Maybe Bonnie wasn’t the best horse in my little string, but that summer she became my favorite.
It was that summer I rode for the Ehrlechers, and the boss gave me four horses to ride and to look after. Bonnie was one of them. Bonnie Bluebelle was her actual name but she was just Bonnie, my sweet little mare. She’d come to the Ehrlecher spread from a dude ranch in Fort Davis, and although she wasn’t exactly a young lady she was still spry enough to chase a cow critter through the brush and generally catch it. Bonnie was about half quarter horse and half a mixture of who knows what else, and she wasn’t all that special just to look at her but she did have the biggest, prettiest eyes I’d ever seen in a horse. Intelligent eyes, like she really understood what was said to her and being done around her.
Now Old Man Ehrlecher was a horse man from the old school. He wasn’t much of a fan of pedigrees and bloodlines, but he had a way of studying an animal, of watching it work just a little, and knowing if it would make a using horse or not. He was fond of horses, not as pets, but almost the same way he’d value a good hand who was a steady worker. He’d always treat horses and men right if they did their jobs.
That’s why he insisted every riding hand have his own string and be accountable for taking care of every mount as if it were his own. So I rode and looked after four horses that summer, but little Bonnie became my favorite.
Now she wasn’t always a lady, mind you. She had a female’s way of surprising me now and again, and sometimes she’d act out in some stubborn, hard-headed way that’d aggravate me for a spell, but we always worked out our differences and got to be good working companions.
If you depend on your horse to get the job done you care for it, just as you would your other tools of the trade. You don’t just ride in at the end of the day, strip off the tack and turn your horse into the pen or pasture, you check to make sure it hasn’t picked up a cut or a scrape that goes untreated, you dry it off if it’s wet or sweaty, you wash off the mud, you get the burrs and such out of its tail…you take care of it. I learned how to take care of my horses, and Bonnie became sort of a mentor to me.
You see, I learned some valuable lessons from Bonnie, things that made me a better hand for Mr. Ehrlecher and things that helped me understand a little more about people and dealing with people. Like I said, she wasn’t always a lady. One day early in the summer I was getting her ready to turn her out into the pasture for the night when I guess I surprised her by walking up to her right hindquarter sort of unannounced, and she cow-kicked me right above my left knee. Oh, it did hurt something fierce, but I just sort of leaned against her until I could move without favoring my leg so much it’d be obvious to the others. She stood there patiently, turning her head back and looking at me like she was saying, “OK, cowboy, what did that teach you?” And after giving it some thought there was something valuable to learn from that kick.
In my hurry to get Bonnie (and later myself) cleaned up in time for me to go in for supper I’d neglected to let her know I was there, nearby. So when I sort of came out of nowhere as far a she could tell, I was one of those two kinds of things that spook a horse: I was something that moved. She taught me to stay close to the horse I was working with, to let it hear my calm voice, to lay a hand on it to let it know where I was when close by. So I learned to stay close, to keep a hand on Bonnie and any other horse I was working with as I moved around, and to let it learn my voice. They’d hear my voice, and as I moved aft of the withers I’d give a touch or a pat, and on those occasions I walked behind them (never an especially bright thing for a cowboy to do but sometimes it was the shortest way to get to where I needed to be) I’d drag my hand across the hindquarters just so they’d know it was me and not a horse-eater coming around their other side. I ran out of things to say pretty soon so I sang to the horses as I worked with them, especially to Bonnie.
My Bonnie chases after the cattle,
She’ll cut ‘em when I give her her head.
My Bonnie’s the best dog-gone cowhorse
That was ever on the Ehrlecher spread.
Well, I never claimed it was a good song, or that I had a singing voice worth listening to, but it was my song for my little mare and she never complained.
And that experience with my string, it taught me about working with people, especially later in my life when I was accountable for others and the work they did. I learned to treat people with the same kind of consideration I’d give a good work horse. After a difficult day or the end of a demanding project you take care of your people before you take care of yourself. And you always let them know you’re nearby, not always as the boss but as a work companion. You don’t pop up out of nowhere and you keep your voice calm even when you don’t feel that way inside. I don’t recommend giving folks a pat on the hindquarters, but some kind of touch can do wonders—a handshake, a real pat on the shoulder, or a phone call or a Snickers bar in the break room. You let people know you’re there and you care and most likely you won’t get cow-kicked.
The summer passed quickly and I went back to school. The months and the years flowed past, a slow but unstoppable river of time. Even though I didn’t want to I sort of lost touch with that time in my life. The memories were still there in my mind but neglected. Life had acquired a way of taking up so much of my present that I didn’t seem to have much time left for enjoying the past, like I should have.
It was about six or seven years later when I moved back to that part of Texas and I enjoyed catching up on things with friends and former neighbors. Old Man Ehrlecher had retired and his daughter and son-in-law were doing a good job of running the ranch. I was visiting with them over coffee one day when in a pause in our talk Sasha said, “The vet was out at the ranch last week and told us Bonnie’s condition is deteriorating. He said it’s about time to put her down.” Her words stunned me. I knew Bonnie was getting along in years, but… I was speechless for a moment, trying to loosen the grip of that hard, icy hand around my heart. “He diagnosed her a few months ago with HYPP. I guess she has just enough quarter horse in her to make her susceptible.” That cold hand was still there, and it felt like there was something inside me about to break.
“There’s no cure for that, is there?” I croaked out, already knowing the answer.
Sasha just shook her head slowly. “Katie’s brokenhearted. She learned to ride on Bonnie, after we took her out of the working herd. How do you explain something like this to a seven-year old?” I didn’t have an answer. I couldn’t even explain it to myself.
It was about ten days later when Karl, Sasha’s husband, called me. “Doc’s coming out this afternoon. It’s time.” I thanked Karl for his call, and I really meant it. Most folks don’t understand the feelings that were aching inside me right then, but horse people do, and the rest won’t “get it” so I won’t even try to explain. I made some excuse or another to take off from work and drove out to the Ehrlecher ranch.
I got there ahead of the vet so I had a while to talk with Karl and to go see Bonnie. I could tell she wasn’t right, the way she sort of swayed, a mite unsteady on her feet as she stood in the round pen. They had a worn stable sheet draped over her but I could see she looked tired, almost frail, and I figured it must be the ravages of the disease that was taking her away. In a way I guess it was a good thing for me to see her like this…it made it easier to understand and deal with what needed to be done. She was too good a little lady to let her linger like this.
Karl led her out of the round pen, the vet and I following close behind. She moved along painfully, hooves shuffling in the dust, a slightly stumbling step every dozen feet or so. My throat tightened and began to ache. We walked, oh, a couple hundred yards from the round pen to a flat area where some creosote bushes and a few scrub honey mesquites punctuated the flat ground. Karl had already prepared Bonnie’s resting place with a backhoe, a shadowy slit in the earth with one narrow end sloped downward where she’d be led. Bonnie backed down the slope as Karl guided her, her beautiful eyes wide and alert, but still gentle and trusting. Doc moved to her side and I stood just forward of her withers, my hand clutching her mane, the ache in my throat almost unbearable. I didn’t see Doc give the injections, and there was no outward sign from Bonnie of any pain or fear. She stood there a few minutes, waiting patiently. I pressed my cheek against her neck, held tightly to her mane, and as best as I could I hummed our little song to her as I felt her grow unsteady and then slowly collapse almost on her left side, settling down for her final sleep. The vet checked for a heartbeat, examined her eye for any pupil dilation, then stood and nodded to Karl and me. It was over.
I looked down at my little mare then reached for the stable sheet that was still draped over her. I pulled it up to cover her head. I just couldn’t bear the thought of dirt falling directly into her face. Yeah, I know, I’m overly-sentimental. So sue me.
I began the long and lonely walk back to the pens and my truck. Doc stayed to talk with Karl who started the backhoe. I guess in part to cover the noise of that machine as it finished its hateful work, but in greater part to try to beckon some of those beautiful but neglected memories I’d let lie for too long, I heard what could barely pass as my voice singing.
Bring back…bring back…bring back my Bonnie to me….