I want to write about a horse named Hank. He deserves a long post, a real tribute. The more I write, though, to elevate Hank, the more trite it sounds. It needs to be a simple story.
The significance of my relationship with Hank was only made possible because of an experience I had with a horse and her young colt six or eight years prior. My Aunt Mary, who lived about a quarter mile away from us on Cascade Avenue, boarded horses one year. I made my way to the prairie at the back of her house where she kept the horses. While I was petting the mare and her colt, I decided to climb through the fence. Stupidly, naively, I found myself between the mare and the colt. In a fury of hot June dust and a thunder of hooves, she spun around. Her back hooves snapped out in a blur directly at me. I leaned back, stepped back, as her hooves stopped about three inches from my pre-adolescent skin-and-bones chest.
I climbed back through the fence. Heart pounding. Legs shaking. If I hadn’t peed a little, I should have. The mare’s fury was instinctual, predictable and protective. My actions were the problem. I could not shake the fear.
A few years later, I was hired at Blue Mountain Ranch near Florissant, Colorado to be a hiking and backpacking leader as well as a camp “counselor.” One of the perks was to have access to the other amenities of the camp — including horseback riding, if that was an interest.
Despite the nagging undercurrent of fear, I went out riding with a small group of the guys attending the camp. A couple of them were relatively close to my age and, with Texas roots and frequent visits over the years to the Ranch, they were pretty accomplished riders.
I saddled up Hank and we took to the hills. My limited experiences with horseback riding had been on relatively flat land, with some occasional hills to negotiate. We rode through steep hills here, though, sometimes on a trail, sometimes not. Winding our ways through trees. Down steep hills and back up — so steep I was fearing that I’d slide out of the saddle and over Hank’s rump.
We went out several times — long rides in the morning or evening. At one point, they talked me into riding Hank bareback. My fear subsided even as I felt Hank’s power. I was maybe 175 pounds. Any control I felt was probably an illusion. I did feel more comfortable around at least one horse. Interestingly, recognizing Hank’s power and beauty helped ease the self-inflicted fear from years before.
Until one afternoon I was heading to the corral to take Hank out for a ride. One of the ranch hands stopped me. The veterinarian said we could not ride Hank for a while, maybe a long while. I asked him what happened. A group of girls had been out riding Hank and jumping logs with him. He had banged up his cannon bone — the equivalent of our shin. Between his hoof and his knee, Hank was banged up, swollen, sore. Other than staying off of him for maybe the rest of the summer, another recommended treatment was to walk him down to the small lake on the property and soak his legs.
I watched a few times as different people took Hank down to the lake and waded in with him. Hank would go into the water maybe three or four steps, the water barely high enough up his front legs to do much good. And I would watch them bring Hank back to the corral.
When I asked the ranch hand one afternoon if I could take Hank down to the lake, he handed me the reins and said “have at it.” I swung the gate open and led the beautiful horse down to the lake. My first two steps into the lake reminded me why this was a good treatment for his swollen legs. The cold water shocked me at first, then felt pretty good on this summer afternoon. I waded in a bit further, Hank following.
After a few more steps, the cold water was at the bottom of my rib cage and Hank was in up to his forearm. His legs, up to and even above his knees, were completely submerged. I stepped closer to him and ran my hand along his broad nose and muscular neck. Hank let me walk him into that lake throughout the remainder of the summer. In fact, I was the only one that could get him in deep enough to have any real effect.
The corral and horse barn were visible from the cement slab at the door of our cabin. I’d push the screen door open and step out, let out a whistle, and Hank’s ears would turn forward, alert, knowing. He’d walk to the fence and wait as I approached the corral. I’d slip the bridle on, swing the gate open, and we would walk down for our cold water soak in the mountain lake.
This is a simple story. It’s about Hank, the horse. It’s about fear and soaking it away in a cold mountain lake.