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The Oldest Four by Four

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

The door swung open on the rickety white pickup truck as it turned into the ranch. A dark hand reached out and held it shut through the open window. The track up to the yard is so gnarled that the door bounced open twice more anyway. “That’ll be Earl,” said Russell.

Earl’s yellow-toed rubber boots stepped out of the truck and, for the first time since I got to the States, a cowboy hat didn’t follow. Earl’s fairly short, and seems shorter for the narrow brim of his faded bucket hat. His beard stands out white against his black skin. He looks to Russell while I shake his hand. He’s wearing heavy rings on three fingers. We all pile into Earl’s truck to feed the mares in the far field, and, this time, we get really stuck; so stuck that someone has to bring a tractor and push us out of the mud, using a big roll of hay like a cushion between the two vehicles.

That was that for our faith in trucks. The colts needed worming, and there was only one thing for it. We’d have to go on the oldest four by four there is: horseback. Tucked away in a little pasture, almost forgotten behind the hay barn, are the only horses on the property that don’t buck; Little Red and a grey called Cat. Russell suggested that we ‘lope’ over to the colts, “or canter as you call it, I think.” My heels, not yet familiar with this tack, touched the back girth instead of Little Red’s belly. Then I aimed my new spurs more precisely and off I went, feeling odd in a new saddle. It’ll take some practice, keeping my seat with the raised edge at the back of the saddle, and with such big stirrup leathers (‘fenders’) in the way of my legs.

The colts were cantering across the brow of the hill as we entered the field, their dark shapes moving as one through the tall yellow grass. Some of them are still stringy-looking, only a year old, while others have begun to put on the strong hind-quarters and muscular shoulders of their mothers. They’re flighty and erratic, hard to herd. I’m glad I’ve done this before. We work together to move them into a small metal pen, where they swirl around in a knot of bodies. Ten sets of ears and eyes twitch and blink in unison, all watching me through the bars. Only now can I get close enough to notice their fluffy chins and fetlocks, a nod to the draft horse blood running in their young veins. The pen leads to a chute, where Russell’s ready with the worming liquid. Earl gets a little red flag on a long stick, and expertly divides three colts from the knot, shooing them out of the gate. I clatter it shut before the rest follow. Russell divides them with the sliding doors of the chute, treats them, and lets them free again.

The whole operation – the steady herding, the wildness of the animals, the endless chutes – is just like the saneamiento of the bulls in Spain, except that you’re more or less safe to be in the pen with the horses, provided you’ve got a stick. That’s why worming used to take hours on the ranch; equipment designed for horses works on the assumption that you can hold the horse’s head, and that the horse might even stand still for you. That assumption doesn’t fly out here. It was impossible to get the little plastic syringes in the horses’ mouths. One year, Russell tried using the hooked syringe designed for cattle. Bingo. “When we figured that out,” he tells me, “we wormed every darn animal on this place in one day.”

Next, some of the mares needed antibiotics for their snotty noses. No simple bam-bam-slap rhythm like Carlos taught me, here. A whole process of flags, gates, and pens to sort and separate the ill mares from the herd, then a beautiful ride through the woods back to the yard, as the mares cantered ahead through the line of gates we’d left open for them, driving themselves along with their own momentum. They were already circling the pen that leads to the chute when we caught up with them. At least mares are more predictable than colts, and they’re too big to jump around in the chute, even if they wanted to.

When we’d finished moving them back through the bull field and the waterlogged forest, Earl pulled a cool box out of his truck and set about gathering some empty grain sacks and a spoon. He laid them on the bed of the truck, then showed us the catch of the day. Black backs, greenish middles, and brilliant silver bellies: twelve glistening white perch. Russell laid one out on a grain sack and showed me how to clean it, scraping the scales from the tail up with the spoon, then cutting off the fins and head, and removing the guts. The scales were sturdier than I’d have thought, the guts less smelly. I didn’t mind about any of it. My only thought was that it’s a shame I’m such a bad fisherman. My new skill isn’t much use as it stands.

With the fish all clean and ready, our tummies started rumbling, and it was time to head home. Before I could thank Earl for what was soon to be our supper, the rickety white truck was rumbling out of the gate.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Russell, “He just wants them perch off his hands so he can go fishing again. You know, I’m about sure that’s where he’s headed right now.”

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