Cowboy Credibility

Cowboy Credibility

When I arrived in West Texas, it was fairly obvious to everyone that I "wasn't from these parts". There were several things that seemed to interfere with my being accepted as a part of the local culture. Among them were that I did not own a pair of starched Wrangler jeans, said Pecos with a long "o", used a plethora of words with more than three syllables and most importantly had never ridden a horse outside of a pony ring. In short, I had no "cowboy credibility".

We lived in a small subdivision where there were more horses than people. Suburban neighborhoods where I grew up had fenced yards to keep dogs in or children out. Quarter acre lots were large enough to include a swimming pool in the backyard. The lots in Midland were at least 3 acres and the fences were meant to keep the livestock from roaming the neighborhood and protected from the predators that walked brazenly down the center of the streets. Backyard entertainment meant roping arenas, barrel racing courses and of course, swimming pools.

My neighbors were either born in the area or had been there long enough that they fit seamlessly into the environment. This means that they grew up with horses, riding and rodeos. The culture that I had known through countless hours of cowboy movies was all around me, and yes, many of the people there would prefer to kiss their horses than their spouses. When we told them we were planning on putting horses on the property, they exchanged those knowing smiles that let me know that they expected dude ranch disasters. One of the things about the horse culture that never came up in the movies is that horse owners are all equine experts. They all loved giving me advice on getting started and I listened attentively because I never got the same advice twice.

It became obvious to me that I would have to generate cowboy credibility the hard way or I would have to listen to my neighbors tell me how to get things done for as long as I lived there. First, I bought the Wranglers and appropriate footwear. I did not starch them as I could not bring myself to wear jeans to a wedding or a funeral, but at least I had the outfit. The Smothers Brother version of The Streets of Laredo that included the line, "Get yourself an outfit and you can be a cowboy too" just is not true. You can wear the clothes but you are still just a dude on a ranch.

Second step was getting a mustang. The Bureau of Land Management in the Department of the Interior rounds up wild horses across the west and then holds auctions to find these animals homes. They are keeping the herds thinned because the land these horses call home is leased to ranchers for feeding livestock. The lease is more valuable if the horses are not eating the forage and killing the mustangs caused congress to intervene and protect the wild horses and their habitat. My first horse was a mustang adopted from the BLM, more properly, he adopted me at a BLM auction. Just like in the movies, he was a one person horse. He ate alfalfa from my hand the day I met him and would not let anyone else get close to him.

This was a great step toward cowboy credibility. I had a horse and he liked me! I also was getting even more of those looks as I explained that I was going to gentle him and get him under saddle myself. I also got numerous lectures about how unreliable and untrainable mustangs were and that I should get a quarter horse. My cowboy rating was falling again.

For sixteen months my mustang and I built riding arenas and horse stalls and worked on being friends. We walked around the neighborhood getting to know all the other horses and learning about the scary things that my neighbors had, like bicycles! Watching my new friend spook when a two wheel vehicle went by, earned me more of those dude ranch smiles.

My neighbors all insisted that I had to "talk" in a way that the horse knew that I was in charge. My years of studying communication led me to a theory that it was more important for me to teach him that I had a bigger brain and opposable thumbs by listening to him and doing things he could not. Mutual dependence seemed like a better approach than trying to convince a 1,000 pound animal that I was more powerful than he was. With this in mind, and my chuckling neighbors in the background, I spent the first month convincing this wild animal that he should allow me to pick up his feet and take care of them. Both of us knew how important his feet were. You cannot run away from predators or bicycles if your feet are not in good shape, so this is a major step in gentling a wild horse. Each day, I would head out to the barn with hoof pick in hand to practice having him give me a foot for cleaning. Each day, he would tell me he was not sure if this was a good idea, but we would make progress.

One morning when I went out to the barn, he was lying in the warm winter sun taking a nap. I walked up to him with my hoof pick and his halter and lead rope in hand. He looked up at me and considered what he was about to go through. I could see him consider his options and I expected that he would jump to his feet rather than have me get too close while he was lying down and vulnerable. He looked me in the eye and then put his head back down. He told me "go ahead and get it over with" so that he could go back to his nap. I went ahead and cleaned the three hooves that he had left available as he was lying with the fourth somewhat under him. With three hooves clean, I simply tapped the remaining leg until he gave me that one as well.

I was so pleased with myself that I had gotten all four hooves cleaned and there had not been a single moment of disagreement between us. I of course told everyone of our adventure thinking that I was building some cowboy credibility. Wrong! All I heard was how dangerous this had been because the horse could have decided to get up suddenly and step on me. I tried to explain that I was told to go ahead and clean his feet, but instead of cowboy credibility, I was once again getting dude ranch head shaking and muffled giggles.

As we got closer to the first time under saddle, the dude ranch giggles turned into open requests for tickets to the big rodeo. My neighbors were embracing the spirit of bronco riding rodeos with me in the role of battered and aching cowboy. I promised most of them that I would let them know so that they could see for themselves. I hoped that my first time getting thrown from a wild horse would earn the acceptance and a small loving cup of cowboy credibility.

On another late winter morning, I was working with my four legged companion on accepting cues from a a bridle and bit while saddled. He was responding quietly and patiently to each little tug on the reins when he finally turned to me and told me to get in the saddle. That is the only way I can explain the look in his eyes, the slope of his neck and position of his legs. It all said the same thing, it's time. Please remember, that I had never ridden a horse. I was about to mount a mustang without the first clue about what either of us would do next. My blood pressure was spiking, but I put my foot in the stirrup and went up, over and into the seat of the saddle. As soon as my weight was on his back, he turned his head to look at me. His eyes said, "now what?" We both held very still for a moment before I swung back out of the saddle to give the horse a big hug and a carrot.

When this story was told for the neighborhood, I always apologized for not inviting them for the rodeo that never happened. I still got lots of laughs for believing the horse when "he" talked to me, but the laughs were now laughs of comrades with shared experience. I earned cowboy credibility by listening.

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