His color was just ordinary old bay, but he was a real looker – big, stout hip; nice, neat, pretty head; solid, heavy bone; four black feet and built like a brick house.
I wasn’t a real virtuoso in the art of horse trading, but I figured a $1,200 investment was a surefire deal on one of the prettiest 3-year-old geldings I’d ever had a crack at. We weren’t exactly flush with cash, but I convinced my wife I knew what I was doing. In a couple years, and with a few wet saddle blankets, there was no doubt we’d get four or five times our money back. He was that kind of a horse.
Like the shiniest girl in the homecoming court, he seemed to have figured out that his looks could help him get away with quite a bit more than the average geek at the back of the class. From the first ride, he was a little goosey, but he was an honest bucker. He’d hog and snort pretty much the whole way across a 320, but he’d always buck in a straight line, so I got a counterfeit confidence in my super-punchiness. Every time I stepped aboard, I could count on some sort of action from him. But somehow, he never bucked me off, and I wasn’t going to give in.
It was mid-October. We were gathering off the mountain. It was nearly dark, and I’d been riding the prima donna bay since early that morning with nary a hint of mischief from him. I’d picked up half a dozen pairs and was following them down a steep trail out of a long canyon. To the right of the trail was a rough, rocky mass of brush and boulders. To the left was a steep 80-foot drop-off, with the creek running down the bottom of the canyon. It was at this particular juncture of space and time that the bay rascal decided to cut loose. I rode him through the first couple of jumps, but it quickly became apparent I was in a bad spot.
There was going to be a wreck. I bailed off on the uphill side and ended up with my feet in the air, in the middle of a big snowberry bush. By the time I’d gathered my senses and body parts and determined an ankle sprain and a bruised ego were the extent of my injuries, the noise and ruckus down the trail had stopped. I hobbled 75 yards down the trail where I found my erstwhile can’t-miss money maker in a scraped-up pile of horseflesh. He’d somehow managed to get his front leg through the breast collar, which sent him tail over tea kettle and brought his rampage to a halt. I got the mess of tack and horse untangled and got him resaddled. The horse didn’t really appear to be injured, but there was a trickle of blood coming from one nostril, and he seemed shrouded in a hazy humility.
I got to the trailer about an hour after dark and finally made it home, where I hobbled into the house to a wife and three young kids who’d long since learned to mask their worries when my return was hours later than it should have been. I cussed the horse as I told my tale, but I assured them I was pretty sure I’d finally “rode the rough off him.” And, indeed, I had. His little trickle of a nosebleed never really stopped, and a week later he died, a victim of his own foolishness and an apparent lung injury.
About 20 years later, I had another pretty bay horse, a mare. She had a colt my son named Winston, in honor of the late, great British prime minister, whom my son had often heard me praise. One of my favorite Churchill quotes was from his “never give in” speech, which he gave in October of 1941 at his alma mater, the all-boys Harrow School.
“…never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”
I’d always abridged the real power of the speech to simply mean that one should never give up in whatever pursuit he or she may be after. It’s always handy for a halftime speech when you’re down by 15. The real beauty and wisdom of the statement, however, is found in the last eight words of the message.
Sir Winston realized that unrelenting determination is for naught if the cause is not just or rational. The goals of imperial Japan and Nazi Germany would have been justified in the dogged pursuit of their maniacal leaders’ ambitions, if the goal were simply to never give up, no matter what. Such a quest is rather elementary. But to have the acumen to steadfastly fight on but give in only to convictions of honor and good sense takes genuine fortitude and wisdom.
There’s little sense in riding a crazy horse off a cliff while the wife and kids need you at home.
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