Here’s a little tale about horse tradin’, loosely based on a true story. Enjoy….
I’m walking down the center aisle of the ancient horse barn, headed back to the tie stalls. It gets darker the farther back you go because there aren’t any windows, and the box stall doors are all closed up these days. We stack hay in most of them now. It’s easier than loading it up into the loft, and you don’t have to climb up there to throw it down to the horses. Most people don’t use haylofts anymore, at least not in horse barns.
We keep horses in the box stalls up front, but not in the ones back here. There is more daylight in the front of the barn, and you don’t have to walk as far to get a horse out. But in the very back of the barn, in the tie stalls, we put up a few horses during the day. What light there is shines in vertical shafts, from the spaces between the old weathered pieces of barn siding.
I usually go out into the corral early in the morning and catch them up, two by two, usually ending up with two or three lead ropes in each hand. I lead four or five, sometimes six horses out of the corral all at once. They pile up at the gate, but I manage to get them through, one or two at a time, until they’re all outside. The small remuda follows me into the barn and back to the tie stalls for the day. It gets a little crowded when I try to lead six horses up the barn aisle, so I usually stagger the lead ropes, letting two or three of them out all the way so those horses can walk behind the others. It always feels like I’m leading a parade.
The horses spend most of the day tied up in the stalls. They stand patiently in the dark, saddles on, bridles hung from their saddle horns, waiting to take dudes out on trail rides. There’s a bit of light for them, but they don’t seem to mind the darkness. It offers cool relief from the sting of the hot summer outside, and the barn flies don’t bother them back here.
Whenever I walk back into the innards of this old barn I take my time, letting my eyes adjust slowly to the poor light. If you hurry you’re liable to trip on something. Could be a water bucket, or maybe a manure fork. It’s easy to end up face down on the old bricks that line the center aisle. So I don’t hurry when I head back into the depths like this. It’s better to let your eyes adjust. And I reckon that going slow lets your mind adjust, too. No need to rush things. Horses don’t take to people who are in a hurry.
Right now I’m headed to the tie stalls to get the little dun mare out. The old man sold her this morning, and I’ve got to get her ready to ship when the buyer’s driver comes to pick her up. The buyer came driving up this morning in a fancy grey car. I think he must be a lawyer, or a doctor or something. Somebody rich. You can tell he’s never spent any time around livestock. You don’t see people in suits and ties around here much. Mostly just H-Bar-C snap down shirts and Wrangler jeans. The only ties I see are on some of the hardware and feed salesmen who stop by every once in a while. And even they have H-Bar-C’s and Wranglers on, except they wear a tie and they always look uncomfortable in it.
The buyer had on an expensive looking suit and tie, with shiny black shoes. He came to look at horses and ended up buying the little dun mare. I hung around when he was talking with the old man this morning. You can learn a lot by listening to what the old man says, sometimes. Especially when he’s horse trading, which is what he does best. The suit came into the yard and went straight to the old man, who was sitting on the beat up overstuffed porch swing under the big cottonwood tree, where he always sits during the day.
“I’m looking for a horse to buy”, the suit says. He has a real air of authority about him, but it doesn’t seem to faze the old man.
“What sorta horse you lookin’ for?” the old man asks.
“My girlfriend rides hunter jumpers. She’s a very accomplished rider, and she has a beautiful, and very expensive horse. I need a horse to match hers, so that we can go on trail rides together,” says the suit.
“Ridden much?” the old man asks.
“I rode as a child,” the suit responds, “I was told I was a very good rider.”
Now, I hear this every day. Everyone likes to think they’re a great rider, even the ones who look like a sack of manure sitting on a horse. Usually, the worse they look, the better rider they think they are. I don’t know why horses put up with it. But I guess they get used to it. They say you can get used to anything. You can get used to hanging if you hang long enough.
“Well, I don’t know what sorta price range you’re lookin’ at, but I do have a nice little horse that’d be real good for trail riding. You’d be lookin’ at about four hundred and fifty dollars”, the old man offers.
“Oh…” the suit says, tentatively, “four fifty…I don’t know…” He looks unsure. “Actually, I was looking for something a bit better than that.” He glances quickly around the yard, jerking his head this way and that. It looks to me like he’s trying to spot a hidden gem through one of the outside stall doors. I get the feeling he expects to see something put there just for him. He’s out of his element, but I give him credit. He doesn’t let it show much. I can see he’s used to getting whatever he wants, used to being in charge.
And I can see that the old man sees this, too. But he doesn’t interrupt as the suit continues, “My girlfriend keeps her horse at a very nice stable. I wouldn’t want to embarrass her by bringing home anything too, well… I hope you understand,” the suit says. I watch the old man’s expression, which doesn’t change at all, though I sense a flicker of amusement in his eyes. I’m angered by the suit’s insults —to the old man, to our barn—but the old man doesn’t seem to mind, and lets them pass without comment.
“Well, sure I understand,” the old man answers, “I do have another horse that’d take care of you. Just didn’t know you were looking at a higher price range.” He looks over at me and says, “Go get that little dun mare out of the tie stall and bring her up here.” As I turn toward the barn I hear him tell the suit, “I think this little mare might be more what you had in mind.”
The deal went like this: I bring the mare out for the suit to look at. I lead her around, walking and trotting her back and forth in front of him. I throw a saddle on her and ride her around for him—the suit can’t get on her because he’s wearing a suit. I can tell that the suit has no idea what he’s looking at, or how to go about appraising the mare. But he’s making a strong effort at convincing us, and himself, that buying a horse is not something beyond his capabilities. I stand and hold the mare while he dickers with the old man.
The old man starts it out with an offer to sell her for three thousand dollars. The suit counters with an offer of twenty-five hundred. The old man balks at this offer, countering with twenty-nine hundred.
“Look… I can give you twenty-six hundred, but that’s it,” the suit says. The old man makes another counter of twenty-eight hundred, but the suit is determined to win this battle. To my surprise the old man agrees to sell her for twenty-six hundred dollars. You can tell that the suit is pleased with himself for having bested the old man in the deal. They shake hands, sign the sales papers, and the suit says he will send a man to pick up the mare later. He climbs into the fancy grey car and drives off.
And so here I am on my way back to the tie stalls again, on my way to lead the dun mare out so that I can clean her up, wrap her legs, and hand her over to whoever comes to pick her up for the suit. I find myself thinking about horse trading as I make my way down the dark barn aisle, seeing the worn out halters and old harness hanging in the dim light, smelling the mixture of manure and alfalfa, noticing things that go unnoticed. It occurs to me that sometimes we get what we want, and sometimes we get what we need. And sometimes they end up being the same thing. The suit got what he wanted, and the old man got what he wanted. I’m not sure what I wanted, but watching the whole process, I could see that we all got what we needed.
I untie the dun mare and back her out of the tie stall, pausing on the ancient worn brick in the center of the aisle. As we walk back down the aisle together I can see the outside light coming in the other end, where the big front doors open out onto the yard. As we walk down the barn aisle my eyes slowly adjust to the gathering brightness. I gently pat the mare’s neck, giving her a scratch behind the ear.
“You’re gonna have a good home, sweetheart,” I tell her. She pushes against my hand as I scratch her. “You want to know something, just between you and me?” The dun mare waits patiently for me to continue, “Your new owner doesn’t know it, but he could have bought you for four hundred and fifty dollars.”