Doing It Her Way
by Kathe Campbell
"Oh come on darlin', jump!" I urged. "You won't drown, I promise." I applied another persuasion with the quirt, and for the fifth time, relaxed in the saddle while she mulled it over. I could feel her muscles tighten and quiver as she prepared for this momentous feat. While I hung onto the saddle horn for dear life, she reared on her hind legs and cleared the tiny stream in one mighty hurdle. We immediately turned around and did it twice more. "Good girl . . . good girl," I told my jennet as I dismounted and heaved a sigh.
Our Broken Tree Ranch in Montana's mountains has been home to a myriad of donkeys and mules, special breeding techniques bringing us beautiful mammoth size show stock. We had been fortunate enough to win the national Hall of Fame for four of our manicured and well-trained donkeys, except for Sweet Pea.
Unlike most equine, donkeys dislike getting their feet wet. Water is for drinking, and yet the geldings learned sloshing through good-sized mountain streams easily. Apprehension ensues with small sure-footed feet, not trusting what lies beneath. Since donkeys rely on smarts rather than instinct, Sweet Pea had envisioned a muddy doom if stepping into water of any dimension. Training our horse seemed a cinch, but training a donkey was not mother nature's plan.
Pea, as we call her, had been a funny looking tag-along baby amongst Bureau of Land Management donkeys up for adoption. She looked to be sired by some great wild and wooly hippy-type jack, amassing gobs of long black hair. But as she matured, perfect conformation emerged that garnered numerous ribbons at donkey and mule shows throughout our region.
"Okay, darlin'," I reasoned, "guess you'll never be an all-around performer like the big, gelded jacks. So, we'll focus on your beautiful face, long dark tresses, your perfectly built chassis, and whatever is required to stand at show. Maybe that will become your claim to fame."
I mixed assorted concoctions to apply on Pea's neck to hide the white freeze mark that branded her an adoptee. It seemed important that she be perceived as a well bred lady off our ranch, rather than a wild BLM fluke. Dyes and paint were of no use. Finally, a touch of black shoe polish applied with a toothbrush hid the telltale brand temporarily. There was little I could do about the scar on her nose after a fracas with a she bear. So we spent hours polishing hooves, currying mane and bangs, and slathering on conditioners to make her hair shine and spring. My girl was high maintenance, but a knockout.
We graduated to the national two-day show competition as Pea turned five. Rising to the finals, she would compete with mules and donkeys, mostly close-shaven, narrow-hipped duns, and white prima donnas. Big-boned and coal black, she looked so different and out of place in the first round. But in-between eliminations, folks dropped by in droves to talk and give her pats. The attention put us both at ease, for she was having the time of her life.
Twice, Pea had refused to step backwards at local shows. It seemed ominous to her, like watercourses. So she wouldn't sense my apprehension, I took a deep breath and softly whispered . . . "back, back, back, darlin'." With a slight tug on her lead, she backed in eight perfectly aligned steps and halted on command. The worst over, she completed further compulsory moves handily. During the running exercises, I let her have her head and moved away to expose her bouncing coat and smooth gait. The grandstands exploded in thunderous applause and whistles. "That's for you, Pea," I told her while we acknowledged the crowd.
Before final judging, Sweet Pea and I returned to our little corral to find a fellow waiting. "I'm prepared to offer you a sizeable amount for your jennet, ma'am," he smiled. After more offers, Pea and I refused and went about our business. 'Twas then I began to realize this very unusual jennet's true worth. I buried my face in her soft neck and silently asked the good Lord to smile down on us, vowing to keep her always.
In rapid order, our names were called for final judging. Mercifully noting the absence of her stiffest competition, Pea and I were placed between two white mules. Owners and trainers chatted nervously down the long line while judges inspected each animal up close and asked questions. When asked if Pea was a wild jennet, I proudly answered, "Yes."
Clipboards in hand, the judge's and assistants finally sauntered to the announcer's booth to deliberate. Four down, one to go, and my heart barely had time to skip beats when the announcer picked up the microphone . . .
"And the overall National Show Championship goes to Sweet Pea and her owner and trainer, Kathe Campbell of the Broken Tree Ranch in Butte, Montana." My hands trembled as I accepted our purple medallion and enough prizes to fill a tack room. Then amid my streaming tears of joy, Pea belted out a series of heehaws that brought the house down.
The following weeks, BLM and long ear magazines, newspaper reporters and photographers came to visit our lovely lady, born in the wilds, airlifted into a truck, trained her way, and soaring to national fame.
"Jumpin' gee hossafats," bellered out my veterinarian as he entered Sweet Pea's stall. "Isn't this the big girl you took the Nationals with, Kath," while lifting her foot to examine her hoof.
"She's the one, Doc, one helluva girl to train until she taught me to think like a donkey."
October had ended and suddenly my lofty ranch was covered with early blizzards and arctic chills. Why so early this year I grumbled out loud while setting out to feed? It had been quite a half century ride for we two antique cowpokes. We more than dwelled on this pristine place. We took her to our bosom. In the springtime we treaded lightly upon her, as she was pregnant. After awhile, we homesteaded a few dozen acres and stacked dead-standing lodge pole pines into three splendid log buildings. It was a sedulous venture fashioning western culture into a fine lodge and hearth. We rocked and bragged, and spat at the stove on many a two-dog winter's eve, swapping it all back and forth, our times.
But now, after 53 years, my beloved Pops was suddenly taken from me and the approaching winter seemed so desolate. Would my old rheumatoid-ridden anatomy be strong as I toed up a chunk of fresh snow? Had I paid proper attention to all Pops had taught me? The feed, fencing, animals, the farrier, vehicles, well houses, and irrigation, Could I load the rifle and put a shot over the head of a thieving varmint without shooting my foot off? Could I do it all with a hook and one crippled left hand? My precious dog leaned hard against me and slurped frozen tears as I knelt to pick up a cake of hay.
"I need to sound cheerful, huh, Cork! This pity stuff has gotta go. I'll make a list. I'm the head honcho now," as my buddy smiled and wagged.
As the wind swirled snow in great ridges around the barn, I noted my 25-year-old black champion jennet favoring her right front foot. I didn't waste time. Out came the butozolitan paste that relieves swelling and hurt for arthritis and founder. For the first time in many years of raising mammoth show stock, the paste was not helping. With her nose pressed along snowy paths, Pea journeyed slowly and painfully behind her sons each day. Finding sunny spots to soak up warmth, they returned to escort their mother, but she only shifted fitfully from one foot to the other.
It felt good having Doc here. He took great cuts in her hoof to unleash blood and abscess, but none came. Whatever the infection was, it was contained and she was left with little hoof to hobble on now. He gave her a tetanus shot and constructed a sturdy duct tape boot for her bared foot.
Concerned that I was now languishing as the lone keeper of the ranch flame, Doc expressed serious fears. "Are you able to give your girl her shots morning and evening, Kath?"
"Oh sure, no problem," I boldly bragged my little white lie away. I'd never given equine shots with two good hands, let alone one. Who did I think I was kidding? A dusting of snow abruptly entered the barn and curled around the stall leaving a soft mist on my face and hair. Was my Pops sending angels to deliver energy and courage?
"Well now, let's see how well you do," Doc sighed loudly while filling the first gigantic syringe with 20 cc's of penicillin. I boldly stepped up to give Pea's tall rump a good whack with my fist, then quickly harpooned the spot left-handed. She stood stoic, no sudden jumps, no halter or rope needed. Sweet Pea sensed help on the way.
"Well, fan my britches. I'm not believin' your technique, but I approve," laughed Doc as he packed up the meds. "Right hip in the morning, left hip at night along with the anti-inflammatories for ten days - don't forget. And
Kath, if she isn't doing better after ten days, you may want to consider doing her a favor." I shuddered cold inside, for such an unthinkable idea was not on Pea's and my agenda.
I took to my bed that night giving thanks for heavenly intervention and praying for my sweet girl. I felt confident and hoped Pop's angels would be our winter salvation. After a restless night, new routine embraced me as I awoke before dawn to down cappuccinos and ready the meds. Anxiously, I awaited dawn's light, hoping Pea was with her sons waiting at the feeder. As pungent trails of rubbing alcohol drifted through frigid air, I pasted and needled while she calmly scoffed up grass hay.
Pea seemed to walk easier the following week. Her mammoth donkey ears sat forward, and when her boys heehawed, she whistled her high-pitched chorus with them. The makeshift boot lasted a few more weeks while she carefully maneuvered around frozen snow berms. Doc was astonished and pleased.
Now, as March roars in like a lion, and Chinooks and old sol goad sprigs of green in-between spring snows, I wean Pea by pasting every other day. I learn what my fellow ranchers mean by feeling like whistling, even with another boot-full of snow.
Although she will always favor her foot, Pea is striding slow and easy and has resumed her matriarchal lead. I'll not climb upon her broad back to chase tumbleweeds, or grace the show rings ever again. My big mammoth champion will play with children and stand guard over baby Jesus at Christmas nativities. She deserves to savor her fame and offspring, for after all, . . . families that bray together, stay together!
Kathe lives on a 7000' western Montana mountain with her national champion mammoth donkeys, her precious Keeshond, and a few kitties. Three grown children, Eleven grands and three greats round out the herd. She has contributed to newspapers and national magazines on Alzheimer's disease, and her Montana stories are found on many e-zines. Kathe is a contributing author to the Chicken Soup For The Soul series, People Who Make A Difference, various anthologies, RX for Writers, magazines and medical journals.
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