The Babysitter

April 11, 2012

By Lisa Hampton


Ethan and Big Un, Summer 2011 

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.

Big Un and one of his "babies"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 with Big Un, Colfax County Fair 2006

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.

Ethan encouraging big Un to move faster

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.

Making the first barrel at the Mverick Rodeo in July 2011

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.

Big Un with the boys

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!

21 Responses

  1. Really enjoyed this. We just put our down a couple of weeks ago. The cancers in Tuff’s eyes were just too bad to put him through amy more. You have inspired me to write something about Tuff. Thanks.


  2. Juni Fisher says:

    I love seeing these photos of Big Un and the kids. And you are right, he is priceless. Miss you guys!

  3. Terry Lewis says:

    I really enjoyed and appreciated your story about Big Un. I had a big bay gelding that I called Partner, because that was what he was for so many years on the ranches I worked on. He would do anything for me and when I put someone else on him, he always seemed to know what their level was and work at that level. I have seen him literally trot under a kid who was leaning to far to the side and get that kid back in the center. When I stopped cowboying for wages, he was semi-retired and I passed him on to my wife and kids. He would do anything they asked and do things for my wife and daughter that he would never do for me. At age 17, he died suddenly and left a big hole in all of our hearts. He never got to be a babysitter for the grandkids, but he would have been great.

  4. You just gotta love a horse that can tolerate all the stuff we give to them for a whole 35 years! Bless his heart for knowing what his job is now and doing it so well. There’s a 35 year old QH mare on the property here that does the same. She doesn’t look as good as Big Un, but she still packs people around weekly, and she’s happy to do it. I hope he has a few more winters left in him, it will be a sad day when he decides his job is done.

  5. Kelsey says:

    This story about Big Un and your boys is so touching. As a “horse person” I have been fortunate enough to know a few horses like him in my lifetime, and hope to encounter many more. I too have an “old guy” and an “old gal”; a 31 year old sorrel Quarter Horse I call “Max” and a recently purchased 23 year old Zebra Dun mare I call “Bonanza”. Max has been with us for 7 years now and he has helped many people who come to visit learn to ride. I recently traded in my hot-headed Cremello gelding for my new zebra dun mare because as a new mother I could not afford to keep getting thrown. This new mare has been a God-send to our family. My husband loves to ride her because she still has a lot of giddy up left, and I feel comfortable enough on her to strap my 6 month old son up in a front carrier and take him on rides with me. Unfortunately, both of my older horses are showing their age. They have arthritis in their knees which I take care of by exercising them frequently and giving them Bute, and are starting to lose a lot of weight even though they are being fed well. Do you have any advice as to how to get their weight back on them? I’d hate to lose my “babysitters”.. Thank you!

  6. JW Roe says:

    We purchased “Joker” for my daughter to learn to ride on. At first site I thought my wife made a big mistake. he put on weight and the vet said he was closer to 30 than 20. My daughter rode that horse all over tha place & I had no worries about it cuz he wouldn’t let her get into a bad situation. 1 yr ago I went out to feed and found him in the corral,down. We lost him that day. My daughter still fondly recalls her days on him—a perfect “babysitter. I used to tell her he had several gears of slow… ah special memories.

  7. Meg Dissinger says:

    Thank you so much, Lisa, for this amazing essay. I have a photo of myself at 2 on a horse like Big Un, and I will never forget the feelings of inner strength and confidence I got from riding young. Blessings for sharing your story.

  8. Renee Humphrey says:

    Loved your tribute to Big Un. I was fortunate to have had a horse like that too. My dad’s rope horse Andy. He was so gentle and kind. All three of us kids grew up on him. I am so thankful I had him as an example of what a good horse is. Today I am 58 and I have 2 older horses. Butch is a 22 yr old QH and Dan is a 21 yr old Mustang. We still ride them and our friend’s kids ride them as well. I just hope they are still around for my grandkids to ride once they are big enough to sit up in the saddle by themselves. Again, thank you for this wonderful tribute to your “babysitter”!

  9. Jessica Berglund says:

    Here’s the story of my own “heart horse”. He always gave 110% of himself. He was a great role model of humility, grace and an amazing work ethic. The happiness he brought to my life, and to others, has made every tear shed over his loss worth it. For that reason I never hold back the flood that brims up when I remember him. I feel incredibly honored that God saw fit to put him in my life. What a great Savior we have!


    The first time I rode him it was like I’d always been up there on his back. He was just plain grey, no flashy markings or impressive accomplishments, but there was something about him that captured my heart. I was young and inexperienced, Rashad was coming out of his prime and had been passed around all his life. We both needed someone we could trust.

    In the first few months I learned he was honest and well trained, but along the way someone had destroyed his faith in people. I didn’t know much about his past, but it was clear it would take time for him to trust again. I was a young unskilled rider, but my faith and patience did pay off eventually. He found that I was willing to lead him through fearful situations and I was willing to wait when he was confused. He also discovered that when his girl came she brought goodies and praise. I found that in return he was incredibly responsive and willing. He was brave when I was scared, he was careful when I was careless; he was smart when I tried something stupid. We discovered we could trust each other no matter what and that was when we really began to come together.

    We learned that nothing thrilled us more than our adventures together on the trail. He was as excited about each bend in the road as I was. My most treasured memories of my childhood were those solo rides in the woods. He was so gentle and careful with me; that big horse that was once so full of fear had been transformed into a carefree and confident creature.

    As his confidence grew a charisma began to shine though. Rashad sparked children’s interest in horses, even if they were initially fearful of his size and spirit. Once they were astride his back Rashad carefully adjusted himself to their level and never took advantage of their weaknesses. He enjoyed teaching people to ride and he was very good at it! Rashad treated each young rider like treasured cargo and won their trust quickly. He gently allowed them to learn the basic riding skills they would need to get a foothold in the world of horses; Rashad was definitely a horse that was meant to be shared.

    Eventually I purchased and worked with other horses, but no one ever fit me so perfectly or was trusted so completely as my dear boy. Even as he was headed into his senior years he was still filled with life and spirit. And though the other horses came and went, I promised my boy that he would be with me forever.

    When it was time to go off to college, a time when most girls let their horses be sold, I thought of Rashad and knew I couldn’t sell or leave him. I chose a school nearby. The week was devoted to my schooling, but weekends always included Rashad. When I met and married my husband he knew Rashad had a permanent place in our lives.

    When I had our first child Rashad was the only horse I trusted during my pregnancy. He was perfectly happy to meet my needs and slow the pace down as my tummy extended. And after our son arrived and the post partum depression kicked in then it was to his back that I escaped. As was his way, he never let me down. He never seemed to change, though the years were creeping up on him.

    As my son grew into a toddler, life as a mother became more demanding and Rashad was still eager for adventure. A close friend asked if she could bring him home. She had three children who were just old enough to join their mother on trail rides and she thought Rashad would be a perfect fit. Once again Rashad’s enduring love for children shown through and he eagerly shared with them the thrills of a responsive and well-trained trail horse. In return they spoiled him and embraced his needs as a senior horse. It was at that point that he was no longer my boy. He was our boy. I knew he’d stolen the hearts of his new family and what a blessing it was to know that Rashad had a loving home to live out the rest of his days. Together we knew we could make better decisions for his future and Rashad would never be lacking for young admirers.

    I visited him as often as I could and my son began to treasure, as many before him, the gentle spirit of Rashad. It touched my heart to be able to share that special horse with my son. My little cowboy took to the trails on the front of my saddle trusting inexplicably in the horse beneath us. I can’t tell you the peace I had about those rides. Not many a mother can put her young son in front of her and go for a long ride with total and utter peace. The laughter and fun we shared on those rides is something that I will never forget.

    We always knew the day would come for him to leave us, but we had refused to consider the possibility of a world without Rashad in it. Yet, slowly it crept up on us…bad days where the spirit left his eyes: and his legs, that has never known pain, were too weak to walk or stand, but in between were good days when he looked like he could take on the world. With other minor health problems and his advanced age there was not much we could do. Though it broke our hearts we knew what was coming. After one particularly bad day we decided it was time. Rashad meant too much to us to let him suffer. The spirit was gone from his eyes and we knew he needed us now, more than ever, to be strong for him.

    Never did any man or beast have such a send off as our dear Rashad. His new family presented him with a beautiful spot in the back pasture. Together we took one last walk together… That walk to the pasture was so beautiful and so sweet. His ears pricked and life came back into his steps. Together we shared one last sweet memory.

    When the time was right all the people he loved, young and old, surrounded him and we whispered our warmest memories in his ears. As he drifted away our voices in his ears and our fingers rubbing his face were the last things he knew. Our boy was gone…

    Though our hearts ached with the pain of our loss we knew his memory would live on in our hearts. Rashad is just one of those horses that you could never forget. He was one in a million.

    The End

    Thank you God for Rashad. When I prayed every night for a horse I thought you’d never answer. Rashad was worth waiting for. I know that nothing that wonderful could happen without a loving and gracious Designer.

    Rashad’s album from his last day…!/media/set/?set=a.430064780951.236388.514475951&type=3

  10. Suze Jones says:

    Beautiful Words! What a heartfelt tribute! Thank you for sharing with us

  11. Janice J Ciarla says:

    RW & Lisa: I’ve never had horses, but I can certainly understand the relationship and closeness with an animal, namely my Corgis. I’ve owned several Corgis that I have considered “heart” dogs. I will forever be grateful to my first Corgi, Rufus; he taught me everything I needed to know about being a dog trainer, team member and competitor, always giving 100%. He forgave my mistakes, never held a grudge, loved unconditionally and was my best friend for 11 years. He was my inspiration for writing my book.

  12. Such a great tribute. I don’t have horses but do understand how a loved animal can be a wonderful companion and “babysitter.” Growing up with border collies gave me that experience. I loved how you wrote this story. I hope you enjoy every day with Big Un.

  13. Bill Imboden says:

    Mine was “Pal” and there is a photo of me, age 3, riding double with his owner, my older cousin, just as I was falling off him one day in 1944. To this day I tell others how she deliberately knocked me off – and her father bribed me with a pair of silver mounted spurs to get back on (still treasure those spurs). My cousin outgrew him a few years later, and Pal, also a bay gelding, was mine. I paid an old cowhand on the neighboring ranch $5 for a beartrap of an old southwestern saddle which I still have those spurs hanging on. Pal and I, who was then somewhere past 20, learned together how to work cows in this dense coast range hardwood brush.
    I could get on or off him any way that was handy – he just stood. Early one dark, cold morning, while waiting for the rest of the deer hunters to arrive, I found him still laying in the field, so I walked over, got down and curled up against his warm belly and we napped together until the headlights showed. Pal died somewhere well past 30, while I was away at college, and is buried here on the ranch where I too will spend my last years, Lord willin’. I think of him often.

  14. Thomas Clay says:

    It is great to see Big-un doing so great! I still cannot believe that he can still be rode! He was always a great horse to ride. Thanks so much for bringing back the memories. God Bless

  15. Marilyn Gilbert Reynolds says:

    Great story and a great horse! I’m quite familiar with those kids ‘over in the next county’ that helped in making Big Un famous. My kiddos always had fun riding him too when in New Mexico for a summer-time visit and Vacation Bible School with Aunt Karen and Uncle Lynn. Happy he has been with a good family all this time.

  16. Andrea says:

    Ahh the baby sitter! I was born to ride my mom tells me. Starting at 18 months…maybe younger I started sitting on my uncles gelding Judge. Judge was barely green broke when I started sitting on him. We grew up together. He being a few years older than I. As I grew up he did too. 16+ hands but I was never intimidated by him he was a big gently gelding. I learned how to ride on Judge. Problem being he didn’t move unless lead with a kid on him. Once I got where I could reach his sides with my feet it didn’t matter how much I urged him faster he like Big Un never went faster than I was ready for. Now my uncle had problems holding him back! He was my first horse love and the start of it all. Judge left us in 2007 at 21 years young due to medical issues. I forever will remember just how good a horse he was.

  17. Annette Bates says:

    Rusty was a big red dun that taught my four younger brothers and me to ride. With anyone, young or old, who didn’t know how to ride, he was the safest and most dependable horse imaginable. He was one of those good ranch horses that you could do anything on, but he was also our teacher. He never bucked or shied with us when we were first learning to ride, but he was always raising the bar so that the better we learned to ride, the better riders we had to be.
    For those who knew how to ride, it was a different story and you’d better sit up and pay attention. He could find hungry grizzly bears in an empty corral and would even crow hop pretty energetically on occasion. We learned that when he felt comfortable doing that with us it was because he knew we were good enough to handle it. We took it as a great compliment and were so proud and excited when the day came that we could tell our mom and dad, “Rusty bucked with me today!”
    When offered $1000 for him, which was a lot of money to a working cowboy in the ’60s, my dad just laughed and said, “Mister, that wouldn’t even buy the loose hair in his tail.”

  18. april says:

    mine was stomper loved to play although he would buck you off once in awhile for his own fun but not till I got older he never ran away just stood there and waited for you to get back on was my best friend we did everything together from the time he was 5 till he died one day at 30 something in good shape

  19. Sharilyn Harvey says:

    Great story about Big Un. So sorry to hear he has passed on to greener pastures. You all have my sympathy.

    I wasn’t blessed with a babysitter myself but very blessed that we were able to get one for our daughter, which was more important. One story stands out. She was just learning to rope steers as a 8 year old. She had got one caught and with all her might trying to turn off, however, she hadn’t dallied yet. If Pancho had turned like she asked she would’ve been pulled right off the horse as she was still hanging on to the rope but Pancho stayed on track with the steer and all turned out perfect. He was the best. Took care of her many many times. It was a sad day when we had to say goodbye.

  20. Mindy Peterson says:

    What a great story. My heart breaks for your family as you had to say goodbye to your friend and family member.

  21. Allie says:

    Brought tears to my eyes. I am so very sorry for the loss of your trusted family member and friend.

    Because I teach children how to ride, I am a huge fan of the older horses. Our shetland pony made 42 yrs before the light went out of his eyes. My welsh pony is now 34 and still gallops to the gate each morning and evening for food with a whinny. We will soon be doing hand led rides at the pumpkin patch for about the 15th yr in a row, and because of that and other fair and church events, pony camps, lessons,4H etc Our little Beau has literally given 20 – 30 THOUSAND kids their first ride. He’s never yet left a kid in the dirt. In his younger yrs he was my daughters second pony, after she outgrew the shetland. I can’t count how many times they cantered around and around and around the outside of the round pen while she got her seat and balance. He kept up with the big horses on the trails. He is trained thru second level dressage, did jumping, poles, barrels. pulled a cart. At 34 he is moving slower, but he is sound, healthy, grey of face and still shiny of coat. Every morning that he greets me with his whinny my heart is grateful for the gift of his life. I tear up just thinking about the inevitable which will eventually come. I know and understand your story to my very core. The gift these horses give us is nothing short of amazing, and I am so grateful to God who made them for us.

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