Michael's Monthly Column "Throwing My Loop"
I have a weakness for old fellows – particularly old cowboys. They have so many stories about the way things were. You have to search far and wide these days to find someone who is knowledgeable about bits, hackamores and even horses. But so many of those older fellows talk about the tools of a real and true horseman with ease. They know how to elicit cooperation from horses in a manner that evokes wonder from the rest of us, and when they work their magic, you can hardly see their cues to the horse. Horses sense the presence of these special men immediately when they come around, and horses curry their favor. I knew some of those men, and I miss them. And I miss the best one I ever knew most of all…
His name was John Redwine. Built like running back, with dark tanned skinned, and steel blue eyes, John must have been the model the Lord used to make all old time ropers, and brother, he was one. I never remember seeing his hands without gauze and bandages on his gnarled fingers. If anyone ever painted a portrait of John Redwine, his hands would surely have been the focus of the picture complete with twisted thumbs broken too many times.
He was a pleasure to watch in the branding pen. Few “draggers” as they were known in those days could match Mr. Red. If you needed horns only, John Redwine caught horns only. But if you needed the front inside left foot, the loop went there just as quickly and no place else. His best feat with a rope, which I am still unable to duplicate, involved placing a big loop under his arm, and without swinging the rope, shoot the lariat across the pen with unbelievable force. He often used that loop to catch colts by the front leg.
Two special days of my childhood each year were spent working cattle on the Redwine Farm. We would arrive just as dawn was breaking to begin a day filled with horses, hard work, and a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment at dusk- and the best part was lunch. John’s true love, Miss Adrianna would spend all morning preparing a feast for the men. Around 11:30 or so, she would ring the triangle hanging on her front porch beckoning all the hands, and one famished twelve-year old, to come for dinner. Fried chicken and a pork roast held center court on that old long wooden table, surrounded by a supporting cast of perfectly prepared squash, black-eyed peas, mashed potatoes, pickled beets and cling peaches, and homemade bread. And after eating a plate piled so high, Miss ‘Aidy’ as she was known, would place a piece of one of the three pies she had made before each guest. And when we were done, a moment of silence followed because everyone was just to full to talk, and someone would always say, “What’s for supper?”
And the men would laugh. The next line was always, “Whew, I need a nap after all that,” and there would be murmurs of assent. But everyone knew there would be no time for rest. A hundred head remained, and the deadline loomed. Black leg shots, dehorning and de-worming must be completed before dark - continuing tomorrow was simply not an option. As a child, I was certain that rule was in the Bible somewhere. I couldn’t find it, but I knew it was in there. The work had to be done before sundown, that was the rule.
Just as we were leaving the table for the afternoon’s work, Mr. John and I observed our ritual. He would take me down the hall, and open a closet door. Therein were shoeboxes stacked from floor to ceiling resting one of top of the other. The boxes were filled with a lifetime of memories, and a wasted fortune. Miss Aidy would come alongside her man, and I would see her hand slip into his, and they would stare at the boxes, both with wistful little smiles on their faces. “Those were the days,” he would say. “Yes, they were, dear,” she would agree, and they stood there remembering…
The boxes were filled with tickets. Losing tickets. The Redwines had a weakness, and their shared passion, their love, and their weakness was running horses. Every dollar the two made was saved as if they were old misers, and after a time of John driving heavy equipment, winning some here and there at jack-pot calf-ropings, and Miss Aidy ironing for people all day, they would generate a sizable sum. Then the Redwines would head to the track, and always – every time – lose every dime on their beloved ponies. They saved the losing tickets, not for tokens of depression, but in some odd and wonderful way, they loved to show them to people and seemed proud indeed of their collection. As a young boy standing there with two people I loved and admired, I always sensed that if they ever actually won any money pursuing their beloved passion, they would somehow be a bit disappointed.
Miss Aidy died in a fall. John would later say, “Planning a barbeque one minute, and a funeral the next.” He was never quite the same, and even though everyone knew part of him died too, when the men would say they were sorry about Miss Aidy, John would say, “Thank you for remembering. I’ll see her again.”
I went to see him in his last days, and we had a time together. I was much older now and so was he. We spent the time remembering. Thoughts of that day come to me so often now, I wrote a song for him. I’ve never sang it for humans, just my horses in the barn on late afternoons…
I went to see him in the nursing
home, just to talk one last time.
His sister came by, and brought him a
piece of banana cream pie.
So now I know their in Heaven and
every morning about seven,
And they lope softly off into Heaven,
ridin’ side by side,
And that’s my song for John. Every time some young person asks me for help with his horse or roping, I think about John. I realize now how much he must have enjoyed helping me. I’m grateful for his suggestions, his patience, and encouragement. And I remember the best horse training tip he ever taught me.
I was having trouble with my roping mare, Susie. Usually, she was the most cooperative and willing partner you could find, but for some reason, she had decided to become nervous in the box. I sought John’s help. As we sat in his barn, he listened intently to my description of the problem, and at last he said, “I think I have a solution for you and Susie.”
“Take your horse into the middle of the arena in the late afternoon,” he said. “Face her to the west into the setting sun. You stand in front of her, about a foot away, facing the east, then…” John said, leaning forward lowering his voice, “lower your head just a little and wait ‘til she drops hers level with yours. Then,” he said, “look down into her right eye as deeply as you can, and there you will see what she needs, there you will see the solution to your problem.” And he stopped.
The whole thing sounded a little strange to me. I wondered if John was getting a little soft. What was I supposed to do here? After looking down into Susie’s eye, would I see some sort of dream-like vision of a horse in a box with some wise cowboy calming her down? Once home, I led Susie to the arena, and just as John had instructed, faced her to the west into the late setting sun. Looking around to make sure my Dad and Uncles were not watching - because it would have been just like them to be in on some elaborate scheme – I lowered my head just a bit, and sure enough just as John had predicted, Susie dropped hers as well. I stood on tiptoe, and peered down into her right eye, and…
I drove back to John’s barn. As
I entered, he was sitting in his favorite chair by the
woodstove, deeply involved in a conversation with a big gray
barn cat. He looked up, “Did you try it?” he asked.
Such a good lesson about the solution to most all problems we have with our horses. I miss him, but then I remember…I’ll see him again.
Michael's latest release, Reflections Of A Cowboy, is currently available in audio book form. The two volume set consists of articles, essays and excerpts from radio performances about good people and good horses in the life of an Oklahoma cowboy. Approximately 8 hours in length. Reflections Of A Cowboy in printed form is scheduled for release in the summer of 2005. Order from Michael's website.