Sunday, May 31, 2009

Lucky, the Cutting Horse

Auburn, California, 1960s. When we lived in Auburn, Joanne taught math and science at Colfax High School. Our friend Claudia also taught at the high school, Home Ec. But this story isn't about either Joanne or Claudia. It's about Claudia's horse, Lucky, a quarter horse mare, a cutting horse who had developed navicular in both front feet and had to be “nerved. “

Cutting horses are bred to isolate a selected calf from a group of them and herd them to a predetermined destination. Since the calf will usually have entirely different ideas, this will require an extremely agile horse. Whether stopped or moving, a good cutting horse can go in any direction, forwards, backwards, sideways, up, down, on four legs or two, and do it instantly. Cutting horses are among the greatest athletes on earth.

Lucky received her cutting horse training from fillyhood and became a champion, but it's tough being a cutting horse. Her front feet gave out from the constant pressure and torquing of sudden stops and direction changes, and she was nerved at age six. When a horse is nerved, certain nerves in the pastern are severed. No more pain. No more feeling of any kind there. No more roar of the greasepaint and smell of the crowd. Lucky went from being a contender to Claudia's private saddle horse.

Lucky was an acceptable riding horse, but you had to be careful, because she never ever lost her early cutting horse training. The first rule to riding a cutting horse is to be careful what you tell her to do, because she will do it instantly. The second rule is to not fall off if you violate the first rule. If you accidentally ask her to do a 360 on her hind legs, that's what she will do. Sorry about you.

Claudia was a very good rider and could be relied upon to maintain a light rein and a firm seat and not give Lucky any unintended directions. I'm not nearly that good.

I only rode Lucky once, but it was memorable. I can't remember why, but we were somewhere near the Auburn airport. For some reason, someone had to ride Lucky back to our place rather than trailer her. For an even more mysterious reason, that someone had to be me. I don't really understand how all this happened. Story of my life.

It was like riding a powder keg with a fizzing fuze. Sit very still, Ken. Relax. Don't put your heels into her sides. Don't neck rein right or left. Don't break wind. It was one of the longest rides of my life, considering nothing happened. She was very good to me, but she was way too much horse for me.

We got back safely and Lucky once again roamed our pasture where she was an honored guest. It was here, in our pasture, that I saw Lucky display a stunning ineptitude. We had grown a little corn, harvested the ears, and pulled the stalks out. We threw the stalks over the fence into the pasture for the horses. They loved them. Lucky picked up a corn stalk and began to munch on it. The motion caused the root ball end of the stalk to rustle in the glass. It scared the liver and lights out of her.

She backed away and, naturally enough, the other end of the corn stalk followed her. That was enough. She took off around the pasture, corn stalk clenched in her mouth, running madly with a=tghe rootball waving in the breeze and slapping her on the rump. She was frightened, but she never stopped chewing. Chewing and running. Running and chewing.

Eventually she bit through the corn stalk and the root ball dropped off. But she never put it together that she was running from her own dinner. You don't have to be a genius to be a cutting horse, just smarter than the average calf.

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