The ParadePeople love parades. Well, most people. I’m not what you would call a “parade person”. Crowds of people make me nervous. With so many people around I just never know where to direct my attention. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t dislike parades. If I stumble onto the Rose Parade New Year’s morning, I’ll enjoy a cup of joe and admire the roses, but probably only because I’m too hungover to pick up the remote.
There are only three reasons for me to go to any parade. One, somebody I love is in it or wants to go. Two, I am assigned to photograph the parade. Or, three, this instance, where I am in the parade promoting a wild horse training event by walking my wild horse, Scratch, through the middle of town with other horse owners from the same herd.
The parade is in a little mountain town about an hour away from my home and Scratch’s stable. It’s not too far from where I picked up Scratch after entering the Vaquero Heritage Trainers’ Challenge. While not technically a trainer, I had covered last year’s event with a podcast and photos and became fixated on training a horse that had no foundation. My Quarter Horse mare, Jessie, had been started by someone else. While I had taken over the training and developed her into a solid trail horse, I had built on what someone else had begun. Jessie regularly places in trail trials and obstacle course challenges. But still, I have a desire to start with a clean slate, an “un-started horse”, and see what level of trust and training I can reach. This is how I now find myself with a wild horse to train.
Eight of us are scheduled to walk or ride behind the banner promoting our wild horse training event happening in just a few months. Five of the horses have been with their owners for quite some time and are well behaved. My horse, Scratch, has me as a trainer. Eight short weeks ago he was running wild with his herd in the nearby mountains. While we are making a lot of progress, most of our work has taken place in my backyard. The day before the big event I wonder if we are “parade ready”.
The morning of the parade starts very early. A little after 4 am Scratch gets breakfast consisting of a flake of hay. He’s not used to seeing me so early and cocks his head as if to say, “What are you up to now?” before tearing the flake apart. After my breakfast, it’s a bath for Scratch with the works, shampoo AND conditioner. “If nothing else,” I think to myself, “at least we’ll look good.”
By 6:15 we are on the road. Many horses hate the trailer because it’s a closed, confined place. Horses generally feel trapped and claustrophobic in trailers. Scratch and I worked diligently on the art of trailer loading using one of the tenets of Tom Dorrance, the famed horse trainer. Tom said, “Make the right thing easy, the wrong thing difficult.” I worked Scratch outside the trailer and let him rest inside the trailer. In no time he figured out that inside the trailer meant “not work”, which ranks just below sleeping and eating on the top ten list of most horses.
As my trailer turns into the K-mart parking lot, our designated staging area, the sun is climbing above the mountains. Scratch is shifting his weight in the trailer signalling he is not too happy with how fast I took that last turn. We are early as usual. I sip the last remnants of my coffee and wonder what I am really doing here. My insecurities surface. Sure, Scratch needs to get out in the world. He needs to see and hear things. The competition is in a few short weeks and the pressure will be much more intense in front of a crowd of people , but is he ready for a parade today?
We check in with our group of horses at 7:30 for a parade that starts at 10 am. Scratch and I find an area to do some of our training exercises. Moving his feet keeps him calm. Horses are flight animals and making them stand still when they are nervous is like locking them in the closet. Allowing him to move his feet makes him feel safe. It also keeps my mind off the fact we will soon be walking down a street lined with people, balloons, and waving flags. My confidence is a metronome swinging from, “Relax, it’s no problem” to “Dead man walking”. We haven’t known each other for a long time, but I can tell Scratch is unsure of what exactly is happening around him. We find a place to stand near the rest of our parade-marching friends, both horse and people. There is security in numbers.
Horses can adapt quickly and Scratch seems to be settling into this environment. Horses have “tells” when they begin to relax and I note Scratch takes a deep breath and cocks a hind leg. He is telling me he sees no immediate threat and he’ll tolerate the high school band and group of motorcycles gearing up for the march.
At nine-thirty the rodeo queens come rolling in with their trailers and suddenly our once spacious staging area is full of trucks, trailers, and pretty girls riding glittered horses. Time to move Scratch around again. What must he be thinking? Two months ago his world consisted of 120 brothers and sisters, trees and grass.
Ten am. The moment of truth. Turning to check on Scratch, I see a leg cocked, an ear forward, and a soft eye, more signs of relaxation. Yeah, we’ll be alright. For many horses moving toward the thing that has them fearful as it moves away helps them become braver. I move Scratch in on the marching band as it passes by and heads down the assigned route. He’s alert, but not bothered. Then, the Civil War re-enactors on their horses followed by the Harley-Davidson Veterans group. We remain calm as one of the organizers stops by to say our group will march near the end of the parade.
As a flatbed trailer pulls into line with group of 8-14 year old girls from a dance academy, I fumble my lead rope and it slips to the ground. As I bend to pick it up, Scratch puts his leg through, and in the flash of that moment I come up with him all tangled up. His head goes straight up and I feel the slack in the lead disappear. Calmly I speak to him, but it’s too late. He’s pulls back. No Scratch, not now. I move with him. “Whoa”. “Whoaaa”. Shit! His momentum builds and I’m out of position. I have two choices: hang on to the rope and end up on the ground or let go and he’s gone.
In the next millisecond I know hanging on is not an option. He is leaving whether I hold on or not as I feel the rope heat up in my hands. In a flash the question in my head is, “Where is he going to go? We are boxed in by all these trailers.” I let go and hope he realizes he is not in danger. Scratch spins and digs in and I can’t help but admire his speed and agility. He heads for the street and panic displaces admiration and I freeze for a moment. Someone tries to stop him and his feet slip on the asphalt. I lose sight of him as he darts behind all the trailers, then, realizing my horse is galloping for the hills, I take off at a run. Up ahead, Jeremy, one of the organizers of the event and a darn good horseman, is jogging along after Scratch.
As they turn a corner first Scratch disappears, then Jeremy. My heart is pounding as I round the corner and see Scratch run himself into a fenced parking area and stop. I breathe again. Jeremy grabs the lead rope and walks toward me as I reach my runaway horse. The absolutely worst thing a horseman can do is lose his horse. Scratch is my responsibility and I put him in a situation he wasn’t ready to handle. As I take him from Jeremy Scratch looks at me as if to say, “Hey, I run first and ask questions later.”
As we get back to the staging area, the organizers announce we are up next. I can be as headstrong as Scratch and unless someone pulls us out, we are marching in this damn parade! We immediately fall in behind our banner billowing in the morning breeze. Both of us are trying to catch our breath and I feel the nervous sweat soaking through my shirt. My face is red in embarrassment. I had lost my horse. My worst fear of the day is realized and the parade hasn’t even started.
Horses teach you not to dwell in the past. They live in the moment. If I don’t myself get back to the present, whatever is out there to scare Scratch next, would get us both again. Everything I had been taught told me to keep Scratch’s attention on me. Horses can only think about one thing at a time. He will be less bothered by the balloons if I can keep him focused on watching me. One of the lessons he learned is to move his hindquarters away when I shake my finger at his rump. It’s called disengaging hindquarters and his attention has to be on me, not our surroundings. I move him back and forth in front of me yielding his back end as we walk down the narrow parade route.
It is about a mile to the end of the route and I have tunnel vision. My eyes are on my horse and every time Scratch even thinks about about being scared I disengage his hindquarters. As we near the announcer's’ stand we are introduced. Scratch is behaving. He is moving off my finger just as I had taught him. Then I notice the people lining the streets. Holy cats! they are close, no more than ten feet away. Kids with smiles at the sight of a shiny black horse. People are waving and calling out “Beautiful horse!”. As we near the end of our route I yield Scratch one more time with my finger. As he comes around I look up and make eye contact with a woman standing next to her son. Both smile and she says, “You have that wild horse trained pretty well, mister.” I tip my hat in thank you and think, “This is why I love a good parade.”