Thursday, November 4, 2010
Horse Stuff--Part Two--Harley
Harley is my favorite horse. Him and Lowdown. Okay, they’re all my favorite. But Harley is the one who I’ve been riding all these years and he’s my barrel horse. He’s also the one I feel sorry for and worry about. Kind of like the runt of the litter. Or the problem child. He is a little small. But he never gets into any trouble. He never resists me; never says no. But if he was in the wrong hands, he could get into trouble.
Harley used to be Kurt’s horse but Kurt hates him. Harley is afraid of men and Kurt is pretty manly—big hands, deep voice like Sam Elliott’s, rough. Don’t let him dye your hair. One time I tried to get him to touch up my roots because I kept overlapping and it was turning into a Brillo pad in the back. So I had the bright idea of getting him to do it for me because he’d be able to see better, standing behind me and all. I don’t know whether he did it on purpose because he hated doing it so much or he was just plain terrible at it, but he smushed the hair dye all over my head and it came out even worse than when I do it myself. One time I got him to cut my bangs. Let’s put it this way—you remember Nellie on Little House on the Prairie? Well, that’s what my hair looked like. Point being, he doesn’t have a girly bone in his body and is incapable of any skill normally associated with being female. Like doing hair. Or babying a horse. Therefore, even though he’s kind and gentle with animals and children, Harley was terrified of him and required major patience. Kurt didn’t have any and was unwilling to try to summon up some when he felt there was no call for it.
“I’m not doing anything to him!” he’d cry in his defense when Harley was bugging out over something.
“Talk baby talk to him,” I’d say.
“I’m not talking baby talk to him. I’m asking him very nicely.”
“You’re scaring him Kurt!”
This went on until the day we attended a team penning clinic and Harley was so nervous when we were chasing cows, when we got down to the end of the arena, Kurt went one way, Harley went the other, and Kurt fell off. Sam Elliott did not like that in front of all the other guys.
(Edited to add: Kurt is denying that he fell off that day. He says I’m lying to add color to the story.)
After he fell, he said he was leaving Harley there when we went home. They had a weekly horse auction at the place and Kurt was going to cut his losses—he was leaving that jackass for the sale. I was so mad I couldn’t get him to like this horse who I thought was perfectly fine, who I’d picked out, in fact. It was one thing after the other with them. I said, “Fine! Leave him then!”
Luckily he changed his mind at the last minute and loaded him up. But he was still going to sell him. At home, my girlfriend Monica noticed how Harley followed me around the corral like a puppy dog. She said, “He really likes you. Why don’t you ride him for thirty days and then put him up for sale?” Normally I don’t have time to ride two horses because you have to ride your horse every day if you’re barrel racing but the Showdeo season had just ended and I was done competing with Lowdown. If I started riding Harley, I could tune him up and fix whatever little issues he had. It would be better for selling. But it wasn’t the money I was thinking about. If he was well-behaved, he’d be less likely to fall into the wrong hands and end up going down the road, so to speak. That was my concern. That he have a good, permanent home. So I thought Monica had a great idea.
At first I was scared riding him. He was so fast and reactive. But I remember the moment I fell in love. It was when my neighbors came over to watch me with him in the round pen and I overheard Harry say, “Look at the way his ear is cocked back listening to her; look at the way he hangs on to her every word.” I looked down. He was right. Harley was glued to me.
That was eight years ago. I’ve been riding him and loving him ever since. Kurt still butts heads with him. Recently he came storming into the house and threw the halter on the table where it skidded into the sugar bowl. “You catch that bastard!” I knew who he meant. I didn’t even have to ask him. I went out there and called him. He came running over and slammed on the brakes right in front of me. Errrrrrr! I didn’t put a hand up or take a step back. He’d never run me over. If he could speak English, he would have said, “I’m here! I’m here! What do you want?! What can I do for you?! I love you so much!”
But that’s not the end of the story. Harley has headshaking syndrome. We discovered this a few years ago. Headshaking is a neurological disease that is incurable. They don’t know what it’s from. There’s lots of theories—over-vaccination, allergies, an injury, genetics. A headshaking horse jerks his head up and down like a bee just flew up his nose. Horses head-shake for different reasons. A lot of headshakers are photic. Harley is triggered by exercise. When he’s having episodes, he’s unrideable. It often gets worse and worse until a horse has to be euthanized.
The first time Harley did it, we were riding in the tall grass in Oklahoma and I thought bugs or seeds were popping up and tickling his nose. I was getting frustrated—com’on, com’on, cut it out. I urged him on. But it got so bad that he tried to wipe his nose with his foot while we were trotting and he fell down with me on top of him! Luckily he’s really athletic and he scrambled right back up before I even knew what happened. But right then and there I knew what it was. I remembered reading about something called headshaking syndrome many years ago when I was a kid and borrowed every single book in the library that had anything to do with horses. I read them cover to cover even if they were about riders in England who put things on their horses called rugs and cruppers; even if they were about Iranian horses and breeds from places like China, Russia, and Trinidad; even if I couldn’t understand them—I took all the horse books out. Some things stuck. I automatically knew Harley had headshaking syndrome.
I never thought I’d be able to ride him again. But this past spring I started him on Remission, which is mostly magnesium and has lysine and some other stuff in it. It’s one of the many things desperate owners of headshaking horses try. I don’t know whether the Remission worked or the headshaking gods were looking down on me or what, but I was able to ride Harley all summer and there was no headshaking. We even barrel raced a couple of times!
This is what happened at our first race. Harley and I were both scared out of our wits. It had been a long time since we competed and I didn’t feel ready. I wanted to scratch but Kurt got mad at me. He calls it tough love.
“Allllllright then… if you want me to get killed…” I said, hoping he’d say “Never mind, don’t do it.” But nooo. I thought, screw him. I’ll just jog Harley the whole way like it’s an exhibition. So what if I lose the thirty bucks entry fee? I was going to scratch anyway. But when they called my name and we headed down the alley and he saw the barrels, he wanted to go and it suddenly felt right and so I let him. Holy cow! We never went that fast or turned that tight! It was a 1D barrel if I ever saw one!
But then when we approached the second, I somehow lost both stirrups. Oh, I’ll tell you how that happened. That happened because I didn’t put my rubber bands on. Barrel racers put rubber bands around their feet and the stirrups because their feet are all over the place and it’s easy to lose a stirrup. The bands keep the stirrups with your feet. But if you fall off, it wouldn’t hang you up because it’s just a rubber band and it’ll break. I didn’t put mine on because, remember, I wasn’t going to run; I was only going to jog the pattern.
So I lost both stirrups and I almost fell off as we turned the second barrel. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, we veered out into the middle of the arena and somehow I stayed on. Got back on track. But halfway to the third, he bucked (probably because I was so off-balance) and I almost fell off again. I saw the dirt going by awfully close to my face. I climbed back on by my chin. Then turning the third, somehow, by some miracle, my feet fell into both stirrups; I mean they literally just slipped right back in like someone held them out for me and said, “Here, right here.”
I was able to stay with him and race home, laughing with delight. It was a mess. It was one of those runs that people put on the YouTube videos with titles like “Barrel Racing Mishaps.” But I was thrilled because all I kept thinking about was that first barrel. The potential! All that potential!
And I didn’t fall off.
That’s the story about Harley. I recently stopped riding him because I started riding Lowdown. I was dying to see what was under the hood after not having him for seven years. That story is next.