(In honor of the Year of the Horse, I’m hoping to post some horse stories and poems. Here’s one from a year and a half ago when we were living in Jaroso, Colorado)
Early Wednesday morning, August 15, 2012, Henry and I walked the dirt road to Mark’s field to feed Esperanza her oats and check on her five week old filly, Cinnamon. Maybe a quarter of a mile down the road, Mark and his huge shaggy white dog Poppy approached and Mark said, ominously, “You’ve got stallion problems. When I get back from the post office, I’ll help.”
Henry and I looked at each other and I was sure he saw worry creasing my forehead. We hadn’t brought halters and lead ropes because we were counting on picking up the mare and foal that evening, giving them the full day out in the field feeding on grass and alfalfa. Now what?
As we slipped through the space in the Missouri gate, I could see on the far side of the field two dark chestnut horses teasing Esperanza and Cinnamon from across the fence. They were a matched pair with blazes on their foreheads and white stockings. One looked to be older and more mature by the size of his balls hanging down. For a while we thought that the other was a gelding, but that was only because his balls haven’t dropped as much as the more aggressive stud. I was thinking even if Esperanza wasn’t in heat at the moment, they’d bring it on sure enough. As we approached mare and foal, Esperanza, who usually crosses the field at the sound of oats rattling in the pail, didn’t even acknowledge our presence she was so “twitterpated” by the presence of suitors. Instead, she approached the two chestnuts, neck tightly arched and up on her toes, then squealed, turned and kicked, her hooves dangerously close to the top strand of barbed wire. The stallions backed off momentarily, but then closed in again, crowding the fence and eagerly whinnying. I was worried. It’s possible for mares to get impregnated playing hanky-panky even through a fence, although I shudder to think of how cut up both stallion and mare could get. We hadn’t planned on Esperanza getting pregnant with Cinnamon, and neither of us were happy about the possibility of another pregnancy, especially so soon.
As we got closer to mare and foal, I could see that Cinnamon was worked up too. She looked frightened, and I was thinking if the stallions had been trying to get at Esperanza all night, poor little Cinnamon probably missed out on a few feedings and peaceful naps with Esperanza attentively standing guard. We had a problem. Clearly this situation wasn’t safe for either. We had to get them penned up.
Henry approached the fence where the older stud stood, and even touched his nose before the horse moved off. Clearly these weren’t wild horses off Wild Horse Mesa. They were too tame, too big, and too healthy. Both of them were big, well-muscled, in excellent condition, the sheen of their deep mahogany coats glimmering in the early morning sun. I don’t know my breeds all that well, but I was thinking they’ve got to have some big Quarter horse blood in them.
I sent Henry home for halters and lead ropes, asking him to also bring my little whip I sometimes use to lunge Esperanza in circles. I was thinking, not altogether too clearly, that we’d need that whip to keep the stallions at bay when we walked mare and foal the half mile back to the pen in our back yard, but luckily something far wiser kicked in and I revised the plan. Lucky too that I had my cell phone in my jeans pocket. I called Harold Anderson, because he is, in my opinion, the keystone citizen of our tiny community of Jaroso, its de facto mayor.
Harold has a strange sense of humor, probably borne of a lifetime of farming, trying to put up hay during brief breaks in our summer monsoons, being struck by lightning three times, and balancing out the habitual pessimism of his wife. When I got him on the phone and explained the situation, he said “You need to call Dave West. He’s always looking for good things to make compost.” I held the phone away from my ear. What was he talking about? I explained the situation again, thinking maybe he didn’t understand. Harold repeated, “Call Dave West. Those stallions would make good compost.”
It dawned on me that Harold was trying to be funny, but I wasn’t in the mood. Our neighbor Dave West is in the compost and soil making business, having gotten out of sheep and cattle and raising dairy heifers when the prices got too low. He is always looking for good things to compost. But not horses. Not today. No shoot, shut up and shovel on my watch.
Harold gave up trying to get me to laugh. He said he’d be down there with a stock trailer in a few minutes. I asked if he saw Henry to please give him a ride. I hung up and immediately called Barbra, the woman who gave me Esperanza a year and half ago and who lately had been helping us teach Cinnamon about halters and lead ropes.
Barbra is ten years older than I am, but probably looks older than that. She’s had a tough life living mostly hand to mouth. She lives by herself with her horses, goats, dogs, chickens and ducks out on the prairie in a trailer with no water and no electricity. Barbra has rescued many of her animals, such as Gypsy, Esperanza’s mother, a jet black Morgan mare who had been abused, and several pit bulls, all of which Barbra has rehabilitated with patience and kindness and love. If Harold is the mayor of our town, Barbra is its eccentric and wise elder, a grandmother to many of us. We all help her out as much as we can. Barbra answered the phone right away and when I told her what was happening, she said she’d be right there to help.
Meanwhile, Mark strode up from his house with a shotgun and fired it into the air to chase the stallions off, without much effect as it turned out, except to scare Esperanza and Cinnamon even more. Mark was saying he’d had it with these stray horses, and I was reminded how last year, about this time, everyone in Jaroso had been visited by stray bands of horses looking for good feed and water, and maybe a mare in heat. I realize now that one reason they hadn’t hassled Esperanza that much last year is that she was already pregnant. In any case, after fruitless calls to the Sheriff, the Brand Inspector, the Humane Society and whomever else would listen, must Jaroso residents were frustrated by the persistent presence of these stray horses, most of which belong to a reclusive and uncooperative hermit named Anthony who lives on the prairie west of town out State Line Road, close to the Rio Grande Gorge. I doubted if these two stallions belonged to Anthony; they were too beautiful, in too good condition, plus they weren’t paints. Most of Anthony’s horses were paints.
I can’t say I could recognize Anthony in a line up, having only encountered him face to face maybe two times in the 18 years Henry and I have lived here. Once, when he was living at the old Zinn place near Rio Grande Road, the back way to Alamosa, Henry and I stopped to admire the spring crop of new foals born to his already large herd of paints. We often chose the back way to go to town just because the horses would crowd around our car on the dirt road, lick the windshield and even stick their heads inside to say howdy. They were tame that way, and friendly, but not all that well cared for. Their hooves were chipped and cracking and their manes and tails were tangled and dreadlocked with burrs and stems. As we were admiring the newly born foals, Anthony came storming out of the house, a paper respirator strapped to his face and a long bull whip in one hand. He started cracking the whip to make his horses move off, and yelled at us about our internal combustion machine and the fumes it was giving off. This was puzzling, given that the San Luis Valley, and especially his place out by the river, has got to be one of the cleanest, most pollution free areas on the entire planet. We frowned but we moved off, not wishing to have a confrontation.
The second time I encountered Anthony was on State Line Road heading back into town, and was equally unpleasant. I may have been walking, or on my bicycle, but he glared at me from his pickup, as if insinuating that I was trespassing on his property. I’ve had similar unpleasant encounters from other strange people who live on the prairie, misfits, losers and deadbeat dads all, according to our Post Mistress Kathy May, who might be in the best position to have the scoop. Once I had to run up a side road on my borrowed mare, cantering her bareback and heading off into the chamisa and sage to get away from an Anthony-type who appeared to be chasing me in his little Scout. In any case, I hastened my pace and was glad that Anthony kept going.
A third time comes to mind, not an encounter with Anthony himself, but with one of his horses. My younger sister was visiting, a horse lover like myself, and I wanted to show her the wild horses that come off Wild Horse Mesa. Having no luck locating them, I chose the next best thing, which was a glimpse of Anthony’s herd (by this time several herds) of paints. Sure enough, maybe a mile or two from the Zinn place Anthony was renting, we saw a small group of horses resting near a side road, some standing and some lying down. We approached slowly. All but one of the horses moved off, but one did not. In fact, it didn’t even get up. I think we both began to suspect trouble. I got out of the car and came a bit closer, but stopped when I saw the horse attempt to stand and fail. One of its legs was clearly broken, probably from stepping in a prairie dog hole. This was NOT what I wanted my sister to see, so we retreated and as soon as I got home I called my friend Kelly, a former Zinn, to tell her what we’d found and to ask her if there was some way to tell Anthony that one of his horses was injured, and probably needed to be put down. Kelly was grim. “He won’t do anything about it, even if he knew. That’s not how he treats his horses,” she told me. “And he’ll raise a big stink if someone else does the job for him,” she added. I shook my head and tried not to picture the slow starving, thirsty death that awaited that poor horse.
Anthony took himself and his horses away for a few years. Sunshine Valley near where Donald Rumsfield apparently has a place, the local grapevine agreed. But he’s been back for several years now, living in a trailer near Costilla Creek out State Line Road with half-finished fences, a corral and solar panels seemingly not hooked up to anything. Kathy May insists he’s wanted in California on charges of child molestation, but I haven’t heard that corroborated. I hear that he greets visitors with a shotgun, and I can see with my own eyes that his herds have grown and thrived, even in years of drought and poor feed, and I know for a fact that our good friend Virginia whose land abuts Anthony’s has had to entirely fence in her land to bar his herds from crisscrossing it and denuding it of all vegetation.
As all these memories and connections flashed through my mind, I waited in the field for my posse to arrive to rescue Esperanza and Cinnamon from the two magnificent stallions. Harold was the first in his white truck and beat up stock trailer. After letting Henry out, he turned the trailer around and backed up to the gate. Meanwhile, Henry and I caught Cinnamon and Esperanza and haltered them both. In the distance, I could hear the growl of Barbra’s little truck approaching fast from the east. Just in time, as it turned out. As Henry and I led our charges up to the Missouri gate, which Harold had opened and laid on the ground, the two stallions made a dash past Mark and Harold, despite their best efforts to scare them off with Mark’s shotguns and Harold’s yells. Now Harold was yelling at us. “Don’t let them get past you!”
Barbra reacted the quickest, running from her truck with a big coil of rope and taking a stand to the west side of the trailer in the gap where the Missouri fence laid on the ground. Henry’s reaction was more delayed until he realized he should just drop Cinnamon’s lead rope and high tail it for the gap on the east side of the trailer. The biggest stallion headed right for Barbra, and I swear I could see him calculating how much it would take to jump the downed jumble of wire and charge through Barbra. Barbra is not a big woman by any means, but she raised a ruckus with her rope coil and made that stallion back down. Lucky for Henry, no one challenged his side of the trailer. Out in the field, Esperanza, Cinnamon and I just stared in wonder until I realized what a fix I would have been in if the stallions had succeeded in breaching the gate.
Barb was now roping off the larger of the gaps in case the stallions tried again as I approached with Esperanza and Henry held Cinnamon. With only a slight hesitation, Esperanza loaded into the dark of the trailer, familiar enough from her other trailerings despite the disconcertingly wide gaps in a couple of the floorboards. But Cinnamon must have lost track of her because all of a sudden I could see her galloping back across the field, lead rope flying behind her and Henry in pursuit. She was headed for the two stallions who had run to the far fence line, apparently thinking that horses, any horses, was what she needed right now. I realized I had to unload Esperanza to get the pair connected again if we’d have any hope of catching her and trailering her.
It worked. At least up to the big step up into the trailer. Esperanza loaded up again without any hesitation and allowed me to securely tie her inside. I was so proud of her to remember how to load, and to stay as calm as she was despite her foal being outside. With Esperanza securely tied inside, it took all four of us—Harold, Henry, Barbra and me—to load that five week old filly into the trailer, and not without her falling and struggling, and Harold having to lift her tiny hooves out of that damn gap in the floorboards. Definitely NOT the optimum way to introduce a filly to loading, and definitely an obstacle to future lessons about loading, which is a damn shame. But it couldn’t be helped.
While Henry rode with Harold in the truck, Barb and I rode in the back with the horses just to be sure they were okay. It was a short ride, less than half a mile, to the back gate of our place in “downtown” Jaroso, and to the pen and shed inside where Esperanza and Cinnamon would be safe from the stallions. They unloaded easily and we rubbed and scratched and fed them, hoping they would calm down.
That’s when I started making calls to the sheriff, brand inspector, and humane society, this time not just as a Jaroso resident but as a horse owner. I half expected to get the runaround, and I was not disappointed. But for some reason it was okay and I didn’t get too frustrated. Sometime in the afternoon, after leaving several messages with the brand inspector and the sheriff, a very nice deputy sheriff called me and then actually showed up for a chat. For a while there it seemed like I might even get someone in authority to actually DO something. He was sympathetic, a horse owner and lover himself, but reminded me that Colorado is a fence-out state by law, and that there really wasn’t any law being broken unless the horses broke something themselves. He thought maybe the horses belonged to a Mr. Moore, and not Anthony. (It didn’t escape me that the deputy knew exactly who Anthony was just from his first name.) But I told him that I was worried that someone more frustrated than I was, not to mention someone who owned guns which Henry and I do not, might be tempted to take matters into their own hands. Shoot, shovel, and shut up.
At the end of our conversation while I stood by his unmarked car idling in my driveway, he suddenly looked up and said, “Is that them?” I followed his gaze, and sure enough out by the old airplane hanger were the two stallions grazing on the sparse feed out there. “I’ll just give them a couple beeps on the siren and see if I can head them out of town,” he said, stepping back into this car. After two low and penetrating blasts of siren, the horses headed south toward New Mexico and State Line Road. Great. Back to Anthony’s, if that’s who they belonged to. I went back to work finishing a sculpture.
After a couple hours, however, my work was disturbed by three loud shotgun blasts, much louder than the annoying POP that Mark’s had made, one followed by the second about ten or fifteen seconds later, and then the third after a full minute or two. Oh no. An entire scenario entered my head. The first shot fatal, but the second only a wound requiring the third to finish the job. I couldn’t shake the image. Those magnificent stallions, who were only being faithful to their nature, shot down for being in the wrong place. I knew I could never do it, but I also am learning to respect the fact that my neighbors may not feel or act the same way. I am not born and bred on this land; they are. Plus as long-time horse owners, they’ve had to deal with this problem far longer than I have.
I tried to go back to my sculpture but my focus was shot. I had to find out, so I walked over to Harold’s who was sitting in his idling semi with a load of big bales. Harold immediately got out and strode over to talk with me, his six foot plus frame casting a shadow on mine. “I heard three shots,” I ventured. He smiled his little bemused smile and let me hang there for just a moment. I figured he knew exactly what I was thinking. Then he let me off the hook. “We chased them down State Line and over that hill,” he said pointing past his circles west of town. “They’re gone for now, but no doubt they’ll be back tonight right outside your gate.” I knew he was right.
And sure enough, next morning when I got up to feed Esperanza her oats, there they were outside my back gate whispering sweet nothings into her ears. No amount of yelling or rocks made them move far off, and they remained her suitors for the next two days. The Humane Society was sure the studs belonged to Anthony, who they knew by his first name and who they’ve been trying to shut down for a number of years. But when I finally got a hold of the assistant brand inspector and he came to Jaroso to deal with the problem, the two stallions were nowhere to be found. “Typical,” the brand inspector said.
Nevertheless, the stallions’ description sounded familiar to him, and he too knew Anthony by his first name and told me he had witnessed firsthand that Anthony has at least 50 studs or stud colts in his herds. After he filled out the paperwork on little Cinnamon, he said he’d drive out State Line to pay Anthony a visit, and would not be surprised if he were greeted with a gun. “That’s okay,” he said, patting his hip. “I’ve got mine.”
So Esperanza and Cinnamon are back in Mark’s field, munching happily away at the lush grasses that have jumped up since receiving our summer monsoons. The stallions are gone for now, but I’ve marked the calendar to estimate the next time Esperanza comes into heat, and as soon as we get closer to September 15 or sooner, I’ll be on the lookout, and Esperanza and Cinnamon may have to go to jail for a few days again.