Monday, March 8, 2010

Butkus, the horse that wouldn't load?

I was living, training horses and running an equine transport business in the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley just north of Santa Barbara, California.  I remember a phone call I received one day from a woman who wanted a horse delivered to a destination about two hours distance from her home.  She lived about an hour north of the Santa Ynez Valley so for me it was about a six-hour job; no problem.  However, at the very end of our conversation the woman mentioned, and oddly quite incidentally, that the horse had not loaded into a trailer in many years and that when they'd previously attempted the act well, he just wouldn't load.  She asked me if I'd had experience with such horses and I told her quite frankly that it would not be a problem.  Our horse, a stout 16h2, 1300 pound x-police horse was named Butkus. 

For anyone who doesn't know that name I'll briefly say that Dick Butkus was a pro NFL linebacker for the Chicago Bears in the 1960's.  Many still believe him to be one of the best linebackers to ever play the game of professional football.  A word that was often used to describe Butkus' playing style was ferocious.  The NFL offensive teams he played against dreaded this linebacker to death - he was an animal while wearing his famous #51 joursey and he just never stopped his assault while on the field.

As I was driving the next day to pick-up our Mr. Butkus I began to wonder if he could have anything in common with or was maybe even named after our ferocious Hall of Fame linebacker.  Suddenly my mind began to dance around the possibility that I'd not be able to load him either. And why in the heck was I so confident anyway?  And the hassle and embarrasement if I didn't get him loaded plus my horse trainer ego that would more than likely get a serious lesson in humility   And maybe there'd be a crowd of people watching this confident and professional horse transporter not get Mr. Butkus loaded.  Oh Lord, I thought. 

I arrived at the address and since I'd telephoned from fifteen minutes out the woman came to the door before I'd gotten out of the rig.  Somehow I'll never forget the visual of the woman at 11:30 in the morning in her pink bathrobe with a head full of those foamy curlers my sisters wore prior to their dates in the 1950's.  I'll never forget being confused when my sisters would meet with their boyfriends on the very day of a date, with those curlers in their hair, so they'd be beautiful that evening for the date.  I never could wrap my head around that.
Anyway, the woman yelled to me as I stepped out of the cab that her husband would bring Butkus around in a moment so I proceeded to open the trailer doors and prepare for our, by now famous at least in my head, Mr. Butkus.  As I watched in the direction the woman had indicated I suddenly saw the husband and Butkus rounding the corner.  It was quite clear who was bringing who.  The husband had his hands full as Butkus was pushing and pulling him every which way but loose.  They both stopped about five feet in front of me, the man huffing and puffing and eager to hand the monster over to me.  Butkus didn't seem to be flustered in the least, he was used to throwing his weight around and he seemed to like it.  

Butkus was a classis chessnut gelding and really nothing flashy at all although his size was imposing. He had a small white blaze between his eyes and not a hint of white on his feet.  Horsemen know that one can learn a lot from observing a horse's eye.  There are horses with wild eyes, confused eyes, confident eyes, soft eyes, why me eyes, hurt eyes and just about anything and everything inbetween.  Unfortunately, there was no softness in Butkus' eye but there was a well rehearsed confidence and a difficult to be confused with anything other than a look of I'm da boss round these parts.

The man handed me the lead rope and quickly stepped back four feet and put his arm around his wife who by now had joined us at the curb. Wanting to get further information on this horse and his history, so I might get some sort of handle as to how to proceed,  I asked the man, and the curler-headed woman what would usually happen when others had tried loading Butkus in the past.  Well, the man said, he'd always walk right up to that trailer door like he was going to walk right in and he'd even put his front feet in.  Then, when we would think he was going to walk right in he'd shoot backwards like a rocket and stand ten feet away from the trailer door just looking at everyone like they were idiots.  Naturally I was to learn that when Butkus would put those two feet in the trailer the usual procedure was that then the people trying to load him would start their pushing, pulling and whipping etc.  This is what he'd do just about every time someone attempted to load him and in the years past various people had showed-up with pully's and ropes and gadgets to use on Mr. Butkus but he never did load, not once. Those who thought they could come into their fame and break Butkus' routine would invariably end-up walking away after som ehours, humbled sweaty and tired, bent gadgets and gizmos in hand and shaking their heads never to be seen again.

So it appeared quite obvious that I was just the next in line for our little game of I da boss.  In my horse training I'd learned to shut-off my mind in situations like this, to empty everything from inside in order to stand empty and ready to receive inspiration and intuition and that's what I was praying for at this moment. Sure enough I slowly but matter-of factly walked Butkus to the trailer door and sure enough he put his front feet inside and then shot backwards just as I was told he'd do. Then he just looked at me as to say "you know the deal, I heard you and the two idiots over there talking about it so get a grip would ya?" I walked Butkus, who was now acting like nothing had ever happened, around the yard for a few moments, rubbed on him a bit and prayed again, but harder this time, for inspiration.  I walked him back to the trailer and the exact same thing happened again.  In butkus' eye one could even see he enjoyed this.  He knew exactly what I, and all the others from the past, wanted but I began to understand that this was his way of having some control in his life.  Otherwise he's just a prisoner with no say in anything.  Butkus waited for guys like me to show-up so he could play his game  I'm sure he'd just keep on playing this game all day long if didn't just plain tucker folks out so much. 

We have to remember that horses adopt what we consider to be difficult behavior as a result of having to hang around and put up with idiots or people who don't know a darn thing about these incredible animals. They're fenced-in, neglected most of the time, improperly fed, psychologically, emotionally and physically abused, taken away from family and friends of the past, yanked around by people who are clueless as to who they are so horses often choose behaviors that work for them in order to survive all the crap; much like children with abusive parents for that matter.  Sor horses this behavior can mean kicking, biting, bucking, ignoring and even attacking people to name just a few: the list goes on and on. I feel that if horses didn't do this they would eventually just go crazy.  In all my years of training and being around horses and horse people I'd offer one fundamental pearl of wisdom and that is that most horse people don't have a curley clue about these animals and that they need to go away and come back later with a grip. And I'll dedicate an entire post to this subject later but for now let's get back to our Mr. Butkus.

As I was walking Butkus back towards the trailer for the fourth time I really wasn't quite sure what was going to happen but I had the inclination that it could just be a whole lot of what had transpired up until now.  Then a rather strange and amazing thing happened.  As Butkus and I walked back towards the trailer and as he stepped his front feet inside a very gentle and subtle force guided my hand to simply back him out of the trailer.  As I look back on that day and as I run through it again and again in my mind I realize that a force outside of myself stepped in , took my hand ever so gently and simply took a very soft step out of the trailer.  And that was the instant that changed Butkus' world forever. Let me tell you that since that day and never prior to that day had I seen such a look in a horse's eye. It was kind of like the deer's eyes in the headlights in a sort of way.  It was actually comical. Our Mr. Butkus just couldn't compute this new game. Again I walked him back up to the trailer and did the same thing.  He stepped inside the trailer with his front feet and quickly, gently and softly I asked him to step back out, before he was quick enough to implement his routine.  Once again there was that look of disbelief on his face.

Next, and without hesitation, I walked to the rear of the trailer with Butkus under lead, stepped-in and walked into the trailer until the lead rope was fully extended and just waited. Suddenly, and without further adieu, Butkus stepped into the trailer and walked right past me to the window and poked his head out as though he did this every day of his life and what was the big deal? I closed the partition and there he was our ferocious linebacker; our Mr. Butkus, jersey number 51 of the Chicago Bears,  had loaded without a problem.  I'm not totally sure about this but I've considered that maybe this little trick of sorts had, in a harmless manner, blown Butkus' mind. Or maybe at that instant he had himself decided he didn't want to play his game anymore or that he'd just plain and simple been out-foxed him. 

No matter what had really happened that day I delivered Butkus to his destination without incident, said a heartfelt goodbye to this horse I would never, ever forget and proceeded on my way.I called the people about six months later and asked if Butkus was once again up to his trailering game and they said that from that day on he would jump right in without a fuss.

I can't take even the slightest responsibility for that instant of inspiration that changed a portion of Butkus' life and most certainly saved me from possible hours of frustration. I've taught horses to load for many years now and as horse folks know, if a horse doesn't want to load, sure we have our tricks and sometimes they even work, but if that one horse out of ten thousand doesn't feel like it you just might as well pack your lunch and go fishin and come back another day.  Because if you stick around and keep forcing the issue, you can have a monster fight on your hands and it'll certainly ruin your day and maybe even your week.

As I was walking towards the trailer I believe a Presence that just happened to be in the area decided to have some fun.  That presence probably saw my predicament and intervened for the very briefest instant at exactly the right time and everything was changed.  It is an understatement to say I learned a lot that day.  Life gave me a blessing and now that blessing sits gently in my bag of horse tricks to pass-on to folks like you.  There's a lesson here and if you add it to your bag of tricks also it can save mountains of time in the right or wrong situation.  


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great inspirational story!