Authors: Jane Smiley
He laughed. “Quitting would kill me, Miss Abby. I know it, so why chance it?”
“And that was a sight to behold. Put me off of quitting for good. Go get on that other bay. He’s a lot better-looking than this nag.”
“I didn’t say she wasn’t, darlin’. But she’s got no spark. Let’s see that bay. What’s your Dad call the geldings?”
“George. But he lets me call the foal Jack.”
“That’s big of him.”
I ignored this and went to get Ornery George.
While Daddy was gone to Oklahoma, Ornery George and I had gotten along well enough by me skirting all the issues between us. If he was willing to trot but he didn’t want to put in more effort to trot out, I let him go at his own pace and more or less got him to go a little faster when he didn’t seem to be paying attention. It worked like this—we would be walking. I would kick him up into a trot and he would poke along. If I pushed him, he would pin his ears and switch his tail. Then we would come around the corner of the arena so that we were heading toward the barn, and he would pick up speed, at which point I would give him another kick, and since he was already going faster, he would give me a little extra, which would last almost around the far end, too. Or if I smacked him with the quirt and he kicked because he didn’t like it, I would pretend that he really didn’t need to be smacked with the quirt again. Riding him made my stomach hurt, but I kept that to myself, another secret Ornery George and I had together.
I went and got him. Uncle Luke helped me brush him off and tack him up, taking a ten-minute break from smoking to do so. Then he offered me a leg up and threw me into the saddle. He said, “Honey, you are light as a feather.”
Ornery George started out in a pretty good mood—it wasn’t that he was always lazy, it was that he always wanted to do things his way, and then sometimes his way and my way coincided. We did a few of the same exercises that I had done with the mare—walk, jog, lope, some stops, a spin one direction and then the other direction, and then a fairly large figure eight, with lead changes in the middle. Uncle Luke said, “He’s
a good-looking thing, but he doesn’t have the happiest expression on his face. From that I take it that he’s not the most eager-to-please animal in the world.”
I shook my head. I thought we were having a fairly good day, though. Just then, Ornery George tried to veer for the gate, because he had decided that he was finished. The veer wasn’t much, and I pulled him over, but then I gave him a smack with the quirt, just because, ordinarily, that’s what you would do to say, “Not yet.”
At that, Ornery George started bucking, and he leapt and twisted like a rodeo horse, at least seven or eight big bucks and kicks, with his head between his knees. When I jerked his head out from between his knees and pulled it around, he got it back down there and kept going. I had to hold the horn of my saddle and sit back, but even then he almost got me off. He hadn’t had me off in over a month. Finally, Uncle Luke managed to get to us. Ornery George was almost finished, anyway—I could feel it in his body. Uncle Luke grabbed the reins just below the bit, and he said,
the hell do you think you’re doing, Mr. Horse?” He gave Ornery George a jerk, and the horse’s head shot into the air and he started to back up. Uncle Luke gave him another jerk, and he stopped. His eyes were big and his ears were forward. Uncle Luke said, “Someone doesn’t know who the boss is.”
“That’s true. I—”
“Honey, it’s not your job to tell him who the boss is. Your daddy should have made that clear to him months ago.”
“He said that wouldn’t work.”
“Oh, sure it will—”
Just then, Daddy came around the barn and shouted, “Vet’s here! Need some help!”
Uncle Luke said, “You walk him out now, and he and I will come to a little understanding tomorrow or the next day when your dad’s away for a bit. You got school tomorrow?”
I said, “Yeah, of course.”
“Well, we’ll have a little school after school.”
WE COULDN’T RIDE BECAUSE OF THE POURING RAIN
, and on Wednesday, both Mom and Daddy were gone to the chapel to set up chairs for the evening service, which every family had to do in turn—it was our time about once every eight or nine weeks, though if one of the old ladies had to do it, Mom would go and help.
It was therefore a perfect day for Uncle Luke to take Ornery George in hand, as he said. I rode Jewel Number 1 and gave the foal some milk as soon as I got home, and then Uncle Luke helped me with Ornery George. We had a lot more horses to ride now, but the plan was to let them get settled until Friday and begin them Saturday. Uncle Luke was to stay through the weekend and help with that, then go back to Oklahoma. That was why he had brought his own saddle.
It took us about ten minutes to get Ornery George brushed and tacked. Uncle Luke led him into the arena, stood him up, and stepped up on him. Ornery George flicked his ears. He knew perfectly well that he had a different rider, and I knew perfectly well that he would put Uncle Luke to the test sooner or later.
They got on fine for about fifteen minutes. Uncle Luke made George walk up briskly and trot in both directions. It wasn’t until the first lope, to the right, that George gave any trouble—I saw him do it. When Uncle Luke asked for the lope, George flicked his ears backward and humped his back. Uncle Luke smacked him with the end of the reins and said, “Get on, now.” George didn’t respond. This time, Uncle Luke both flicked the reins and spurred him. George pinned his ears, stuck his head down, and bucked. Uncle Luke spurred and smacked him again. George bucked some more. At that point, Uncle Luke did something I’d heard about but never seen—he vaulted out of the saddle, landed on his feet, bent his knees, and set his heels, pulling the horse around with one rein. He made the horse go around a couple of times, and then George stopped moving. But he looked happy. He looked like he thought Uncle Luke had come off because he’d bucked him off.
Uncle Luke walked the horse over to me and handed me the reins. He said, “Bit of a rogue. But we’ll work it out of him.”
He went into the barn and came out with a coiled rope.
Both Daddy and Uncle Luke had learned how to rope cattle when they were boys, but Daddy hardly did it at all
anymore. Uncle Luke, though, still hired out to do ranch work, and he roped cattle all the time. Now he came over and held out his hand for the reins. Then he led George into the center of the arena. George went along nicely.
“Now, Abby,” said Uncle Luke, “this is a horse who’s had his own way over and over. And underneath that is some stubbornness of temperament. All horses have something—stubbornness or fear or selfishness. Ideally, you’d fix that early on, but a horse who’s had several owners, that’s a sign that the stubbornness or whatever never got fixed. This horse thinks he’s the boss now.” He uncoiled a loop of the rope and laid it on the ground. It was big enough so that a moment later he could lead George forward until he had both hind feet in the loop. Uncle Luke then lifted the loop up and brought it over George’s tail and haunches so that it came to rest around his loins, just behind the saddle. He slipped off George’s bridle and hung it on the fence. Now Uncle Luke tightened the rope. George stood there, his ears flicking suspiciously. Uncle Luke tightened the rope again and pulled on it. All of a sudden, George pinned his ears, gave a big buck, kicked out, put his head down, and started throwing himself around as if the rope were a mountain lion on his back and he had to get it off.
Uncle Luke hung on to the rope and George pulled him around the arena with him. Every time the horse bucked, the rope tightened around his belly. The idea, I could see, was to make bucking so painful that the horse would stop. But George was stubborn, and it took so long I began to get scared. They kicked up a lot of dust. Uncle Luke’s hat fell off.
By the time they were finished, the horse had bucked thirty times or more. The saddle was cockeyed, and both of them were panting and sweaty. Uncle Luke pulled the bandanna off his head and wiped his face, then went and picked up his hat.
George just stood there, his sides heaving and his head down. Uncle Luke took a deep breath, coiled up some of the rope, pulled once on the horse. George didn’t move. Uncle Luke went over to him with the bridle and put it on him, then he loosened the rope and lifted it over his tail. When it was a loop on the ground again, he stepped the horse out of it, picked it up, and hung it over a fence post. Then he uncinched the saddle and straightened it, cinched it back up. George didn’t move except when asked. Uncle Luke walked him around in a couple of small circles, then stood him up and mounted again. He gave George a kick and said, “Move off, now.”
George moved off, and I let out my breath. He was still breathing hard—his nostrils were flared and his sides were going in and out. They must have walked about, here and there, for ten minutes. Uncle Luke even had a cigarette, right up on the horse. I was about to go into the house and get a drink of water when Uncle Luke urged George up into a trot and then into a lope. George gave him about a minute, and then he put his head down again, dropped Uncle Luke over his shoulder, spun on his haunches, and galloped to the other end of the arena, leaving Uncle Luke sitting there. Uncle Luke got up and went and picked up his hat. I was beginning to get scared.
Uncle Luke had a smile on his face, but he wasn’t happy. He went over to George, took the rein that was dangling down, and brought him over to where I was standing. He handed me the rein.
I said, “Uncle Luke, are you mad?”
“Course not. But I am resolute. You’ll never get anywhere with a horse if you get mad.”
He went over to the fence and took the coil of rope.
Then he came back to me and said, “You ever see your dad lay a horse down?”
“You mean for the vet?”
“No, I mean to teach him submission.”
I said, “No.”
“Well, it’s an interesting thing to watch.”
In the meantime, George was the one who was watching, and as soon as Uncle Luke took the reins out of my hand, he started backing away. Uncle Luke just followed him, but as he was doing so he uncoiled his rope and all of a sudden flicked it over George’s foot so that it caught him around the ankle. George noticed this and stopped, just for a moment, but then he backed up another couple of steps. Uncle Luke tossed the rope up over the horn of the saddle and then pulled on it a little so that George had to pick his foot up. At this point, George reared up and struck out with the untied foot. Uncle Luke ducked out of the way. George was snorting. He reared up again, and when he came down, Uncle Luke pulled up his foot with the rope and George fell over onto his side. He struggled once to get up, but Uncle Luke kept hold of his foot with the rope and he couldn’t manage it. When George was
flat out, Uncle Luke went over and sat down on his shoulder, right in front of the saddle. George lifted his head but then dropped it down again. After that, they just sat there for a few minutes.
The dust settled in the arena.
Uncle Luke pulled out a cigarette and a match and lit up, sitting there. Then, while he was smoking the cigarette, he sang, “Old Stewball was a racehorse, and I wish he were mine. He never drank water. He always drank wine.” The song had about four verses. When Uncle Luke had sung all of them and finished his cigarette and put his match and his butt back in his pocket, he stood up.
George lay there quietly, making no effort to move, and Uncle Luke then patted him on the head and said, “There’s a good son. Just like that.” Finally, he shook the reins and the horse got to his feet. He was trembling, and he looked exhausted. Uncle Luke walked him around again for a minute or two, then mounted him. He didn’t ride him much—a little walk, trot, and lope, but George did as he was told. When he got off, Uncle Luke called me over. He said, “Now, Abby, look at his eye. He doesn’t have that balky look anymore. This horse was keeping himself to himself all along. That’s not his job, and, as he showed you, it’s dangerous to boot. I think now he knows who’s boss.”
I nodded, the way you do when adults tell you something. I surely didn’t think I would ever be able to do that to a horse. By the time Mom and Daddy got home from setting up the church, we had George cooled out and brushed off and put in the gelding corral with the others, who all seemed to be getting along well enough.
* * *
While Mom cooked dinner, I went into Jack’s stall and did a thing I had started doing, which was to pet him all over, ears to tail, just long firm strokes along his neck and back and sides. He stood stock-still for it. I didn’t know why I did it, except that he seemed to like it—he didn’t move away—and I liked it. I wasn’t picking up his feet or trying to get him to do anything or training him. It only took five minutes or so, but I did it every time I gave him his milk. On this particular day, I told him that he was never going to be the sort of horse who needed to be laid down. He was going to be a good horse from the beginning, which was right that minute.