The Two-Hour-Old Horsel Who Stared Death in the Eye

In order to appear not to be countermanding long-standing orders specifically prohibiting the excavation of the few grey Oklahoma rats who might have escaped her previous cleansing operations, Roo K. Beker was today pretending not to be inspecting a stretch of fencing along a pasture where four miniature horses live.

Operating under the general principles of canine stealth—pretending to be interested in nothing more than a purely academic identification of grasses and meadow blossoms—R.K. was attempting to simulate disinterest in a distant target that it was obvious she had already acquired. When her commanding officer, who happens also to be her footman, noticed the ruse and instructed her to stand down, Roo K. Beker, decided that the insertion of a letter of reprimand in her permanent record, no matter how strongly worded or how many promotions it might cause her to be looked over for, was worth the capture and killing of this target. She looked back at me to make sure I wasn’t close enough to catch her and abandoned all pretense and took off after her quarry. Her commanding officer had to admit that she looks very cute when runs like that. Some dogs just wear defiance well.

In a maneuver that was a first for her, she was observed from behind stopping abruptly 100 feet shy of the line of skirmish. She transitioned to an upright stance and with her ears at full attention, tilted her head approximately 60 degrees to her right and then 40 degrees to her left. Shifting the internal spirit bubble failed to resolve her confusion, and she kept tilting.

It was then that her pursuing commander first sighted the animal on Private R.K. had been focused. Grey, check. White highlights, check. Cute and fuzzy, check: all features comported with the known insignia of the battalions of local rat species thought now to have been consigned to future natural museum panoramas of a bygone time—a couple of weeks ago—when they scurried as abundantly on the Oklahoma prairie as the bison used to scurry 150 years ago. Was it a deserter? Or a stunned straggler whose luck had finally run out? Roo was confused. This animal was approximately 20 times the size of any known rabbit and 60 times the size of any previously recorded rat. 

Acts of extraordinary gentleness have been recorded throughout the history of warfare. After all, some dim remnant of emotion might be triggered by the smallest thing in the heart of even the most battle-hardened fighter. It was in this way that R.K.’s demeanor changed. Instead of lowering her rifle, Roo signaled the all clear to the little beast with a soft wag of her tail and approached it softly.

The first tragedy was averted. It would have been anyway, because the target was located in a small penned area with chicken wire on one side and heavy steel portable fence on the other three. But tragedy was certainly averted as far as R.K., who believes that she is the omnipotent final arbiter of questions concerning the lives and deaths of rats, was concerned.

That target was a freshly born miniature horse foal. Its (I only use “it” in this case because gender was indeterminate) mother was on the other side of a heavy steel fence, troubled by her separation from her newborn. The foal, still reeling from the ordeal of birth, had not yet formed the neural networks necessary to walking, and was staggering on its spindly little legs, poking its little snout at the gaps in the fence and trying to gum the steel with its soft little lips. Its mother, meanwhile, was stupefied by whatever bizarre turn of events had separated her from her baby.

You could see the flashbacks begin to hit Roo. Her own desperate puppyhood, when she, too, had been cruelly sequestered, came crashing back down on her. All the emotions she had also experienced as a little horse  in dark times raced back to her. She was instantly reduced from an icy Maxim gun operator flinging her camouflage aside to turn an ambushed platoon to sausage stuffing, to something more along the traditional lines of a Golden retriever. 

The little horse, whose transition from amniotic somnolence had been cushioned by its arrival in a sunny pasture on a windless 84-degree day, knew nothing of the dangers of a world. As far as the morsel-sized horse—which is why they are called horsels—was concerned, Planet Earth was a the wonderful place in the baby horse books her mother would soon be reading to her where the second thing you ever saw after your pint-sized mother were fluffy blonde quadrupeds who could stick their tongue out and smile and magically wave their tails at you.

Roo’s enchantment did not last long, however. The horsel’s grey and white fur had whetted her appetite for a rabbit hunt, and having seen an animal this size, she was sure there would be another one of the same size close by.

I wasn't ready to go, though. For one thing, I knew that the horsel’s mother was pregnant, but I was shocked to see the actual product, and as I understood the scene, I realized that the foal must have just arrived. I’ve never seen a newborn foal. I’ve seen them after they were already wizened by three or four hours of life, but not as new as this. This little one had dried, but was still without the first particle of prairie dust on her. 

But—why was this newborn separated from its mother? There wasn’t enough room at the bottom of the fence for a horse even of its size to get through. There was enough space for, say, a dog to scoot under, but the geometry of its limbs prevented it. So, how had it gotten on that side of the pen? Was there a veterinary reason of some kind?Maybe the horsel needed protection in it’s first hours of life. But, on the other hand, didn’t a newborn need to feed? It seemed more likely that Roo and I were the first to note its presence, let alone to have come around and sent her to the Gulag.

I called the ranch office. It was Sunday, so no one was there, but there was an emergency number on the message. I called that and interrupted the Sunday morning of Mary, one of the employees, and explained the situation to her. She said she would call John, the owner. We hung up, but I called back to ask if she had gotten through and to suggest that I just go in and liberate the horsel myself.

Now, there are two ways of differentiating true cowboys from someone like myself, who never saw a horse that didn’t have a policeman with a nightstick in a scabbard on it or wasn’t in a movie until I was fairly well on in years. The first is that no self-respecting cowboy would be caught dead carrying an umbrella on a sunny day. Which I was. Spring is not bothering to creep up on this region this year. Full-on summer has arrived, and, instead of being broiled to death as I was in this heat the day before, I took my umbrella. I hung it on the fence. The second way to tell that I am not a cowboy was by my decision to go to the other end of the pasture to enter through a gate rather than climb the fence. My reasoning was that the narcotic effect of the apples I had fed these little horses over time might have worn off by now. Maybe they were more like chained Rottweilers and wouldn't take too kindly to my entering their turf with a newborn around. For all I knew, they might have been waiting their whole lives for an excuse to justify a homicide. Better to go to the other side. Roo wanted to come in with me, but this time she understood that this was one order she had better not try to push her luck with.

Another one of the little horses greeted me. She also appears to be pregnant. She wanted to know where her apple was. When she saw I was headed towards the foal and her mother, she trotted ahead of me and got there first. All the little horses were quite pleasant. They live on a friendly ranch where they are loved and taken care of and they harbor none of the suspicions most horses know humans deserve.

A few weeks ago, when some cows wandered into the camp, the same kind of portable steel fencing that was penning the foal in was placed in the way of our walk, and when I tried to move it, it fell. Take it from me: them dang things? They’s heavy. And this one seemed to be precariously placed, leaning against another one. If it fell on the horsel it would have flattened her like a hamburger sizzling under a spatula. While I was trying to figure out how to position the fence safely, a red jeep approached on the road a few hundred feet away. It was John, the owner. One thing you have to say for John is that he is not suspicious of strangers. He didn’t seem to think anything of the fact that I was in his pasture with the miniature horses. I whistled to get his attention and waved and motioned to the morselhorse. He stopped and turned back. When he shut the engine off up at the corner of the field, I hollered, “You got a new one.”

He was passing by coincidence, and had he not heard my whistle, he would have continued on his way.

John had evidently forgotten his umbrella and had no compunction about scaling the fence. He was there in a flash. Now, while I would of course have liked to have had the honor of freeing the aspirin-sized horsel, I was glad he was there. For one thing, moving the fence would have meant leaning it against the chicken wire, and it didn’t seem adequate to the weight. For another thing, these were his horses, and he loves his animals, and he was more deserving of the joy of freeing this littlun than I was.

The mystery was how the horsel had wound up in the pen. We discussed it while I held the fence and he moved it. In his opinion the horsel must have fallen beside it and somehow managed to get on the other side of it when she tried to get up. It was a freak accident that she was stuck in there. And, it being Sunday, the ranch hands had the day off. Had R.K. Beker simply been complying with standing orders instead of mutinying, I might not have seen the horsel and who knows how long she might have been separated from the mother whose milk she was in especial need of in her first few hours of life. Tragedy averted? Perhaps that’s too generous a view to take of it, but if I pin a medal on Roo's chest for this one no one might.

The mother and the other mother-to-be, the one who had trotted ahead of me, went into where the foal was. It was a good moment. You could see the mother’s relief. The other one’s, too. John got the second one out of there and moved the fence back so that the two were penned together. Later, he would put fencing around an open shed for the two of them so that the newborn would be protected from getting jostled and accidentally injured by the other miniature horses until it was limber enough to get out of the way.

As they say around here, tell you what—mornings like that have got to be one of the better upsides to ranching. The mother was completely comfortable with John (she had been with me, too, when I petted the little one) handling her baby. While he held her he explained to me the benefit of helping them imprint on their humans. He rubbed her and gently lay her on her side to look her over. On first glance, the horsel appeared to be a girl, though that diagnosis would change later in the day. He rolled him over onto his other side, checked his limbs, removed a little bit of afterbirth that was stuck to his lip. After a minute of that, even though he didn't have any real plans, he wanted to get up, and john let him.

We hung around and watched them and smiled a lot and talked about it all under that beautiful blue Oklahoma sky. A few fair weather cumulus rolled over while Roo raced me to the other side of the pasture, to which I returned instead of making my cowboy bones by climbing the fence because in my determination to get in I latched the gate but didn’t double loop the chain around and wanted to restore it to the way I found it. Which is probably a better way to tell a real cowboy than all the others combined, though, as a military man, I wouldn't really know.

Roo considered that the arrival of the horsel augured well for rabbits. It put her in a great mood. I forgot the umbrella and had to come back for it. When the morning developed without bloodshed she still wasn’t disappointed.

If there was a third tragedy, it might be playing out in Roo’s mind right now: a world where the biggest, baddest rats turn out to be fuzzy little grey horses just disguised like them to make a mockery out of existence. She’s been having particularly animated dreams tonight. Because I have the special gift of being able to read a dog’s dreams, I know what they are. She is running, like the mad dog she loves being, hellbent on catching the biggest rabbit who ever hopped, or the king of all the ranch rats, the one who has made it to the end of the world, to a place she knows that if any dog is liable ever to get a chance to see, she's bound to be that dog. 

Not much of a tragedy in any of it, I guess. 

UPDATE: Today the little horse PRANCED. I saw him through binoculars.