by Laura Crum
It was right about this time, five years ago, that we lost Pistol. So today I’d like to tell his story here, in memory of a great horse.
Pistol was a horse I fell in love with at first sight. I guess all you fellow horseman know that feeling. You see the horse and think immediately, wow, I want to own that horse. I still remember the first time I saw Pistol, heeling a steer at a little roping arena near Salinas, and how he took my breath away. I turned to my friend Wally, who was looking for a heel horse. “You need to buy that horse,” I said.
Wally boards his horses with me, and though I could not afford another horse myself at that time, I knew that if Wally bought Pistol, Pistol would live with me. And I instantly wanted this in the worst way.
Pistol was a flashy horse, a bright sorrel/roan/paint with a flaxen mane and tail, over the knee white socks and a bald face. Well-made and solid looking, he definitely took your eye. But his looks were not the reason I fell in love. It was the way he moved. And the way he tried.
The intensity with which Pistol came around the corner, covered the steer, and slid to a stop was like nothing I’d ever seen in a heel horse before. Pistol was a cut above any rope horse in that arena—he shone very brightly in the crowd of jackpot ropers and their mounts. Pistol looked like he belonged in the big time.
Well, come to find out, he did. John, the roper who owned Pistol (he had just bought him from our local horse trader), was a friendly guy, and he told us the horse’s story. Or what he knew of it.
It seemed Pistol was raised on a ranch in (I kid you not) Death, Nevada, and the rancher who raised him was pretty proud of him. He didn’t intend to sell the horse, but two rodeo cowboys came through on a horse buying expedition and took a liking to Pistol. They offered a high price for the then four-year-old gelding, and also offered to buy four other colts—but only if the rancher would sell Pistol.
So Pistol went to live the rodeo life, and by all accounts he was a success. He was hauled by some rodeo greats and competed in some famous competitions. But by the time he was seven, he’d landed at the horse traders, why we never knew. It probably had something to do with being broke, which is a common condition with rodeo cowboys.
At any rate, the horse trader had made a deal to sell the horse to a wealthy team roper for a LOT of money, when the man decided to chase one last steer on the horse and test the gelding’s ability to run. He picked a hard runner and made the horse late and Pistol ran for all he was worth—and pulled up dead lame at the end.
The deal was off, and the horse trader, who wasn’t prone to spending money to fix trading horses, hauled Pistol to the veterinary hospital, figuring this horse was worth the repair bill. Apparently Pistol had a bone chip in his knee. Surgery was done to remove it, and… they operated on the wrong knee. Then, of course, they had to operate on the correct one. So now Pistol had two recovering knees.
The horse trader healed Pistol up and turned him out for the recommended six months, then legged him back up again. And promptly sold him to our friend John, with the very clear caveat: “If this horse comes up lame, its your problem. I told you the truth about him. He’s yours.”
Pistol appeared to be completely sound, but in the weeks to come we often noticed John flexing the horse’s knees and looking worried. Other ropers commented that John had been foolish to buy a horse who would almost surely break down. Me, I wasn’t discouraged. Pistol had the prettiest way of working that I’d ever seen. I kept telling Wally he needed to buy that horse.
To make a long story short, Wally kept offering to buy Pistol and eventually John agreed to sell him. I think John was influenced by worry that Pistol’s knees would bother him. Wally bought Pistol for the same very reasonable price that John had paid the horse trader, and he brought this great horse home to my place.
To say I was thrilled would be putting it mildly. All our friends told us we were nuts. But both Wally and I believed that Pistol, then eight years old, would be OK. And almost from the beginning, Wally and Pistol were a great match.
I couldn’t wait to ride and rope on Pistol, but I soon found out it wasn’t as easy as it looked. Because, to be quite frank, Pistol and I were not a great match. Oh, I could ride the horse, all right. Pistol was pretty broke and I had no trouble with him. But I could not rope on him.
The reason is something I never thought of until I was faced with it, but perhaps some of you will understand. Pistol was a pro—he had always been ridden by very effective ropers. He ran to the right spot and expected that his rider would throw the rope. As a beginning roper, I often hesitated, wanting to take an extra swing, and this didn’t work for Pistol. He simply moved on and ignored all signals to go back to the “rating” position. You could almost read his disdain. I gave you the shot, pal, was implicit in his body language. Pistol did not tolerate fools gladly.
This frustrated me, as determined as I was to rope on this great horse. But I soon found out I was not alone. Wally lent Pistol to others who were much more accomplished ropers than I was and they couldn’t rope on him either. One and all they said the same thing. Pistol did not listen to the rider in the course of a roping run, He simply did the job he knew to be right…and expected the roper to do his part.
This didn’t work for most jackpot team ropers (me included), who wanted to tell the horse what to do. But it worked for Wally, who simply wholeheartedly embraced the notion that Pistol would be where he needed to be. From the very beginning, Wally was able to win on Pistol.
I gradually acknowledged that I couldn’t rope on Pistol, and stuck to my horse, Gunner, even though Gunner was developing arthritic issues. Eventually Wally bought a rope horse named Flanigan, that I bought a half interest in. But I still loved and admired Pistol, and when we decided to take a pack trip in the mountains, I asked to ride him.
I knew Pistol had been raised on a ranch and ridden in the mountains a lot, and I figured that this was where I would really be able to enjoy him. Wrong again.
Because Pistol, true to form, had a very clear notion how to scramble up and down rocky passes and did not feel he needed direction from me. Thus when I tried to correct his choice of drop offs that I thought were too steep and aim him at the easier part of the trail, Pistol threw his head in the air and stumbled, bringing my heart into my throat.
“What’s wrong with him?” I asked Wally. “I thought he knew how to go in the mountains.”
“He does,” Wally said. “You’re getting in his way. Just leave him alone and let him pick the route.”
“But he wants to go the wrong way,” I said plaintively. “I just want to steer him where its easier.”
OK. Fast forward to the ride out. I absolutely refused to ride Pistol, and instead rode Flanigan, who had been raised in the Midwest. This was Flanigan’s first time in the mountains and he was obviously very unsure about the creek crossings and the rock. But I figured I could cope with this better than Pistol and my ongoing feud about which route to take.
Wally rode Pistol the whole way out on a completely loose rein. If Wally had had a book, he might have read it. That was how little he worried over, or even paid attention to, Pistol’s choice of route. Pistol never put a foot wrong. He did not throw his head. He was perfect.
Me, I rode Flanigan, directing him all the way through the rough spots. “No, don’t step on that rock, it looks wobbly, step on this one.” Flanigan allowed this, he even seemed to like it, changing his footfall in mid-stride at my direction. He crossed the creeks for me with little fuss despite his inexperience. I loved him. Wally and I had each found the horses we would ride on many, many pack trips through the mountains. Flanigan and Pistol carried both of us to some of the loveliest spots on earth, and though we crossed many, many steep and rocky passes to get there and traversed many a tricky trail, neither horse ever got so much as a scratch.
One of the strangest stories about Pistol occurred at the very last big roping we ever took him to. Pistol was suffering from ringbone and we knew his competitive days were almost over. We took him to the finals in Reno, guessing it would be his last major event. To our surprise, as we walked out to feed the horses early in the morning the last day we were there, we saw a man sitting with his back to Pistol’s stall door. At 6:00 AM. He got up when we approached and looked at us. “This is Pistol, isn’t it?”
Wally and I stared at this middle aged, well dressed cowboy and agreed that it was Pistol. The man introduced himself. He was the same rancher who had sold Pistol to those rodeo cowboys ten years ago. “And now, “ he said, “I’d like to buy him back. I always liked him.”
Wally and I looked at each other. Pistol was effectively crippled and running on bute. We planned to retire him soon after this roping. And here was a chance to get rid of him, get Wally’s money back, and hopefully sell him to a good home. But almost instantly we both shook our heads.
“You don’t want this horse,” Wally said. “He’s crippled.”
“We’re going to retire him,” I added.
The man said, “I have a nice pasture where I could put him.”
Again, we looked at each other. It was almost too good to be true. This guy wanted him to retire him?
But again, after a moment, Wally shook his head. “I owe this horse,” he said. “I want to keep him.”
“We’ll take good care of him,” I told the man.
The rancher looked at Pistol and patted his neck, nodded, shook Wally’s hand and walked off without a backward look.
Now it may sound strange, but the fact that I really couldn’t ride Pistol didn’t make me love him any less. I took care of this great horse for many, many years and considered it a gift. Wally roped on Pistol and rode him in the mountains until Pistol was fifteen years old, when we retired him. It wasn’t his knees that got him, either. But eventually he had ringbone in a front foot and navicular in a hind. The combination was too much and Pistol became a pasture pet.
We worked hard at keeping him comfortable in the pasture…at one point we nerved him. At other points we gave him bute every day. He had good periods that lasted years where he needed no pain med at all and ran and bucked and played and looked completely sound. We were able to give him ten happy years in the pasture.
Eventually Pistol grew so lame in one front foot that he began to have chronic abscesses in the other front foot. He was twenty-five years old. We had to give him painkillers morning and evening to keep him comfortable, and there was no hope he’d improve. The time had come.
Wally scheduled the date with the vet. The evening before it was to happen, I went out to give Pistol Banamine and some equine senior. After the meds were given and Pistol fell to eating eagerly, I stared at him sadly. Other than being lame, which was masked by all the drugs we were giving him, Pistol still looked great. It was hard for me to come to terms with the fact that he needed to be put down.
And then Pistol looked up from his feed and looked me in the eye. After a minute he left the feed bucket and walked purposefully to the middle of the field. He looked back at me and then lay down…flat on his side. He remained like that for maybe two minutes, not moving. Then he got up, looked at me again, walked back to his feed and resumed eating. He didn’t appear to be colicked, though I realize that is the likeliest explanation for his behavior.
However, I took it as a sign. Pistol was telling me that he was ready, and indeed, the next day he lay down calmly and quietly, showing no resistance to the drug, and died peacefully. That was five years ago. I still miss him.
Thank you, Pistol, for everything. You were a great horse and I am so grateful I had the privilege of knowing you.
The photo below shows my friend Sue Crocker heeling a steer on Pistol—I am heading on Flanigan. Like most of us, Sue found Pistol a bit intimidating to rope on, but she heeled two feet on this run and we placed in the roping.