DocumentCitationsKeywordsRelated Material

“Horse-Breaking”

by Captain William French

The author emigrated from Ireland to the US in 1883 to seek his fortune. He settled in southwestern New Mexico and became a rancher. Below, he describes how an old cowboy takes on Bullet, an unbroken bay horse.

~ ~ ~ ~

When I got down, there were two or three [horses] in the corral in various phases of being roped and saddled with their prospective riders attending to them. The rest of the outfit were seated on the gate or in its neighborhood, and amongst them I recognized the gentleman who had been christened “The Granger.” He was a middle-aged man and a typical tramp from his battered hat to his run-down boots, with the handle of the butcher's knife sticking out of the top of one of them.

Wild Horses, 1949“Wild Horses, 1949,” Beatien Yazz (Artist)

He didn't appear to be particularly interested in the proceedings, or indeed in anything else, and to the frequent invitations to get down and show what he could do merely jerked the tobacco juice out of his mouth and intimated that he was waiting for something that needed riding. The general belief was that he was merely bluffing, and after a time the boys took little or no notice of him.

The lot that were in at the time I came on the scene were fairly tractable and were duly ridden and led out to make room for the next batch. Amongst the latter was a big bay horse they called Bullet which at one time had been partially broken, but having got away and run wild amongst the mares he had proved difficult to catch and was for several years conveniently forgotten. He was now over eight years old and Fred had determined to make use of him, so this time he was duly rounded up and took his place amongst the colts.

* * * *

Bullet was now alone, and he careered around the enclosure, stopping every now and again to snort defiance, and as soon as the riders came back they looked at him in doubt. Some were for throwing him, especially those who did not pretend to be riders. Others thought it advisable to throw him back in the bunch till they had more time on their hands. Every one had forgotten about the old gentleman on the fence. He was still chewing tobacco and apparently not taking much interest in the proceedings.

Some one was about to open the gate when he held up his hand and asked what was the matter with the bay. He was told that he was a pretty bad caballo [horse] and they thought of tying a saddle on him and leaving him saddled up for a day before attempting to ride him. His only remark was to spit the quid out of his mouth, slip down off the fence, give a hitch to his old pants and say: “Hell! I'll ride him.”

It took a minute or so for the observation to sink in, and then it was received with an ironical cheer. At first nobody thought he was serious, but when he borrowed a pair of spurs from Fred and proceeded to buckle them on, it began to dawn on us that he really meant to ride him.

Some caustic remarks were addressed to him in regard to his will and his choice as to the mode of burial, but of these he took no notice, merely indicating with his hand to go ahead and get the saddle on. The proud Bullet was fore-footed, and busted so hard that it broke his front teeth. Then it took all hands to hold him while he was hobbled fore and aft with the usual slipknot. A hackamore and blind was placed on his head and a saddle securely fixed before he was allowed on to his feet.

When he got up, although blindfolded, he still looked defiant, the more so on account of the blood from his broken teeth. He did all that a horse can do to get rid of the saddle, but with men holding on to a rope from either side he gradually quieted down. Taking advantage of the pause the old man crawled on to his back, the blind was removed from his eyes, and we all ran to climb the fence and witness his demise.

For a moment or two Bullet stood still with surprise, and then realizing that something was on his back, he turned himself loose. He pitched as only a Western bronco can pitch, with his head almost between his hind legs and his back arched. He sprang into the air fully five or six feet, reversing his position in the process and keeping it up in quick succession, till it looked as if his rider's head must have been shaken loose from his body. We all looked for both man and horse to come down in a heap, but they maintained their respective positions.

When Bullet found he couldn't unseat him he fairly screamed with rage and went round and round the enclosure, alternately pitching and plunging, for fully ten minutes, when, finding it necessary to slacken his efforts in order to regain breath, he broke into a trot and eventually came to a halt. This gave his rider a chance to settle himself more firmly in his seat and prove to the maddened beast that he was his master.

The old fellow drove the spurs into him, and taking off his old hat, which had been pressed down on his ears, he slapped him with it in the face. This not having the desired effect, he reached down to the ground and seizing a handful of sand rubbed it in his steaming nostrils. Bullet was not prepared to stand much of that kind of work, and after making a futile effort to kick him like a cow, threw down his head and commenced his pitching. He went through the same performance for another ten minutes and with the same result, this time coming to a stand with a regular scream.

At first we had looked on with astonishment and incredulity depicted on our faces, but when we realized that the old fellow really could ride the cheering that we gave him made the whole place ring. When they came to a halt after the second round the old fellow himself was glad to take a breather, but he made no attempt to dismount, merely remarking: “He sure is a daisy.”

Navajo Riders“Navajo Riders,” Unidentified (Photographer)

Then it was suggested that he should take him outside, and everyone who had a horse saddled there got ready to accompany him, prophesying that by the time they got back Bullet could be thrown into the regular remouda. The gates were thrown open, and seeing a chance for liberty he went through them like a shot, proving that he had been correctly named. He was joined on the outside by all the boys who were mounted, and they went off “hell for leather,” as if the devil was behind them.

I followed on foot, determined to see all I could, but they had not gone more than fifty or sixty yards when Bullet, to show he was still in the ring, threw down his head and renewed his pitching. This time he had the whole world before him and his efforts, if possible, exceeded anything he had done in the corral. The yipping and yelling went on for a minute or two and the old man seemed fairly comfortable, but all of a sudden I saw him sway in his seat and slip round to one side under the animal's feet.

The saddle had turned, and it looked as if the infuriated animal must trample him to death. I ran up as fast as I could and all the boys had pulled up and were forming a circle round him. He was equal to the occasion, however, for on going over he had managed to get hold of the nose-band of the hackamore and was holding on for grim death with a hand on each side of the animal's jaws. In this way he managed to keep his head and body off the ground while his feet were still in the stirrups with the spurs hooked into the broad hair cincha and over the animal's back.

The infuriated brute, being unable to bite him, was endeavoring to rake him off with his front feet. How long the struggle might have gone on it was impossible to say, but for the minute or two that it lasted it looked as if it could only have one end, and that we would be compelled after all to consign the old gentleman to a decent grave. He couldn't have held on much longer, when Fred, with great presence of mind, rode up as close as he could to the raging brute and, seizing a favorable moment, pulled out his gun and shot him through the head just under ear.

He dropped in a heap like a bundle of clothes, and, to our great relief the old man rolled out from under. He wasn't in the least flurried. His first care was to shake his foot loose from the cincha, after which he helped himself to a chew of tobacco, got on his feet, and looked at Bullet for some time without comment or remark of any kind. It was apparent he was quite dead, and seeming satisfied he pushed him with his foot, said he was “a likely kind of a hoss” and proceeded to undo the cincha.

We all congratulated him on his escape, but he didn't seem to notice it—just said it was a pity to have to kill him—and we all pitched in and rolled him over to free the saddle. That was the end of poor Bullet.

His late rider shouldered the saddle and blankets and we marched back to the corral. He was offered his choice the of the mounts on the ranch, but he said he wasn't interested, and after he had sat long enough on the fence to recover his breath, he went back to the house, and that was the last that I saw of him. I never learnt his name, nor where he went, nor where he came from.