Many years ago I was a Wrangler up on a timeshare.
It was a very hot summer day and I was in charge of the arena rides for the children who were too young to go out on the trail rides. For this particular ranch you had to be at least 12 years old to go on one of the guided trail rides up in the mountains.
Those that were too young often signed up for the arena rides.None of the wranglers wanted to get stuck with the arena rides.
The trail rides consisted of picking your way across whatever trail you felt like blazing, listening to the sound of the wind in the trees, crossing streams and flowery meadows, enjoying the flickering shade of the Ponderosa pines.
The arena rides, on the other hand, were a complete misery. No matter how long you dawdled in the shaded saddling area while loading up about 4-5 hyperactive children onto the ranch’s oldest horses, eventually you had to grab the lead horse by the halter and drag it out into the baking sun.
It was pretty much that appealing.
There really wasn’t that much difference between an arena ride and a pony ride, except for the size of the horse and the size of the riding area. Before leading the children out into the arena the wrangler was supposed to explain the basics of horseback riding (pull left, pull right, pull back, no kicking, no screaming).
It didn’t really matter, though.
The horses knew their jobs better than any of us did, and I’m pretty sure they hated it just as much. Parrot, Limpy, Pointer, Moe, Raymond, Rock, Drifter, Tarzan… the twenty-odd horses that were part of the string may have had individual personalities but the second they stepped foot onto that baking sand they parked their nose behind another horse’s butt and turned off their brains. Regardless of what the children did they would maintain their slow, steady pace. The only time the kids got the chance to be anything more than a complete passenger was near the gate. By the corner of the gate there was a large tree, and this tree had graciously stretched a single branch over into the arena.
It wasn’t much shade, but it was all we had. The horses and I would crowd around it, sweating and grumpy, all vying for our turn in that magical, narrow strip of shade.
“Kick the horse and pull his nose around,” I would say listlessly, annoyed that I had to actually open my mouth and say words. Talking made it hotter.
Little Timmy would earnestly begin flapping his pathetically scrawny legs against the side of the horse.
The horse, of course, would ignore him.
“Kick harder,” I’d say. “Pretend he’s your little brother or something.”
“But I don’t have a little brother!” Little Timmy would say, giggling. Of course, being a child it was impossible for him to talk and pull on the reins at the same time, so the horse continued edging closer to me and MY SHADE.
“Then pretend he’s someone you don’t like. I don’t care who. Just make him move.”
Little Timmy would obediently begin tapping his legs against the horse. Again, he’d be completely ignored. When you weigh forty-five pounds and you’re already doing the splits, your horse-kicking abilities are kind of useless.
“Go away,” I’d say moodily to the horse, who by this time was crowding me in my precious shade, heating up my personal bubble with his sticky, hot breath.
The horse would move off. When you’re 170 pounds and have firmly established your superiority in the past, you don’t really need horse-kicking abilities.
I’d reclaim my spot in silence, sweat collecting and dripping down the front of bra, doing my best to discretely peel my hot, polyester granny-panties away from my bum and let in some air.
Little Susie’s horse would round the corner, picking up its pace as it saw me, and the process would begin again.
Arena rides were just shy of AN HOUR LONG. I’d like to slap the person who came up with that time frame.
One of the horses that we had that first summer was a cute little chestnut named Bobby Sox. Deep coppery red, 14.3 hh with a pleasant expression topped by pony-sized ears, a big blaze and four white socks, he was remarkably attractive for a string horse. I never got the chance to know him all that well, mostly because I never tried. It may be juvenile of me, but I resented him for trying to take kill me the first time I really interacted with him. After injuring himself on the trailer, Bobby Sox had been in “isolation” in a private stall for the first few weeks he’d been with us. We’d cleaned and fed him but hadn’t messed around with him until his knee had finished healing. As the season was about to kick off, I decided to hop up on him and see what kind of horse was hiding behind that fancy packaging. Into his stall I went with a halter. Three seconds later I was lunging over the top of the fence, only a few feet in front of angry, violent, charging horse.
The second I was out of his pen, his murderous expression instantly rearranged back into his normally friendly facade and he wandered back to the front of his stall.
I put my hand on the gate, warily opening it. Bobby Sox flicked a glance at me, then looked away in disinterest.
My hand holding the halter came into view as I slipped inside, and Bobby Sox immediately pinned his ears and began to rush me. This time I was ready for him and I swung the halter over my head with a violent shout, giving him a good one as the heavy halter whacked him across the face. He snorted and spun, and I followed it up by chasing him around the stall a couple of times, making certain he really understood where I was coming from. It may not have been the most trainer-approved method of getting things done, but it worked for me. I slipped on his halter and brought him out to the tie rail, and then radioed my boss. The string horses we were supposed to get where SUPPOSEDLY kid-safe and people friendly. Bobby Sox had proven to be anything but that. We called up the people we were leasing him from and got the low-down.
To make a long story short, it turns out that Bobby Sox was actually VERY kid-safe and VERY people friendly. He was just low man on the totem pole in the herd and had also never been in a stall before. Having the freedom to eat his hay whenever he wanted and however he wanted wasn’t a luxury he was ready to give up, so when I came in with a halter he did his darndest to keep that from happening. Once we turned him back out with he herd he immediately settled right in, and soon became a staff favorite.
Except for me. After watching him try to turn me into minced-Becky I never really trusted him.
Still, I knew that he was a perfect babysitter for the arena rides, so I usually ended up requesting him whenever it was my turn to run the arena. On the day in question I had used him 3 times in a row. This meant that except for a 20 minute water break in between rides, Bobby Sox had been plodding in a near-comatose state around the arena for almost 3 hours.
I was drifting off in a day dream (probably thinking about ice cream, or cold Dr. Peppers, or swimming in a cold pool) when I heard a sudden scream from one of the kids. Usually the screams were preceded by the sound of horse hooves— if one of the horses did end up spooking at something, it would usually try to take advantage of the confusion by trotting back to the gate and MY shade, which would inevitably prompt screaming from whatever kid was bouncing around on top. This time, however, I hadn’t heard a sound. It took a second for me to see what was going on, but finally I zeroed in. Bobby Sox’s knees were trembling, and he was slowly sinking down to roll in the sand. This wasn’t the first time one of the horses tried to roll with a kid on them. Every once in a long while one of the horses would surprise us by doing this.
“KICK FREE OF YOUR STIRRUPS AND JUMP OFF!” I ran towards the two of them, visions of squished kid and lawsuits dancing before my eyes.
Naturally, the kid did not kick free, but clung to the saddle horn frozen in horror.
Bobby Sox dropped to the ground with a grunt, thankfully pausing before he flopped over. I reached them in time, grabbing the kid by the back of his shirt and hauling him up off the horse.
Bobby Sox groaned long and deep.
The other kids in the arena ride began to clamor in high pitched, shrill voices. “What’s wrong with that horse? What’s wrong with him?! Is he sick? Is he dying? What’s wrong with him? I want down! Get me down! Is he dying?”
And then Bobby Sox did something I really didn’t expect.
Instead of rolling completely over and thrashing/scratching himself in the arena sand, he groaned even deeper, lay his head flat against the sand, and closed his eyes.
I stared at him in disbelief. Was he asleep?
“Is he dead? HE’S DEAD! WHAT’S WRONG WITH HIM?!”
I walked carefully over to Bobby Sox. Most horses who don’t know you will jump up if you approach them while they’re laying down.
Bobby Sox was not most horses. Not only did he not jump up, he didn’t even bother to open his eyes.
“He’s just sleeping guys. He’s fine. Don’t worry. Watch, I’ll wake him up!” I said in a falsely cheerful voice. I kicked a little sand onto his red belly, expecting an explosion.
I kicked a little more sand onto his belly, watching his closed eyelids.
Still nothing. His breathing was deep and even.
“Is he sick? Why isn’t he waking up?! I want down!”
Annoyed, I reached down and grabbed his reins, tugging slightly.
He stayed motionless, but I swear I saw him close his eyes even tighter.
“HEY!” I said loudly, popping him in the mouth with the reins. I mean, after all— I couldn’t have him learning that it was okay to just roll over on kids whenever he felt like it.
“I SAID HEY!” I popped him again, kicking sand on his belly at the same time.
Bobby Sox opened his eyes briefly, glanced at me furtively, then slammed them shut again.
Annoyed that I had to do this in front of the kids, I gave him a little kick in the belly. He grunted and raised his head, gave me a very nasty look, and then lowered it back to the sand.
“Don’t kick him! Why are you kicking him?!?! He’s sick! Leave him alone!” Shrill voices became even shriller. I didn’t even bother explaining it to them. Don’t mind me, kiddies. I’m just your neighborhood horse abuser.
Enough was enough. “GET UP!!!” I hollered, slamming my foot into his belly. With a sullen grunt, Bobby Sox slowly clambered to his feet, shaking off the sand sticking to his wet hide. He shot me a grumpy look, looking for all the world like a teenager being forced to wake up early on a Saturday.
Ignoring the angry, anguished cries of the other riders I turned to the distraught kid by my side, and smiled widely, trying to seem comforting and cheerful. “Upsy-daisy! Time to get back on!” Time to get back on your lazy, stubborn horse. Yaaay!
Stupid Bobby Sox. I never used him again in one of my arena rides. Trying to explain to a dozen concerned parents why you were kicking/abusing injured animals was not something I wanted to do more than once. Seriously, though— what a weird, quirky little horse. I wonder what he’s up to today.