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  • October 23rd, 2020


By Joel M. Vance


There is a well-known love-hate relationship to describe an attitude towards something that is diametrically opposed yet present within a person’s experience. I wouldn’t say that I have a love-hate relationship with the horse; it’s more of an apprehension- appreciation relationship.


I freely admit that horses in general are smarter than I am–they have proved it time and again over the decades that we have had fleeting association, and maybe that’s why I may seem to disrespect them from time to time.  After all, the oldest continuous sporting event in the United States honors the horse—the Kentucky Derby, which began in 1875.  People other than me have been in love with horses far longer than I’ve been around. And I confess to the general romance with the horse. Our neighbor has a full-sized horse and two ponies and we often cross the road to feed them handfuls of grass. The big horse is gentle and loves to have its nose scratched, but I’m tentative around those great big teeth when she gently mouths the grass in my hand. But it’s one of the ponies, says our neighbor, who bites.  I don’t know the pony’s name but perhaps it is Tyson, celebrating boxer Mike Tyson, who bit the ear off an opponent. The ponies get no grass from me.


Without horses the Spanish conquistadors would not have been able to conquer much of the Americas and John Wayne would have been forced to hitchhike around the American West. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry would’ve cherished pet armadillos.  And whoever heard of armadillos named Trigger and Champion?  My Sweet Pony would not have captured the affections of tots everywhere ; instead, perhaps, as a white rat.


Speaking poetically “I rode a horse/throughout the gorse.” I did that in Wales atop a Welch cob, a stout horse genetically designed to pull heavy loads from the narrow corridors of Welch coal mines.  It was glorious in the unusual sunshine of the normally gray days in the Welch Highlands plodding through the blooming gorse, the rounded humps of the Brecon Beacon mountains around us.


I also rode a Western horse on a similar highland, amid even taller mountains on a similar sunny day, and on another Western trip I hiked into a vast prairie (“watch out for rattlesnakes” cautioned our guide”) to see feral horses. There they were, a wary band of never tamed, wild born horses, either destined to remain wild, be captured and adopted, or turned into nutritious food for my bird dogs.


Feral horses are considered equine cockroaches by many Western ranchers who condemn the animals for eating forage that otherwise could be utilized by sheep and cattle grazing on public land at what amounts to a minimal grazing fee.


That subsidized situation defines the classic definition of a predator “something that gets something that we want for ourselves.” Cows and sheep are not the only grazers on arid landscapes—once millions of bison roamed those same acreages and we know what happened to them. Antelope, prairie dogs, any grazing animal is competition for domestic livestock. Where anything stands in the way of man’s insatiable desire to plunder the landscape, the anythings suffer.


I confronted a saddle string of 26 horses and one mule on a horse packing trip in the Big Horn mountains of Wyoming, and the outfitter took one look at me and said, “you look like the mule type” and issued me Andy, a sagacious horse-like animal which proved to have far more common sense than its 26 stable mates, not to mention longer ears.


I was issued a mule to ride out of the Grand Canyon on a mule- wide trail and for seven hours I devoutly wished it would magically become a four-lane highway with guard rails on the edge nearest the abyss. “We use mules because they are smarter than horses,” the muleteer said. “They’re smarter. A horse just might back off the edge but a mule never will.”


My mule, incongruously named Streak, did not fall off the edge or I wouldn’t be writing this since the next stop was about 1000 feet below us, but she did have a frightening tendency to want to break into a brisk trot to catch up with the mule ahead of her. I found that screaming in terror is not accepted mule driver language.


I also communed with the Budweiser Clydesdales and also saw another burly draft horse step on the foot of a diminutive handler who tried to persuade the animal to lift its thousand pound foot from her toes. Finally, the animal shifted and she freed her foot and complained, “I’m supposed to go dancing tonight.”


Famed outlaw, Butch Cassidy, before he became an accomplished train robber, owned a horse which didn’t look like much, but possessed the legs of a Kentucky Derby winner. Cassidy would travel from town to town in Colorado, conning the locals into picking their favorite fast horse against his unprepossessing nag. All bets were on and Cassidy’s horse inevitably beat the locals, he collected the bets, and moved on to the next bunch of suckers. That worked until he ran out of suckers and turned to train robbery.


That long history with horses has not endeared them to me. If I have to climb 15 hands above ground, I prefer to do it on a mule, and for travel, I prefer to do it either on foot or in a pickup truck. It’s a long way from saddle to turf and I can only offer the example of Superman (a.k.a. Christopher Reeve) who was paralyzed for the rest of his life after losing contact with his saddle while riding a horse—and I doubt the horse felt a smidgen of remorse afterward.


Lest I be accused of being anti-horse (because I know there are legions of folks out there who are pro-horse) let me say that as a child my two most favorite books were “My Friend Flicka” and “Smoky, a Cow Horse”, both about horses. I have to confess that I named my first dog Chaps after the dog character in “Flicka”, not the horse, and Smoky was the name of the first horse I ever rode, my uncle’s plow horse who managed to dislodge me a half-mile from the house and keep just ahead of me all the way to the barn as I followed in her wake, crying and saying words that would’ve earned me a Lifeboy mouthwash if my mom had heard me.


Horse history began long before Proto man struggled upright and began walking on two legs, as opposed to the four-legged gait of what would become known as the horse.


I think I can dimly remember a horse drawn wagon delivering milk to our Chicago apartment, but I was barely out of the milk bottle stage of infancy and may be imagining it. Whatever, the motorized vehicle fairly quickly supplanted the horse in American culture, although automobile manufacturers have paid tribute to their equine antecedents by naming several car models after horses.


It starts with the Hundai Equus, the Latin name for horse. And they must be stuck on horse love, because the company also manufactures the Hundai  Pony. Dodge also pays tribute to kid horses with its Colt. Ford’s Bronco is a staple of heavy duty vehicles and the best known of all is the Ford Mustang.


Not so vaunted is the Ford Pinto, which had an unfortunate tendency to explode in a rear end collision, something that never was known to happen when a real horse suffered a rear end collision. However there was a famous episode of Seinfeld when Kramer was driving a horse named Rusty on a tour of Central Park after having fed the horse a can of some cheap stew he had bought in quantity. The horse committed the equivalent of a rear end collision which, if there was such a thing as smellavision, would have resulted in an olfactory injury to viewers.


Horses predate man by many centuries, having developed as a horse like creature some 50,000,000 years ago, well before primitive man discovered its use as other than a hooved chunk of supper. Horse things were two toed then but genetic modification gradually fused the double toes into a single one which made fitting metal shoes much easier, although at the time there was no such thing as a metal shoe.


About 15,000 years ago some smarter than average primitive man got the idea that perhaps that a four-footed (single toed by then) critter could enable him to get from here to there much quicker than his two feet could. It took considerable experimentation to catch protohorse, hop aboard, convince the animal that bucking was not the answer, and thus was born the distant ancestor of a guy shouting “Hi Ho Silver, away!”. Although what advantage there is over a simple “Giddyup!” to the curious shout “Hi Ho!” has escaped me. I would feel like an absolute fool shouting “Hi Ho, up and away!” even when I usually look like an absolute fool riding a horse.


The use of horse advanced as did my consideration of the horse and then:


We sat around a campfire in the Big Horns and the outfitter produced a battered Sears and Roebuck Gene Autry guitar and said, “does anyone know how to play this?” I confessed that I was guilty of guitar sin and he handed it to me. “Sing some cowboy songs” he said.


“I only know one good one,” I said. “Learned it from a Carl Sandburg recording.”


        “When I die take my saddle from the wall

        Put it on my pony, lead him out of his stall.

        Tie my bones to his back, turn our faces to the west.

        And we’ll ride the prairies that we love the best.”


I laid the guitar down, the night was totally silent, an infinity of stars sparked in the moonless arc of the universe , and there was nothing more to be sung about. One of the hobbled horses nickered and there were murmured good nights and life was good.

And tomorrow we would once again ride the prairies that we loved the best.


On 26 horses and a mule.


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