We all find ourselves somewhere between two narratives: one that values all things by their usefulness to man, and one that values all things by their usefulness to God.
I have waited for years to tell this story. I’ll let you decide which narrative fits it best.
Not all ranches can afford to raise their own horses, and most don’t use mares for ranch work. Whenever a filly is born out of carefully selected stock, it’s a disappointment. Fillies are typically sold before they reach riding age, with few exceptions. Today, this practice is changing, but the ‘no mares’ policy is still in place on most ranches.
The last foal born on the Carrizo Valley Ranch was a filly. The wind howled like a pack of coyotes the day she was born. She matured into a fine young horse and true to her sire’s genetics, her sorrel coat began to fade to grey. She was easy to halter break, and she had her mama’s good sense and gentle nature. The most identifiable characteristic she had since birth was a large set of ears that curved at the tips and large, bright eyes. Her name was Chisum.
One year later, we started re-modeling the corral, and were welding wire panels on the gates. The ranch had no more use for mares and the others had all gone, so Chisum lived in the corral. She was the only one left because she was mine and I, a college drop-out, still kept my horses there while I decided what to do with my life. One day during our work on the corral project, she rolled under a gate where the panel wasn’t welded at the bottom, and shredded her hind leg. I found her. She hadn’t been there long but that moment is frozen in my mind. I knew her destiny had changed forever.
Horses hold my feet to the ground while at the same time, they keep my head in the clouds. I do not remember a day in my life when horses didn’t occupy my thoughts. My plans for the last foal born on the Carrizo Valley Ranch were to rodeo again on a horse I had trained myself. I couldn’t go and buy a competition horse, but I could ‘start from scratch’. Didn’t bother me that the foal was a filly. And even if she didn’t make a performance horse, I still planned to use her on the ranch. I had learned from my mom that people who don’t ride mares miss out on half the good horses in the world; if you treat mares like geldings they generally act just like them: even-tempered, willing and honest. But my plans ran into reality at this point and that began to change things.
Chisum was classified as ‘grade’. She was an American Quarter Horse but couldn’t be registered, and because of that, I could never prove what I knew about her breeding. Why does this matter, you ask? In specialized equine sports, the pedigree determines up to half (if not more) of the dollar value of the animal. No pedigree, no dollars. In the past, people might have valued a horse on looks and/or ability alone, but today, in the western horse world, it doesn’t work that way. No one intentionally uses grade horses for breeding. If Chisum didn’t make a nice riding horse, she would be worthless. Now, with a mangled hind leg, standing in the hay barn bleeding, her value was sinking and her future looked dim.
I did what I could for her, although it looked bad enough to consider putting her down. She couldn’t walk on it at all, the tendons were obviously badly damaged. A friend of ours who was trained as a vet tech came over and sewed her leg back together. She let us do everything we needed to do without sedation.That says a lot about her willingness and trust, even then.
I prayed for her. I kept her in the corral and changed the bandage every day for months. She healed well, but the scar would always be big and ugly. I didn’t mind. I was grateful just to have her. She seemed grateful, too. When I came to the barn every day, she nickered softly to me whether it was feed time or not. Slowly, the limp started to disappear, but the real test of soundness would be when I started riding her as a two year old.
I made a choice then. A foolish choice. A rookie judgement. A decision based more on faith than the facts in front of me. I gave my heart to a horse, I attached all kinds of folly and empty hopes to the chance she might be sound. Keeping her and feeding her was a risk. She might never ‘pay for herself’, and the voice of reason whispered that she must. So I prayed for her, I hoped she would be sound, and I trusted that the bottom line would take care of itself. My own budget problems would have been easily solved had I not gambled with ‘reality’. Instead of being ‘smart’, selling her, and waiting for the time when I could afford a nicer horse, I saw her with rose-colored glasses and hung on to her when I couldn’t really afford it.
Reality for some people is like that. It really is rose-colored and glorious and full of promise; the odds are never too great, the risk always worth taking. And for others, reality is a bottom line. It’s sacrifice and survival, triumph with grit; it’s being smart and dismissing all the folly, faith, wishing and dreaming and seeing things in black and white. The difference between these two perspectives of reality is as deep as the Grand Canyon and as wide as the Atlantic. In one reality, seeing is believing and in the other, believing is seeing.
The time came to start her under saddle. This is when Chisum defied everything I knew about starting colts. I knew her bloodline had some unruliness in it, and I anticipated the challenge, but there was none. I did all the groundwork preparation that I knew to do at the time. Chisum just did it all and looked at me as if I was wasting her time. So on the second day, I thought, Heck, she’s mine and I’m just playing around. Wonder what she’ll do if I just treat her like she’s broke?
(“Broke” is a cowboy term that means a horse is solid on the basics under saddle and will primarily obey the rider and not it’s own instincts. A ‘broke’ horse is submissive and willing, and reacts with maturity to any situation.)
I caught her, hobbled her at the door, and brushed her off. She stood there and never even twitched. I threw the saddle on her and slowly tightened the cinch, all the while thinking she would blow up. I took off the hobbles and asked her to take a step, ready to get out of the way when she realized there was a saddle strapped to her back. But she didn’t do anything but look back and smell the stirrup. Two days later, I was riding her outside the corral and Bek, only a puppy, was jumping up on the saddle with me.
Never would I start a horse this way; not before or since, and to admit that I skipped so many steps with this filly is a little embarrassing. But I had prayed for her so much, and she trusted me. Not only that, but she never once limped on that leg. I felt sure this miracle was a down-payment on all the success ahead for the little filly and me.
Then my life began to take some sort of shape, a shape that didn’t have room for a two year old filly. I could only keep one horse, and I had another horse I couldn’t let go of. He was the first one I had ever started, and had been my pal through the roughest days of my young life. He and I were so grown together that letting go of him would be like cutting off my head. Besides that, he was much more useful. I was forced to choose between my someday-dreams and my right now. There were more than a few days spent struggling inside between seeing and believing, but in the end I chose to let her go.
The morning I sold my filly, I felt forced by my circumstances to choose the other reality, where everything is black and white and the bottom line dictates all decisions. It broke my heart. I hardened myself and walked away, my last glimpse of her was trotting off, tossing her long, thick mane and whinnying softly after me. I cried in secret, but I didn’t go back and change my mind. Had I done the right thing, or had I failed? Had I chosen common sense, or had I given way to doubt?
I felt God speaking to my heart in that moment that someday, my children would ride her. I would see her again. I shook that off, telling myself it was foolish to imagine God weighing in on this. Reality is black and white, and if God had that planned he would have to just make it happen. Without my help. I forced myself to forget it and never to bring it up again.
God doesn’t care about something so trivial, I doubted deep within, It was just my own imagination. But still, I hoped. Every grey mare I saw from that day on was closely scrutinized just in case it was her. I looked for the scar and studied the ears. Grey…but what sort of grey did she turn out to be? Fleabitten? All white? Steeldust? I would never know.
Unless…unless God really did speak to me the day I said goodbye to Chisum.
It pierced me with hope like an arrow, I wanted to believe that somehow, someway, Chisum might come back. I wanted to believe that God did care about something so trivial that affected me so deeply. Of course, I never dared to say it out loud. I fought it. I doubted it. But it was still there.
And this horse, along with everything else, fell somewhere between the two narratives. People have no use for a green broke filly with a big ugly scar and no proof of a reputable bloodline. But God did.
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