A Man and His Horse | TheFencePost.com

A Man and His Horse

M. Timothy Nolting
Bushnell, Neb.

Dad grew up in a time when horsepower was measured by how many horses were harnessed and hitched. As a boy, he spent time driving a team behind a horse drawn sickle mower, grain wagon or buckboard. He rode his horse to school, when pole corrals were more common in the schoolyard than playground equipment. In later years when Henry Ford’s revolutionary Tin Lizzy was unable to get the mail delivered in knee-deep mud, on spring thaw country roads, Dad would saddle his horse and deliver mail to remote neighbors.

Grandpa substituted horseflesh with a Rumley oil-pull tractor after an accidental fire burned down the horse barn, incinerating all the horses trapped inside. But, whether working cattle or making a solitary trip to town, saddle horses continued to be a part of everyday life. Great-grandpa was a cavalryman in his native Prussia and Grandpa was a Trooper in the U.S. Cavalry during WWI, so horsemanship is a tradition and almost genetic in my father’s family.

Dad got his last horse over 20 years ago, a heavy muscled, stout, high-spirited quarter horse. Justin was a bright bay with a wide, white blaze from between his ears down to his muzzle, and he sported a pair of matched white socks. His feet were always remarkably sound, never cracked, never too long or unevenly worn despite having never been shod or even seen by a farrier. This was a blessing for Dad since being retired and on a fixed income; routine farrier visits could have been difficult. Plus, Justin absolutely, positively refused to have his right hind picked up, although there was one time when we tried and tried and tried.

From somewhere in the corral, Justin had picked up an old rusty nail. It was lodged in his right hind just above the Coronet. Dad could see it sticking there and had tried to lift Justin’s foot and pull it out but Justin refused to cooperate and so Dad had asked me to help. Finally, after numerous failed attempts to pick up his foot, Dad hunkered down behind him, grabbed hold with a pliers and pulled it out. Justin never even flinched. Dad could rub and touch and poke and prod anywhere he wished all over Justin’s anatomy, but was never allowed to pick up his right hind.

Justin had originally belonged to my sister’s husband who had bought him as a started colt and wanted to use him on trail rides. There is an active Santa Fe Trail riders association in southern Kansas and large groups assemble every year to ride a portion of the trail. One of the years that my sister and her husband rode, they invited Dad to go along and Justin was the horse he rode. After that first ride, Dad was hooked and the Santa Fe Trail ride became a ‘not to miss’ event and the annual reunion between Dad and Justin stoked a fire of nostalgia for Dad. You see, Dad loves horses.

I think it was after the third year that Jack and Linda asked Dad if he would like to keep Justin, which was akin to asking a 16-year-old kid if he’d like to have a car. So, some 20 years ago, Justin made the haul from Wichita Falls, Texas, to the Nolting home place near Nortonville, Kan., and has been there ever since.

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The bond between horse and man was nearly instantaneous. The trust that they had in each other provided many wide-eyed moments of amazement for those of us who watched them play.

Dad would step into the corral and call his name, “Justin.” Not loud, no shrill whistle, never repeated, just a single, soft spoken, “Justin” and from out of the pasture Justin would come barreling into view, neck stretched forward as he strained against the distance between them. Closer and closer he came, squealing a stallion’s scream, mane and tail flying like silken flags, hooves spraying divots of dark Kansas dirt until only a few short feet separated them. Dad stood fast, never moving, and Justin would skid to a stop in front of him. Tossing his head, quivering with excitement and whickering in a deep thrumming rumble, Justin would take a small gentle step, stretch forward and gently lay his massive head on Dad’s shoulder and they would rub cheeks.

Sometimes Justin would prance around in a tight circle, bending his muscular body around Dad’s slight frame. As he danced his circle, Dad would gently ‘punch’ Justin along the length of his body, at the neck, the shoulder, down his side, on his flank and finally his rump. After several passes, Dad would grab Justin’s tail and hang on for the ride as Justin pulled him playfully across the corral.

In the past few years, Justin and Dad were both very much retired. Dad’s saddle sits on a saddle rack in the attic and has not been cinched up for several years. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren have climbed aboard, bareback, and have ridden around the corral or out into the yard. But, at 88 years old, it’s been awhile since Dad has swung a leg across a saddle.

For over 20 years they were constant companions and friends. Twice a day, every day, 365 days a year, Dad would mosey out to do chores, call Justin’s name and after playing a few games and displaying an unashamed show of affection, Dad would fork out an overly generous portion of hay and serve up two exact measured cups of grain with two crushed sugar cubes.

Dad had a portrait painted of Justin on a 4-foot by 4-foot piece of sheet steel and had it mounted on the eave of the shed. There are pictures of Dad and Justin, Mom and Justin, Justin and the grandkids, Justin and the great-grandkids and pictures of Justin that are recorded only in Dad’s memory.

“You should have seen him,” Dad told me once as we talked on the phone. “I came out of the house and he was out in the pasture, down below the silo. When he heard the door, he reared up on his hind legs and stood there pawing the air for the longest time, then came barreling up to see me. I’ve never seen a horse stand for as long as he did.”

Our weekly phone conversations always included an update on Justin.

This last Thursday I was on the phone again with Dad.

“When I went to bed last night,” Dad began. “I thought he wouldn’t make it through the night. But, he was up this morning. I gave him fresh water and some hay and grain. He didn’t eat or drink. He did pick out the sugar, though. Later, I saw him laying down by the south gate. I thought the way he was stretched out looked kind of funny so I walked down to see how he was doing. I could tell he wasn’t going to get up, so I sat down on the ground beside him, put my arm across his neck and stayed there until he stopped breathing.”

His voice was tight and strained as he fought back the lump in his throat, “I’m sure gonna miss him.”

Back in Kansas, this last Friday, my brother-in-law loaded up his skidsteer and went out to dad’s to dig a large grave. Justin will always be in the pasture where for 20-some-odd years he waited to hear, “Justin.” I’m sure that as Tony dug, Dad stood close by, memories swirling like brittle leaves in a brisk autumn breeze.

Dad grew up in a time when horsepower was measured by how many horses were harnessed and hitched. As a boy, he spent time driving a team behind a horse drawn sickle mower, grain wagon or buckboard. He rode his horse to school, when pole corrals were more common in the schoolyard than playground equipment. In later years when Henry Ford’s revolutionary Tin Lizzy was unable to get the mail delivered in knee-deep mud, on spring thaw country roads, Dad would saddle his horse and deliver mail to remote neighbors.

Grandpa substituted horseflesh with a Rumley oil-pull tractor after an accidental fire burned down the horse barn, incinerating all the horses trapped inside. But, whether working cattle or making a solitary trip to town, saddle horses continued to be a part of everyday life. Great-grandpa was a cavalryman in his native Prussia and Grandpa was a Trooper in the U.S. Cavalry during WWI, so horsemanship is a tradition and almost genetic in my father’s family.

Dad got his last horse over 20 years ago, a heavy muscled, stout, high-spirited quarter horse. Justin was a bright bay with a wide, white blaze from between his ears down to his muzzle, and he sported a pair of matched white socks. His feet were always remarkably sound, never cracked, never too long or unevenly worn despite having never been shod or even seen by a farrier. This was a blessing for Dad since being retired and on a fixed income; routine farrier visits could have been difficult. Plus, Justin absolutely, positively refused to have his right hind picked up, although there was one time when we tried and tried and tried.

From somewhere in the corral, Justin had picked up an old rusty nail. It was lodged in his right hind just above the Coronet. Dad could see it sticking there and had tried to lift Justin’s foot and pull it out but Justin refused to cooperate and so Dad had asked me to help. Finally, after numerous failed attempts to pick up his foot, Dad hunkered down behind him, grabbed hold with a pliers and pulled it out. Justin never even flinched. Dad could rub and touch and poke and prod anywhere he wished all over Justin’s anatomy, but was never allowed to pick up his right hind.

Justin had originally belonged to my sister’s husband who had bought him as a started colt and wanted to use him on trail rides. There is an active Santa Fe Trail riders association in southern Kansas and large groups assemble every year to ride a portion of the trail. One of the years that my sister and her husband rode, they invited Dad to go along and Justin was the horse he rode. After that first ride, Dad was hooked and the Santa Fe Trail ride became a ‘not to miss’ event and the annual reunion between Dad and Justin stoked a fire of nostalgia for Dad. You see, Dad loves horses.

I think it was after the third year that Jack and Linda asked Dad if he would like to keep Justin, which was akin to asking a 16-year-old kid if he’d like to have a car. So, some 20 years ago, Justin made the haul from Wichita Falls, Texas, to the Nolting home place near Nortonville, Kan., and has been there ever since.

The bond between horse and man was nearly instantaneous. The trust that they had in each other provided many wide-eyed moments of amazement for those of us who watched them play.

Dad would step into the corral and call his name, “Justin.” Not loud, no shrill whistle, never repeated, just a single, soft spoken, “Justin” and from out of the pasture Justin would come barreling into view, neck stretched forward as he strained against the distance between them. Closer and closer he came, squealing a stallion’s scream, mane and tail flying like silken flags, hooves spraying divots of dark Kansas dirt until only a few short feet separated them. Dad stood fast, never moving, and Justin would skid to a stop in front of him. Tossing his head, quivering with excitement and whickering in a deep thrumming rumble, Justin would take a small gentle step, stretch forward and gently lay his massive head on Dad’s shoulder and they would rub cheeks.

Sometimes Justin would prance around in a tight circle, bending his muscular body around Dad’s slight frame. As he danced his circle, Dad would gently ‘punch’ Justin along the length of his body, at the neck, the shoulder, down his side, on his flank and finally his rump. After several passes, Dad would grab Justin’s tail and hang on for the ride as Justin pulled him playfully across the corral.

In the past few years, Justin and Dad were both very much retired. Dad’s saddle sits on a saddle rack in the attic and has not been cinched up for several years. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren have climbed aboard, bareback, and have ridden around the corral or out into the yard. But, at 88 years old, it’s been awhile since Dad has swung a leg across a saddle.

For over 20 years they were constant companions and friends. Twice a day, every day, 365 days a year, Dad would mosey out to do chores, call Justin’s name and after playing a few games and displaying an unashamed show of affection, Dad would fork out an overly generous portion of hay and serve up two exact measured cups of grain with two crushed sugar cubes.

Dad had a portrait painted of Justin on a 4-foot by 4-foot piece of sheet steel and had it mounted on the eave of the shed. There are pictures of Dad and Justin, Mom and Justin, Justin and the grandkids, Justin and the great-grandkids and pictures of Justin that are recorded only in Dad’s memory.

“You should have seen him,” Dad told me once as we talked on the phone. “I came out of the house and he was out in the pasture, down below the silo. When he heard the door, he reared up on his hind legs and stood there pawing the air for the longest time, then came barreling up to see me. I’ve never seen a horse stand for as long as he did.”

Our weekly phone conversations always included an update on Justin.

This last Thursday I was on the phone again with Dad.

“When I went to bed last night,” Dad began. “I thought he wouldn’t make it through the night. But, he was up this morning. I gave him fresh water and some hay and grain. He didn’t eat or drink. He did pick out the sugar, though. Later, I saw him laying down by the south gate. I thought the way he was stretched out looked kind of funny so I walked down to see how he was doing. I could tell he wasn’t going to get up, so I sat down on the ground beside him, put my arm across his neck and stayed there until he stopped breathing.”

His voice was tight and strained as he fought back the lump in his throat, “I’m sure gonna miss him.”

Back in Kansas, this last Friday, my brother-in-law loaded up his skidsteer and went out to dad’s to dig a large grave. Justin will always be in the pasture where for 20-some-odd years he waited to hear, “Justin.” I’m sure that as Tony dug, Dad stood close by, memories swirling like brittle leaves in a brisk autumn breeze.