I loved to hate Raymond.
As a wrangler with a string of horses, it’s inevitable to have favorites. Let’s face it—like people, every horse has a different personality and a unique set of quirks, and it may not always mesh well with your personality. For instance, we had a sweet half-draft gelding named Drifter. Drifter was a fantastic all-around horse. Sturdy, solid, deep chestnut with 4 gleaming stockings, a wide blaze and a flaxen mane and tail, he was the kind of horse people dreamed of owning. His half-draft blood gave him feathered legs, an impressively deep chest and hindquarters, sturdy bones and a thick, deeply arched neck. His other half (seriously, what did they breed him with? A pony? How do you make a half-draft horse barely reach 15 hh?) gave him a cute little head, perky ears, and a startlingly nimble agility. For such a stocky horse he was incredibly quick, and if you drew him during one of the gymkhanas you were pretty much guaranteed a win. He knew his job and he performed it admirably. He was responsive and alert, and only needed a light touch on his snaffle bridle to show him where to go. Most of the wranglers would fight over who got to use him during the trail rides.
I hated riding Drifter. He had amazingly large, expressive eyes in a surprisingly petite face, and whenever I would slip on his bridle, they conveyed one emotion: depression. I’ve never met a more depressed horse. Most of the string horses hated their jobs. After all, it doesn’t get much worse for a horse. Day after day, ride after ride, they have beginning riders plopped on their backs— beginning riders who haul at their mouth and kick at their sides in an effort to “show them who’s boss”, shifting their uneven weight around in painfully interesting ways, throwing out an steady stream of unintentional mixed messages as they grip with their heels and haul at the bit in an attempt to ride. It’s not the rider’s fault—most of them were first-time riders. What more could you expect? Still, it’s a hard life for a horse, and most string horses burn out after a couple of years. They develop bucking problems, rearing tendencies, or nasty dispositions.
Drifter was too sweet of a horse to get even. Instead, he got depressed. The only enjoyment he seemed to get out of his rides was the chance to scratch his belly with the mesquite bushes that grew in the area. He would walk along in a steady, even stride the entire trail… right up until the end of the trail, where he would occasionally “drift” solemnly off the path and through a belly-high patch of brush, slowly rubbing back and forth as he went through before returning to his place in the string. It was hard for me to deny him his simple pleasure, mostly because of those big, sad, expressive eyes of him. Every couple of weeks, when he had hit his limit, he would give himself an extra day off. Most of the horses had 2 days off a week. Drifter gave himself a third by refusing to come in for breakfast. Catching the horses was simple—dinner was a light fare, so by the time breakfast rolled around, all we had to do was fill the row of feeders and the horses would come running. We’d close the gates at either end and voila. The horses were caught— except for Drifter. On the days when he needed a break, Drifter would stand up at the top of the hill and refuse to come down, staring down at the rest of the herd eating their breakfast. I figured if he was upset enough to miss a meal, then he probably needed the day off. Like I said, I hated riding Drifter. It felt wrong to force myself on him when he so obviously asked me not to. Who wants to do that?
That’s why I loved to hate Raymond. Raymond was the complete opposite of Drifter. Whereas Drifter was sweet, solemn, and a pleasure to ride, Raymond was troublesome, annoying, and an absolute terror when he felt like it. While Drifter the ranch-favorite was eye-catching and majestic, Raymond looked like a midget Irish cob. He was a beautiful dapple grey, with a slight roman nose and a compact, impressively strong body. He could haul a 200 lb man up and down the mountain for 3 rides in a row and never break a sweat. He had thick bones, and sturdy, straight, absurdly short legs that were capped off by hooves the size of dinner plates. Everything else was well-shaped and normal looking, except for his complete lack of cannon bones and shanks. By all rights he SHOULD have been about 15.1hh. Instead, he was a stubby little 13.3 hh. He was shaped like a wiener dog. I’m sure at 5’9” I looked absolutely ridiculous riding him, but I couldn’t seem to help myself. As the shortest horse in the herd, Raymond somehow managed to end up as second in command. I think that says something about his stubborn wiles. It was like God ran out of lego pieces when he was making Raymond, so when he skimped out on legs he made up for it with a double dose of intelligence.
Raymond was stubborn. Lord, he was stubborn. It wasn’t that he was mean, it was simply that if he didn’t feel like going where you pointed him, well, then you were out of luck. It didn’t matter what kind of bit we put on him— if Raymond felt like wandering off the trail and eating some of the green grass on the other side of the creek, well, then two of you were going to go to the other side of the creek until he felt like rejoining the group. If I as one of the wranglers was barely able to wrest control from the little bugger, then the poor fool who had never been on a horse certainly wasn’t going to be able to. On more than once occasion Raymond held the entire trail ride up as he dragged me to a patch of edible goodies. It didn’t matter that I was thumping the corner of my heels in his sides as hard as I could— although he grunted audibly with each shockingly hard impact, he would cheerfully ignore me, meandering forward despite the fact I’d cranked his chin so far sideways it was almost over his withers. Bit? What bit? Stop? Turn? Huh? Me no speakum English he’d seem to say, ripping the reins out of my hands as he bent down to nibble, laughing up at me beneath the thick fringe of white lashes as he watched me search around for a branch to smack him with. Raymond respected crops, and the second I had found a switch he’d immediately quit grazing and meander over to me, standing complacently by my side, expression still teasing. Huh? The stick? Why do you have a stick? I’m standing by your side, ever-obedient to your wishes, my Mistress. Red-faced and irritated, I’d ignore the teasing of the group I was leading (Isn’t the wrangler supposed to be able to control her horse?) and head back out, Raymond docile and obedient.
I’ve always been a sucker for a horse with a sense of humor.
The only time I ever let anybody else ride him was when one of the guests had irritated me. When people irritated me, I would secretly downgrade their ride. People who were nice got Drifter. People who were irritating got a hard-mouth, trail-sour horse. People who were so annoying they made my teeth hurt got to ride Raymond.
“Do your worst,” I’d whisper at him as I tightened his girth and slipped in the bit. I swear that horse understood me, too. The rest of group would enjoy a peaceful, idyllic ride through the Ponderosa pines. The idiot on top of Raymond would be sweating and frustrated, ping-ponging from delicious grass-patch to interesting tree branch, or whatever else Raymond felt like looking at. “Use your reins,” I’d call out gaily from the front of the trail. “Just tip his nose in the direction you want him to go. You need to be assertive.” Raymond and I would both snicker beneath our breath. Just the tip the nose. Sure.
Like I said, Raymond was short—sturdy, but short. He was actually short enough that I could put my leg up over his back and actually slide on him with only a little hop. Once I got past the embarrassing fact that my legs dangled almost to his knees, I found his size rather enjoyable. After hours I would sneak into the back horse pasture, lure him over with a neck scratch, and then slide on him. The first time I did this, Raymond stiffened and froze. String horses aren’t usually used to anything other than the daily grind of feed, saddle, walk the trails, unsaddle and freedom. It took Raymond a few tense moments for him to decide whether or not he was going to spook and bolt when I hopped up on him bareback. I wasn’t that worried. If he bolted, I’d just slide off. It wasn’t like it was very far to the ground. He paused for a few moments, then decided to meander. I grabbed a handful of coarse, salt and pepper mane and deliberately avoided steering him. I was curious what he would do. Raymond took a few short, choppy strides, then smoothed out into a quick little ground-eating pace. His walk had us drawing near to a spooky little bay named Chip who bounced away at our approach, and I felt Raymond pause. I swear I could hear the wheels turning in his head. He cocked his head slightly, then set off deliberately at another horse. Obviously, horse with a rider trumps a horse, and that horse moved out of Raymond’s path without a fight. I felt Raymond take a short, happy little breath. “Ah-HA!”. You could almost hear him say it out loud. He picked up a steady little trot towards another horse, pinning his ears and shaking his head menacingly. The other horse bolted out of our way, and Raymond turned, honing in on Rock. Rock was a huge, black boulder of a horse. High-ranking and outweighing Raymond by several hundred pounds, the two of them would occasionally break out in furious, squealing kicking wars late at night. Raymond wasn’t about to let this chance pass him by, and while we were still half a pasture away he was pinning his ears at his nemesis. Rock pinned his ears in return, but moved away in a sulky manner from Raymond’s approach. Like Raymond had figured out, a horse with a rider trumps a horse, and he intended to use that to his full advantage. Raymond began to chase Rock across the pasture at a smooth little trot (his smooth trot was the other reason I loved riding him) practically snickering. I wasn’t in danger of falling off but I popped off and slid to the ground anyways. I hadn’t hopped on to give him the chance to terrorize the herd. Raymond faltered, then stopped, looking back at me in sorrowful confusion. “Why’d you go? We made a great team. We were having such fun.”
The problem with Raymond is that his sense of fun was always a little on the mischievous side. Wouldn’t it be fun to open the gates with our lips and wander through the tack room? We could pull saddles out and fling them around with our teeth! C’mon, guys! Let’s go squeeze through a narrow, dark hallway that we would never enter willingly on our own and go chew through the bridles!
It was like having Tom Sawyer in the herd, or maybe a destructive puppy. His worst game was stealing our radios. Each of the wranglers was assigned a hand held radio in case of emergencies, and most of us clipped them to the back of our belts. Now, with four fingers and an opposable thumb it was difficult at best to unclip these radios from our belts.
Not for Raymond.
Like a teenage boy unsnapping bra straps before bolting away, Raymond LIVED to steal these radios from the wranglers. It was hard to understand just how quick the little mongrel of a horse could be. One second you had your radio on your belt loop, and the next second it had been yanked off and was dangling by its antenna from Raymond’s mouth. When he first devised this game he would twirl the radio by the antenna, amusing himself by swinging it in circles until you got close enough to steal it back. Eventually, he learned how to toss it. He’d wait until you got close enough to reach it and then swing it wildly to the side with his head, tossing it a good 8 to 10 feet where it would land in the dust, slobber caking the dirt to a crusty mud. He did this one time, and I left him standing with his reins in a half-hitch over the saddle horn. Stalking angrily over to my radio, I wiped it off on my pants leg and repositioned it on my belt. Unbeknown to me, Raymond had followed me, tiptoeing and oddly silent for a horse. Before I had even completely repositioned the radio, he had snagged it again and was skittering away on his toes, laughing at me as he trotted off with the radio.
“RAYMOND. WHOA!” I said, knowing it was useless.
Raymond slowed, glanced at me, and then glanced at the water trough.
“Don’t you dare,” I warned, feeling myself starting a healthy blush as the rest of the guests began laughing at Raymond’s antics.
As if fueled by my command he stepped sideways, slowly, carefully edging closer to the trough until he was dangling the radio inches above the water. He twirled it from his teeth slowly, watching me with a steady gaze, lowering it threateningly as I slid closer to him.
“Raymond, I swear, if you drop that in the water I’m going to turn you into glue. Kibble. Dog kibble. Your feet will be glue and the rest of you will be Purina,” I hissed out between my teeth, edging closer, slowly. I didn’t want to spook him into dropping the expensive radio into the water— I couldn’t afford for it to come out of my check. “Raymond, please,” I said, ignoring the fact that the rest of the group’s riders were now in hysterics at the stand-off between us. “Please. Please… I’ll do anything. Just don’t do it.”
Raymond gave the radio a couple more experimental twirls, then sighed. Leaving the water trough, he took a few steps to the side, and gently lowered the radio until it was only a couple of inches above the ground before dropping it. I darted forward and snatched it up, staring at him for a moment before running a hand gratefully down his neck. Smart horse—- what a scarily smart horse.
I really did love to hate Raymond. What a personality.