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Horse Trainer's Lament

My oldest son has been doing a little horse training recently, and I'm amazed at how different things are now compared to when I was a kid. These days they use horse psychology ("So tell me, why do you hate your mother, er, mare...?), and it's a lot easier on the trainer. In my day, Dad would bring home a horse and say something like, "Here's an easy one for you Eric" (exit with evil laughter), and watch while I got on only to be bucked off, got on only to be bucked off and so on.

Much of what my son does as a trainer is simply putting into practice what he's studied on his own. In my case I had a mentor - George. For the life of me I can't remember his last name, which is just as well because I'm sure that if George is still alive, he's out there searching magazines and newspapers on a regular basis to see if I've talked.

George was a Slim Pickens look-alike who kept 40 or 50 head of cattle out at our farm. Although George seemed pretty well heeled (he drove a late model Lincoln Continental), we never actually knew where the money came from. Every time the subject of his employment came up, George would reply by rolling his eyes around in his head and baring his teeth in a strange grin. My Dad claimed it was George's way of acting mysterious. I thought it was a nervous tic gone wild.

However, George did take an ongoing interest in my horse breaking activities. I remember one occasion when I was "finishing out" a five year old mare that my Dad had dredged up somewhere ("here you go Eric, this one ought to be easy" - exit with evil laughter...), and George was there to watch. I could tell that he was a little nervous by the way that his hand would stray to the pocket of his denim jacket from time to time. George kept a hip flask in there filled with "heart medicine" and when he was nervous he would frequently check to make sure that his flask was still safe.

The mare was wound up like a clock, but I figured that a little jog around the corral would calm her, so as soon as she was saddled up I climbed aboard. At first she just stood there in defiance of my urging her forward. Then with out warning she went berserk. Leaping high into the air she came down on each foot separately - jolting me with four quick jack hammering blows in a row. Then she began to buck and pitch like a rodeo bronc, sun fishing and churning like a pro. I don't know how I managed to stay onboard, but every time the horse spun I would catch a glimpse of George's frenzied face as he waved his arms and shouted for me to get off.

All of the sudden I found myself clinging to the saddle with the whole of my body hanging to one side of the horse. But before I could let go and bolt to safety, the mare took off at a wild run around the corral. She crowded the fence and played me along the posts like a card in the spokes of a bicycle. I fought to pull myself back into the saddle and each time the mare charged past George I could hear his hoarse scream, "Let go! Let go!" I finally decided he was right and loosened my hold.

My feet came in contact with the ground at a high rate of speed and I found myself vaulting through the fence as if rebounding from the surface of a trampoline. I hit the ground rolling and came to a stop in a cloud of dust at my mentor's feet.

It's strange how one's senses sometimes seem to sharpen during times of great physical stress. I remember looking up at George with eyes clear and hearing sharp. I watched as he groped in his pocket with a violently shaking hand; his eyes bulged and his mouth opened and closed without sound. Suddenly he wrenched his hand free from the pocket and managed to unscrew the top of the flask. I could hear the container rattle against his dentures as he thrust his head back, swallowing, twice, thrice, four times and five.

I was touched by his fatherly concern for me, by his all too apparent affection and the tears began to roll down my checks as I lay there broken and twisted. When his words came it was with the sound of a hoarse expulsion of air, like a man breaking the surface of the water after a long stay in the depths:

"Damn I'm glad that wasn't me!!!"

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