Wednesday, July 07, 2010



I've had a few horses in my younger days. My favorite and the one I have the most stories for was a Morgan mule. Big critter, I bought him from an old-timer here that packed for the USFS. He rescued him and his sister from someone he claimed was mistreating them. I read that as buying a stolen mule, but nothing ever came from it. He came trained to harness, could pack and loved to take you on explorations. He was funny, strong, curious, and a mule. I bought him because the USFS was letting small sales they wanted hand skidded, campgrounds and such. Small Cedar sales were pretty lucrative those days too. Red Cloud was a little ambitious, so I learned early on to hook him into a log and slap him on the ass. He'd take off and not come back until his nose was hanging on the ground. After that, he worked great all day.

I was used to horses and had some learning to do with that particular critter. When we were trail riding we'd come up to a tree across the trail. Horses will go around, he'd leap it. I'd always think he was studying the situation because he'd get his head right up against the tree, then just rear up and jump. He always acted so surprised that I ended up going over his head and slamming into the ground at his feet upon re-entry. Didn't stop him from laughing his ass off each time though.

Horses generally telegraph their intent. You can feel them gather their muscles, or pay attention to their ears. Red Cloud would just react instantaneously. He once came to a dead halt in the dark and backed up so fast, he left me right in the trail to deal with the skunk. I was dragging a heavy sledge at the commune once, when the ladies were laying out strips of rags for a May Pole. That time I could tell he was getting upset with the rags radiating out from the pole as we got closer, until he finally just took off through the woods, leaving me behind. Smashed the sledge to kindling and tore his harness all to hell.

We both preferred bareback. I bought a nice saddle and first time out, we came across a long dead cow. Nothing would convince him to leave it be, until he thoroughly rolled in the stinking carcass and smeared smelly guts all over my new saddle.

Not too far from where we lived, there was an old rock shop/ antique store going out of business. We stopped in to see what they had. Tied Red Cloud to their 4x8 sign with a halter rope. Truck blew their air horn and off he went down the highway with the sign kiting behind him. Periodically, he'd look over his shoulder to see that kiting sign trying to catch up to him and he would just go faster! I took off after him and soon came across a car in the ditch that saw him coming and tried to get out of his way. He got unstuck and took me chasing after the mule. Nothing would make Red Cloud slow down. We tried getting ahead of him and blocking him with the car, I tried catching up his halter, leaning from the car window. We just had to let him run and hope he'd eventually get tired and slow down. He made it 10 miles down the road to the Moyie River, where he decided he was more afraid of crossing that high bridge than he was of the sign and stopped.

He was very well behaved on the ride home.

I think Red Cloud would approve of being famous somehow. He liked being notorious. He's the only mule I ever had much experience with, so I don't know if they're all the same, but doubt it. You know how horses can be...some are leaders, others prefer to follow? We had a Quarter horse at the same time. I'd often try to team them up in harness, but they operated differently. Red Cloud wasn't all that receptive to neck reining. He must have been harness trained first and he had to retrain me about riding and steering. Red Cloud was a leader and he hated to be behind anyone. Even when I was on foot, he wanted to lead, which would be dangerous with most horses, but he was always very conscious of where his feet were at all times. The Quarter horse was very quick at getting to a gallop. Red Cloud didn't much like to run, but when the horse took off, he had to lead, so off we went! He ran more like a deer. You could feel his back legs kick in like a turbo and really had to hang on. Took him awhile to catch up, but he'd soon get ahead of the horse every time and even knock him over to get ahead if biting didn't work.

My dad got me a job for a month and a half or two months one summer, working for an outfitter friend of his in the Bob Marshall Wilderness out of Augusta. I was supposed to be the wrangler's assistant, who taught me how to make up packs and haul odd shaped items in and out of camp 20 miles away. He and the owners were all characters. Art Wicum was the owner and I can't remember the wrangler's name. Anyway, Art bought six or seven Tennessee Walking mules that were only green broke and we took them in to camp empty, where he and the wrangler took to breaking them to pack out. It was more than exciting even getting them into camp because they wouldn't even cross small creeks easily, much less some of the rivers and bridges.

I'd never really been around anyone breaking horses or mules, so it was quite an experience for a kid. They started out by snubbing them tight to a post and used a blanket to subdue them, then graduated to burlap sacks full of rattling cans and rocks. The mules were so overwhelmed by the racket and stuff on their backs, they'd frequently end up twitching on the ground. When they were through a week later, we were able to pack them out.

More stories that go along with those folks... When I took my first few trips in, they were Boy Scout groups. Art was pretty wily. He'd have us pack in cases of soda pop and use them as trade items. I'll tell ya, a kid in the wilderness just craves soda pop, and Art would trade it for firewood cut by energetic, but thirsty kids. You couldn't use a chainsaw in the wilderness, so everything had to be cut with misery whips and axes. He acquired all his all Fall hunting wood in trade for pop.

The wrangler had his own tricks. He didn't much like kids following him around when he was trying to work. When the following pack got too big, or in his way, he'd secretly dig in his pocket for his trusty arrowhead and surreptitiously drop it, only to pick it back up right away, show it around for all to admire, then put it back in his pocket. Then he'd go on about his business while all the kids were digging around in the duff, looking for more arrowheads! He could pull the same trick with the same kids, time after time without them catching on. They probably thought his pockets were brimming with arrowheads.

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