Horse and Cow Stories
Excerpts from Linda's books and other sources.
Don't Mess With Mama
An excerpt from Windbreak.
Everything I Need to Know I Learned from My Horse
Life lessons learned from various horses through the years.
This essay was published in the book Deep West: A Literary Tour of Wyoming, 2004.
Cows vs Coyote
What happens when an innocent mouse-hunting coyote unwittingly trots over a rise and finds herself in a calf nursery?
An excerpt from Between Grass and Sky.
Winston the friendly bull
From a blog Linda wrote in 2010.
An excerpt from Windbreak.
Beef Eater -- A poem by Linda
This poem appears in Linda's book Land Circle.
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Don't Mess with Mama
At first a calf will bawl plaintively if he’s left alone, as when the cow races off to the feed truck. If he’s safe she ignores him. The same calf will lie quietly sleeping when he’s been left with a babysitting cow. But if you want excitement, grab a baby calf in the middle of a calving pasture. He’ll bawl, and every cow within earshot will gallop toward you bellowing madly, ready to protect him. That’s one of the things I like about cows. Their reputation is placid and non-carnivorous but they’ll fight anything to protect their calves.
-- from Windbreak
April 8 entry, page 120
published by Barn Owl Books, 1987
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Everything I Need to Know I Learned From My Horse
by Linda M. Hasselstrom
This essay appears in the book Deep West: A Literary Tour of Wyoming, published by Pronghorn Press (commissioned by Wyoming Center for the Book), 2004.
When I was nine years old, my mother married a rancher and I found myself --I mean that literally-- living in the country. My real life began then and preceding years vanished from my memory. I’d fantasized about horses for years, but my dreams grew solid when I bought an old mare. Besides learning to ride, I learned everything I needed to know for the rest of my life.
The plump Blaze was much more solid --OK, fat-- than I’d hoped, as is typical of illusions. When my Uncle Harold tried to badger his brother into buying me a better horse, my new father replied, "I'm not paying big money for some nag!" So when I turned eleven, Harold gave me an unbroken Arab mare with her yearling filly. I named the filly Rebel because she reared, screaming, flaring her tail like a flag when the lariat settled around her neck. Then she shook her mane, snapped her big white teeth together, pawed with her front feet and kicked as we led her home between our older horses.
"We'll have to gentle her to ride," said my father. I now realize that we got acquainted while he trained me the same way. But "gentle" didn't mean "easy." He figured you learned best by doing and doing again and again, over and over until you got it right. So I rode a horse every day until my middle teens because every day my father made it his business to find a chore requiring a rider. Without a youngster and a green horse to teach, he'd have driven a pickup to check the cows or mend fences. But he took fatherhood so seriously he didn't mind that creating educational toil for me required labor for himself.
By the time I trained Rebel to ride, her brother Yankee was ready to school. Until I turned fifty, I seldom rode a horse I hadn't trained. As I reluctantly moved into city chaos, sure it would drive me crazy, my last horse died.
Reflecting that I'd rather be among horses than people, I recognized how much I'd learned from them about living. Some horse-taught lessons apply literally --while unfolding into greater meanings. I learned, for example, how to stay in a saddle, and how to remount if I fell or was thrown off. Inherent in that lesson were tactics I used to raise myself from figurative dust as well, and to climb back onto whatever problem I've chosen to ride. Living in a city, I naturally spend less time pitching hay and more time thinking. Rules I learned at the bony knees of my horses, I've concluded, can apply equally well to folks who never go anywhere near a horse.
Trust your horse was the first important rule Rebel taught me after she learned about being a trustworthy cow horse. One day when I was about ten or eleven years old, our Angus bull climbed out of our pasture full of adoring heifers into an adjoining empty pasture-- defeating his entire procreative purpose. He was switching flies in celibate splendor on a hilltop until my mare and I arrived. Then he jumped up, bawling low and flinging snot in all directions, and ran toward the Cheyenne River, about forty miles away.
My father followed him in the pickup, occasionally disappearing from view for fifteen minutes as he detoured around washouts. Rebel followed the bull up slopes and across gullies as if she was being towed. Occasionally I'd ride up beside the bull and try to turn him. He'd lower his blunt head and shake it while Rebel sidestepped and tossed her head. We followed him around that pasture for three hours, keeping him in a trot until he got tired enough to turn toward home. Rebel stretched her neck out, bit the bull's tail and dropped into her smooth running walk. He jogged straight into a neighbor's corral, up the loading chute and into the pickup.
My father got in the pickup, grinned tightly and said, "You ought to be able to find your way home from here." He drove away as the sun dropped behind the Black Hills and the prairie turned black in all directions. I couldn't see a thing. But I heard a little voice straight out of one of my books about girls and black stallions: "Trust your horse."
I loosened the reins in my hand, trying to forget my father's advice to keep them tight. I brushed my heels softly against Rebel's side and said, voice wobbling, "Let's go home, girl."
She bobbed her head, jingling the bit, and walked fast, slinging green foam back on my face. At first, I flinched from every gust of air. As the mare slowed, leaning into a hill, I caught a whiff of sage and clay. Instantly I remembered the long slope we'd run down that afternoon and knew where I was. Rebel slowed to a walk on the downhill grade. Then her hooves splashed water and I smelled spearmint: we were passing the spring beside the ruined homestead cabin. That yowl was the rusty windmill in a shifting wind. Turning my head, I glimpsed a windmill blade flash against a last wisp of sunset.
Trust your horse. I had no choice but to ride forward in the dark, believing. The longer I stared about me, the better my own senses functioned. Eventually, emulating the horse, I learned to walk confidently in darkness, seeing where my footsteps would fall in the glow of starlight, scenting the fear of cattle just spooked by a mountain lion.
On that night ride, Rebel headed for the barn. Obedient to instinct, she wanted to get to her feed rack, to the place where I pulled off the saddle and brushed her down. Reflecting on her behavior later, I realized her desire to go where she was fed and cared for signified more than answering physical need. Knowing how to find her way home in the dark was a natural part of being a horse, of recognizing a particular place in her bones and sinews. She knew the countryside around us that night in relation to the center of her world. At Rebel's home, she was able to sleep and eat in comfort, and drink clean water. There, we cared about her in more than one sense.
People often say, "Home is where the heart is," but these days many of us rush to leave home as soon as possible and train themselves to stay away. The horse already knew what I've only recently discovered: No matter how far and fast I may run, no experience is as satisfying, as restful, as coming home. Even though I call my house in a city my home, I find renewal in each return to the ranch where I matured as my horses trained me for adulthood.
Through the years, I thought about that first night ride and understood why my father wouldn't let me gallop after the bull waving my whip and yelling. Before the bull was winded, the horse would be exhausted. "We don't handle cattle the way they do in the movies," he said.
Once I'd taught for a few years, I added my own corollary to this rule: Yelling and whipping doesn't work with children, either. By trailing the bull, slowly but persistently, I wore him down physically and mentally. The same technique worked for teaching schoolchildren of any age, for observing wild animals, and to approach a prospective husband. Take your time. You can't outrun your opponent, so wear him down.
As I grow older and the chance of my outrunning anything or anyone diminishes, I relish this truth even more. All voters, I opine, should remember it each time we face another slate of politicians making promises they don't intend to keep.
To put this technique into practice, I cultivated patience, discerning that even a winning race horse spends a lot of time standing around. Most humans who work for a living find ourselves in the same position: bound to something heavy. Tied, some horses fret, shaking their heads, chewing the bit, gnawing on corral posts. They froth at the mouth and paw the ground until they've dug themselves into a hole. Likewise, humans who drum their fingers on steering wheels or slam drawers and yell at everybody may get ulcers but they seldom improve their lives or escape their frustrations. After all that stewing, they haven't got enough energy left for the next job, or for pleasure either. A horse standing quietly, switching flies, may be reciting Shakespeare, or verses from the Equine Bible. Perhaps she dreams and conserves her strength. Either way, she's in better mental and physical shape than the average human at the end of the day.
Horses may also use their waiting time to recall every occasion when a human has abused them, and to plan the appropriate revenge. So another horse-inspired rule is: A horse never forgets. Whip a horse or use sharp spurs, and the horse will get even. No matter how long it takes. From horses, I learned that the consequences of my actions will catch up with me, inspiration to calculate results in advance. A horse who always runs from the bridle, for example, may get a one-way ticket to a French restaurant with horse meat on the menu. Humans generally can avoid this fate, but don't count on it.
Hanging around horses also taught me: Don't fight the bit. Once you wrap your lips around that piece of iron and clamp it between your jaws, behave yourself. My horse Oliver was a biter. He'd liked to extend his lips and nuzzle my arm, especially if it was bare. Some days, he fondled me with his lips and then bit me. He also bit tree branches and the top wire on fences until my dad put an electric wire across his pen. The juice flowed intermittently, so he had time to wrap his lips all the way around the wire before the shock hit him. He had a hard time letting go, but he seldom bit wire again.
Still, when we tied him to the pickup and headed for the pasture, he snapped his teeth on the tailgate until I smeared it with hot sauce. But I couldn't electrify or season my jeans, and he later bit my backside so hard I wore a purple and green impression of his teeth for weeks. Nearing the end of a long day, he turned his head and chewed on the toes of my boots. My folks could never understand why the toes vanished before the soles were even worn.
No, the moral of the story isn't that he gave up biting or we sold him to the glue factory. We needed him-- we owned worse horses-- but we seldom turned our backs on him. Another horse-taught policy: Don't trust a critter, human or otherwise, who munches on you.
A related horse principle is ancient and metaphorically reliable: Don't complain about your job. If you hate the work or the conditions, quit. Old-timers called it Riding for the Brand.
Once I rode a rented Arab mare along a high, narrow trail in the Rocky Mountains. She bucked hard for the first five miles, on rocky ground. Then she began to lurch and stagger as we negotiated a foot-wide path along a three-hundred-foot drop to the Shoshone River. Thinking she'd pulled a muscle or worn herself into exhaustion, I got off several times to lead her.
A professional wrangler in our group noticed the mare's trouble, and showed me a way to fasten my cinch so I could release it quickly. "That way," he said cheerily, "if that mare goes over the edge, you can fall the other way and jerk your saddle off so you don't have to hike down and get it."
I looked over the edge, a looooooong way down, and decided if I didn't end up in the river with a dead horse, I'd be happy to buy another saddle.
Later, the wrangler pointed out that the horse had no idea how dangerous the trail was, or she wouldn't have walked it. So I adopted another equine edict: Ignore the risks. You might survive and you might not, but you'll sure enjoy yourself more if you don’t worry about them.
Later that night, we decided the mare had colic. She'd been eating dry hay all winter. The first night of the trip, the wrangler picketed her in a boggy meadow where she gorged on green grass. We applied the best first aid we knew and walked the mare half the night to encourage her intestines to empty, but she died.
Bingo! another equine rule: When you find rich forage, don't be greedy. Most horses will graze whenever the reins are loose enough, snatching nourishment at every opportunity, even if it's beneath their standards. Applying this axiom in my own life, I reason that I never know how long I might have to wait for my next nourishing conversation or satisfying work, let alone dessert. And I'm often surprised to find something tasty where I didn't expect it.
From these doctrines and the unfortunate mare comes another familiar law: Whatever goes into a system must emerge. In the mare's case, it didn't emerge naturally. The day we left, a ranger shoved sticks of dynamite in the natural apertures on either end of the horse and lit the fuses. This bizarre wilderness policy evolved from experience: if carcasses weren't scattered, the smell of decomposing flesh attracted grizzlies who might start snacking on hikers after they finished the horse.
This knowledge led me to concoct new policies. First, whether a substance is "waste" or "post-consumer" products or "recycled materials" may depend largely on your attitude. We tried to treat the mare kindly and doctor her ailment but she died anyway. Perhaps she went on to a higher purpose-- feeding an endangered grizzly or fertilizing wildflowers. Some substances we may view as waste can be useful; I always hated shoveling out the barn, but loved the effect on my garden.
Thinking about waste led me to another principle: Relieve yourself whenever possible. If you're a wandering female, especially in my neighborhood, bushes tall enough to hide behind may be miles apart and covered with thorns or ants. I've also noticed that no matter how lonely the country seems, if I park my car beside a road to seek relief, within seconds I hear a polite male voice inquiring if I need help.
When I first began to ride, my father gave me another decree: Don't ever run a horse downhill. Since as usual he didn't explain, I tried it to learn for myself. Deep in some fantasy of chasing rustlers, I was riding Rebel downhill at a gallop when she stepped in a hole. Luckily, it wasn't deep enough to break her leg. She only tripped and rolled -- head over tail, brain over buttocks, mind over hind --all the way down. I stayed in the saddle, too scared let go, being mashed a little more every time the horse rolled over. When we hit bottom, she stood and shook herself, gave me a look of disgust and started grazing. Her knees were scraped raw. As soon as I could move, I started crawling around on the hillside looking for my glasses and mumbling to myself. Since then, I take my foot off the gas on a downhill run so I have time to look for prairie dog holes and other dangers. Works driving a horseless carriage or planning an essay, too.
Being around horses, I soon noticed how they informed themselves, nostrils flared and both ears swiveling. For humans, I translate this guideline as: Pay attention. If you listen to everything, you'll be better able to sort out what's really useful before you decide how to act.
When Rebel discovered something truly dangerous, like bison in the neighbor's pasture, she spun around on her hind feet. Face danger, she figured. She looked it over with first one eye, then the other, making a considered judgment about what to do.
On the other hand, Rebel's son Oliver was terrified of big white rocks. If he saw a white rock within a mile, he ignored me and the cows he was supposed to be driving. Closer to the rock, he'd honk air and spring from one hoof to another. When we passed it, he'd roll his eyes and bend his neck, trying to gawk over his shoulder. Busy watching the rock, he once stepped on something squishy. When he dropped his nose to investigate, a rattlesnake bit him.
So I stopped watching the horizon for Big Scary Stuff. I don't care if Nostradamus said a meteor is going to hit the earth, because I'm worried about cow prices and wondering if the neighbor's buffalo have busted the fence again. Concentrate on local problems is the phrase I use to myself.
Oliver recovered from the snakebite, but his nose was the size of his rear end all summer. While he forgot white rocks, a rattling weed made him do somersaults. Naturally, I formulated another creed: To discover truth, stick your nose in it. You may get bitten. Or you may discover you can survive events some folks consider fatal, like snakebite, marriage, divorce, and probate.
Facing danger is a good axiom, but its reverse is occasionally the best course. Oliver was tied in the corral once when we unloaded a new Angus bull, grouchy from being in the trailer for half a day. The bull stepped out of the trailer, saw the horse and blamed him for a lifetime of afflictions. Dropping his head, he slammed Oliver's belly so hard the barn shook. Then he backed off bawling and pawed the ground while he decided what to hit next. My husband and I scrambled up the fence, so the bull snorted and went for the horse.
But that horse learned fast: Turn your back to danger. When the bull got close enough, Oliver pounded him three times in the center of the forehead with both hind hooves. The bull backed off, shook his head and charged again. The horse popped him in the eye a couple of times before hammering on his chest. After awhile, the bull decided to look over the corral, maybe get a drink.
I interpret this flexible law to mean I face trouble unless that doesn't work. Then I spin around and kick it. But I find that turning my back on risk also multiplies my options. Instead of kicking, I can run, if I'm not tied up-- certainly one reason I avoid having a regular job. When Oliver met the new bull, he was tied to the fence, a situation I've tried to avoid. Besides, if you turn your back on a crisis and never see it again, it wasn't a serious problem and you've saved yourself trouble.
Another maxim my horses originated was: Walk up hills. Save the powerful sprint for real emergencies; you'll encounter plenty. A horse will run from danger if she can. My husband voiced his own version of this belief. At six foot two, he weighed 250 pounds, knew kung fu, wore a belt knife, and carried a pistol when he didn't have a rifle. His favorite saying was, "Your best defense is your feet: putting one in front of the other as fast as possible."
Most of my horses were cooperative most of the time, so the habits they taught me are generally positive. But I learned from the lazy, obstinate, rowdy nags too. My first horse, the fat mare I called Blaze, must have led a rough life before she met me, because she'd sworn off work. She taught precepts by example. When I tried to tighten the cinch on the saddle, she'd inhale, expanding her belly. Until we got acquainted, I couldn't understand why every time she shook herself --roughly every fifteen steps-- the saddle turned and I slid out. When I dismounted, my dad advised me to, "Kick her in the belly," thumping the extra air out. A new rule evolved: After you've been in the saddle awhile, test the cinch.
Perhaps the saddle made Blaze's back itch, so she rolled to relieve it. I learned to ride with only the tips of my toes in the stirrups so I could kick loose in a hurry. This lesson probably saved my life when I was trying to work with a horse who'd learned nasty habits from the first few folks who tried to ride him. His favorite exercise was to rear and throw himself backwards. You didn't want to be underneath when he lit. So when I get myself in a location I don't know well --whether it's a in political party, or an environmental group, or a marriage-- I follow this rule: Ride loose enough in any saddle so you can get off in a hurry. If nobody's looking, I ride with one hand on the saddle horn: Hold on if the trip gets rough. I swear by both practices, no matter what I'm riding.
Hearsay has taught me a few more horse-inspired procedures. My Uncle Harold related a tale about Art Shoemaker, a neighbor who broke horses to be sold as remounts for the Army. He didn't have much time for each horse, so he developed an effective method to stop bucking. He reached down along the horse's neck to grab the bridle beside the bit. When the horse bucked, he yanked hard, leaning the opposite way to throw the horse on its side. The trick required strength as well as enough coordination to get his leg out of the stirrup on the side that hit the ground. My uncle swore most of Art's horses only bucked once. Other horse-breakers have told me they slam a plastic jug of warm water down on the horse's head as he begins to buck. They speculate that the horse decides bucking makes his head bleed, so he stops. People using either method swore the technique worked and was humane, putting me in mind of my father's advice: It helps to be smarter than the horse. Find the way that works with your horse-- or the issue you are trying to advance.
No matter what you think of the horse-inspired training, keep the day's first scripture in mind: Trust your horse. If you don't have a horse handy, trust folks who know more than you do, even if they're animals. I've learned a lot by following another injunction from the days when my father taught me about horses. When I find somebody who knows what he or she is doing, I shut up and pay attention.
# # #
Note: this essay was written while Linda was living in Cheyenne, Wyoming; hence the references to living in a city in the 4th and 5th paragraphs.
“Everything I Need to Know I Learned from My Horse,” Deep West: A Literary Tour of Wyoming, Pronghorn Press (commissioned by Wyoming Center for the Book), 2004, ISBN 0-9714725-7-2, pp. 392.
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Cows vs Coyote
One summer evening, contemplating the myth of placid cows, I sat on my deck and watched a coyote hunting mice in the field below. When she was full, she ducked under the fence and started up the slope. . . .
My first clue of trouble was a bellow that might have come from a wounded elephant, a high-pitched scream of fear and wrath. I grabbed the binoculars and found the coyote. She'd strolled over a little knoll directly into the nursery. The two or three baby-sitting cows sounded the alarm. The coyote looked back over her shoulder, assessing her predicament. Not ten feet away, a cow was pawing dirt up over her back, bawling and tossing her horns. From every direction, cows were running toward the nursery.
Read the rest of the story in:
Between Grass and Sky
"The Cow Is My Totem" (pages 179-180)
Published by University of Nevada Press, 2002
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Winston the friendly bull
[My friend's] father raised Winston, a beautiful Hereford bull, on his ranch near Newcastle, WY, and his children rode the bull the whole time he was growing up. By the time my father bought Winston, he was a massive breeding machine, with the white curly face and immense circle of horns that mark a true Hereford. I loved taking my friends to the corral to see him, and then casually climbing on and riding him around. Naturally, like the self-centered little monster I was, I allowed my playmates to think I was responsible for the bull’s kindness, but his innate Hereford gentleness kept him calm.
-- from Birthday Week
July 18, 2010 blog on this website
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I get real satisfaction from watching cows eat. They enjoy it so much, wrapping their long tongues around a few stems of green grass, snapping it off and rolling their eyes as they work it back into their teeth. Then after they’ve grazed awhile, they lie down, look philosophical, and belch, bringing up a cud which they chew with an expression like that of a gourmand savoring a special dish.
Some of the two-year-olds are so tame I can walk among them, patting their heads, scratching their ears, letting them eat cake from my hand. Last year I spent days coaxing one with a heart-shaped white spot on her red forehead to eat; we call her Sweetheart.
George thinks I’m silly to enjoy the cows as much as I do, pointing out they are really rather stupid beasts, but I disagree. They have instincts, and in some cases seem to plot against us. On warm days like this you can almost see them thinking, “I don’t think she shut the gate to the stackyard very tight. I’ll get it down and then we’ll all go in there and pretty soon all the humans will come rushing out cursing and shouting and we won’t be bored.”
-- from Windbreak
April 15 entry, page 123
published by Barn Owl Books, 1987
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I have been eating beef hearts
all my life.
I split the smooth maroon shape
open it like a diagram, chambers exposed.
I cut tough white membranes off valves,
slice onions over the heart,
float it in water,
boil it tender.
I chop prunes, apricots, mushrooms
to mix with dry bread,
sage from the hillside.
I pack the crevices full,
nail the heart together,
weave string around the nails.
I lift the full heart
between my hands,
place it in the pan
with its own blood, fat, juices.
I roast the heart
at three hundred fifty degrees
for an hour or two.
Often I dip pan juices,
pour them lovingly over the meat.
When I open the oven,
the heart throbs
in its own golden fat.
I thicken the gravy with flour,
place the heart with love
on my grandmother’s ironstone platter,
slice it evenly from the small end;
pour gravy over it all,
smile as I carry it to the table.
My friends have begun to notice my placid air,
which they mistake for serenity.
Yesterday a man remarked on my large brown eyes,
my long eyelashes,
my easy walk.
I switched my tail at him
as if he were a fly,
--from Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land
Fulcrum Publishing, Golden Colorado
published 1991, paperback edition published 1993
Anniversary Edition published 2008
(c) Linda M. Hasselstrom, 1991
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Where to find Linda's cow stories, essays, poems.
coming some day . . .