A boy finds a horse…or did a horse find a boy?

When the dust had settled he stared into the soft, red dirt scattered around his partners feet.  Frustration filled every fiber of his body, anger brewed deep inside as he coiled up his rope slowly, deliberately as if this woven, intertwined piece of apparatus had feelings to be hurt by such forcefulness.  He had missed his throw again, leaving his header dragging the steer alone. Team Roping* is his new rodeo sport of choice, it has a pretty big learning curve and right now this boy is bearing that weight.

Looking at his partner from a distance the appearance was one of a nervous looking paint horse standing silently, waiting, hoping not to fall upon the wrong end of youthful rage.  But nothing could be further from the truth. The boy leaned over gently petting his friend, his amigo, letting him know that he (the horse) had in fact done his job, and done it quite well.  The sole responsibility fell completely upon the boy and as they rode out of the arena only a blind person could not see the anger this boy had within himself.

Toowey is a 12-year-old paint, purchased for the staggering sum of $5 dollars.  Toowey was born to be a cutter * He was purposely bred from a fine stallion to a mare of substantial quality all in the hopes he would someday reign king of his craft. But for poor Toowey that was not to be, for this horse was a thinker, so much so that he repeatedly would get into his own way, not allowing the natural course of action to take place. Thus leaving him without a job. A sorry thing for a horse with such a sharp mind. That was until three months ago when a proposition was laid before this young lad; You need a horse to rope from and this horse needs a job. The owner absolutely loved this horse and could not bear to part with him. The deal was simple, if he works he is yours, if Toowey cannot do the job, bring him home, no questions asked. And just like that a union was formed, and my family is forever grateful for this amazing gesture.

Now don’t think for a second it was that easy, you see two months ago I may have paid $10 dollars to send him home. (joking) But you see the thing about Toowey that makes him different from every other horse (besides the astronomical purchase price) the thing that continues to amaze me about this very animal is not that he needed a job, but that he needed a boy.  You see as I previously stated; Twooey is a thinker, he is also a very fast learner, and yes his ability to over think a situation still gets him into trouble on occasion, but he has an uncanny way of saying he is sorry. Roping gives him the release of responsibility that cutting does not and that fits this horse just fine.  He is also incredibly loyal.

That’s right I said he is loyal, loyal like an old bloodhound or your best friend.  I have been around many, many horses in my 48 years and yes they are all different, they all have personalities; traits we love, behaviors we try to correct and we may even like some more than others.  But I have never seen a horse that loves and loves to be loved by just one person like this horse. I am not talking about leaning into a good scratching or nuzzling up I am talking about devotion shown directly towards one human being.

Twooeys engine is huge! He can go and go and go, and just when you thought he was done, he would go some more.  When we sent him off to roping camp I warned the trainer about the size of this horses engine. It was big! Two weeks in, after checking in with the trainer it was confirmed just how big this horses motor was by him stating he almost gave up. But then like a light switch Twooey started to give, and just like that, everyday he learned more, became faster and stronger, and calmer all at the same time. Twooey finally had himself a bonafide job.

When we went to see him the first time is when I noticed Tooweys love starting to show.  As we walked towards the arena his head hung low, he sat still not a muscle twitching (unusual for him) and then he heard Jake’s voice. The boy who brushed him everyday, rode him in countless circles, walked him in the back and talked to him on the way back towards the paddock.  Tooweys head popped up, ears twitched forward and a loud whinny echoed across the arena.  As Jake approached Toowey could barely contain himself, scooting from side to side, licking his lips, quivering his lower lip.  Jake slowly reached out, placing his hand on Tooweys face and neck, slowly stroking him, whispering; hey buddy I’m here.  The horse stopped moving, dropped his head and leaned into my son.  A heavy sigh released, an eye softened and for a moment all was right in this animals world.

It broke my heart to leave him that night, as we drove back I could tell Jake missed his new buddy as well. Two weeks later when we picked him up, I have never seen a horse jump into a trailer so fast, ready for the long ride home, ready to be back with his rider.

Since that time it has been non stop practices and one official rodeo. There have been little successes here and there as far a this young boys roping goes, but no matter what happens or how it ends each afternoon after leaving it all in the arena; no matter how upset this boy becomes with himself or his performance his horse is there, always leaning into him, sighing heavy, lip quivering, happy to be his partner, his friend.

To have that kind of friendship with an animal as a young boy fighting the throes of testosterone coursing through his veins, competition, hard work and the sting of failure is priceless.

It appears as though the boy didn’t just need the horse, but the horse needed a boy. Some matches we just don’t understand, like a 5 dollar horse who unknowingly needed a home, a job and a frustrated boy who unknowingly needed a new partner and a friend. I believe the lord works in mysterious ways…

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*Cutting is an equestrian event in the western riding style where a horse and rider are judged on their ability to separate a single animal away from a cattle herd and keep it away for a short period of time.

*Team roping also known as heading and heeling is a rodeo event that features a steer (typically a Corriente) and two mounted riders. The first roper is referred to as the “header,” the person who ropes the front of the steer, usually around the horns, but it is also legal for the rope to go around the neck, or go around one horn and the nose resulting in what they call a “half head.” Once the steer is caught by one of the three legal head catches, the header must dally ( wrap the rope around the rubber covered saddle horn)and use his horse to turn the steer to the left. the second is the “heeler,” who ropes the steer by its hind feet after the “header” has turned the steer, with a five second penalty assessed to the end time if only one leg is caught. Team roping is the only rodeo event where men and women compete equally together in professionally sanctioned competition, in both single-gender or mixed-gender teams.[1]

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When did I become the “old guy”

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Silence interrupted by deafening sounds created within a brain refusing to disengage from endless chatter bleeding forth through a radio stationed not far from where my head lays motionless. A county never sleeps, fire departments responding here, rushing there, fellow brothers and sisters not even being afforded the very moment my stupid brain will not allow me to enjoy. Head filled with echo’s of each and every call they’re responding too, returning from or currently enveloped. Where is my family? Are they home yet? Which district boundary are they traveling through? Or have they nestled peacefully into bed? Whose family is wondering the very same thing without the same general knowledge my ears are so privy too at this very moment? It is my curse, my sleepless, frustrating, torturous curse.

Then it happens, as it has thousands of times during my 19 years of service, the warble tones scream, letting everyone know to cease radio traffic for another 911 call is being dispatched, you wait and wonder? Will it be our tones? Is it our turn? And then our tones ring, forceful and true, setting off a chain of events that could only be described as a technological ballet. A printer springs to life, chattering away, printing the story of our impending response; a light shines brightly inside each and every room of this glorified 6 car garage/hotel, awakening us, blinding us from darkness in conjunction with a horrifying bell whose sound is remnant of electricity coursing through your veins. Doors open, computer screens spring to life and it all crescendos with us, moving from the dead to the undead or in my case no man’s land, the neutral zone, or as some would say; a grey area of lifelessness. Yes we all begin to move, from those who actually are blessed with an ability to sleep at the drop of a hat to station zombies such as myself. We move, swagger, stagger, stumble and charge forth like an attack straight from “the living dead”.

Meet at the map board, wipe the sleep from your eyes, then identify a map page, cross street, address number, a house, business, parking lot, freeway, intersection, country residence. How do I get there, which way is fastest, what type of call is this? Is it a medical aid, structure fire, vegetation fire, vehicle accident, mutual aid, automatic aid, haz-mat, or a public assist? Is this another call we will see in our dreams for years to come, will we return home feeling accomplished as our training has once again paid forth with huge dividends or will we laugh at some absurdity only humanity or the human spirit can bring during a ride home?

Through the final door, at the rig, is everyone here, what gear are we donning, is everyone seated, are seatbelts in place, have I unplugged the shore lines, opened the bay doors, started the engine so Cap (the captain) can get on the radio? So many boxes to check off a list wedged inside my head.

Making a right turn onto the main thoroughfare, I grab a glimpse of the two seated directly behind Cap and I. They look like kids. It’s hard for me to believe this time has passed, I am no longer the fresh-faced lad; heart racing before each call, nervous to ask questions, pie eyed wondering what will await us upon arrival. They look so young, so damn young and yet even though I joke about my age on a regular basis (I am only 48), in reality I am not that old; I do not feel old in any way shape or form. Yet here we are inside this Engine, I seated in the engineers position and one of my closest friends now my boss seated to my right wearing the “red hat” or Captains helmet. WE are no longer the long-term future of this department, the up and comers buried in classes, spending thousands of hours and dollars obtaining every certification we can load into a leather binder for future uses. WE instead are now this department’s core, the steady, the constant, dare I say it? (Swallowing hard) The old guys…

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My graduating academy class 1995

In what feels like a millisecond I went from riding backwards to driving, from taking classes to teaching classes, from becoming an Engineer to an Acting Captain. Some days I am considered middle ground between Cap and crew other days I am the Captain with those around me looking for direction and advice. Are you kidding me? When did all this happen? What myriad of events led to someone handing me a red hat and saying today this crew is yours? What person ever thought of placing me behind the wheel of a 44,000 pound rig, then running it code three (lights and sirens) through the busy streets of town unabated? It is lunacy I tell you, pure lunacy!

I talk with college kids, fire academy kids, our new kids, probationary, first year and second year firefighters too. They all look so fresh-faced, innocent, not damaged by what is to come. They all retain the very same attitude we had, the same attitude those who came before us had, and the same attitude all that will ever pass through these hallowed halls after us will have. One of ignorant bravery, one of unabashed cockiness, an attitude that says I am here to help, to learn and nothing will ever hurt me. How little do they know, for no matter how much you inspire, mold, guide or lead “it” (that attitude) will be with them until one defining moment in time forces them into change.

It is the same for us “old guys” we see it in each other’s eyes, feel it through our words, and absorb it through a hug, a hand shake, a nod, a bad joke, a look. It comes with time on the job, experiences that for some may seem the same but in reality each and every experience in this line of work is dependent on the job. Each wrinkle upon our faces has been earned, each grey hair grown from the memory of something we’d rather forget. Eyes once steeled, are now softer, kinder a tad more gentle. We can’t talk about some portions of the job with anyone else but our peers. They are the only ones who understand and where a young one will sit and listen to tales with dreams of someday having stories of their own, us old guys hope they do create stories of their own, yet secretly hope in the same breath some of those stories never come true.

The young guys are loud and brash, quick to jump on a topic, any topic and beat it up with theory, formulas and standard operating procedures. Watching them from a distance I can only chuckle as they work out their problems and only through the rationale of an old guy are shown an easier, faster, less labor intensive way of completing the very same job. The young ones, smash and break things to reach their goal, the old ones walk gently, using a “try before they pry” philosophy. The young ones talk loudly, while drilling each other for knowledge, the old ones walk softly and speak only when needed. The young ones let everyone know when they are promoted things will change. The old ones let anyone who asks know; when they retire things will most certainly change.

The fire service is a young man’s game there is no doubt, but you need the wisdom of the old guys to not kill yourself participating in such a wonderful career. Creating memories of your own is important, good bad or otherwise but developing a bond with these people, this second family, well that’s what lasts a lifetime. I love these guys, would do anything for them, passing on that aspect of the fire service is every bit as important as how we do the job.

I don’t know where I am going with all this, it just seemed odd to me as another night passed, another round of service calls were answered and as I looked into the baby-faced gleaming eyes of those young firefighters surrounding me. That I in fact had transitioned from a young guy to one of the very guys we looked up to 20 years ago and now these kids are now looking up to me. WTF!

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I hope, no I pray I can do a good job filling those boots.

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