Stallion Showcase: The Good Ones: Mary, Queen of the Ranch
Editor’s Note: The rancher in this story has asked to not be identified.
Mary was a tall, dark bay mare with kind eyes and a keen dose of cow sense. She had a smooth trot, high withers, a propensity for spooking at anything under the sun, and a passionate hatred of rattlesnakes.
Mary was just a youngster when she came to the ranch in 1977. She lived to the ripe old age of thirty-one and taught nine children how to hang on for the ride. She gave her family a dynasty of daughters and grandbabies that kept everyone mounted and kept the cows fed and in line.
Mary loved to chase cows, although she made it clear that she disliked them. It was in her blood and she put her heart into her work. She could cut a cow out of the bunch or keep the herd moving without her rider having to offer any suggestions. If she was chasing a cow, one had better sit deep and grab a handful of mane.
Mary could go all day, gathering the neighbors’ cattle out of the huge government pastures that surrounded her ranch. She could cut a cow out of the herd and trail her home, sort pairs, or trail mamas with tender calves across the river to summer pasture. Mary would let young riders sidle her up to a fence or a cut bank so that they could climb onto her broad, brown bare back.
If a cow lazily dragged her feet at the back of the herd, or if a cow drifted off —a “sidewinder” that needed to be brought back, Mary would pin her ears. If the cow didn’t get her act together, Mary would bite her to get her moving.
As Mary’s ranch family grew, she got to teach the growing children the ropes of ranch riding. She carried them bareback out to get the milk cow in. She carried them across the river to check cows during the summer. During breeding season, she patiently lingered with them in the summer pasture for weeks of heat detecting.
Mary taught them how to balance, how to move with her easy trot and rocking lope. She taught them to keep their seat when she shied at a bird flying up or a tumbleweed blowing past, when she jumped at the sound of a rattlesnake, when she crowhopped down a hill, when she danced with a cow.
When a rattlesnake buzzed close by, Mary would jump aside with a snort. Even after the snake was dead, she snorted and shied away from the smell of it that lingered on the rope and chain used to kill it.
Mary’s first daughter, Tuesday, was born on a Tuesday and christened thus because the rancher’s boys were deep into Robinson Crusoe, who found his ‘Man Friday’ on a Friday. Tuesday most certainly lived up to the spirit of her name, becoming her rancher’s ‘Girl Friday’ through many long winters of feeding cows.
Tuesday had a unique habit of presenting herself to be caught. The rancher would come down to the barn in the morning, and when Tuesday saw him she would come tearing down the hill from the west corral with her ears laid back, a black tornado on thundering hooves. She would run right at him, make a furious circle around him, slide to a stop, and then stand quietly for her bridle to be put on, and away they would go.
In those years, before front wheel assist tractors had found their way to the middle of nowhere, this rancher fed with a saddle horse. He built a sled out of an old pickup hood, runners and tin that he pulled with a rope from his saddle horn, and he pitched loose hay onto it or loaded small round bales one at a time for feeding the cows.
The winter pasture lay about two miles from the place, so every morning the rancher would saddle up and Tuesday would trot over east through the snow. He would pry or pull a bale out of his haystack, or pitch hay off of a loose stack to load the sled. Then he would dally his rope to the saddle horn and tell Tuesday it was time to go. Bale after bale, winter after winter, the labors of man and horse kept the cows’ bellies filled with good prairie hay.
Sometimes the snow got so deep that the rancher could not drive his pickup through it. So he would park his pickup at his neighbor’s place, ride Tuesday to the neighbor’s and then go to town for supplies. Then Tuesday would pull the supplies home on a sled.
One day, the sled that the rancher used to feed his cows broke. He rode Tuesday to his neighbor’s, drove to town and got more tin, and then they headed home towing the tin. Unfortunately, as Tuesday was pulling the tin home, it bowed and caught a pile of snow, skated rapidly downhill behind them, and cut the tendon in Tuesday’s heel. She could not stand on her foot at all. Whenever she tried to take a step, her foot bent up.
The rancher took her to the veterinarian, who sewed the tendons carefully back together. Then the rancher’s friend built Tuesday a special shoe to wear so that her foot couldn’t bend the wrong way anymore. But it would take a long time for that severe of a cut to heal.
Now how could the rancher feed his cows? The snow was deep. It was too deep for his little tractor to drive through. Mary would have to pull the hay sled.
But Mary did not like to pull things. Mary liked to spook. What if she spooked with the load of hay behind her? The rancher did not know how it would go, but he saddled Mary and rode over east.
He got a round bale out of the stack, put it on the sled, used his big buck knife to cut the twines, and Mary pulled the bale to the cows. So far, so good. But when the rancher got back to the stackyard to get another bale, he realized he didn’t have his knife…
Right then and there, standing in the deep snowbanks, the rancher prayed that he would be able to find his knife. It seemed impossible. But then, in the bright glitter of the winter sun on the snow, a little extra sparkle caught his eye. It was the tip of the knife just barely poking out of the snow.
Perhaps that was God’s way of saying that everything would be alright.
And it was.
Mary did a good job of pulling the hay sled to feed the cows all the while Tuesday was laid up. After a month locked up in the lean-to, with the rancher carrying her hay and water, Tuesday could walk again.
Jerking those bales out of a snowbank, or pulling them apart from an icy, frozen stack was no easy task for a saddle horse. One time, when there was deep snow, the rancher was trying to jerk a bale out and the cinch on his saddle broke. The saddle slid off to one side, the rope was still pulling on the bale, the back cinch was still buckled, and his spur got hung up in the back cinch. Even though she was mixed up in the predicament, Tuesday stood still so that he could get himself untangled.
The children watched through the window for Tuesday and their daddy to come home from feeding the cows. When they came trotting back, both of them would be all frosty on their whiskers. Tuesday would go to the barn for her hay and oats, and the rancher would come to the house with icicles hanging from his beard.
“How about a kiss?” he would ask his little girls.
Mary’s second daughter, Daisy, came along a few years after Tuesday. Like Tuesday, she had a hard, jarring trot, but a beautiful smooth lope. Tuesday also had a filly, a wild, pretty thing the children called May. By now, the rancher’s oldest boys were confident riders, so they usually rode May and Daisy. They could carry a younger sibling along on Daisy, a firm hand holding tightly to a little sister’s leg to keep her from flying off when they went after a cow. But they did not ride double on May, who ran like the wind, never got tired and rarely slowed down.
The rancher was riding Daisy to feed one day, when the rope accidentally got under her front leg and he didn’t realize it until he asked her to pull the bale. When the rope grew tight under her leg, Daisy bucked. Oh, my, did she buck! But that did not help; the bale was still on the sled and the rope was tight, digging into her chest and pulling tight under her leg. Daisy bucked until she got herself wedged between the haystack and the fence. When she stopped, the rancher quickly got off, but before he could untangle her, she started bucking again. Daisy jumped over the fence, but of course the bale did not, so there she stood. The rancher went over to her and talked to her quietly to calm her down while he got her all untangled. He told her he was sorry, and he talked very kindly to her for a while. Finally Daisy was calm and willing to pull the bales to the cows.
The rancher took turns feeding with Tuesday and Daisy during the hard winter of 1996-97. The snow was deep and a fall rain had crusted the stacks with a thick layer of ice that held the bales together. The oldest boys took turns riding out with their father every day to help pry the bales apart with bars and then roll them down the hill by hand to get them to the cows. The bales were stuck so hard that one day the tree of the rancher’s saddle snapped with the strain of trying to pull a bale loose. But in spite of all of the hard work, the cows never lacked for feed through that long winter.
Now Mary was growing old. Her withers stood up a little more sharply and her teeth grew weak. The rancher gave her extra oats and kept her close to the barn in the winter. Tuesday and Daisy were both gone now, and he started feeding his cows closer to home so that he could use his tractor to get the bales off the haystacks. One by one his children were also leaving home, finding jobs, getting married and building families of their own.
But the rancher’s youngest daughter was just learning to ride. She was still small, and he knew that her weight would not be too much for Mary to carry. He did not want the weight of a saddle on Mary, but he would boost his little girl up onto Mary’s tall, brown, bare back and she would trot out with him to feed the cows. She would bounce along, bumping against Mary’s high withers, but loving every minute of feeling the wind on her face and the warm horse beneath her. Mary knew how to chase the cows, so she just had to hold on and have fun.
Mary would pin her ears at the cows and chase, just like she had when she was young and spry, but by the time they got the cows to the hay she was tired. One day, as soon as they got to the hay Mary just laid down. The rancher slipped her bridle off.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “She will come to the barn when she has rested.”
And she did.
Mary lived her last days in the summer pasture where she had chased so many cows for so many years. One day she laid down and did not get up again. Her bones still rest on the ranch where she taught so many children to hang on for the ride.
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