Sam Goes Over the Mountain
I feel I must disclose to you that riding Sam was not always a bed of roses. When we were young and innocent, he had us at his mercy and he knew it, but he kept his wilder passions in check. As we became bolder riders though, Sam began to put in requests for more excitement in life. Our darling horse could be obnoxious when he decided that it was time for a serious run and we wanted to saunter along looking at the scenery, or we had just eaten a nice picnic lunch, or there was an unskilled rider behind us on Ms. Lynde.
Sam made these requests, or complaints, either by humming or by popping his lips, a sound we called “mupping.” “Mup!” clearly meant ‘Oh for Pete’s sake, can’t a little horse bust loose every now and then?’ On his very worst days he would mup and if that didn’t work, tense up and jig– a vice so unspeakably vicious that horses have been shot for doing it–we eventually figured out how to stop him jigging, but it was not an easy task.
But Old Sam was usually honorable, even at his crankiest. He never ran away with anybody. Well. Except for once. And I admit I was his accomplice.
I was in college, and was up at the farm for a summer visit, when our terrible transgression occurred. Summer people were moving into the area, and with them came a fad for competitive endurance riding. People invested in long-distance gear; they began feeding their horses high-protein diets and submitting both man and beast to a regimen of longer and longer rides.
Of course, with one thing and another, the summer people went back and forth to the city, or over to Saratoga or fishing or whatnot, so what they ended up with was a bunch of horses all ginned up on loads of grain and not quite enough exercise. But I thought endurance riding was great, and certainly better than the crazed gymkhanas I saw at the county fair, which looked to be mostly a jerk-and-spur competition.
So when a trio of summer people on very classy-looking quarter horses stopped in our dooryard one day and asked if I would like to ride up and over Argue Mountain, as far as I wanted, I accepted. Sam was on the shady side of 30, but he was still fit, and he loved that long ride on the mountain. So I caught him, brushed him down and tacked him up while the three waited.
Not exactly waited. They took it upon themselves to comment on Sam’s odd conformation and speculate how many yards he could limp before collapsing. The man in the group called out to me that his mount was ‘very much a stallion, and I had better keep my old nag far away if I didn’t want something bad to happen.’ Neither Sam nor I enjoyed mirth at our expense, and both of us work working ourselves into something of a sulk.
As we started down Lovers’ Lane I found that ‘keeping away’ from Mr. Stallion was not easy to do, because he was everywhere at once– skittering sidewise, rearing, backing up, whinnying and doing everything naughty that he knew how to do. He and the other two horses were in a lather and kind of spooky also; and their riders were doing a lot of cussing and yarning and booting to make them go forward, with no results that I could see.
But I said I was going to go, and go I did. I dodged around them when we got to the road, went to the front, and put Sam into his famous slow canter. The stud and his harem, after a few crowhops, settled down to lope behind us. Sam kept a steady cadence as we cantered for a mile or so up Hollow. I think he was showing off; setting an example of dignified pleasure horse behavior for the folks at his tail.
When we halted at the turnoff to the trail that wound up the back of Argue, the endurance horses were breathing hard. The man cussed at his stud horse; I talked goo-goo baby talk to Sam and gave his poll a big noisy kiss.
We started up the sloping trail at the walk, much to Sam’s disgust. He loved to charge up hills and stand on top of them, looking down his dromedary’s nose at the world below. But the endurance horses were in need of a break, so I kept him walking. He started humming and growling “Oh, come ON! We have a HILL here!” He pressed his case further with a long string of angry Mups.
As the grade got steeper, I could feel Sam rocking back on his hocks and making tentative cantering motions, but I nixed him again.
“Mup. Mup, mup, MUP,” he said. He fiddled with the bit, making his curb chain jingle.
“Mup, mup, mup, jingle jingle jingle, these weedy nags can do what they want, permission to swarm up this hill, mup Mup. MUP!”
“No, no, no,” I replied.
Onward and upward we walked, complete with sound effects. We halted again where a sweet little brook crossed the trail, to give the horses a drink and a breather. I slid off, loosened Sam’s girth and cooled his face and neck with my bandana dipped in the brook, as he meditatively rubbed his cheekbones on my shoulder.
“I’d whip him good on the head when he does that,” suggested the man.
How dare you, I thought. You make fun of my horse. My horse shows you all how it’s done. Now you suggest I hit him in the face? Why is it that the folks on the rankest horses feel compelled to offer you training tips? Now I know why they call these things Endurance Rides.
As the stallion jigged around and tried to step on his boots, the man added, “Got to show ‘em who’s Boss.”
I climbed back on Sam; the instant my rump hit the saddle I knew Sam’s heart and he knew mine. We waited for the others, who were hopping around yelling with one foot in the stirrup, to seat themselves, pick up their reins and firm their crash helmets down on their heads. Then I turned Sam over his haunches and took the rest of the hill at a dead run.
We reached the top in nothing flat, then pounded along the ridge of Argue Mountain at an angry extended trot. As my indignation began to cool a little I tried to slow Sam down so that the gasping herd could catch up and we could properly enjoy their sufferings. But the horse would no longer tolerate their company. The crazy pace had gone to his head and he was hell-bent on running them all right into the ground.
Without even the sportsmanlike Mup, Sam tensed his neck, lowered his head and for the first time ever, he bored; going into his terrible try-and-stop-me trot and then into a furious run. Across that ridge we bolted, crashing through creeks, jumping fallen logs, while the gasps and wheezes of the field sounded fainter and fainter behind us.
Pieces of skin flayed off my fingers, as in my last efforts to preserve a sense of decency, I tried to rate my runaway steed. I pleaded with him to stop or slow down. He paid no attention. He was out for blood. I could come along for the ride, or I could get off, if I wanted.
Finally we ran out of level ground as the trail began to slope downward off the ridge. Sam’s stampede was over. He proceeded down the other side of the mountain still grumbling, but at a decorous flat-footed walk, which was not easy for him with his straight shoulder, but he knew it would be easier on me. I let the reins slip to the buckle, and told him that if he wanted to run this show, he should feel entirely free.
As we descended into our hollow, I neck-reined Sam into a meadow, got off, loosened the girth and let him graze with his bit on, just to make my lapse from proper horsemanship complete. Together we strolled around, waiting for the appearance of the arriere garde.
We saw them as they came out of the woods. They were blowing, black with sweat, and bless me if they weren’t staggering. They turned into the meadow, the riders dismounted, and the three endurance horses lay down.
Sam had raised his head high and had been glaring fixedly at them ever since they appeared. Now he inhaled. Then he whinnied. That a noise! From deep within his mighty soul came that yell of triumph, pride, and utter contempt.
“Wieners! Dog Food! Who is the horse in this field? ME, that’s who! Ha, HA, HA!”
Nary a word nor a whicker in reply. I tightened the girth, mounted, lay my reins on my horse’s neck, and together we turned towards home. I dangled my feet out of the stirrups. I sang a little tune. The sun shone, the little clouds rolled by, and the birds sang sweetly in the trees. Life was very, very sweet.