George Stubbs: 'A Chestnut Racehorse'

The Red Horse: Part One

George Stubbs: 'A Chestnut Racehorse'

Old Mama was a bay mare standing at fifteen-two hands. She was also the best horse that Pearson Michaels had ever gotten.  Given to him by an uncle on his twenty-third birthday, Michaels had since loathed riding any other horse. Where other ranchers said that a horse’s value lay in its pedigree – the purity of bloodlines –  Michaels disagreed. Old Mama was something of everything, but was in Michaels mind the most valuable horse in the entire northwest. Her legendary feats included facing down a pack of coyotes and clearing a six-foot enclosure fence.  When folks asked Michaels what she was, he’d tell them that she was “part-everything but worth everything.” That was the truth. Suggestions had been handed down through the years: maybe she was part stock-horse, part pacer, part thoroughbred; still, nobody knew what she was. What they did know was that when any man sat on her, he was liable to forget that there was a horse underneath him – so smooth was the mare’s gait.

The last of Old Mama’s foals had been born four years ago, sired by Ed Thomson’s best stallion. (“Make sure whatever Old Mama gets don’t go giving mine a bad name.”)  Michaels had supervised the birth himself. He had expected it to be difficult; Old Mama’s last foal – a filly – had been in breech and died shortly after. But when the time had come, Old Mama knew what to do. The fifth and final foal was born quickly and easily, coming out as slick and shiny as a wet otter. Within minutes the colt was standing and bullying the mare for a teat. Michaels’ son, Art had come down from the house to watch- the colt was now the boy’s horse, as was promised. A serious boy of ten, Art had regarded the pair silently. He was familiar with the rituals of birth and death; he’d been present when the last filly had died, and he’d been present when his own mother had hemorrhaged out on her birthing bed. He had turned to his father.

“How old do you reckon Old Mama is?”

“Beats me, she’s been the same hot-blooded self all her life. But I think she’s old enough for retirement when this one’s weaned.”

“Do you think it’ll live?”

“See for yourself.”
“I reckon if he lives I might called him Red.”

Red was now just shy of sixteen hands and in need of breaking. They were coming into spring, and the winter had been particularly bad. Immense drifts of snow had backed up upon the house, and the river two kilometers east of the ranch had frozen solid for the first time in twenty years. Such was the whiteout, that for weeks at a time they had been unable to see the mountains to their northeast. The ridges usually stuck out like pointed, grey teeth, but they had been rendered invisible in the blizzards that fretted from mid-December till early January. Thomson – another rancher who lived on their land – had been down in the pastures regularly, helping with lifting the bales and getting the feed out to the cattle. Nevertheless, it had been a hard winter and they’d lost twelve of their bullocks, and several heifers and cows. Come late April, Michaels and Thomson had welcomed the milder weather.

 

***

 

Art straddled the top of the circular pen. In it, his father was patiently working Red over. The boy was required to watch carefully, for Michaels was going to let him take charge of the stallion himself. It had made Art stand a little taller, knowing that he was considered an equal in Michaels’ eyes. Art was old for his years; from under the brim on his hat, he saw and understood everything. If one were to look closely, they would see that his steady eyes had retained some of the vitality of youth, but there was a solemnity resting in there too. From the age Art had been able to comprehend language, his father had made a habit of speaking plainly to him. It was a matter of practicality:  they didn’t need fancy words, or fancy ways of speaking when their business was with cattle and the hardships of the outdoors. Michaels had seen how city people acted toward their children. City people didn’t understand the need for practicality, harsh truths. They swaddled their children in soft stories, sugarcoated their words to make the world a sweeter place.  But on his ranch, questions were met with straight answers. Why do animals die? They die because something is wrong with them, or because predators kill them. Why did my mother die? Your mother died because you had been born too quickly. How did she die? When the placenta detached from her uterine wall the blood vessels did not close properly and she suffered from a post-partum haemorrhage. So Art was accustomed to the weight of responsibility – it had been thrust upon his head from the day he was born.

“You have to drive him away first. Get him going forward, then get him to change direction. Eventually he’ll settle.”

Michaels was standing in the middle of the circular pen, following the horse with his movements and feeding a halter rope through his left hand. With his right hand, he gently swung the loose end so that it brushed upon Red’s hindquarters. The stallion was fighting the unfamiliar weight of a saddle on his back. The mineral-rich earth was kicked up into fine clouds of dust as he bucked, striking out with his back legs in a bid to lose the deadweight.

“Say now,” Michaels called to Art. “How long do you think he’ll keep this up for?”

“He ain’t stupid.” Art replied. “He’s Old Mama’s baby. He’ll soon figure out the saddle won’t hurt him.”

The animal had lost his baby fuzz and had grown a brilliant chestnut coat, the colour of rust. Eventually Red tired, and settled into an even lope that made the saddle-leather squeak. Every so often, Michaels changed the direction, raising his right arm and hissing through his teeth.

“I think he’ll be ready to sit on by tomorrow.” Michaels eased the stallion and turned him in to face them. A dark seam of sweat gleamed from under the saddle. Art eyed the horse.

“Red’s not going to throw me off?”

“Naw. He may look mighty from up there, but he’s as docile as a calf. You’ll be sitting on him and he’s just going to walk for us. ”

It was true. The stallion, though well-muscled, had a sensible head and a calm temperament. Though Michaels noticed that once the animal got into his stride, Red had a fire in his eyes, what they called the look of eagles. It was a look that promised speed and power.  Michaels took off his gloves and ran a hand over the horse’s neck.  He then beckoned to his son, who jumped from the fence and took the rope. The boy’s head barely reached the top of the horse’s impressive shoulder.

“You try. He’s yours, you need to get the feel of him”

Just as Art had got the stallion into lope, Thomson rode into the yard, pulling his horse up hard, its mouth and chest flecked white with foam. It was breathing violently and skittered as Thomson dismounted, as if ready to bolt someplace. It was clear that they had been galloping at a tremendous pace. Art saw there was a shotgun slung across Thomson’s back, but this was no cause for alarm just common practice. The man hobbled the animal by the pen.

“They gone and took my fillies!” His voice was a like a whipcrack, sharp and urgent. Art reined Red in, and stood with his father as Thomson unbolted the gate and strode in.

“Who did?”

“I don’t know, didn’t even see them. I was out re-fencing in the southern pasture – by the hillcrest, you know which one?”

Michaels nodded in affirmation and the other rancher continued.
“I was only gone a half hour, I checked on the cows after – then when I got back I saw my home pasture but no fillies, and then I got closer and saw two sets of tyre tracks leading away. I reckon a truck and trailer was what made ‘em.”

Thomson had been weaning two Quarter horse fillies that were looking to be barrel prospects and were worth a pretty sum.

“Whoever took them must’ve been watching for a while.” Thomson spat into the dirt and mulled over the situation. “They’ve clean gone. I need to go in and report them stolen.”

“Well,” Michaels frowned slowly. “You or the sheriff can shoot the bastards when you catch them.”   Then they all looked over to the single dirt road that led away from the ranch, as if willing the fillies back over the horizon. Beyond their collective gaze, the grassy landscape stretched out like a quiet sea under a wide sky. Out here, a man’s animals were his livelihood and his survival.  Thomson was not going to let the horses go without a fight. He spat again and cleared his throat.

“Art, son. You better watch that red one of yours. He’s a handsome beast.” With that he turned and mounted his horse.

“I think we got a storm coming.” Art said knowingly, watching Thomson ride away.  Instinctively Michaels looked to the sky, but the sky was a clear, unending blue. Looking back down to his son, he realised the meaning of what he said. “Yes.” Michaels took of his hat and wiped a line of sweat from his brow. “I think we do.”

Part Two Coming Soon

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