Bucking Broncos and Wounded Pride – 03/08/07

Buying Henry the Horse was one of the first things I did when I got to British Columbia. I simply couldn’t be the owner of a ranch and a self-respecting frontiersman without my very own steed.
This most noble of acquisitions was accelerated by my impatience after many years of horselessness as I hopped from city to war zone to city during my financially productive years.
By the time the snow was off the ground last year I was simply dying to do that most western of things – to go out and find me a fine ol’ stud and gallop him around the fenceline of my new piece of land.
With Henry (still going by his maiden-name Remington in those days) things went more or less badly from the start. A fine horse to look at, he soon showed himself to have a foul temper and a sneaky disposition.
I had barely taken him a couple of times around the exercise ring on a test-ride when, without warning, he began to buck and kick and snort and jump in a malicious attempt to unseat me.
I kicked him in the ribs, yanked on his reins, swore at him a little and stayed firmly seated in the saddle and eventually he settled down to a steady trot.
“Must have been a one-off,” I shouted cheerily to the lady who was trying to sell him, in a strange role-reversal. She smiled uncertainly. Then Henry tried it again.
This time, again without warning, he went sideways, bucked a couple of times and then hopped and jumped first this way then that. Finally he scraped me hard against the fence.
So I bought him. For $2,500. Ill-considered? Definitely. Overpriced? Absolutely. I think the lady who sold him, a hard-nosed horse trainer from down towards the border, couldn’t believe her luck.
On paper, at least, I had the skills to deal with a difficult horse. Both my brother and I were brought up on the joys of equine pursuits in leafy Royal Berkshire.
Between the two of us we fell off dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times. I smashed my teeth – I have two now well-worn gold caps to prove it – and knocked myself senseless more than once.
It was a rare day we didn’t both come tumbling from our ponies as we re-enacted a full-contact version of the English Derby in the fields by our house, thrashing at the horses and each other by turn.
Later when my father moved back to Hungary and began to keep racehorses we both rode them out. The thrill of feeling one of those athletes accelerate from a jump start to a full gallop in just a few paces is not one easily forgotten.
The adrenalin-rich sensation of flying across the turf at 30+ mph on a flared-nostriled animal is difficult to match. I even began to understand why jockeys would risk life and limb for such a buzz.
With my work there was often little chance to ride. But when the opportunity came I never failed to grasp it with both hands.
In Afghanistan after 9/11 I covered the frontlines on a local warlord’s horse for several weeks. I mercilessly mocked colleagues who were less horsey than I, laughing at their fear and their awkwardness.
I rode in Russia when on a journalistic swing through the Siberian mountains. I was, as I remember, the only of our distinguished party who could still mount a horse and stay on after of day of vodka.
On summer weekends I liked nothing better than to head off with close friends to a small village on the Volga where we would sauna, swim, fish and ride for hours along the riverbanks.
One time I spent a week riding in the Georgian mountains near Chechnya. I was 10,000 feet above the plains with only a Russian-speaking cowboy and the local bears for company.
Perhaps that was I bought Henry. Or perhaps it was misplaced machismo. Or perhaps I was just being impetuous, foolhardy or, as the north Americans say, dumb.
I had plenty of time to consider my motives recently as a I lay with my leg in the air, waves of pain washing through me and industrial quantities of whisky and ibuprofen coursing through my veins.
In his defence, I suppose, Henry was only being consistent. He had never made any secret of the fact that he hated being ridden. When a young French lady got on him last year he dumped her in under a minute.
At first when I saddled him up for his first ride of the year he seemed indifferent, even happy to be back at work. When I lunged him, first this way, then that, he trotted and cantered out nicely.
Encouraged, I climbed into the saddle, happily surveying the surroundings from my elevated position. Ah, how good it feels to be back on a horse, I thought.
Then, without warning, and with my feet not yet in the stirrups, Henry reared. I clung on. He went down and then straight up in the air again. This time I lost my balance and fell.
Then, to add injury to insult and as I scrambled to get out of the way of this snorting, rearing monster he brought his back hoof down hard on my lower leg and put his weight on it. Instantly it went numb.
Fear, pain and anger raced through me. “I think it’s broken,” I told Kristin who was looking on with horror. Then I began to chase Henry across the field, whip cracking.
Needless to say the horse outran me. He’d have done that even if I had been on two healthy legs. Kristin just stared on as if I’d lost my senses.
Nearly two weeks later I’m happy to say that, after a few days on a stick (a particularly fine ebony walking stick that was a prescient wedding present from my brother), I’m walking normally again.
My knee and ankle, which took a lot of the weight, are damaged and may take a while longer to heal. My pride longer still.
Finally common sense is beginning to reassert itself. Recklessness may have served me well in my younger years or out in the field with a large newspaper to pay my medical bills.
Here, however, I am as uninsured as any panhandler and the co-owner of a small, unprofitable business that requires lots of physical work and effort and has no time for excuses.
So it seems, on deliberation, Henry will have to go. Cola, our other horse, an aging gent who we were given and kept as a companion for Henry, left this morning for a new home with some friends.
They made the 12 mile trip to their house on foot in a little over four hours. We’re pretty sure he will be loved and treasured.
And Henry? He faces a less certain future. I feel morally constrained from repeating what his previous owner told me – that even teenage girls could ride him safely.
But I’d rather not see him end up as sausages. So – anybody know a good home for this equine eccentric? It’s true he is a little psychopathic but we will give him away to somebody who thinks they can use him.
Next year, when we return from our second annual posting in Alaska, we may even get another horse. This time, I promise, it will be calm, manageable and without vices.
As exciting as Henry? Perhaps not. But at least we might be able to ride him.