Monday, March 1, 2010

In memory of Rio - a little wounded horse that, given the chance, strutted his stuff.

I worked at a ranch in Central California for about a year.  There were ten or twelve head of horses on the ranch and they basically had the run of the 20 acre hacienda.  Other than the fenced-off area right around the house the horses ran where they liked, up on the hills, down the ranch roads, out back by the back gate.  As soon as I would drive through the gate in the morning and across the cattle-guard I would always be greeted by one or more of the horses and little Rio was always there.

Rio was a small white Arab gelding and was about twenty years old from what I was told by the owner.  He was not one of the prettier horses nor was he considered to be worth very much at all by the other horses or by various people that frequented the ranch or by the owner herself.  Sure the owner cared for Rio but she preferred to spend time with and ride the other more attractive, more expensive horses.  You see, Rio had a hay belly, was only about 14h2  high and his nose was crooked and had a large dent in it, I was told,  from an angry previous owner with a 2 x 4.  

Although my job was to assist in putting some of the other horses under saddle and riding the ones that had previously been started under saddle but needed miles and exercise, I took a serious liking to this little guy named Rio.  I've always been attracted to underdog types so I guess this fit Rio to a T.  At first when I'd get a little extra time I'd spend a few minutes brushing and grooming him.  I'd hose him down, curry him, shine-up his hooves, brush his mane and tail and then I'd go about my business with the other horses.  Upon occasion the ranch owner asked me why I was spending time with Rio and I would simply state that I just liked that horse.  She didn't really mind because she also thought it wasn't a terrible idea for Rio to finally get a little attention.  

Slowly, I began spending a little more time with Rio.  I could tell he liked the attention.  Then I began putting a saddle and a bridle on him.  I'd walk him down the hill to the pasture and hang-out with him as he grazed under saddle.  I'd talk to him of his long lineage of champions and of the great horses of history.  Mostly I was just being with Rio and spending what I call soft-time with him.  For some reason I felt it necessary to make him look and feel important and valuable.  Each time I would look at that wound on his nose - and believe me it was impossible not to notice - I'd cringe thinking of who could have done such a thing.  Rio was a sweet horse - he'd been humbled in a pretty serious way by a monster of a person and maybe by life in general.  Rio didn't want any trouble and was a pleasure to be around.  He'd resigned himself - kind of like an old Buddha - to taking each day as it came - you could see his surrender and his wisdom in his eyes.

Then one day I decided I wanted to ride Rio.  Being 6'2" and 185 pounds I thought he could be too small; or maybe I was simply too big for him but I knew that I wanted to ride that horse and to merge with him under saddle.  So, I shampooed him and brushed him and groomed him until he shined.  I combed his mane and tail and then I tacked him up in a black saddle and black headstall. He stood stone still like a champion getting prepared for the Olympics - as I prepared him for our ride. 

From the very first time I rode him I noticed he'd become a totally different horse over the last weeks and months.  At least he was no longer the horse that everyone thought him to be before this process began.  He stood straighter and seemed to suck-in his odd little hay belly.  He held his head high, pointed his poll to the sky and placed his face on the vertical.  I could hardly believe it.  Right before my eyes Rio was blossoming - the owner was also amazed at the transformation.  It took only a few weeks of this type of attention until everyone on the ranch began to notice this little horse.  He would lift himself up as though he was the King of dressage.  He was so proud to have a job and to have someone care for him.  On our rides he was so proud and so concerned to please.  He strutted like a prince who'd just been freed from chains.  Rio became my favorite horse on that ranch - even when compared to the other beautiful, fancy and expensive horses.  

I worked on that ranch for another 6 months and then for many reasons it was time for me to move on.  I dislike this aspect of horse training and working different ranches and working with different horses.  One day I always have to say good-bye to my horses.

That has been some years ago now and when I'm really relaxed and sitting on my back deck looking at the mountains of Central Oregon.  When the day is over and the sun is purposefully sinking behind Smith Rock and it is time to relax.  When the most tender and precious memories of my life rise-up in front of my mind's eye,  my little champion Rio is always standing there proud.  It hurts my heart that I had to leave that little horse behind in my life.  I often wonder if he is well and if anyone is aware of his dignity and his honor, if anyone is spending time with him and caring for him these days.  And I wonder if he ever thinks of me or if I were to see him again if he would come to me as before, stand ever so close to me with his wounded head against my chest or if he would remember me.  Maybe I've become overly sentimental about all the horses I've trained and worked with in my life but of all of those many horses who have touched my life my little Rio is one of my most treasured memories.  Of all the animals on the planet - horses have that incredible ability to burrow into our hearts and Rio is and will always be a part of me.  Thanks Rio.  See you at the big roundup my boy!


Gregg said...

Russell, I totally enjoyed your articles concerning the soft treatment and respect shown to your horse friends. Keep up the good work and I look forward to reading future blogs ! G

Anonymous said...

WOW Russell!!!!! JUST ...WOW!!!!♥♥♥