Wally and His Girls Afternoon Adventure
by Frank Bell
It was a beautiful crisp fall afternoon as Alex and I crested the long hill on Rt. 105 and started driving down through beautiful ranching country when we noticed congestion a good mile to the north. From a distance it looked like an accident. At least two dozen cars were backed up in three directions from where Tomah Rd. intersected route 105. The scenario unfolded as we approached. Several cars were actually off the road. Horns were honking and people were out of their cars running around waving their hands in the air. A man on a four-wheeler was racing frantically back and forth. Suddenly horses appeared from between the cars. They dashed over to the fence-line on the west and began moving along it in our direction. They were still several hundred yards away, but headed toward us at a steady pace. "This doesnt look so good Frank. Why dont you see if you can help," Alex suggested. I pulled in behind the last car in line and we watched the show for a few moments. I tacit agreement, I jumped out of the car, grabbed my 12halter/lead, and moved toward the confusion ready to lend a hand. Alex replaced me in the drivers seat.
It looked like about ten horses. It was a colorful lot with a several paints, a roan, a palomino, buckskins, bays and sorrels. Then there was the massive jet-black Percheron who towered above the other horses. This statuesque creature was every bit of 18 hands. He was dripping with sweat and breathing hard as steam poured through his nostrils into the cold fall air. As he moved, so did the others.
We were in the middle of prime ranching country only a few miles from the eastern most edge of the Rocky Mountains. Cattle, bison, lamas, and horses populated the ranches. It was normally a low traffic area especially mid-week. But today there were a lot of cars and people waiting for this drama to end. As I passed the cars it was evident that the occupants had neither intention nor inclination to get involved. I couldnt blame them. They wouldnt know what to do and would probably end up in the way or possibly get hurt. This was a dangerous situation for everyone, let alone the inexperienced.
The horses advanced along the fence line until blocked by a car and waving arms then went back across the road to the other fence The came south toward me at a steady clip. I rushed up and blocked the gap between a car and the fence and turned them back to the north. As they moved up the fence line I yelled at the ranch hand on the four-wheeler, "Where do they need to go? Which horse is the lead horse? Who will they follow?" "If you can catch Wally the big black draft, the mares will follow him. Careful, hes a tough one and would just as soon kick your head off. You see the gate up the road on the east side," he asked? I nodded. "If you can get him in there, the others will follow him right in." Then he roared off in hot pursuit. The whole scene was chaos. There was no plan and not much horse-sense taking place. The horses were highly agitated and the aura was not conducive to a happy outcome. One of the buckskins had a wire cut and was bleeding. The roan was heavily favoring his left side and trying to keep up with the gang on three legs. This must have been going on long before we arrived. These horses were wild-eyed, traumatized and dripping with sweat. Direction was needed desperately. It was time to take control.
The Herd Bares Down on Alex
I whistled loudly, waved my arms, and got the attention of the six people on foot. "Spread out and block their exits. But give them room. They need to settle down. Move back," I yelled out. I motioned back with my arms in the air to those at the far north-end, well out of hearing range; then did the same to the south. But there was little help on the south where we had just come from. The horses circled, searching for any opening they could rush through. They all continued to the north, met resistance, then circled back south along the western fence line. They broke into a canter with Wally in the lead. I looked down along the alley to the south. There was a huge opening between the cars and the fence with nobody in it. The horses were gaining speed and momentum and tightening up as a group. If they got past us to the south they were gone. There was nothing to stop them for miles and getting in front of them to turn them would be a real challenge. It would require racing by in a vehicle then somehow turning them around in the direction of all the cars and congestion. This was exactly what they did not want to do. They just wanted their freedom. Suddenly Alex appeared from the road. She bravely positioned herself right in the middle of the opening. With a coat in one hand and a hat in the other she aggressively moved toward the horses making guttural predator sounds. She held her ground as they bared right down on her at full speed. In silent prayer I glanced at the other helpers. All eyes were on Alex. Everyone stopped breathing for a few seconds as the horses closed in on one lone figure standing up to ten frantic highly irrational horses. When the herd was about twenty-five feet from her, they abruptly veered up onto the road threaded through the cars, and circled back north. I gave Alex thumbs up, then raised two arms in the air in a sign of success. She motioned the same back to me with a huge smile on her face.
Now the plan might just work if everybody kept their cool. The horses had plenty of room and were adequately surrounded. Even the guy on the four-wheeler smartened up and quit racing back and forth. The horses circled around from one side of the road to the other for a few minutes then Big Black and a bay mare stopped right in the middle between the cars. The other horses continued to mill around, but stayed close keeping their eyes on the huge black horse for direction. One of the helpers, a middle aged ranch gal with obvious horse savvy approached the bay with her halter. Her advance was non-aggressive and slow. She caught and held the mares attention then succeeded in getting a hand on her. She draped the lead around her neck and finally secured the halter. I waited for a long minute then slowly eased in, focused on getting my hands on the Percheron. He eyed me with suspicion. "Eeeeeasy big boy," I cooed over and over as I slowly advanced in a slightly sideways crouched position. "Settle down now. Eeeeeasy boy." I moved in, placing one foot over the other, presenting myself from the side to appear small and non-threatening. He trusted me enough to get in chose and offer my hand. He sniffed my outstretched hand, then allowed me to make contact on his glistening neck. I stoked his wet hair just below his mane and talked softly. "Everythings going to be ok big boy. Its all over now. You can relax." I kept the dialogue going to keep his attention with me and help him settle down. He was trembling and breathing hard. His eyes showed far too much white especially for a draft horse. My right hand stroked his neck, and then I kneaded his withers soothingly. My left found the V under his jaw, then the corner of his mouth, then inside. I feathered his tongue with my index finger and he began working his huge mouth. I removed my finger and watched as his mammoth tongue licked his lips in a welcome sign of relaxation. His eyes softened and he dropped his head. The big adventure was over. He seemed to ask me to help him as he offered his head and neck to be haltered. My halter was far too small to fit his massive head so I created a loop around his neck with the lead and we started up the road to the north, back home, back to safety.
Home to Safety
The other horses filed in behind as we walked by the cars and people. What a sight to behold, me leading this gargantuan horse that towered over me with a mere loop around his neck and all the others in a single line directly behind. Cameras snapped away through the windows as this gang proceeded past with heavy steam rolling off their damp coats and from their nostrils. But now they were all relaxed and docile and ready to return home and have a good rest and a drink and reminisce about the day Wally and his girls had their big adventure out on the road.
I learned later that Wally, the draft was indeed the ringleader. He had lost his younger brother in a lightning accident a year earlier and taken up with the brood mares. They worshipped him and followed him anywhere, including into trouble. We walked through the entrance gate into the ranch and I waited until the rest were through and it was closed securely. I asked Wally to drop his head and slipped the lead off him. He complied, and even with the lead off seemed content to hang with me. We exchanged air as I breathed into his vast nostrils. His breathing had slowed considerably. My hand moved up to his left eye and I began rubbing it with my palm. He leaned into the pressure and I pushed back, working his eye vigorously. He leaned harder into my hand and I braced myself. It felt so good to him. Before he pushed me off balance I stopped. He looked intently at me with those calm glassy eyes and he thanked me. By now his harem had moved off a good ways to the west toward the ranch buildings. He looked at them, then at me again. "Its ok Big Wally. You go on now, and stay out of trouble, at least for awhile."
Frank Bell has made a career of helping horses through their people problems. He has been featured in equine publications, websites, and television throughout the world. He helps thousands of horsemen and women become better communicators through his clinics, demonstrations, and audio/video library.
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Updated: October 2005.