Cowboy Magic® Fans we are thrilled to offer you an excerpt from H. Alan Day’s new book The Horse Lover: A Cowboy’ Quest to Save the Wild Mustangs, as he stops by as part of his Virtual Book Tour.
The Horse Lover is Day’s personal history of the sanctuary’s vast enterprise, with its surprises and pleasure, its plentiful frustrations and heartbreak. Day’s deep connection with the animals is readily apparent, as is his maverick philosophy of horse-whispering that he used to train all 1500 horses. Woven into the narrative are Day’s recollections of cowboying adventures astride some of his best horses, all of which taught him indispensable lessons about loyalty, perseverance, and hope.
You can read more about H. Alan Day on his blog – The Horse Lover.
Thank you CowboyMagic, for hosting me on this virtual book tour celebration for the ‘Horse Lover: A Cowboy’s Quest to Save the Wild Mustangs’. I look forward to connecting with your audience and welcome their comments or questions.
Aunt Jemima had been a handful to train. As a young colt, this little grulla-colored mare didn’t like what we were trying to teach her and was slow to offer her trust. Her older sister Tequila, a big, strong, willing cow horse, held a special spot in my string of horses at Lazy B. I was willing to put up with Aunt Jemima’s crankiness because of how much I enjoyed riding her sister. When Jemima got big enough to ride, I assigned her to Rodney, one of the ranch hands, to break. He had a way with young horses. But he had one fault: he liked to ride bucking horses. With her peppery temper, Aunt Jemima would buck if challenged, and Rodney seemed to be constantly challenging her.
I’d watch the two of them go at it in the corral. “Why do you try to make that mare buck?” I’d say to Rodney. “You’re supposed to be breaking her to be gentle. If you keep making her buck, she’ll learn how to buck harder and harder and then she won’t be good for anything.”
“Aw, I’m just having fun with her. She can’t buck hard enough to scare anyone,” he’d reply.
I finally got so annoyed with Rodney’s attitude that I took over riding Aunt Jemima. She was still young, and compared to the four or five horses in my string, much smaller. I saddled her up a couple times and rode her around the headquarters corrals. When she tried to buck me off, I pulled her head up and scolded her. “Jemima, we’re not out here to put on a rodeo. We’re here to work cattle, so get your head up and let’s do our job.” She understood me. It didn’t take long for the bucking to stop.
I had been on her only twice when I decided to take her out on the range to do what normally would be an easy job. We needed to move a herd of steers to a pasture I recently had leased at the Bilbo Ranch about fifty-five miles away. Due to distance, the moving would be done by truck. The cattle had long been gentled and we just needed to unload them and get them acclimated to the ranch. Aunt Jemima was still a green broke, if that, so the day’s activity would be good experience for her. If it had been a bigger job, I would have opted to ride Saber, my number-one horse that easily could do every job that needed to be done horseback.
It took two hours to haul our heavy load to the east side of Lordsburg, New Mexico. The crew of five cowboys and I drove the two trailers into open pasture. A forty-foot, single-deck trailer divided into three compartments held the cattle. With a roof made of pipes, it had provided an open-aired excursion for the fifty head of steers. Our horses stood in a much smaller trailer that we unloaded as soon as we parked. Though it wasn’t quite noon, the early summer air felt warm and dry. A thin layer of dust seemed to cover everything.
As I re-cinched Aunt Jemima’s saddle, I previewed the day with her.
“Jemima, here’s what we’re going to do. First, we’re going to unload those cattle. They’ll come trotting off the trailer and when they see us they’ll stop. So I need you to help hold them. Once they’re in a nice bunch, we’ll drive them to the water trough by the holding tank so they know where to get a drink. They’ll start walking around and grazing. We’ll make sure they’re comfortable before we head back home. All you have to do is keep your eye on the cattle and we’ll do just fine.” I rubbed her neck. I got the feeling she understood me.
I climbed aboard and joined four cowboys already on horseback. We formed a semicircle at the back of the trailer to act as a net to prevent the steers from spreading. I could feel Aunt Jemima’s anticipation. She was like a seventh grader getting ready for her first full-court basketball game in the school gym.
The remaining man, the gate opener, was on foot. The springs of the trailer squeaked as the cattle began shifting and impatient bawls filled the air. He swung the back gates open and stepped out of the way as the first steers burst out like they were running from a bomb about to explode. They didn’t stop once they hit dirt. There was no mistaking they were spooked. The cowboys and I gave ground, trying to stay ahead of them. But there they came at a high run, with the next group right behind them, and the third group right behind them. Within minutes they had broken through our net and were stampeding in every direction, feeding panic to the group. No one had a chance to think what could have possibly frightened them. The cowboys had spurred their horses into a full gallop. Jemima seemed to know what to do and was in the right place.
We turned our horses, yelling to each other or using hand signals to communicate over the thunder of pounding hooves.
“I’ve got these over here.”
“Get ’em in one group. We’ll bend ’em round and take them back.”
“Stay ahead of them if you can, boys.”
Everyone’s adrenaline cranked — cowboy, cattle, and horse. This was exactly the situation in which you wanted to be on a horse like Saber. Here I was on this little bitty horse that had barely been ridden. Instead of running her first full-court press in the school gym, Aunt Jemima had been tossed right into the heart of an NBA game. But there we were, galloping and turning and trying to ring-in steers rippling away from us. Aunt Jemima was fully engaged. It was as if she had a sneak preview at the playbook. I was asking her to do what I would have asked Saber to do. She was rising to the occasion and making a hand.
For an hour we labored to turn those steers sideways, slow them down to a trot, drive them into a bunch, and bend them back near the water trough. Every one of us galloped several miles to get the job done. The backs and armpits of the crew’s shirts were drenched in sweat and sweat dripped down the horses’ flanks and necks. Only one renegade steer wouldn’t stop. Aunt Jemima and I watched him jump over a fence into the neighbor’s pasture. I could feel her pulling me to go after him. She knew where he was supposed to be and it wasn’t over there. Her work was not yet done.
I tried to calm her down. “Jemima, he’s too far ahead of us to ever catch him. And you’ll run yourself down if I let you go after him.”
She didn’t like that answer. She kept her head up and watched him grow smaller. She was telling me she was good for the chase. I could feel that she still had energy. It was my job to figure out how much and not let her overrun. I know the feeling of wanting to do the job right and get it done. She had just proven to me that she was a game player. I needed to honor her request.
I relented. “Okay, let’s see if we can find a gate.”
I turned her and she went into an easy gallop along the fence. A gate appeared and I got off, opened it, and remounted.
The steer looked to be about a mile away.
“If you think you can catch him, I’m going to pitch you the slack. You pick the pace, Jemima. Take it kind of easy, though, because we have a long way to go.” I hoped she heard my cheers more than my doubts.
She leapt forward without a spur and the chase was on. She chose an easy, steady gallop. The distance between the steer and us began to decrease. Her endurance and strength amazed me. We were covering country, past mesquite and creosote bush. Pretty soon, I heard a second set of hooves hitting the ground and smelled the disturbed dust rising up into the warm air. The gap between the steer and us closed to one hundred yards. My doubts dissipated. By golly, she just might catch this guy.
The steer jumped off a small bank into a sandy canyon. Without hesitation, Jemima followed.
“Aunt Jemima, if you can catch him, I’ll rope him.”
I took my rope and built a loop. Jemima’s gait suddenly changed from smooth to choppy and right then, I knew she had nothing left. She had hit the anaerobic wall. The steer was twenty feet in front of us. I started swinging the loop around my head, aimed for the steer’s horns, and threw it. It floated through the air and settled over the exhausted animal’s head. I yanked the slack and dallied the rope around the saddle horn. Everything came to a complete halt. We couldn’t have gone another two feet. Between Aunt Jemima and the steer panting and my heart pounding, I couldn’t hear the cicadas buzz.
We sat there and waited for the cowboys to show up. They weren’t far behind.
“You take this steer,” I said, handing the rope to one of them. “I’ve gotta take care of my horse.”
I dismounted and stood there, wiping sweat from Aunt Jemima’s neck and shoulders. She stood there, legs splayed, sides heaving. I continued to rub and love on her until her panting slowed.
“Jemima, you gave me one hundred percent of who you are. You got the job done, baby. You have the biggest heart I’ve ever seen,” I kept telling her. “You’ve made me a friend for life.” After she recovered, I slowly rode her back to the trailer.
I had arrived in that pasture anticipating the ordinary but left having experienced the extraordinary. It wasn’t the stampede that was unique, or lassoing the steer. Responding to the thrill and tension and adventure of the unexpected is all part of being a cowboy. It defines who you are. What I found extraordinary was the heart of the horse I rode, the effort she gave, an effort few horses ever give. It was an amazing day, the day I fell in love with Aunt Jemima.
I still loved her to pieces. Maybe I could ship her up to South Dakota after things got settled. I bet she’d relish it up here. In the meantime, maybe John could find me a horse of my own.
Alan Day’s upbringing branded him a cowboy from the day he was born. He was part of the third generation to grow up on the 200,000-acre Lazy B cattle ranch straddling the high deserts of southern Arizona and New Mexico. The ranching and cowboy lifestyle appealed to him so greatly that after graduating from the University of Arizona, he returned to manage Lazy B for the next 40 years. During his career, he received numerous awards for his dedicated stewardship of the land. In the 1980’s, Alan purchased a cattle ranch in Nebraska and soon after, a ranch in South Dakota. The latter became the first government-sponsored sanctuary for unadoptable wild horses. He developed and successfully used a herd modification-training program for his 2000 head of cattle and 1500 wild mustangs.
Alan and his sister, Sandra Day O’Connor, co-authored the New York Times bestselling memoir, Lazy B, which chronicles the story of the Day family and growing up on a harsh yet beautiful southwestern ranch. Alan is a member of Western Writers of America. Now retired, he divides his time between Tucson and Pinetop, AZ.
Photo Credit: Lynn Wiese Sneyd
Permission Verbiage for excerpt: (excerpted/selected/) from The Horse Lover: A Cowboy’s Quest to Save the Wild Mustangs by H. Alan Day with Lynn Wiese Sneyd by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2014 by H. Alan Day. Available wherever books are sold or from the Univ. of Nebraska Press 800.848.6224and at nebraskapress.unl.edu