Large lessons learned from a huge horse

Terry weighed 1,920 pounds when he came up to our mountain in a horse trailer behind a pickup, and he filled out with graceful muscle as we worked with him. A two-year-old Belgian workhorse of golden color, he helped harvest firewood from beetle-killed lodgepole pine. After he'd pulled logs out of the woods so his owners could saw them to firewood, he stayed with us that fall and winter.

Jim worked with me then, cutting and selling firewood on the ranch I took care of in northeastern Oregon's Blue Mountains. When Jim was a baby, his parents had tied a mare to the pickup where Jim slept while the adults worked in the corral. When Jim woke and cried, the mare alerted his parents to leave the cattle and tend to their child. The mothering instinct crosses lines between species.

Jim said the adults often had to peel him off a horse to change his diapers, but he might have exaggerated. In any case, he had worked with horses all his life, and he wanted to work with a Belgian. Terry's owners said they needed to board him, preferably with someone who'd continue his training. Jim jumped at the opportunity, and an equitable deal fell into place.

We built a slip, boards joined together to present a smooth 3-by-8-foot surface to the stubble left on 800 acres of mountain meadow after we'd cut the hay, baled it, and hauled it away. We sat on bales of hay on the slip and rode the meadows behind Terry from after work until after dark.

My daughters, Juniper and Amanda, happily gave up other pursuits to ride the slip, and Laura, my wife, often came along. Riding a slip is a wonderful way to experience the mountain world. Wildlife is largely undisturbed by a horse, its hooves clumping softly into stubble. The slip moved almost silently, and we humans were quiet and alive with wonder behind the horse. Geese didn't fly until we slipped close. Deer and elk grazed and let us approach. Coyotes watched our conglomeration in amazement and ran only when odors betrayed the presence of humans.

The sun set behind Greenhorn Mountain. We traveled way down the meadow. Stars and moon lit our quiet way home.

Jim said, "I got to trim this horse's hooves. He's breaking over wrong, and he's got cracks we got to deal with. I'll show you what to do."

Very large hooves. I remembered where I'd acquired a slight fear of horses. I told Jim. "Many years ago, Pete, my horseshoeing friend, wanted me to apprentice with him. Everything went well the first dozen horses. Until we went to shoe a Shetland pony that belonged to a 10-year-old girl.

"Pete told me it was a spoiled pony, but we had to try to work with it without first raising and tying one leg, because the girl felt that would be mistreating the pony.

The pony got mad and took off, ran to the fence corner and came back, full gallop. I scrambled to get out of the way, but she hit me and sent me flying clear over the fence. My trousers ripped off as I was going over. Pete had to finish that pony by himself, and that was the end of my horseshoeing career."

Jim said, "Watch." He walked under Terry, raised up, bumped Terry's belly, walked behind him, leaned against his back legs, then leaned on him from one side and then the other. "Different horse. You let this horse know what you're doing, and you can do almost anything with him, long as you don't hurt him or do anything silly. He cooperates when I lift his feet, but he doesn't understand yet about keeping his foot up. You pick it up and hold it like this, on your leg, so I can cut the front part. This here nipper takes two hands."

So I did. We nipped, filed, and cleaned four feet. I used both hands and talked persuasively to get Terry to keep his foot up while Jim worked.

Jim said, "Horse is still learning. Next time, he'll hold his foot up."

I said, "Me, too. I'm still learning. That's one heavy foot."

"Big horse." Jim sighted along each hoof, then put it down. "Lead him around the corral so I can watch him walk."

A horse of a different color entirely. Very cooperative. Friendly. We circled the corral. Jim said. "Walks just right now. We did OK. We've used up daylight. Slip tomorrow." And we did. And almost every day after that, when we didn't cut firewood late to fill last-minute orders.

We slipped until winter snow accumulated deep on the meadow, and we went separate ways, Jim off to Montana, Terry back down to lower country in a horse trailer, and I into the house to write and help with my daughters' education. All of us knew much more about horses, humans, and working together than we had before Terry came to stay a while.

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