You've no doubt heard of love at first sight? Well, that wasn't the case with BJ and me. BJ, short for Black Jack, was 'assigned' to me when I first went to work as a wrangler at Aspen Canyon Ranch nine years ago. A few years later I met a cowboy named JD who knew BJ a few years before I did and said her name had been Beauty. He said, "... she was the best damned pack horse I ever seen." I had to agree, because I had used her to pack, but mostly she had been my trail-riding horse, wrangling horse, and my faithful, if often aloof, companion for the last nine years.
The love didn't happen all at once. That first summer together in Colorado she sent me to the emergency room twice. The first time was when we encountered a porcupine on the trail. We both saw it, but the porcupine wasn't moving. I knew it was a porcupine, but BJ must have thought it was a rock. When we were about ten feet away it moved. BJ had never seen a rock move. She reared up, spun around, threw me at the porcupine, and ran back the way we had come. A few weeks later something spooked her while I was grooming her and she stomped on my foot, smashing it like a rotten tomato. Somewhere in between those episodes she bit me in the middle of the back as I was tightening her cinch.
In spite of those not so infrequent bad days that first summer she tolerated me. She preferred other horses to me, but she was nasty to them if they got too close to her. Her attitude was not surprising considering that she came from a ranch with 1500 horses. She had been at that ranch for five years, and the owners said they had bought her at an auction in Cheyenne.
BJ was all black except for two white vertical lines on either side of her neck where a rope had probably burned her when some cowboy rope-broke her. She had two brands on her left side. One was from the W H Bar ranch, wherever that is, and the other from Sombrero Ranch in Colorado. Sombrero had number branded her "079" on her rump along with the outline of a sombrero. The numbers were not complete and, if you looked at them from above, they appeared to spell out "GLU." I occasionally reminded her of that fact.
I bought her from Sombrero Ranch two summers after I first started riding her. By that time we had an understanding. I understood that she would, from time-to-time, send me to the hospital, but that it wouldn't be planned or intentional on her part. She understood that I would forgive her, take care of her, and spend a fortune in doing it. The things I purchased because of her could have put several kids through college. These included three pickup trucks, two horse trailers, and a house in Colorado in addition to the house I already owned in Pennsylvania.
My HMO also spent a lot because of BJ. In 1994 she fell while we were running and I ended up in knee surgery. In 1996 she spooked at some tree roots while we were running and sent me head first into a juniper bush. I was knocked unconscious, suffered a concussion, had six stitches in my head, three broken ribs, a bruised shoulder socket and an injured upper and lower spine. I also forgot my age and what year it was, which wasn't entirely unappreciated.
After the accident in 1994 I began riding her bareback mostly because my knee couldn't be in a stirrup. I also weaned her from using a bit. Finally I stopped riding her with any tack whatsoever except for a loop made out of six feet of lariat that I put around her neck. People use to marvel at how I could ride her like that, but she really gets the credit. She trained me to stop putting all that crap on her.
We traveled back and forth between Colorado and Pennsylvania every year, logging over 34,000 miles, and she was an integral and important part of my daily life for the better part of ten years. Riding in the mountains of Colorado, or in the forests of Pennsylvania, she would go anywhere I asked. We did lots of trail blazing and exploring, and no hill was too steep for her to climb or river too deep to swim. During Thanksgiving in 1997 she developed heaves equivalent to asthma in people. She had become allergic to something in her environment in Pennsylvania that didn't exist in Colorado. In 1998 it got worse and I had to hospitalize her. She was in intensive care for nine days with IV's and supplemental oxygen. She had a private room with TV camera and a nurses' station across the hall. Medications got her through the remainder of that winter, but it got worse the following year and she almost didn't make it until spring.
I had her allergy tested and began a series of desensitizing shots while she was in Colorado to try and build up her immunity to the allergen. In the fall of 2000, when I brought her back East, her heaves began almost immediately. Thanks to seven different daily medications I was able to bring her out of it after 10 days, but I knew it was only temporary. I had to get her out of Pennsylvania and back to Colorado, so I made the arrangements with a shipper to return her to Colorado where a family I know would take good care of her, and I could see her in the summers.
Our last weekend together was ideal. Her heaves were gone and there were three days of beautiful fall weather. We rode to all of our favorite places in the state park, and she ran in the places where she always liked to run. I let her graze whenever she felt like it and go where she wanted to go. The fall feed corn was just maturing and she especially liked to eat the ears off the stalks as we walked along the rows. I spent extra time grooming her while she grazed around the barn, and we just hung out each day until it got dark. I don't think she realized that it was our last three days together.
The shipper picked her up on Tuesday at 11 AM. I walked her out to the trailer and she climbed on without hesitation, sticking her head out the open window, as she liked to do. I gave her a few of her favorite treats while the driver closed up the trailer and then closed her window. She was looking at me as they drove away, and I can only speculate as to what I saw in that one big brown eye that watched me until they were out of sight. Perhaps she was wondering why I was crying.
POSTSCRIPT: BJ spent that fall and winter in Colorado and did well until early spring when she developed heaves again and lost about 200 lbs. When I arrived in Colorado on the first of June she was very sick and very weak. With much care she regained her health and we spent a wonderful last summer together at my place in the mountains. We said our last good-byes on August 13th. She died on September 8th.