One Good Trail Horse

Little Mack earns a very high place in this Montana Horseman's private equine hall of fame.
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Little Mack earns a very high place in this Montana Horseman's private equine hall of fame.
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I didn't start the blaze-faced sorrel colt when he turned 2. I was anxious to begin, because there was something special about him, a cocky but friendly attitude, a tendency toward the mischievous, a spirit that promised a terrific ride some day.

But he was a gangly fellow, lightly built for his age, though his ample bone promised plenty of substance down the trail. So I waited.

Christmas came, and then New Year's Day, and finally, now that I could refer to Little Mack as "coming three," I caught him and brought him over to the small round pen near our house. Perhaps now there was enough horse there to bear my weight without injury.

Readers familiar with my book, Sketches from the Ranch: A Montana Memoir, know the story of an exceptional stallion named Mack, but in the book more often called simply "the stud colt."

I won't reiterate the bittersweet story (or ruin it for those who haven't read it). It's enough to say that "Little Mack" was sired by Mack and out of a mare named Misty, daughter of the first Tennessee Walking Horse to come to our ranch.

Thus, Little Mack's roots on the ranch were deep. I contemplated keeping him a stallion but thought better of it. Instead, he'd become one of mine, a gelding I'd never consider selling, a right-hand helper for tough tasks on the ranch and trail.

Round Pen Start
Nearly 14 years have passed since that first round-pen session. When you interact daily with an animal, it can take a while to realize just what a jewel you have. Little Mack isn't the prettiest horse I've ever raised, nor the best in conformation. Neither is he the smoothest to ride, the best behaved, or the most trouble-free.

But add up all his attributes, put them into one athletic never-quit package, spice the mixture with myriad experiences, Mack and I working as a team in tough situations on the trail, and the sum total is a horse deserving a very high place in my own private equine hall of fame.

Back to the round pen, in this case a very small one, a mere 35 feet in diameter. I built it years ago, limiting its size to the materials on hand, and apologized to my cowboy farrier Ralph, who arrived as I drove the last nail, for its diminutive size. He countered, "No, Dan, it's just right. With it being so small, you won't be tempted to stay in it too long. You'll soon get that colt out into sagebrush where he'll really learn something."

Coming from the same Western old-timer's tradition as I do, Ralph was results-oriented. And especially in my earlier training years, I tended to be the same way. It's both an attribute and a fault, I suppose, but as Ralph predicted, Little Mack and I spent only a short time in the small round pen.

I did what for me are the usual things, teaching Little Mack to lead by each foot; ground-driving to teach impulsion, direct-reining and "whoa"; familiarization with blanket and saddle; and, eventually the experience of a heavy rider on his back.

Little Mack never tried to buck, but from the very beginning I felt electricity under me. He was far more horse than his size or build would suggest. I was tuned to a hair-trigger "one-rein stop" should one be needed.

Then, after a very few rides in the round pen, bitter January weather shut us down. I had no indoor arena at the time, so Little Mack was free until March.

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Risky Business

Long before all snow was gone, before buds appeared on the aspens and the dead winter grass sparked to life, before the colts began shedding their winter hair, my friends and I felt the usual itch for a spring ritual we'd followed for several years.

Referred to as "the bear hunt," it was scarcely a hunt, because we never got a bear and few of us even looked for one. The purpose was really a breakout from winter, an excuse to gather our packing gear, shoe our horses, and head to the mountains.

Never mind cold and discomfort, and rank horses with too much adrenaline stored up from winter. We'd go because we just had too. And if spring blizzards kept us sequestered in the tent telling tall tales around the sheepherder's stove, that was just fine.

So I retrieved Little Mack for a ride or two in the round pen, then one to the hills with my wife, Emily, and her horse, Sugar, along for moral support. The ride was on the "white-knuckle" side, but there were no catastrophes.

Lastly, I put a sawbuck pack saddle on the colt and took a hundred pounds of salt to the cattle, ponying him behind faithful Major. Again, all went well. Little Mack was prepared, though barely, for a role as packhorse on this spring trip. And if past experience was an indicator, he'd come back far more trained than he was when he left.

But fate intervened. On the day of departure, Major was sick and short of breath. I medicated Major, then looked Little Mack in the eye, and told him, "Okay, Sport, this is your chance."

It wasn't a sensible thing to do, to lead a pack string with a colt that had been ridden outside the round pen exactly once, but I was younger then, maybe more foolish, and I had stalwart companions along.

We launched off, and though Little Mack had precious little neck rein at this stage, I managed to guide him adequately with one hand and my legs, steering the colt down along a mountain trail, keeping his speed halfway reasonable for the pack string, which (luckily) consisted of similarly fast-walking horses.

Beyond Games
A few weeks later, I took Little Mack to a clinic taught by a good friend who was the first lieutenant of a famous trainer. In an indoor arena for the first time in his life, the colt was introduced to certain "games" that are intended to be mastered long before a colt is ridden.

Mack, completely befuddled, looked at me in despair. If I could translate a horse's expression it'd be something like this: "What in Sam Hill are you trying to do to me? What's all this nonsense? We've been to the mountains together. Let's get out of this stupid building and head for the hills!"

I was aware that these games could be extremely beneficial, but I knew, too, that they represented just one possible approach to training a horse. Little Mack and I did just well enough to avoid major embarrassment before breathing a sigh of relief and going outside for a good, brisk ride.

The instructor told me, "Dan, you know, that colt really isn't ready to ride."

"You're probably right about that," I replied. "But he's already led a pack string to the mountains, and there's no going back from here."

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Grace Under Fire

So how do I summarize 13 more years with a horse that has always been there for me, a horse with a heart so big I can't see how it fits in his chest?

There have been dicey situations during late-winter calving, cows in snow having trouble giving birth, but determined to stay with the herd, Mack cutting left and right just fast enough to keep them moving to the corral, but not recklessly, either, across the treacherous frozen ground.

There was the trip with Emily and her mount, Redstar, over Sundance Pass, 11,000 feet in elevation, past a bank of eternal snow, when it turned out that Little Mack had pulled a hamstring. He never let on, never showed it in any way until we were safely over the pass.

There were the many times when I was short-handed on the ranch, so Little Mack and I did our fall cattle roundup solo, with many trips back and forth over the hill to check additional coulees for cattle.

I can't count the times I've led pack strings with Little Mack, his spirit in check, keeping the pace down as needed to prevent the whiplash effect from torturing the last horse in line. And there were dangerous situations, as well, times during which I wouldn't have traded Little Mack for any other horse I've known.

One of these was a near catastrophe. Camped in a place without decent water, I'd ridden Little Mack down the trail to a spring and had filled all available canteens and water bottles, stuffed my saddlebags with them and hung the rest over the saddle horn, then headed back to camp.

On the trail was a small bog with a rock ledge a foot or so tall on the far side. We'd negotiated this the day before with the pack horses, each making a little leap up the ledge, but now the trail was softer yet.

As Little Mack lifted his front feet into the air in preparation for his jump up onto the ledge, his hind feet sank into the bog. For several terrifying seconds, we were in vertical equilibrium, the horse on his hind legs, I leaning as far forward as possible, fully aware that should Little Mack go over backwards onto the rocky trail, I'd be seriously hurt or killed.

I grabbed the trunk of a wrist-sized aspen tree in front of us and pulled for all I was worth. With this bit of help from his partner, Little Mack, keeping his cool, gathered himself for a giant leap that took us clear of the bog and onto the ledge. Only then could I breathe.

And there was a fruitless search for a late-season elk at 10 degrees below zero one December, when the trail crossed a serpentine creek a dozen times, the small creek frozen with ice an inch thick, but not strong enough to bear our weight.

Crossing was a no-brainer for Little Mack. He simply pawed out with one front hoof, pounded a hole in the ice, walked in, pounded another, and, after several such swipes, took us across in the trail he'd made. He did this time after time. On the return trip, the water in these spots was already beginning to freeze again, but Little Mack hardly noticed.

And Smart, to Boot
I've said before that the "complete" trail horse is the ultimate equine generalist. More important than build, size, or gait, is a disposition that can handle a variety of situations safely.

Much competence comes from training, but, as they say, there must be something between a horse's ears, as well.

Equine intelligence is hard to measure, but I'd have to rank Little Mack high on any scale I can contrive.

Once, while preparing for a supply run to Billings, Montana, 60 miles away, I noticed Little Mack standing near a barbed-wire fence some distance away. I paid little attention, though I remember thinking his posture was a little unusual.

We made our trip, some four or five hours away from the ranch. It was only while unloading groceries and supplies that I noticed the horse was standing in the same place, in the same position. Alarmed, I rushed to the scene.

What I saw made me sick. Little Mack was astride the barbed-wire fence, his front legs on one side, his rear on the other. He had pressed the top wire down until it was tight as a violin string. "Whoa," I whispered, sick at heart, already cursing myself for driving away that morning without checking on him.

But there was nothing sad or distressed about him. His look seemed to say, "Well, it's about time you got here."

The horse froze while I took out my Leatherman tool, snipped the top wire, then the second, and then the third, all the while steadying him with one arm to discourage his moving forward. I looked at the ground for the dreaded pool of blood, but saw nothing.

The snipped fence now low enough, Little Mack casually stepped over the remaining wires, stood beside me for a moment, and then began to graze.

I knelt down to look at the bottom of his chest, just at the cinch line, sure I'd see a nasty gash, that I'd be calling Bill, our vet. But there was nothing. No cut, no gash, not even hair removed! Little Mack had stood for the entire time we were gone, straddling a barbed-wire fence, and had known not to move until I arrived to help! Lesser horses would have ripped themselves to shreds.

Now, at age 16, Little Mack is a little less flexible in the legs when I first get on him, but then, I'm not as flexible as I used to be, either. He's still my "go-to" guy when a tough trail is in the works. Last fall, we again rounded up the cattle alone. Fully described, his antics would fill a book. Maybe they will someday.

Happy trails!

Dan Aadland ( raises mountain bred Tennessee Walking Horses and gaited mules on his ranch in Montana. His most recent books are The Best of All Seasons, The Complete Trail Horse, and 101 Trail Riding Tips. Sketches from the Ranch: A Montana Memoir is now available in a new Bison Books edition.