I remember the foreman of a ranch sitting next to me, patting my knee, and teaching me one of the most important lessons of life:
“You work your workhorse the hardest.”
I had asked to meet with him to talk of my position on the ranch, befuddled at the fact that I was asked to do more than many of the other staff. Not understanding why I was on the list to jingle 5 days a week when others were only there at 4:30am twice a week. I was burnt out, I was exhausted, and at the age of 20, I was ready for a grade A temper tantrum. But these words resonated with me.
Because in Wyoming, we truly did have workhorses. We were given a string of 5-6 horses to work with. Some of these horses were young stock, needing broke and trained. Some of them were older horses with bad habits, making them unable to be ridden by the guests who came to the ranch. And then some of them were just too NICE to be handed off. These were our workhorses. The horses we rode the most often. The horses we roped off of. The horses that we trusted to pack us on 20 mile rides without a hitch. And because they were the hardest working, they were worked the hardest.
I had one of those horses. His name was Headley. I remember seeing him for the first time, and having the heart of a thoroughbred lover, I felt it flutter. He wasn’t much to look at. Approximately 16.2hh, with a tail that had been chewed off – he was about 200 pounds underweight. But his head was just beautiful. I remember locking eyes with him and seeing the soul of a breed that I was raised to love – the thoroughbred.
He had the same natural fear of the world as Levi. Only Levi was comfortably tucked in a stall of a premier jumper barn, shod all the way around and blanketed, and Headley was standing in a corral in the Big Horns, underweight and unsure. And in addition to this, he was petrified of men. On him, around him, from a distance, Headley would tremble in terror every time a man came near. And if they came closer, or tried to swing on, Headley did everything in his power to escape. Halters were broken, and cowboy’s were tossed. And in exchange, Headley became quite unappreciated. In fact, he was hated.
But he loved me. So I gave him a chance. Because in ranch life, these antic’s are not only unappreciated – they are unallowed. Horses must behave in a specific manner. They are here for a purpose – whether it be for the guests to safely ride them, to be roped off of, to pull the hay wagon, or to be used in rodeo. And if they did not fit those purposes, they were unusable. An unusable horse, is simply that – not used.
I learned quickly that although Headley was so frought with terror at other things, he shined in others. He was calm and happy on the trail -as long as I was the one riding. He stood patiently for gates to be opened and cinches to be checked. He was easy to groom, to tack, and to mount.
And, he was FAST.
I learned quickly that just as his head screamed thoroughbred, so did his legs. He could carry me at speeds that I had never experienced, and I quickly passed this bit of information on to the other wranglers at the ranch. But I was that little girl from the east coast. I wasn’t even a real cowgirl. I didn’t know anything. So just like most men, they didn’t believe me, and duals were challenged.
We would meet behind the corals, and line up. They would always be on their fastest mount – usually with a story of how this horse used to be a chuckwagon mount or came off of the track, and a cocky grin. I would gather my reins and get into two point, someone would count down, and we would be OFF.
And EVERY SINGLE TIME Headley WON. The cowboys would stare off at us with disbelief as dirt was kicked into their faces, and Headley’s short tail and tall haunches would disappear into a cloud of dust in front of them.
Disbelief soon became comraderie, and it was thought that maybe, just maybe, we had the fastest horses in the county. So Headley (and I) were entered in the annual rodeo held downtown at the Buffalo Fairgrounds in the quarter mile race. I remember being petrified of riding in front of that large of a crowd. What if I fell off? What if he wasn’t really that fast? What if we were a poor representation of the ranch? Headley wasn’t a quarter horse, he was a thoroughbred. And I wasn’t a real cowgirl – just a pony clubbing-eventer playing dress up in a pair of Cruel Girl’s. I didn’t belong here, and neither did Headley.
But I didn’t have anything to worry about. Headley loaded, tacked up, warmed up, and ran like a pro. We didn’t win that day, but placed second. Enough to earn a roaring applause, and two hundred bucks.
But more importantly, Headley earned the recognition that he deserved. He earned the title of work horse. He found his purpose. He was cherished by the ranch as a horse who deserved a place in the corral. And as we walked back to the stock trailers, he was met with pat’s on the neck, and praise. And for the first time, he didn’t tremble. He didn’t run. He basked in the praise with his ears pricked and his eyes proud.
Headley found a purpose that summer. He became a work horse. He became useful.
I wish every day that I had brought that horse home with me. I was able to keep track of him for a few more years through friends who continued to work for the ranch, and then the updates slowly faded alongside our communication. Time passed, and things changed.
But Headley taught me so much those two summers. He taught me patience, he taught me strength. He taught me trust. And he taught me to find the good in everyone, in everything. To realize that we all have our specialties. And most importantly, he taught me that being the work horse is a good thing. It might mean longer hours, strenuous labor, and lack of sleep. But more importantly, it means you have a purpose. A role. A place in this world.
Headley found his place, while also teaching me mine. He taught me how to work with young stock. How to find their hidden potential. How to calm a skittish horse. And how, at the end of the day, sometimes all you need to do is to let them run. I use these skills every time that I get a horse off of the track. I use them every time I swing on a young horse. Headley might have been my first retraining experience with an ex-racehorse. And he taught me the most valuable lesson. That sometimes you just need to let go. Grab mane, hold on tight, and find purpose in the exact thing that these horses were bred to do. Gallop.