The Unforgettable

Written by Bryan Neubert

This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.32

I was asked a few years back to do a demonstration and clinic in conjunction with the Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. The day after the clinic, they had me and three other fellows who had made their living from the back of a horse sit as a panel to answer questions from people in the convention center.

Mostly they asked advice and opinions from us and then the questions started getting more personal. One man had a question for me. He asked, “What’s the toughest horse you ever had to work with?” My mind quickly raced around to some runner-ups that were pretty tough. Some of those wouldn’t have been so tough had I known then what I learned later. But of everything that came to me, my mind settled on one horse that I thought was the toughest of the tough. One I was involved with but never rode more then a handful of times, a pony-sized horse that belonged to my younger son Luke.

The story begins with a phone call from a friend that worked at the Susanville Wild Horse Facility near where we live in Alturas, California. He told me to “hook up your trailer, and get down here as soon as you can. I have a horse for Luke.” Luke was almost eight and was well on his way into a pony breaking business. I thanked him for considering us but assured him that we had projects running out of our ears as it was. But he went on,  “I got a two-year-old stud in a bunch that’s the size of a pony but looks like a miniature version of a horse and a keen little dude if you ever saw one, so get down here.”

This man is a good friend, and someone to be trusted, so we hooked up and headed down there and keen he was. We ran him in the chute, put a halter on him, and he was really wild like all those freshly caught horses are. When we got him home, I unloaded him in one big lot that had eight or ten geldings in there already. As I opened the trailer door, I remember thinking, “I sure hope they don’t hurt the little guy.” As soon as he came off the trailer, they all trotted over to see the new horse like horses do, and he sprang into them like a lion with his mouth wide open.

I had a manger along the fence, big enough for everything to eat at once and filled it full of hay. Immediately, their attention turned to the manger and they all headed over to start eating. Usually horses don’t let a newcomer eat until they’re done, but the pony just blasted through them and ran everything off the hay. A few of the tougher ones tried to challenge him, but he came on so fierce and bold that he had them all backed off. Even a team of full-grown draft horses were scared of him. He’d take half the manger to himself and the rest could squeeze in on the other half any way they could fit. I remember thinking, “Surely he’s too little to hurt my horses.” I was hoping so anyway.

The Christmas Tree Hunter's Return - Luke on Mosquito (far left), 1994
The Christmas Tree Hunter’s Return – Luke on Mosquito (far left), 1994

The next morning when I fed, I was puzzled to see dried blood on the backs and necks of several of the older horses, but couldn’t see any wound on any one of them. Then I saw the pony had a front leg pretty well covered in mostly dried blood. Something had apparently kicked him on the inside of the leg and left a pretty good gash on it. He left his mark on the others when he would spring up on his hind feet. He never acted the least bit sore and still maintained ultimate respect or maybe fear from the whole bunch. We’ve had many older mustang studs at our place over the years but nothing like this, nothing this fierce, nothing even close.

Luke and Bryan in Benson, Arizona, 1998.
Luke and Bryan in Benson, Arizona, 1998.

That morning, I helped our eldest son, Jim, who was thirteen at the time, start the pony out in the round corral to get him broke to lead so he could be handled. My wife home schooled our children and they had plenty of opportunities and experience helping me with wild horses by then. Jim picked up the long lead from the halter that we had put on him in the chute the day before and I took off to go about my business. About an hour later, I could still see dust rising out of the round corral and knew the activity was still fairly lively. I hollered over to Jim to get a report as to his progress. He answered back with a request for me to come over. He had the pony’s hindquarters yielding fairly decent, had him so he wouldn’t pull on him right or left, and was letting him back up at times quite vigorously. Usually, when it gets to this stage, it’s kind of all down-hill as they begin to tire of backing and will consider allowing you to handle their face if you’re careful. Jim said, “He’s about got me wore out and I can’t seem to get on first base as far as being able to touch him.” This was like nothing I’d ever seen. He was about ready to be relieved and I was wanting to get a chance at the pony, anyway, so I took over.

Now, I have started many wild horses while working in Nevada and many BLM horses here at home. For the first years I was here in this country that’s mostly what I started. I pretty much fed my family working with wild horses for years. For about seven or eight years I worked for the BLM doing demonstrations all over the west from Oregon to Texas. I had traveled to Nebraska many times and twice even to Mississippi. During those years, I’d go to six or eight places a year and usually work with two in the morning, two in the afternoon for two days. In those demonstrations, usually a two or three hour period, I could have them leading and handling their feet, could swing on bareback on most of those, with some exceptions, but in all those years, I never saw a one with so much heart and determination as this. In three hours I was not much farther than Jim had been. I had never seen this kind of endurance. As the sun got hotter, I shed my coat and was starting to sweat, but the pony never did. He was still dry as a bone and working harder and longer than anything I had ever seen. I was letting him back up vigorously and using my coat swinging closer to him. A couple of times, I let it get into his bubble just a little, but I didn’t try with my hand because he wasn’t going to let me.

As the days went on, we made slow progress, and we worked for every bit of it. I had never in my life seen a horse that lacked mental flexibility like this. Every day was like starting over. We were all riding quite a few horses in a day and we made a rule that no one changes horses until we catch the pony, gang up on him and rub him down all over. I would pick up all his feet. He was rock hard like rubbing a chunk of iron that had a horse hide stretched over it. Seeing his progress was like watching a tree grow. If you’re there everyday, you swear it doesn’t grow, but if you were to leave for a long time and come back, you could see that it finally did in fact grow.

Jim and I, along with Kate, who was twelve at the time, put in quite a bit of time on him. As soon as it looked like he was safe enough to let Luke get involved some, we gave him a flake of alfalfa to see if he could get the pony to take a little bite. But just as soon as he stretched out his neck as far as he could and looked like he might take a little nibble, the pony pinned his ears and came at Luke with his mouth wide open. Luke dropped the hay and lead rope and took off running as hard as he could. Nearby was a fairly big tire we were using as a manger, Luke made a run for it and leapt in it with the pony’s wide open mouth right at his heels. This was an awful frightening sight and he had never shown any aggressive behavior toward any of us before. You might expect some of that to show up on an older stallion, but in my life, I had never seen it from a two-year-old.

The others told Luke to stay put and they would hand him the lead rope. He had no plans to leave his tire anyway. The tire was big enough that the pony couldn’t reach Luke when Luke backed away from his attacks. He proceeded with this project now only within the safety of the tire. We also gave him a flag, and when the pony pinned his ears or made a dive at him, he could peck him over the ears with the handle of the flag, then offer some alfalfa till he could finally feed him and eventually pet him over the face. As you could imagine, to witness this attack on Luke was upsetting to say the least. I made plans to castrate the little stallion as soon as I could. About that time Kate had a really gentle, oddly colored paint mare that came into heat and they decided to breed her before the castration took place. Even though the mare was fairly short, she was too tall for the pony to mount. They solved this problem by loading him into the trailer, turning him around and backing her up to the door. They bred the mare several days in this manner. By now we had been running the little horse out to pasture with the geldings and wrangling them in every morning.

Luke (center) in Benson, Arizona, 1998
Luke (center) in Benson, Arizona, 1998

From the back view, his scrotum was more like a bull than any horse I had ever seen, and when I gelded the little stud, I was amazed to find testicles as big as any fully developed mature stallion I had ever castrated. I never talked to a veterinarian about this, but could imagine his testosterone level was sky high, which might account for him being the most aggressive stallion I had ever seen. Since then I asked a veterinarian I met at a clinic about this and I asked, “Have you ever seen testicles like an eight-year-old stallion on a two-year-old?” She said, “I did once in my life.” I told her that it was the most aggressive horse I had seen in my life, and said she would expect the horse’s testosterone level was extremely high.

Luke finally gave the pony the name Mosquito. Jim started getting a few rides on him. He was double tight and really touchy. We showed him to a friend of ours that rides colts for a living and always remember his reaction. He said, “Wow, he’s like a little bobcat,” and he was.

We live in the foothills of the rugged Warner Mountains and we sometimes pasture horses about a mile from the house. At thirteen-years-old Jim was in the habit of getting colts he started out of the corral and riding out fairly early. Luke and I were going out to wrangle horses in this pasture and Jim came along to help and rode Mosquito for the job. What we always do, when wrangling on a really green one is, we leave home and head up the canyon at a fairly brisk pace, loping or at a flat out run. The reason for this is, when we bunch the horses and come off the mountain with no more control than we might have, we could end up in the middle of the horses we’re trying to gather, so we like to have the air out of them before we get there.

We found our horses near the top of the pasture where most colts would be doing good even to be trotting by then. Luke and I held the horses up for a bit and Jim took the opportunity to check Mosquito out on a few things after the long run.  He reached back and brushed Mosquito behind the saddle with his fingertips and the little horse took off like he had been shot out of a cannon. Jim just pointed him up a steep stretch of the hill and even at the top he was moving like we’d just left the house. He circled around by us and said, “Can you believe this horse?” We’d never seen anything like it. He came around another time or two and I said, “Why don’t you let the lead rope of your mecate just dangle on his hip and point him straight up through the thickest brush you can see.” He just plowed that brush like a freight train. Jim would sometimes get out of sight in a grove of trees, then take another trip through the steep brush with no apparent change. Luke and I started the horses for home and soon Jim disappeared.

That’s not all too unusual for one of us to do if the colt we’re riding still had plenty of spark when we started a bunch down the mountain. That way, if we were out of sight, it couldn’t see the bunch running and get all pepped up and out of control going downhill. Lots of times we’d just duck down a gully or behind a grove of trees. Luke and I were well down the mountain and neither of us saw Jim again. We stopped the bunch and waited a while for him to catch up, but still no Jim. After a while, I told Luke to take the horses home and went up to find Jim. Our policy was, if any one of us was planning on being gone for more than a short period of time, to inform the rest of us so we could keep track of one another. He was gone longer then he should have been and I was starting to worry. I looked back up the mountain and was greatly relieved to see him coming over a rise at the top of the long draw. As he got close enough to speak, I asked him where he had been. He said, “I’ve been on the wildest ride of my life. When I was making those trips up those steep hills, my lead rope whipped under his tail and he clamped down on it and we just left the country. He was running and kicking at the same time. We ran straight off into some of those brushy canyons, jumping washouts and slapping my face on the juniper limbs.” I said, “You didn’t try to pull it out did you?” He said, “Heck no, I was feeding slack, hoping he would spit it out. You wouldn’t believe how hard he ran and kicked.”

When we got back home, I spotted a crupper hanging on the side of the round corral left by someone that we were riding a mule for. We put him in the round corral and tied the crupper to the side saddle strings and held his tail up till we had it in place then dropped the halter off and let his tail at the same time. Soon as we did, Mosquito made a big jump and kicked straight over his head. He kicked so high he landed with his forehead just flat with the ground. In a flash he was on his feet and made two jumps just like it. We stood there amazed that he could regain his feet as quick as a cat and kick in such rapid succession. He lapped the pen kicking high for about half an hour walking on his front feet, but never went clear down again. I’d never seen anything like this in my life. About this time Kate began to pray that her paint mare wasn’t bred after all. (And we were all relieved the next Spring when it became obvious she was open.)

Kate and Jim, Carson City, Nevada, 1997
Kate and Jim, Carson City, Nevada, 1997

On unusual cases through the years, I was in the habit of consulting with an older friend of mine named Tom Dorrance, who lived where I was raised in Salinas, California. I walked to the house to give him a call and explain what I’d seen and what we’d done. Tom’s advice was quick and to the point, “Get out of that project as quick as you can, and if I was you, I’d put him down and take no chance somebody else would end up with him.” I reasoned, “Now Tom, if you were my age, you would stick with this project for the educational purposes,” and he said, “That might be true, but sometimes it wasn’t the smartest thing for me to do. Besides, you need to think about those kids. What if he hurt them?” I finally agreed and we said our good-byes. On my way down to the corral I got to thinking, “but he doesn’t really know my kids other than just visiting with them. He’d never been around them when horses were involved. They had been through so much, especially Jim in the last five years, so when I got down to the corrals I told those kids, “Tom thinks we ought to abort this project and I think maybe he’s right. This is no kid horse prospect.” Jim and Kate both spoke up, “Let’s just bear down on him; we can quit him anytime. We’ll just double up on him and bear down on him a little harder.” And I said, “ I sure don’t want you kids getting hurt. We were getting along just fine before he ever came along.” They persisted, “If he doesn’t turn the corner, we’ll be the first to admit he ought to be put down. Just give us a little more time.”

I had never before, and never since gone against Tom’s advice, but I weakened, and double time him they did. Even though they had plenty of other projects, they focused on Mosquito. Gradually, very gradually, he began to turn the corner. They took turns on him everyday, we went to the mountains and they did everything on him. It was a while before they let Luke ride him. Luke had just turned eight, and Mosquito was just too much horse for him. Even though he was pony sized, he was tougher than iron.

In writing this story I called Kate for any recollections she might have of that time. She said what she remembered most were the tag games. (My kids were really strong on the tag games because they liked to have fun riding those colts, and some of those tag games could get vicious.) Kate said, “When I was riding Mosquito, I was pretty much un-tagable. That horse could fly off a mountain through the rocks and brush and just place his feet as solid as a rock on any terrain at any speed. Nobody could touch me when I was riding him.”

When my kids were growing up I had tried hard not to intervene in their projects, I did my best to hold my tongue with only three exceptions. One, if they were in any danger of getting hurt. Two, if there was any danger of a horse getting hurt. Three, if they asked me for help. I wanted them to always feel free to experiment.

One time I remember coming by the barn and hearing some rumbling going on in there. I looked in to see Mosquito on the floor with all four feet tied together. Kate and Luke were sitting on his neck and Jim was trying to trim a bridle path on him. But Mosquito was still bouncing around like a fish on the bank. I cautioned them to be careful and let me know if they needed any help. They assured me they would be fine and I went about my business. When I saw Mosquito that afternoon he was wearing a new bridle path.

When Luke did ride his pony, it was getting to be the spring of the year, and he roped on him lots at calf brandings and he was a tough little dude. Mosquito could drag calves to the fire all afternoon and never seemed to weaken or tire a bit.

The next winter Jim and Luke were going to ride over to visit a friend on a ranch about twenty miles away through the mountains in deep snow. I drove them the first six miles and then I couldn’t go anymore in the trailer. It was the day after Christmas and in the Warner Mountains the snow can get pretty deep and the drifts get big. Luke was riding Mosquito and Jim was riding another horse. When I let them off, they had fourteen miles to go. I told them, “Now boys, I don’t know if you’ll be able to get through the mountains and so when you get there, the first thing I want you to do is call me. If you don’t call me, and it’s starting to get dark, I’m coming back to this same spot with the trailer. If you can’t get through the mountains, just turn around and come back here and I’ll meet you.” Later that day they called to let me know they had made it to the ranch. When I asked how Mosquito did, he said, “We bucked snow drifts through the mountains for fourteen miles, and he never took a tired step. He was still snorting and squirting at everything in their yard when he got here.”

Luke had persisted, and rode him hard, along with other ponies he had to ride at that time. He had Mosquito to where he could go up in a pasture with a halter, catch him right out in the open, swing on him bareback and bring the other horses home on him, which it’s not a big feat for a lot of other horses, but it was quite a thing for him. But he was so very sensitive to any change that Luke would have trouble catching him in a pen if he was wearing different hat or a new pair of gloves. I remember watching Luke heading steers on him in an arena,  Mosquito would pin his little ears and put Luke right in there for a good shot.

It was pretty amazing to see how far he had come. I can’t say he ever got gentle, Luke rode him with caution. He never let his guard down, and he never forgot who he was riding. We never considered letting anyone else ride him. And in a public setting, never left him unattended, for fear some stranger might try to pet him.

Luke shod his own horses and ponies when he was pretty young, but never put a shoe on Mosquito, it was never necessary. He rode him quite a bit in a pony sized hackamore, he made himself, and they were getting along so well together.

With other projects he needed to get going he decided to give Mosquito the summer off when we hit the clinic trail for Canada. I remember driving down the highway when we got the call from our neighbors back home, they said they had bad news. They had found Mosquito laying dead right in the creek. We never did know how he died, there was no sign of a lion kill, perhaps it was a lightning strike or a brain tumor. We never knew.

By this time my kids had surely seen many horses come and go. Especially on the big ranches where there were so many. They knew that as sure as they were born, horses are going to die. Sometimes unexpectedly. But we all felt so bad, especially for Luke. In hearing the news he buried his head in his coat, and turned his face against the door. As we all rode along in silence, memories from the Mosquito years came flooding back. Our thoughts turned to all we had been through, and to all we had learned from the little horse.

This will be our 14th winter since Mosquito first came into our lives. My family has started many hundreds of horses since then. Most we have forgotten or will forget. Occasionally someone will mention a horse they think is tough, and we have to silently smile to ourselves, as we look back on our biggest lesson in perseverance, to Mosquito the mighty and proud little bobcat, to Mosquito the toughest of the tough, to Mosquito, the unforgettable.

This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.32


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