorced several years later, Jane stayed with the herd at that ranch which my dad kept.  She became my horse until her years caught up with her and her time ended.  She was an amazing horse who will always hold a place in my heart.  Never before have I seen a horse who trusted her riders so much as to allow what I saw that day.  She really was something special.

In my first novel, Stranger’sDance, I wanted to honor Jane and other horses that had been a big part of my life by giving them parts in the book.  It is the least I can do for so many years of friendship. My second novel, which is almost finished, gives such honor to an amazing horse named Comanche by having him be one of the main characters. The goal being in all my books, to show how animals impact our lives in powerful, wonderful ways.