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By “Selway Mary” Erickson, Missoula , MT


May 2009 Issue  


     His name was “Sunny Jim” something, something. It didn’t really matter. He was a trail horse on the North Star Ranch in the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness of Idaho; one of seventeen head of horses and mules that were the “horse power” for the ranches hunting operations.

     Generally, like most of the stock, he was out on range until preparation for hunting season rolled around in early fall when the whole herd was brought into the home pasture. We called him “Contrary.” It was an apt and well-earned name.

     Contrary was a well-bred Appaloosa from a cutting horse ranch in the Bitterroot Valley . He was deep golden, almost a bronze color, with flaxen mane and tail and a light blanket of fat spots on his butt. A good-looking fella; well-trained, but long on attitude.

     Why was he here on a ranch in the Selway living the life of a trail horse instead of cutting it up in some fancy arena? Over time, the reason became obvious.

     In the herd he was always the testy one, mixing it up, picking fights. Under saddle, it became apparent that nearly every direction his rider gave required discussion.

     While I worked at North Star Ranch, Contrary was my ride, because his quirky ways proved to be a bit much for most of the hunters we took into the hills. If you asked him to go left, he’d want to go right. If you wanted to stop, he wanted to go; and if you wanted to go, he had to hang back just a bit before he’d move out. Some days you had to guide him around every turn on the trail regardless of what the rest of the horses were doing, he wasn’t going unless you insisted.

     He was contrary.

     Learning his quirks was both entertaining and annoying. Getting him into a bridle and bit was always a challenge. He knew all the tricks. Nose up, nose to the side, teeth clamped tightly shut, shaking the head. He’d ignore the thumb in the corner of the mouth. He’d go through the whole routine and then just when your patience had almost maxed, he’d drop his head, take the bit, and was done with it.

     On the trail when he thought everyone else was moving too slowly and you’d asked him to back off from the horse ahead or he felt some other cause for angst, he’d start fiddling with the bit; chewing it, rattling it against his teeth like he was chewing rocks, pulling the end of the rein into his mouth, then pulling down or tossing his head with great impatience. Rarely did he simply back off quietly.

     After several weeks of trips back and forth to get our hunting camps set up, hunting season was almost upon us and the time when many days would be spent in the saddle. Contrary and I had yet to strike an accord.

     My boss Punk always used a hackamore on his big gray, Smoky. One day, after a lengthy effort to get a bit into Contrary’s mouth, I asked Punk if he had another hackamore around that I could try. The best way around the “bit battle” that I could see was to get rid of the bit. Punk dug around in the random pieces of horse gear he had on hand and we assembled a nice hackamore that was custom fit for Contrary.

     The next morning as we got to the bridling, I held the hackamore out and open to Contrary. He looked at it and put his nose in the air.

     Not a problem.

     I slipped it over his nose and into place behind his ears with ease. He dropped his head and that was the end of the bridling battle.

     After that he’d practically dive into the bridle and his behavior on the trail was more compliant. Never totally compliant, but that was Contrary.

     We got along fairly well for quite awhile. But, one morning in hunting camp, he totally crossed the line and tested my last thread of patience.

     Morning had started at around four a.m. with getting the fires going in the cook tent, breakfast on for Punk and the two hunters, lunches packed, and the horses in and sorted for the day. Some would stay in the rope corral in camp and some we’d ride out on the mountain. It was a crisply cold morning. Punk and I worked by lantern light, our goal to be out of camp and on the trail just before daybreak.

     This morning I was going to ride out with Punk and the hunters to drop them off at a point high up the mountain towards Wylies Peak . Then I was to trail their horses back down to a lower saddle where I’d leave them tied, so they could hunt a basin in between and pick their horses up at the end of the day.

     The hunters’ horses were brushed and saddled up first. We got them mounted and they waited, watching while Punk and I turned to finish saddling our horses.

     Contrary was a little grumpy this morning, but no more than usual. Like all the stock he’d had his nose bag of pellets first. I had brushed him, picked out his hooves, and brushed the saddle blanket before I placed it on his back. Then I picked his saddle up to set it onto his back. I had the cinch up over the seat and the off-stirrup hooked over the horn when I set the saddle in place. That way it slipped on smoothly without anything banging or bumping the horse. A simple courtesy to the horse that Punk had taught me.

     As I always did, I stepped around Contrary to gently let down the cinch and the stirrup. Just as I reached up to unhook the stirrup from the horn, Contrary whipped his head around and bit me hard on the upper arm.

     Bloody blue blazes!

     I saw way past red and, in two seconds, I’d grabbed the lead rope and made one very surprised horse into a U as I hopped around kicking him in the butt as hard as I could. I called him every rotten disparaging horse name I could think of, many having to do with his questionable parentage and a future possibly as dog food.

     I was very angry and I was in pretty good shape. But even in the best of shape, you can only hop around on one foot, cursing furiously and kicking a horse’s butt with your other foot at five in the morning, for a limited amount of time.

     When I finally came to my senses, I realized that Punk and the hunters, none of whom had ever even seen me miffed, much less totally lose my temper, were all sitting on their horses looking at me in deep silence.

     They had not seen the bite, just my manic explosion.

     “HE BIT ME!” I finished, somewhat shrilly now rubbing my injured arm still holding the lead rope.

     They didn’t say a word; just sat in silence looking down at me. For a few moments it was very quiet as my face, red with the exertion of my manic dance now took on a somewhat embarrassed tint. Then Punk started to shake with laughter he could no longer contain. It bubbled out and soon we all were nearly in tears laughing at the whole event.   

     Wisely, Contrary conceded the day and I proceeded to finish saddling and bridling him with no further displays of ill will on either side. I grabbed a minute to race into the cook tent to collect lunches, regain some semblance of dignity and check my wounds.

     Although I was wearing a denim jack shirt and a light wool jacket with a heavy, lined-wool hunting jacket over that, Contrary’s bite had broken the skin on my arm drawing blood and left a huge bruise. Slapping a couple of big band-aids on it, I concluded he more than deserved every kick and curse.

     Reluctant to test me again, Contrary stood very quietly when I mounted and he moved out politely with the rest just before daybreak. For the rest of the day, he was a model trail horse, totally tuned into my slightest need. If I even “thought” left, he was going left. No sass no discussion. Complete and amazing cooperation.

     He would, however, flap his lips occasionally making a snapping sound as though mulling over the whole bite thing in his mind.

     Often, in the days following as we went through the saddling routine, he’d turn his head ever so slightly and flap his lips with that sharp snapping sound.

     Even though we had other adventures together after that, he never, ever bit me again.

     In the 1970s, “Selway Mary” Erickson worked as a packer, wrangler and cook at remote guest ranches in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Today she lives in Missoula with her husband and enjoys riding her mare, Cassie.


Back to May 2009 Articles



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