Chapter Fourteen: A Setback

It happens. Things were coming easily for Lynx, perhaps too easily. He had his first real setback and his confidence has been shaken. This may turn out to be a good thing in the end; I hope so, but only time will tell. 

In previous posts, I wrote about Lynx’s need for extra feed and about the ice which covers a large percentage of our ground midwinter. Last week these two things combined to change what had begun as just another day into a very big day, a life-altering day, for Lynx.

Let me start off by saying that if John Deere tractors were not such spiteful beasts, such absolutely hateful creations, none of this would have happened. It’s true, they really do hate me; I think it’s because I refuse to wear the stupid green ball cap with the ridiculously curled brim, especially when I cut hay. On this particular morning our old John Deere was very grumpy, even for him. He was on strike and absolutely refused to start. (Btw, change the words around on the JD jingle if you want a little truth in advertising, as in, “ A Deere Runs Like Nothing”) And so to make a long story short, I was late feeding the horses, really, really late if you ask them. Almost fifteen whole minutes in fact. They had come down off the hillside expecting breakfast at their usual time only to find me working on a tractor next to the barn when I should be feeding them. Criminal, just criminal.

Again, because I was SO late, they decided they had to teach me a lesson. They showed their disgust as only horses can; tails in the air, heads held high, they took off back up the hill. They would go hungry—see how I felt about that!

Alas, I had my hands full of ill will from John Deere and was not that impressed. This hurt their feelings even further, which they would later demonstrate by completely ignoring me when I shook the feed bucket to entice them back down. In the moment however, I chose to ignore them and return to my ministrations on our foul-humored tractor. I gave it a few hard twists of a wrench and some jumper cables and it replied by spitting old grease and diesel on me. I swear to you, working on that thing is like trying to train a smart-ass camel to smile. But I finally did manage to make John squeal and start chugging. At that point I felt he could stew in his own angry fuel for a little bit and left him to idle while I finished my morning chores. I kicked him a good one in the tire and limped off to get a bucket of grain and call in the horses.

As I said, they ignored me. Completely. As in I was now dead to them, unworthy of so much as a flick of their ears. As in, “Call ’til your voice is gone, cowboy, we still can’t hear you.” Which I pretty much did until I found out they weren’t kidding. 

I cannot say their feelings went unreturned. The way my morning had been going, my sympathy meter was not exactly pegging out for them. However, Lynx had been making progress putting weight back on and I didn’t want him to miss a single calorie and lose momentum. I grabbed a halter and started trudging up the hill to catch him and lead him down to his feed pan.

Lynx was easy to catch, as usual. He stood in the middle of the bunch while I casually haltered him. That he was right among them was very pleasing to me considering what an outcast he was when we first brought him home. To the rest of the horses I still did not exist; their disdain was palpable. So Lynx and I started off the hill without them, a picture of man and horse at peace, walking along together on a beautiful if cold morning.

We were half-way down (this is a big ridge btw) when the other horses shattered the illusion. Suddenly deciding that if feed were in the offing they would forgive my transgressions, they hit the trail for feedground like sharks after surfers. Not only that, they decided they would celebrate my pardon with a stampede. Yippee! They rolled off that hill in a thundercloud of bucks and farts and overtook poor Lynx and I in the bottom of a narrow little draw which bisects the ridge.

There are two ways to handle a situation like this (three, if you count going chicken and turning loose of your horse–not an option if you’re a Northern Range ranch hand…): one is to hang on for dear life and try to sweet talk your now agitated horse into walking slowly off the hill without running you over, and the other is to view it as an opportunity. Think of it this way; distractions–sometimes big ones–happen. In the life of every horse and/or horseman some eruption of the rest of the world will occur, usually at the most inopportune moment. It is better to handle it as it comes up; in fact it is often better to hunt up a few minor eruptions so that your horse can learn how to deal with an earth-shattering one when it pops up out of the blue. 

Here was a chance for Lynx to learn to focus on his job while there was a little chaos going on around him. I wasn’t going to ask him for much, just a circle followed by stepping his hind quarters over in each direction. Assuming it went well, we could then proceed with our walk and if he got caught up in the enthusiasm of his herd-mates we could circle again as needed.

Unfortunately it did not go well. The ice got us. As he started to circle, one last horse zoomed by. Lynx lost his focus, then lost his balance on a small patch of ice and fell hard. He got up unharmed but afraid. Perhaps saying he was panicked would be closer to correct. It might seem unreasonable to a human that a little slip on the ice would put such a scare into him but his fear was real. Still seeing it as an opportunity and believing it would be better for him to learn to control his emotions, I continued on with our circles. It took many before he was able to stay within himself, let alone soften and relax. I was a bit taken aback by the amount of fear he displayed; after all he was usually a very level-headed horse and he’d spent his whole life out in rough country so it should have been no surprise to him that horses can fall on ice. But who knows what he may have been through in the unwatched part of his life? It could even be that this was how he lost his eye. It is impossible to say but nevertheless his reasons were good enough for him and it was my responsibility in that moment to take them seriously.

While we eventually did make our way down the hill in what appeared to be a good frame of mind, Lynx did not seem to be quite the same horse. He showed me the difference the next morning. After threatening John Deere with a trip to the salvage yard if he did not cooperate I was there to feed the horses on time or even a little early. I let Lynx through the gate to eat from a round bale while I fed the replacement heifers. It was the same thing we’ve done every morning this winter (well, except the day before). All was normal until I returned with a halter to lead him to the pen where he always got his grain. Watching his reaction you might have thought I was a mountain lion, not a ranch hand. It took a lot of time and patience just to catch him and even more to help him settle. Later, when I came back to let him out it was the same thing all over again only more so.

This went on for several days. It was all I could do to keep my own head level. What had I done on that hillside? I began to feel as if I’d undone everything. But I knew also that having to work through this was maybe a good chance to revisit a step we’d been able to gloss over in the beginning. He did start learning how to “catch me” as they say, and start learning how to control himself when circumstances get challenging. Then on the fourth morning the old Lynx, the amiable, glad-to-see-you Lynx was back. His fearful incarnation had simply vanished. I was glad; I’d missed my trusting one-eyed friend. I was glad also because he seemed better than ever, and glad that he’d given me a reminder about the importance of getting the basics right. I guess I needed to be shown a little something about complacency and horses, and that there are some things a horse still needs even if he doesn’t need them.

So thanks, Lynx and I promise—no glossing over, not for you and not for the next horse either.