Michael's Monthly Column "Throwing My Loop" - No. 5

Old ranchers often say a man is allotted one special horse in his lifetime. I have had mine. She was a chocolate bay mare with an irregular shaped star in her forehead. Her name was Susie and she was my friend and partner of long ago. She taught me a most valuable lesson and it's a lesson that can change anyone's life. It sure changed mine. Let me tell you about the lesson and about her…

I loved her the first time I ever saw her. She was standing in a pasture with a large number of old mean Brahma bulls. She had an ugly scar running down from her right knee to just above the hoof. The man that owned her said he didn't know what caused the injury, but doubted she would ever be able to run much. I thought he was wrong. I was sixteen years old and she was just two. I knew it was just a matter of time until we were pretty famous as a roping partnership.

The old fellow let me pay her out. After umpiring an infinite number of little league games, lifeguarding at the local pool, and mowing yards, she was finally mine. Actually, to say she was mine is not quite right. It was like I never really owned Susie, we just joined up. Like so many important things in our lives, maybe it was always meant to be.

My Dad and uncles taught us some and more importantly, they got us some help from old calf-ropers who knew what they were doing in terms of training a roping horse. Susie and I practiced long hours and after a couple of years, at least on some occasions, we were fairly competitive at small rodeos.

She was always calm in the box and had really good speed. She would bust outa' there like a fighter jet, running real low and hard, and put me right there every single time. I can still feel her under me even though it's now thirty years ago. It was effortless to rope on her. Once I threw my loop, this filly would hit a brick wall, her back feet making a big 'eleven' in the sand. She worked the rope really good and if everything went right, we were tough.

Did you see it? I just wrote the problem right up there in that previous paragraph "…if everything went right." How many times does everything go right? Not too often. That was the problem. I didn't know that then, but I do now. To win in roping and in life, you have to continue on, continue to try and you must stay competitive in your own heart, even when things don't go right.

If Susie and I drew a lightweight calf that ran real slow with his head sticking up like a chicken, man, I was good! I could just stick it on him, flank him and as long as he just lay there and didn't kick, I could wrap him up and we would take home the money. Yep, it was easy if everything went perfectly. Problem was, everything didn't always go perfectly…

I handled this imperfection of life primarily by doing two things. I whined a lot and blamed everybody on earth but myself. Oh, not old Susie. Couldn't blame Susie because she was as good a roping horse as a man could want. She always did her part. Regardless of the circumstances, she did her part every single time. It wasn't her fault; it was everybody else that was causing the problem.

Mostly, in my view, my parents and teachers caused the problem. When I was little, my Mom and Dad were really nice folks. Momma made up my bed, took out the trash and took care of everything and everybody. Teachers were nice too when I was in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade. We just had to do a little coloring in books, eat lunch and desert, then take a nap. Had a good life as a little kid.

Then, I turned teen-ager and everybody went South on me. All these people seemed to change on me overnight. My Mom, who was formerly a nice person, suddenly was waking me up every morning saying things like, "You need to get up and make up your bed, water the horses, take out the trash, mow the yard and help us out around here." Frankly, I was shocked! I tried to explain to her that I simply did not do these sorts of things. Then my Dad would come home and take her side every single time.

And teachers! These people were worse. One day we're taking naps and eating chocolate cake and the next thing you know, we're diagramming sentences and doing written problems in arithmetic. Remember those? Problems like "Johnny's Dad has 350 bales of hay for Johnny to pick up at 35 cents a bale. How tall is the shadow of the flagpole in the schoolyard?"
Yep, things were rough.

That was when my downhill slide began. Parents and teachers on me all the time, wanting me to work and learn something new every single day. None of it was my fault of course. In my view, how on earth was it my fault if I got all the bad teachers?
Then, these teachers, who were teaching me nothing, would put C's, D's and F's on my report card and my parents would start the whole 'yelling' thing over again. Brother!

So things got worse. C's, D's and F's in middle school, more of the same in high school and 13 F's in college. Never passed a course. Wasn't my fault! Got all the bad teachers and a counselor even diagnosed my problem. He gave me a test that found I had a below average I.Q.! Whew, was I relieved. Now I had the perfect excuse not to ever try.

Things went downhill even more and with all these parents, teachers and coaches on me all the time, I conceived a plan only a twenty-year-old could come up with. Since I was pretty good with a rope and had the world's best roping horse, I knew me and old Sus' could make it out there on the road. If I could just draw good, (all we needed was a little luck) that horse could take me outa' all this mess.

My Dad tried to explain to me that if I wasn't winning at every small rodeo, how could I win at the big ones? He tried to get me to see my lack of ability on heavier cattle and all the other problems of life on the road, but what did he know? After all, he was old. He was FORTY for goodness sake.

So, I loaded up Sus' in a little one-horse Miley and we hit the open highway. Two young kids off to rope a dream. I was going down the road singing, "Old Susie was long and lean, a roping machine and her eyes were green," and all I could see in my rear view mirror was a dusty little Texas town that I no longer needed.

It all started off great. We won a little here and there, but as many of you reading this know, there is nothing like life and the open road to teach us what's important. I learned many things on that road.

I learned that my Daddy kept a dry roof over our heads. Growing up under a roof that didn't leak never seemed very special…until it wasn't there. I learned that no one in America was interested in whether I ate or not. Certainly no one would cook my food for free, but I remembered my Momma had always done exactly that. Learned things like the cattle were heavier than I had ever seen and the cowboys were better than I ever imagined…and that little town in Texas didn't seem so dusty after all.

On a cool night in Colorado, Susie and I were up in the roping. We hadn't eaten on Thursday or Friday. We had drawn a small calf and desperately needed to win some money so we could eat. I knew we would be okay because Old Sus' would put me right there and since I was good with a rope, we would be fine.

I backed her in the box, and she was calm as always. Called for the calf, and just like a fighter jet, she took off. Even though she had to be hungry, she was giving me all she had. Put me right there like she always did. She always did her part. I leaned just a bit and knew that supper was only ten or eleven seconds away and let my loop fly. And I just missed him. Just stone cold missed him.

That was bad, but things would get worse. I had to stand by a waste barrel that night and wait on some family to throw away half-eaten food so I could feed my friend. Watching my partner reduced to eating garbage because of me, I tried so hard to think of someone to blame…but there was no one there but me. I had done this thing to my friend.

The longer I stood there, the more painful the experience became. I suddenly understood my parents and teachers had not been trying to do anything but help me. They had done all they could do to prevent my ending up at a place like this but I wouldn't listen. Now, I realized if I couldn't take care of my horse, it was very unlikely I could provide for a spouse or a child. My horse had always done her part…I had never done mine.

The great English theologian, C.S. Lewis once said, "Every conversion begins with a blessed defeat." That night was my defeat. I made a resolve to be different.

There are others who have had a similar experience. A physician named Luke wrote about one long ago…someone who must have been a lot like me. His Dad tried to help him too, but like me, this young man wouldn't listen. He spent all his money and ended up just like me, broke, hungry and full of regret.

Now, I'm certainly no preacher, but that doesn't mean cowboys can't learn from the Word. This fellow that Luke wrote about (and who was like me) realized something. This young fellow was wasting his life until he realized he needed his family and friends, and his teachers and all the people who are sent to help us. The Bible says this young man "came to himself" and the prodigal son knew it was time to go home and live a different life.

And I came home too. I have sinned many times since but not academically. Maintaining that below average I.Q., (I still have it) I never made another B,C,D or F in school…only A's from then on. I don't tell you that story to boast but rather to give you what Emily Dickinson called "that feathered thing"…hope.

It's just a matter of using the gifts we have been given, applying yourself and living by that old cowboy line that we all know… "when you get bucked off, get up and get back on!" In short, do your part. Learned that lesson from a very special horse. Her name was Susie and she was long and lean and a roping machine.

We have a horse farm now and some late evenings at dusk, I walk in the pasture. I walk and look at these pretty green hills behind my barn and sometimes the breeze rustles gently and the hay meadow sways softly as if it's one living thing…and you know, just for a minute, I can still smell her. I can still feel her under me, running hard with her head down low, giving me everything she had. And I remember…a man is allotted one special horse in his life and I've had mine.

Dr. Michael Johnson is an author, national columnist and cowboy.  Michael lives on a horse farm in rural Oklahoma.

Michael heading for the great Sonny Gould

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