“He’s a nice horse, but you can not touch his ears,” she stressed. She motioned with a cigarette to one of the bare-footed girls, who came into the pen, wading through the deep gray sand, and took Packin’ Six by his frayed green halter. Well, I think it was green. Once.
I have such a disdain for nylon halters. When I was a kid, all we wanted were shiny new nylon halters in pretty colors. The barn manager, who was a caustic woman who hated children but loved horses, and so naturally turned to running a lesson barn for a career, went into the feed room and came out with some tattered old nylon halters in varying shades of manure. There was red-manure, purplish-manure, greenish-manure. “Here,” she said, thrusting them at us, adorable little ten-year-olds with curry combs in our hands and dirt on our faces. “Here’s your nylon halters. Your horses will break their legs on them. Enjoy.”
I had a few nylon halters over the years, some truly garish in jewel-tone fashion colors of the nineties, some more subtle, but I never got her leathered sneer out of my mind, and by this time, anyone who used nylon halters was not worthy of my time.
But the tattered old halter was just the beginning. Momma went inside with a bang of the screen door and came back out with the tack: a blazing red nylon bridle from the feed store, complete with nickle-plated curb bit, a red fleece saddle pad woven deeply with horsehairs and blackened with sweat, and the absolutely necessary nylon-padded western saddle with plastic stirrups tied on with orange baling twine. The orange really clashed with the red color scheme.
I might have been a total snob, but I didn’t have any doubts that they had a nice horse and they knew it. So what was wrong with him? There had to be a reason he was here, skinny and in serious need of a pedicure. I decided to tack him up.
“Want me to do it?” I offered to the girl, who was about thirteen and was clearly in charge of training here.
“You gotta take it apart,” she said, handing me the two halves of the headstall. “Put it way back behind his ears. If you touch his ears, he’ll flip over. They eared him at the track.”
Well, you don’t find sixteen-two-hand Thoroughbreds with clean legs standing in sandy backyards keeping company with pigs unless they have some sort of mental instability. So this guy didn’t like his ears handled, eh? I could manage that. Heck, I might even trick him and touch one – just to see what he’d do. I mean, look at these people. They clearly weren’t horsemen. He probably would’ve let me put the bridle right over his ears if I were gentle enough!
I smirked but did just as the girl said, wrapping the two halves of the headstall around his neck and then buckling them together on the right cheekbone. But after I buckled the headstall, I pulled it snug – right up against his ear. He jolted as if he’d been shocked and ran backwards a few steps.
Oops. Embarrassing. A kid on the porch squealed and Momma called down, “Now don’t touch his ears now! Don’t never let nothin’ touch his ears!”
I blushed. But he didn’t flip. So there was that.
“You’re lucky he didn’t just flip over on your car,” the girl said. She glared up at me with accusing eyes. “I said don’t let it touch.” She shook her head and threw the thick saddle pad and the decaying saddle over the horse’s back. I realized that I still couldn’t cinch up a Western saddle properly, and she would have found me out in about thirty seconds if I had still insisted on tacking the horse up.
She would’ve thought I was nothing but a horse snob, and she’d have been right.