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
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.