It was the Summer between my sophomore and junior years at Notre Dame. I came home to my parents ranch in Sherman, TX to rest, workout, and help my Dad around our place. It was a sweet time of life. I had moved on from being under my parents watch, but was still very much under their care. After a severe case of homesickness during my first year playing football in South Bend, I was used to the landscape of college life and was enjoying it. This made my brief moments back home even sweeter. No longer did I return home with a bitterness toward school and a sad, nostalgic longing to return to Texas. Instead, visits home were special, pleasant, and embraced. I was very much “in the moment,” as it is said.
College football had been very kind to me up to this point. At seventeen years old, on my first visit to ND, Lou Holtz offered a scholarship and a starting position. I assumed he—like a lot of recruiting coaches—was, at best, embellishing my opportunities. Or, at worst, lying. He wasn’t lying. Later that year, in September of 1995, I trotted out onto the field against Northwestern as the starting punter for Notre Dame. By the Summer of ’97 when I returned home to Texas, I was established as one of the best punters in college football. Rumblings about the future and interest from NFL teams had already begun. As it pertains to the NFL, my upcoming Junior season would be the most important football season of my life. Juniors cement interest from professional teams, then, as seniors, they try to stay healthy and wait for the draft. So, this was a summer for good decisions…not one for wild, youthful risks.
Very few old friends were hanging around my hometown that Summer. It was pretty much my parents, my best childhood friend, John Hefton, and me. The weather was beautiful. Our ranch was green and flourishing. There were hundreds of wide open pastured acres there. So, I asked my Dad for a horse. And, though I still can’t believe it, he said yes.
Dad was always warning me about getting hurt. “Son, don’t drive so fast….Don’t play basketball….Don’t hang out with that guy…Don’t jump off from there!” In his defense, he saw a future I couldn’t see. And, he didn’t want it crushed by injury or stupidity. One of his blindspots in this regard involved “farmy” things. He didn’t see riding horses as a risk. Nor did he see wrestling with highly spirited, cantankerous cattle in rusty, jagged corrals in 110 degree heat as particularly unsafe activity. Let me assure you, no pickup basketball game poses as big a health threat as 4 hours playing rodeo clown with a herd of angry cows. No, if it was grainy, earthy, or farm related, it was safe in his eyes.
Our horse search was slow. In those days there was no craigslist or website for online horse classifieds. After an extensive search I found out there was going to be a horse sale at a sale barn in Pilot Point, TX. This was the same sale barn where we sold our cattle. I loved going there with Dad. If you’ve never been to a livestock auction, you need to go. Find one close, load up your family, and just watch. Oh, and make sure you eat at the cafe`. I don’t need to know which sale barn you’re attending in order to recommend the food. It’s always good. Pilot Point was no exception. Burgers, chocolate pie, and all the people watching you could want. It was, and is, one of my favorite places.
Buying an animal at a sale barn is risky. By and large, the folks who sell at sale barns are good country people turning their hard work into cash. Most of them bring healthy animals at the peak of their condition in order to command the highest price. They pick up their checks and head home to get back to work. There are, however, a couple of other types of sellers. There are the ones trying to get rid of sick animals. And, even worse, those off-loading crazy, dangerous animals. Both groups will use shady practices to get the sale. Perhaps you’ve heard the term “horse trader” used in a negative light. Well, crooked horse traders congregate at horse sales like Baptists at a pitch-in dinner. They all get together looking for vulnerable people buying horses for their kids. On this particular day it turns out they were looking for us. My Dad was not one to get suckered easy. But, this night he lost a battle of wits with a couple of the worst horse traders in Texas.
The sale started at 6pm. We arrived early in our two-toned red and white 1986 Ford F250 pulling a 25 foot cattle trailer. After dinner in the cafe we headed into the sales arena. The sales arena is like a movie theatre with elevated seating surrounding a small corral in a half-round shape. A portly, cowboy hat clad auctioneer sits behind the corral in an elevated perch gripping an old, dented microphone spouting off blabber, prices, and subtle jokes. At a horse sale the horses are typically led in on a halter to prove they can be handled. If they are saddle broke the seller will ride them into the corral showing the crowd what they are capable of in the limited space provided. Buyers bid on the animals while they pace back and forth. As we were about to sit down Dad spotted a man standing between two other men. The three of them were resting their forearms on top of the arena corral, their backs to the seats. He didn’t know the man, but could tell by the way he carried himself that he was “in charge.” Indeed he was. He was the sale director. The local authority. The chief horse trader. I didn’t like him. Something about how clean he was bothered me…his spotless ostrich boots, his paper starched wrangler jeans and shirt, his pristinely shaped silver belly Stetson hat, his dirt-empty fingernails, and his shiny shaved chin….something was off. I guess you can’t judge a book by its cover, but sometimes you can judge a horse trader by his boots. He was far too clean to be trusted. But, he was courteous and gave Dad a few moments of his time. Dad explained who we were and why we were there. He told this horse trader that we were leary of horse traders and asked, sense he was familiar with the local sellers, if he would let us know when a good horse from a reliable seller came through the arena. With a handshake and a smile the “clean cowboy” said he would, shook Dad’s hand, and turned away.
Over the next few hours hundreds of horses ran through the arena. Some looked healthy. Some didn’t. Some bucked. Some kicked. One reared in an attempt to climb up onto the auctioneers perch sending the auctioneer and the lady taking auction notes beside him leaping backwards. Ever so often the clean cowboy would look up at Dad and nod, wink, or shake his head ‘no.’ Dad bid on a couple of horses, but lost the bids when the prices climbed too high. I was getting tired and discouraged. About 9pm the corral gate opened. A fifteen hand sorrel gelding walked into the arena. He had a bald face. A bald faced horse has a mostly white face and head. In many cases they will have one blue eye. This horse had the blue eye. He was beautiful, unique, and gentle. As gentle as any horse could be. There was a rough looking character on his back. Black felt hat pulled low. Long, gangly handlebar mustache. He looked like an outlaw from an old western movie. But, all I could see was the horse he sat astride. I grabbed Dad’s arm. Dad looked down at the clean cowboy. He smiled subtly and nodded. This was it! Dad jumped in on the bid. The numbers climbed quickly. “Who’ll give five hundred?…five hundred, who’ll give five fifty?….six hundred…who’ll give seven?” Up went the bid till it finally paused at $900. Dad held it. At this point I didn’t even know we had $900 as a family. I was elated, flabbergasted, and a bit concerned all at once. Then, the horse’s rider played his aces. In the silent space between the final bid and the auctioneer declaring ‘sold!’ he reined the horse to the middle of the corral, slid his boots out of the stirrups, and slowly stood up on the back of the horse. With both boots balanced in the saddle he removed his hat and held it in both bands down by his waist. Then, in the desperate spirit of a shamed sinner appealing for forgiveness in front of a judgmental congregation, he addressed the arena,
“Ladies and gentlemen, this here is the gentlest lil’ pony I ever saw. He’d be right fine for anyone to ride. If you’re lookin’ for a kid horse or a horse for your wife to trail ride or ride in parades this here is your horse. I got papers on him and everything. He’s an easy keeper. What ya see is what ya get.”
I was sold. Any horse that could be surfed on was horse enough for me. Dad bought the whole spiel. The rider dropped back into the saddle and bidding resumed. This guy’s speech was effective, but not as effective as he hoped. Dad bid again at $1000 and the room was silent. “Going once, going twice…..SOLD.” We could tell the horse surfer was disappointed with that number, but sold is sold at a sale barn. We left our seats, Dad paid the clerk, and we pulled the truck around back to load our horse.
The first sign something was wrong involved those registration “papers” the guy mentioned in his emotional appeal. As he was helping us load our new horse Dad asked him for the papers. He started patting his shirt and pants pockets then explained he must have left them in his truck. He returned from the parking lot moments later explaining that he had a flat tire on his “good” truck so he had to take a different one. The papers, he assured us, were in that truck. Honest mistake. He took our address and said they’d be in the mail the next day. As of this year that horse’s AQHA registration papers have been lost in the mail for 24 years. I don’t think Dad believed there were papers. When we drove away that night I think he had a bad feeling about the whole thing. But, he was excited about what he did know of the horse. And he was happy for me.
I named him “H.I.” after one of my favorite movie characters of all time, H.I. McDunnough from the film “Raising Arizona.” In the movie H.I., or “Hi” as he is called, plays a dazed out ex-con who, for all his illegal exploits, is really a sweet, gentle fellow. “Hi” the horse started out to be the epitome of sweet and gentle. He would just stand around nibbling on grass in the pasture. I could throw a rope around his neck and ride him slowly around the farm. He seemed to not have a pulse. Within a few days I had him outfitted with saddle and bridle. It was go time. Hi and I were a great team for a full week that summer. At the end of the first week my best friend, John, came over to ride. It was business as per usual. We got Hi brushed and tacked up then John hopped on his back and rode out onto the front 200 acres of my parents ranch. John cleared a patch of trees then disappeared over a little rise. Everything was just fine in the world.
It should be noted that John and I were not without horse experience. As young kids we usually had a horse around. And when horses were around we rode and handled them quite a bit. So, the next sequence isn’t due to a couple of complete novices unable to control a horse.
15 minutes later Hi came galloping over the hill toward the barn where I was standing. John was on his back. Hi was really stretched out and getting it. This didn’t scare me. John and I always liked to ride fast. What did scare me was the look on John’s face as he got closer to me. He was ashen, pale, gripping the saddle horn, pulling at the reins like a man trying to pull a whale out of the sea by two leather straps. But a whale would’ve been safer to ride. Hi was snorting, tossing his head, running with outright abandon. The two of them were within a couple of feet of the barn wall when Hi, seemingly, noticed there was a barn there. He stuck his front hooves in the dirt and stopped. John leapt off of his back and turned to me. His eyes said, “where’d you get this crazy thing?” The whole scenario seemed impossible to me. I didn’t even know Hi could run beyond a lope, let alone run off with someone. For a whole week he had been perfectly compliant and gentle. Now, his once sweet eyes were wide, intense, and darting.
I continued to work with Hi over the weeks of that Summer. He bucked, kicked, threw me off, ran away, tried to run under low tree limbs and knock me off, etc. He was full of tricks. At some point Dad figured it out. When we bought Hi he had literally been high. As hard as it is to believe, horse traders have now stooped so low that they will give horses tranquilizers prior to a horse sale to sucker honest buyers like us. The first-week-of-summer version of Hi was a completely different animal than the rest-of-the-summer version.
I will never forget the night I got Hi. That crook felt complete confidence standing on his back in the ring that night. He could’ve jumped on his back like a trampoline and gotten little to no reaction. And, forgive me for passing judgment, I will always believe the clean cowboy in charge was in on it. I think he and some of his trader cronies were running an operation at the expense of trusting buyers. They supplied the “altered” horses, he’ll supply the recommendation. It could’ve been a one-off episode, but I doubt it.
After Hi got “clean” he stayed on our farm for a couple of years. He had the life any horse could dream of—space, grass, and nobody bothering him for a ride. Good for him. There’s no telling what his life was like before he was ridden into the arena that night. After that experience my position was firm—no more horses from sale barns.
Years later my daughter, Lydia, asked for a horse. By then my “no sale barn horses” conviction had morphed into “no horses at all…ever.” Jen and I agreed on this until one night when we decided to get a horse. (What happens to you when you have kids??) We saw a beautiful paint gelding being sold at a horse sale not far away. When we got there the entire scene reminded me of the night Dad and I bought Hi. This time I did my homework. I found his owners, a sweet couple needing to make space in their stable. They must have thought I was the most paranoid person alive. Question after question they patiently answered. At the end of the night, I won the bid for Sherman.
If you’ve been to WonderTree you’ve probably met Sherman. If you’ve brought your children to one of our Farm Days during the Spring, Summer, or Fall your kids have probably ridden him. He has given thousands of horse rides to kids in our community over the years. Buying him has been one of our best decisions as a farm. For our family and for all of the smiling kids around here, I’m glad we changed our mind on having horses.
Life has taught me not to let bad experiences paint all future decisions the same color. Getting hurt, misled, or deceived once doesn’t mean you have to apply that wound to your next set of choices. If we stop living, taking risks, or moving forward then the horse traders have won. Let’s make sure they don’t. Especially the way-too-clean-cowboys and the saddle surfing outlaws.
February 11th, 2021