…the old gelding stood quietly in line not far from the person he knew and trusted.
Decades earlier, an old rancher had an idea. Riding into the west end of Oregon’s Blue Mountains near Murderer’s Creek, he led an Appaloosa stallion.
This horse was in the prime of his life—large, strong and smart. He would need it for his part of the experiment.
About the time tractors were introduced into agriculture, farmers and ranchers had no commercial market for their outdated draft horses. However, the big question on their minds was: “What if tractors don’t work out?” In that case, they’d need to put their horses back to work. That’s how this mountainous region became a gathering point, an inexpensive place, to turn out the Percheron draft horses that’d put up many, many tons of hay and built highways throughout Eastern Oregon.
Some years later, between the first and second world wars, our federal government used the same cost-saving method to replace thousands of cavalry mounts. They turned dozens of Thorough Bred studs out into these feral horse breeding grounds. This produced big, strong horses with an abundance of endurance—exactly what the military needed.
No one knows the plans in the old rancher’s mind when he turned out that Appaloosa stallion. Perhaps it had to do with fancy colors many cowboys prefer for their workaday horse. Or, maybe, it was the breed’s reputation for brains and sure-footedness. Something a cowboy values when riding the long-circle looking for a wandering cow.
Then, for a time, we lose track of the story of our stallion.
Many years later, we regain our view with a young Appaloosa stud colt born on the range in those same Blue Mountains. He caught the eye of a local ranch family who were looking for new blood to add to their working horse string. The youngster was included in the gather.
For a couple years, the stud colt grew to his full potential turned out in large pastures. Then he was gelded and his basic training begun. Somewhere around his third birthday, a young couple and their daughter, who had property in the area, spotted him. Mom and horse took one look at each other, they clicked. Soon a deal was made and his name was Feathers.
Over the years, Feathers bloomed into an all-around family horse. He could hunt, play, trail-ride, pony fractious young horses on brush track racecourses and be a steadying companion for other overly-anxious horses on those same tracks. He was interested in the world and learned to take what came with a sure-footed calm and dignity.
That didn’t mean he couldn’t be surprised.
One time he was at a horse show in a small-town fairgrounds. Mom was watering him when a camel trotted by. It took him a few hops and skips to wrap his head around a two-humped creature. Mom was glad she’d had a good grip on his reins during the incident. Once Feathers figured out there was no danger, he got back to work in the arena.
Nor was Feathers without his quirks.
Sometimes, he felt grazing was more important than being caught. Mom, Feathers’ special person, figured that one out. She learned the trick of approaching him without halter and lead rope in hand. What he couldn’t see was the haystring in her pocket. When he approached, she’d give him a friendly knuckle-rub on his forehead, and then wrap the haystring around his neck. He always gave immediately.
However, what really won big bonus points with Feathers’ family was his patience with their young daughter. He would stand for hours while this horse-crazed youngster primped on him. For hours, she’d brush and braid his coat, tail and mane to her heart’s content. With a steady eye and firm heart, he took her through several years of 4H western equitation, trail and showmanship classes.
Still, after all those years, Feathers never lost the basic survival skills he’d learned in the Blue Mountains. He was always aware of where he put his feet. Things on the ground like a snake, stick or errant piece of haystring were signals he should check for danger. If he didn’t like or understand them, a quick leap to one side was in order. It was up to the rider to stay on board.
One late spring, well over two decades after the family was first introduced to Feathers, they noticed something was wrong with their horse. He was losing weight, his coat looked ‘off’ and he wasn’t his usual confident self.
This is the time in an animal’s life when a livestock producer needs to make decisions. An experienced horse owner ‘knows’ when an animal’s time is near. What they don’t know is—how near.
They could call a veterinarian and sink a ton of money into medical visits and special feed to prolong his life. But the questions stood—”Were they doing what’s best for the horse or finding a way to postpone, at the horse’s expense, the inevitable pain of losing a family friend and did the horse REALLY want to live through another winter?”
They could give that same veterinarian a call for an assist with a quick end. But, on a small suburban property, they had no place to bury the horse’s remains. If his burial took place out in the open countryside, then the toxic chemicals used in the painless passing would ensure little or no chance of any natural decomposition.
Feathers continued to decline.
They discussed returning their old friend to the mountains where he was born and finishing the matter themselves. In the end, the decision was made by the family’s father, a child of the Great Depression. He survived his childhood by making use of everything around him.
This was back in the day when horse slaughter plants were legal in this country. There was no reason to gather horses near the end of their lives, a semi-truck load at a time, and haul them a thousand miles to Mexico or Canada. The father chose a plant within twenty miles of the horse’s home.
On the big day, Feathers and his special friend were at the plant when it opened. Mom secured him the second spot in line. She knew his wait would be minimal and he could comfortably follow the lead horse up the ramp.
Just before his turn, Feathers glanced over at Mom—she smiled back. He stepped up the ramp and the deed was done.
For Mom, it was a short ride home that morning, but with an empty horse trailer, it seemed to take forever.
Around July 4th of this year, the Rainbow Family of the Living Light will be gathering Oregon’s Blue Mountains near the headwaters of Murderer’s Creek. Preliminary estimates indicate that between 10-30,000 people from around the nation will be attending this event.
To be fair, the Rainbow Family has a good record of cleaning up after themselves. It’s the infrastructure and land which bear the brunt of this population boom.
We wish the human neighbors, feral horses and other wildlife well during this event.
Sleep well, we’ll talk again…..