Every ranch family has probably had one at some time. They are kind, calm, tender and loving, reliable, gentle, unfettered, and usually become a beloved family member in short order. No, I’m not talking about nannies, aum pairs, or even the girl next door; I’m talking about a horse. In particular, the horse you trust with your most precious valuables, your children.
We have had several over the years but our current “Babysitter” is a big bay gelding named “Big Un”. He came to us 8 years ago as a kind but older reliable ranch gelding who was in his “last years”. He was 26 at the time, stood over 15.2 hands and was in excellent health but hadn’t been used much in the past few years. Our friends from the next county over had owned him since he was 2 and he had raised all their boys. Now the boys were grown and gone, and Big Un was just out in the pasture. They knew we were looking for a horse that our 4 year old could learn on and suggested we try him out.
Being the over-protective mother that I am, I warned R.W. about the value of free horses… I knew from experience that more often than not you would get what you paid for as the saying goes.
But Big Un was different, he was still in great shape and carried little Calvin Danner around. He was also the ride of choice for most of our various vistors here to the ranch for a number of years. You could still go rope a steer or mad momma cow on him but he was kind and gentle enough that he quickly earned our trust with the boys.
We found out early on that Big Un loves babies. For the past eight years Big Un runs with the broodmares in the spring and by the time the babies are ready to wean they are spending more time hanging out with “Uncle Big Un” than with their mothers. When the mothers are pulled out of the pasture in the fall Big Un is there to keep the little ones company until they are big enough to run with the young riding horses, and their mommas have new babies for Big Un to play with.
Calvin Danner gradually went from being led on Big Un to riding him by himself here on the ranch, then he began competing in local kid rodeos and playdays on him until he finally out-grew him and passed him on to our youngest, Ethan.
Big Un is about to turn 35 this spring, which is quite a feat for a horse. You would never know it looking at him under saddle. But this winter he really started to show his age and honestly, although he is healthy, I’m worried.
Ethan has never known a day without Big Un around. His first rides as a wee baby were double on Big Un out in our pastures sitting in Mom’s lap. Four summers ago while in transition between both boys Danner would ride and at the end of the day Ethan would be led around in his big brother’s saddle, dressed in his baby chaps, his little boots and of course his cowboy hat. The first thing you noticed were his little fat legs sticking straight out to the sides as he shook the reins with all his might crying “ye-haw” in hopes of speeding his mount up. But of course ol Big Un wouldn’t break out of his walk for he knew Ethan wasn’t ready.
Two summers ago we could turn the two of them loose in the arena at the end of the day and the same sceene would play out until Big Un got tired of walking in circles and would just stop in the middle of the arena and no amount of cajoling on Ethan’s part would make him move.
This past summer Ethan had graduated from being ponied (or led) by Dad on our adventures to riding Big Un solo. His legs had grown enough to reach the stirrups of the kid saddle his brother had grown out of, and if kicking didn’t do the trick to motivate Big Un, Ethan quickly learned how to take the tail of his rope and give him a “swat” on the butt which would elicit the desired response for more speed. Of course Big Un always seemed to know just how fast his little cowboy could handle and I swear more than once I saw him trot right back underneath his rider just as I was sure he was about to bounce out of the saddle to one side.
It’s rare to have a horse live to 35 years old, it’s even rarer to have one in good enough condition that he can be ridden, even by a child, but this week we saddled him up once again. We are always watching for the day he starts to stumble, the day his weight drops off, the day he doesn’t lift his head and come trotting in when we show up at the barn. I know that day may come, or we may find him in the pasture in his final peace some morning. Life for Big Un has been good so for now we are enjoying every day we have with this member of the Hampton family and we will forever be grateful to our dear friends the Clays for giving us one of the most precious gifts we have ever recieved.
Because of Big Un our children (and now grandchildren) love animals, they trust horses, they trust themselves on and around horses, they know love, gentleness, kindness, respect and responsibility. These are gifts that not every pet can give, not every horse can provide, but a good babysitter is worth his or her weight in gold.
We have a lot of good horses but Big Un is by far the most valuable horse on our ranch.
Were you raised by a “babysitter” or have one on your ranch? What are your fondest memories of riding as a small child?
We love to hear about the horses that have shaped you, so please share your stories too!