Carolyn White: Living the Good Life 3-7-11
My beloved little Quarter Horse, Dixie, turns 26 this month, which means that we have been traveling together now for nearly 25 years. I wish I had a nickel for every mile that we’ve covered – many thousands of them by now – and every adventure that we’ve shared along the way. Aside from being the sweetest, smartest, and most dependable animal that I’ve ever known, she has also been my greatest equine teacher.
I first saw Dixie as a yearling in 1986 after she’d been dragged onto the isolated Idaho guest ranch where I was working. Wild as a March hare after running free with a herd, she was standing in the holding pen, where half a dozen of us peered curiously at her through the rails. She was so unkempt and homely that the boss and crew immediately began joking about using her for bear bait. I disagreed with them. There was something really special about the filly’s soft, quiet eyes and I spontaneously asked if I could have her. It paid off, for by the time she’d turned three she’d grown sleek and stocky with a long, luxurious tail and a rich auburn coat. Never judge a book by its cover was the first lesson that I learned.
Dix taught me another later that year, after we’d been assigned to check on various hunting camps. Returning to the lodge after our first day out, we ran into one of the guides at an intersection along the trail. He had two loaded mules behind him. “Here! Take these elk quarters to the lodge! It’ll save me a trip,” he begged, tossing the lead rope. Dixie jumped when it slapped against her flank – and initially, she kept looking over her shoulder as if wondering why the mules were following so closely – but she soon settled down. Stay focused on the job at hand, she seemed to be thinking.
Dix loved to be in the lead no matter how many others were in the group. Shortly after I’d moved closer to town, we participated in an 8-hour trail ride with four other women, all of them towering over us on long-legged geldings. Squeezing out in front, my mare managed to keep such an even, unwavering walk that the boys had to trot to keep up with her. (Out of that experience came Stay steady and pace yourself.) If there was any wildlife hidden within the pine trees, Aspen groves, or Huckleberry brush, she’d zero right in. (Pay attention … you never know what’s up ahead.) And the morning that I pushed her into easing down a steep, high-sided path into a murky stream, I got one of her strongest messages ever: Never allow anyone to force you into doing something that you know is dangerous.
The bank gave way the moment that we reached it, and suddenly Dixie was in water up to her chest. With her back legs still on solid ground, and me sitting at a 45 degree angle, it felt like we were going to be stuck in that precarious position forever. A long, tense minute passed during which Dixie initially took a drink before looking around to access the situation. Then, in a move that I’d thought could only be done by a Lipizzan stallion, she ever-so-slowly eased back on her haunches … pulled her front end out of the muck … pivoted gracefully in mid-air … dug both front hoof tips firmly into the earth … and with her muzzle to the dirt rapidly picked her way back up to where we’d started. She then stopped in the exact same spot where she had initially started resisting me.
Dixie tried to warn me again later when, tired of feeding all winter long, I decided one season to lease pasture on lower ground. For some reason, that day she did NOT want to get into the trailer, and once inside started pawing and shifting about so much that it rocked my pickup. When I stopped to check on things she was wild-eyed, shaking and covered with sweat. I took another walk around to make sure that the hitch was secure, the lights were working, and that no floor boards were sagging, but everything seemed okay. It wasn’t until after she’d been safely unloaded at the new place that one of the wranglers exclaimed, “Lady! Check out your rig!”
Stunned, I stared. The rubber on one of the right side tires had come completely unraveled during the last part of the trip: in fact, there was nothing left but a few wires and a rapidly deflating inner tube. Already, the trailer had started listing. “Good thing that didn’t blow while you were driving,” he added. Pay attention to the warning signals appeared sharply in my mind, and I was never to doubt Dixie’s common sense again.
Watching her out of my windows during other harsh, mountain winters of central Idaho, I often caught her standing alone in the blowing cold, patiently pawing under the snow for tidbits while other horses stood shivering in the lean-to. (Look after yourself; don’t depend on a hand out.) When the hay was tossed around, she stood aside from the initial kicking and biting, moving towards a convenient pile only after the chaos had settled. (Wait your turn.) And these days when we leisurely walk or trot across western Colorado’s Adobe desert, I find myself thinking relax and enjoy the ride. It’s something that I’ve been focusing on a lot lately … after all, Dixie won’t be around forever.
Regardless of an increasingly busy and stressful work schedule, I’ve been carving out more afternoons to be with her because it’s important to spend time with your loved ones. I can still hear the teasing that the crew tossed out when I insisted on keeping the then-scrawny filly, and often wish that those guys could see us now, 25 years later. I’M the one who has come out the winner, for I’ve gotten to grow older, and more importantly, wiser, with a truly wonderful saddle pal.
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