Horses & Land

"Sheltering the Creative Spirit"

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Taos, New Mexico USA

 

 

             "ROCKET"
 
                 by
 
                      Frank Waters
 

No sketches of unique persons I have known would be complete without some notes on a few horses I have owned.  They were characters, too.  Each had a distinct personality, and all spoke for the spirit of the living land.

Rocket was Janey's favorite horse.

In 1946, before we were married, she had owned a great stallion named Rock whom only she could ride.  To replace him, she bought a filly colt named Rocket.  She was a registered Thoroughbred, brown, spindly, with great soft eyes.  When she was a two-year-old, we took her to Albuquerque to be trained for the track.  She had massive sculptured hindquarters, a deep chest, and long thin running legs with long pasterns that gave spring to her stride.

How she could run!  But one afternoon when the trainer was away, the Spanish exercise boy put her in a run when cold, then jerked her up sharply, showing off to his girlfriends.  This gave Rocket a splint, ruining her off foreleg.  We could never run her, or ride her after that, for she would suddenly stumble and throw the best of riders.

I went broke in 1948 and left for California, while Janey went to work for Mary Jane Coulter, interior decorator of the Fred Harvey hotels.  Before leaving, she gave Rocket to a horse lover in Farmington to keep in his own small band.  A year later we both returned to Taos.  Janey, pining for Rocket, took off for Farmington to get her back.

She returned with distressing news.  The man to whom she had entrusted the care of Rocket had been a deputy sheriff who followed the practice of stealing silver and turquoise jewelry from drunk Navajos.  Fired from his job, and unable to feed his horses, he had turned them loose on the southern edge of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation.

                                                       Horse barn on Waters' property

We immediately hired a cowpoke with a pickup and drove back to Farmington.  The ex-deputy took us to his wife's isolate trading post near the Reservation to spend the night.  In the morning we set out to find Rocket.  The band of horses had gone wild; there was no tracing them.  But once a day, we were told, they came to a waterhole a few miles away.  Here we waited and finally caught Rocket when she came.  She was so starved her ribs stuck out.  Her mane and tail were matted and full of burrs.  Dysentery had stained her back legs yellow.  And in the right side of her jaw there was a hole oozing pus where she had been shot with a twenty-two rifle.

A hot-blooded horse can't be treated like an ordinary cold-blooded cowhorse.  It goes crazy when manhandled.  So it was a job roping her and getting her into the pickup.  Then she tried to jump over the side and got caught, hanging over the rail.  It was a wonder she wasn't killed.  But we brought her back to Taos and turned her loose in the pasture behind Nicolai Fechin's studio, which I had rented.  From that day on, it was impossible to load her in a truck or horse-trailer.

                                                         Alicia Quintana, 1980

From my land at Arroyo Seco, the Quintanas brought down a huge stack of hay at which she could stand all winter, and daily I gave her a feeding of warm mash.  How wonderful it was to see Rocket improve.  Her barrel chest filled out, her chest deepened, the muscled hindquarters became a sculptor's dream, and her brown coat became glossy.  The hole in her jaw still oozed pus and blood.  So in the spring I got two men to take out the impacted rifle bullet and the tooth it had infected.  One of them was young Walton Hawk, the son of Bill and Rachel up on Lobo who was beginning practice as a vet; the other was Aloysius Liebert, an old reliable standby.

That spring Rocket foaled a palomino we named Star; and we brought to join them a little white mare named Cry-Baby, both of which I will describe later.  Then in the fall we took them -- Rocket, Cry-Baby, and Star -- up to our place in Seco.  Occasionally we rode Rocket in the big pasture, but gave it up; she was too fast and likely to stumble.  Nor could we take her out on the Reservation or up into mountains.  She spooked at the smell of a bear, a noise in the brush, and then there was no holding her.

  Frank and Cry-Baby, 1960, Photo by Fred Howell

Janey played a game both mares loved.  Dressed in her leather chaps, her apricot hair flying, she would run Cry-Baby in the back woodland -- around the chokecherry thickets, through the aspen grove, and across the clearing, in a great circle.  Rocket followed with pounding hoofs.  And then the chase back through the open pasture to the house!  Rocket's long thin legs were like pistons driven by her powerful hindquarters.  You could hear the thunder of her hoofs out on the road; she seemed to shake the very house.  Cry-Baby could not keep up with her.

She was seldom aroused like this.  Like all Thoroughbreds, she would poke along like an old plow horse most of the time.  But I loved to watch her grazing.  Under her glossy coat her muscles stretched, bunched, rippled like water.  She loved company, loved to be petted, and would stand at the back fence waiting for attention.
 
She was sick only once, evidently with colic.  Trinidad, an Indian friend, told me that the spring change of temperature of the water in the stream had made her sick, a common occurrence.  To cure her, he instructed me to burn some old greasy rags, then stamp out the flames and hold the rags to her nose to inhale the fumes and smoke.  I did so, and in a little while Rocket regained her feet and walked out into the pasture.

Cry-Baby bullied her, eating her own grain quickly, then stealing Rocket's.  Rocket didn't protest.  Her dependence on Cry-Baby was like that of a child on a grownup.  When I saddled Cry-Baby and rode off, Rocket would stand at the fence and whimper until we returned.  One afternoon I heard her pounding up the pasture and neighing wildly until I came out of the house.  She then turned and ran back a ways, waiting until I caught up with her, then running farther back.  I followed her all the way to the back woodland to discover that Cry-Baby had broken through the fence and couldn't get back again.

It took time to learn her nature.  It was that of a loving, unspoiled, high-spirited child.  She was trusting and gentle, with lovely manners, great courage, and pride of breeding.  And yet there was in her a stubborn indomitableness and a streak of wildness that would suddenly erupt without provocation.

I used to think it rather sad that Rocket's world was restricted to my small acreage.  Yet I have realized how diverse it was, containing a long open pasture, a virgin wilderness of lofty cottonwoods and aspens, tangled thickets of wild rose, plum and chokecherry.  She was not restricted to this.  Her world embraced the flanking mountains, the hanging stars, all nature of which she was a part.  In her lifetime she fulfilled her maternal function by foaling two colts.

Her end came suddenly, early one March while I was staying in Taos.  In the evening Mr. Quintana came down from Arroyo Seco to tell me that Rocket was off her feet, a bad sign.  There was no vet practicing in town, so I telephone Aloysius Liebert.  There was no answer.  I went on to Eve Young-Hunter's. who had invited me to dinner, and continued to telephone.  Her maid, Tavita, also called several of his neighbors, but he could not be located.  Without staying for dinner, I drove out to Hazel Hoffman's Rocking Horse Ranch.  Thinking that Rocket might have a bowel obstruction, she looked up the remedy in Capt. Hayes Veterinary Notes for Horse Owners: an enema with warm soapy water, and a dosage of castor oil and glycerin.  I then drove up to the Quintanas, my Seco neighbors.

It was now nine o'clock and all the Quintanas were in bed.  Aroused, Mr. Quintana said Rocket had got back on her feet and wandered off into the back.  Bolivar, his son, had just driven in, and walked over to my place with me.  The night was cold and ground covered with snow.  Cry-Baby and the other horses we found in a corner of the orchard, but no sign of Rocket.  By the dim light of a lantern we traced her steps across the open pasture to the tangled wilderness area in back.

Here we gave up the search.  It was impossible to get the Quintanas out of bed, to heat water and carry it back to the woods in deep snow, and to administer an enema by the light of a lantern and a flashlight -- if we could find her.  Moreover, my intuitive feeling told me that Rocket had forsaken her companions -- something she never did -- and gone off alone to die.

All nature confirmed this feeling.  There was an eerie feeling of sadness, of tragedy, in the air.  The stars, close and bright in the black sky, glittered with preternatural awareness.  The snow packs on the peaks and the snow on the ground gave off a queer muted sheen.  And the silence spoke loudest.  The whole thing got me: gentle Rocket hiding out there in the dark woods alone, knowing that her time had come.  Accepting the mystery of death, I drove back to town.

Early next morning -- Sunday -- I returned to Seco.  Mr. Quintana had got up at sunup and found Rocket dead.  I went over to see her.  She had come out from the woods and was lying in the pasture, face to the mountains.  What the cause of her death was, I don't know.  Her coat had no sweat stains; there was no sign of agony, of struggle.  Her heart had simply stopped beating.  I closed off the pasture from the other horses; and as it was impossible to bury her in the frozen, snow-covered ground, I asked Mr. Quintana to get a team and drag her body back into woods and cover it beyond the reach of coyotes.

She was twenty-one years old, and this had been her home for fifteen years.  The sun was coming out over the mountain peaks and the church bells in Arroyo Seco were ringing for mass.
 

                            (Excerpted from a book to be published next year.)

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