by Bruce Northridge
|Published in the ???? Issue of Anvil Magazine
I met Monk in Porterville, California. He was 38 years old and drove a '55 Chevy half-ton pickup that (he was proud to tell you) had the original oil in it! We were there to learn the fine art of horseshoeing; he wanted to learn more about the ironwork, and I wanted to work on horses. I was already pretty good with the iron -- been tinkering with forge and anvil for ten of my twenty-one years. I got under the horses, and Monk made the shoes.
The horseshoeing school was next door to a Datsun dealership, whose owner, to combat the heat and boredom, practiced his quick-draw with a Colt 45 and blanks. He wired himself to a strobe light timer and assorted switches; you never knew when he was liable to start shooting.
Facing his gunfire, at the far end of the school, was a round corral built of two-by-ten redwood planks -- solid, eight feet high, with a gate so heavy there was a rubber wheelbarrow tire attached at the bottom. The corral was used for rank horses.
By "rank," one is not referring to small or status, but to a horse's attitude toward a 180-pound man driving nails into its feet. A horse that takes exception and reacts physically is deemed "rank." Fortunately, mankind has a simple advantage over a beast -- brains.
Monk had brains. There was nothing he couldn't do with a rope. He knew a million tricks and ways of handling horses -- tie them up in knots, throw them, gentle them with a feed sack and hands -- whatever they wanted to do to him, he had a trick for them first. He should have taught the class on handling rank horses. He most certainly was my tutor.
Of the other students, there were three on welfare, two on disability rehabilitation, one veterinary student, and four whose parents had horses and wanted a shoer in the family. One of these last four desperately wanted to play the flute, while another desperately wanted to watch television, and never came to school in the afternoon.
Toward the end of the course we had to go on a field trip to shoe at a pack station that was located in a particularly hot valley, with particularly rank horses. Everyone showed up at four that morning except the kid who liked his television. We loaded forges, anvils, tools, and shoes into our trucks. We waited 40 minutes, then left without him. Dave, the instructor, promised us our revenge: the first rank horse to show up would be "Mr. TV's" to shoe, no matter how long it took him, how hot it was, or how rank the horse -- there would be no help.
The next day, I think it was a Wednesday, a trader brought a load of horses in a cattle truck -- right out of the Nevada mountains and as rank as they come! We all stood back to let "Mr. TV" choose his nemesis.
He went for one standing forlornly, head down. The horse looked to be the gentlest of the bunch, and if "Mr. TV" had come to class in the afternoons, he would have known that a tired, thirsty, hungry horse is easier to work than a wild horse with renewed energy.
Anyway, "Mr. TV" figured to cheat us out of our revenge. He took the horse to one of the stalls and fed it and petted it. He left it in the stall for an hour with water and hay while he drank soda pop. Monk shook his head; we caught two horses and started to walk.
We were on our second set when the kid started the horse. It was something to behold. That horse was not refreshed and wanted to go home, and after the irritation of soft words and petting, it was willing to kill to get there. After an hour of total mishandling, our hero was bleeding from a cut in his scalp and two gashes in his right arm. He sprained his thumb. He passed out from the heat. By two o'clock that afternoon there was no way to get near that horse: it kicked with its hind feet and struck out with its fronts. It arched its neck and tried to bite anything with flesh, ears laid back, eyes all squinted into slits. Then we heard Dave was taking over. "Don't want to miss that," Monk said.
Somehow Dave managed to get the horse into the round corral with a war bridle on it. A war bridle is a fiendish bit of man-over-beast reasoning. It is an extension of the lariat noose that clamps on the nerves behind the ears of the horse, then loops over the cartilage of the nose and bone of the jaw. It gives pain only when the rope is jerked. You really have to know what you're doing not to misuse one.
We sat on top of the round corral wall to watch. The horse reared, striking like a boxer, chasing the man on the end of the rope. Then, seeing people sitting on the walls around him, he bucked, firing his hind feet at us. It was a truly fine show. That horse chased Dave around the corral for 35 minutes -- rearing, snorting, charging. Then the crazy devil kicked and struck at the same time. It tripped landed on the side of its neck. There was a faint pop. The horse thrashed as though it were trying to get up.
"Hell, he's dead!" Mark said.
The thrashing subsided, but Dave kept trying to pull the horse up on its feet. Finally, Monk got Dave out of the corral by explaining that the horse had broken its neck, and not to worry. Monk said he had done the same think himself a few times, and it sure can make one feel rotten.
There was hell to pay when the trader came to pick up his Mustangs. He wanted money for the dead horse. That was okay, but he wanted $300 (the limit of small claims court in those days) and the beast wasn't worth $25. The trader claimed brutality, Dave claimed rank horse. The argument went to court. Now it must be realized and made very clear that absolutely nothing ever happens in Porterville. So the case was heard the very next day. Only Dave was allowed to defend the school, so we all had the day off.
At 2:00 that afternoon, boredom drove me to the school where I found the rest of the students. Someone bought two cases of beer. We sat on the ground, leaning against the round corral wall, drinking beer after beer, waiting for news from Dave.
It must have been one hell of a debate in that courtroom because we didn't hear a thing all day. Matter of fact, someone went out and got more cases of beer. A little later the Datsun fellow started shooting.
"You know, that's gonna drive ne nuts," Monk said.
"Have another beer, Monk."
"You know, that horse really put up a good fight."
We drifted into the round corral and formed a circle around the horse -- 12 guys standing around, holding beer cans, staring down at a dead horse. It was a wake. The spirit seeped up in all of us. Hats came off. There was a long silence.
"He sure is stiff," someone said.
"I heard you can prop up a dead body."
"I've seen it on TV."
"Whatdya say, Monk?"
"You're all nuts," Monk replied.
Well, one thing led to another and the talk of standing things up got down to a betting situation. It took all 12 of us to stand that horse up. We had to spread its legs with a two-by-four because everything had gotten pretty flat on one side. We did it, though, we warped two legs out and, son of a gun, it stood there!
We settled the bets and I made $5. We stood around amazed for awhile, then got bored and went next door to watch the wired quick-draw artist. Monk closed the round corral gate.
Meanwhile, the court had adjourned from its arguments and deliberations and was on its way -- bailiffs, stenographer, judge, and all interested parties -- to view the alleged brutality to said rank horse.
From next door we saw the cavalcade drive into the schoolyard and eased over to see what was going on. Dave looked exhausted. The judge looked like he wanted to go home. Monk had to stop one of the students from offering everyone a beer, while "Mr. TV" volunteered to testify on any subject.
"I owe it to you guys," he kept saying.
Dave held forth: "As you shall see, your Honor, there are no marks or abrasions on the horse that would indicate any brutality. That horse fell and broke its neck while -- "
About that time someone opened the corral gate and there was that horse -- standing, staring glassy-eyed at the judge and his entourage. It looked awful: one side flat as though it were leaning up against a wall, and the two legs pulled 30 degrees out to prop everything up.
The stenographer dropped her machine, a deputy drew his revolver. But the judge blinked, he just stared -- eye to eye at the horse. I thought at first that the horse would lose the "glare-down" battle of wills.
We stayed out of the way; 12 drunks leaning against a wall watching the careful deliberations of the court, not daring to even sip our beers. The utter silence was punctuated by gunfire from next door. Everything stayed frozen until a quiet, suppressed, painful belch erupted from our midst and the spell was broken.
Suddenly everyone began milling around and screaming obscenities at each other. There was much arm waving, finger pointing, and shaking of fists -- and many references to sick minds and lack of proper respect for the dead. The judge walked to his car and got in the back seat and just sat there with the doors closed and the windows rolled up.
Even though the school had to pay the $300, Monk and I always got a laugh out of telling that story. Much later, after I'd been shoeing professionally for awhile, I heard through the grapevine that the shoeing school didn't teach the handling of rank horses anymore, but instead had a full-time veterinarian on call to tranquilize cantankerous horses -- by direct order of the Porterville Small Claims Court.