by Heather Smith Thomas of Salmon, ID
When my husband, Lynn Thomas, was growing up on a ranch north of Salmon, Idaho, his father, Charlie Thomas, had several teams of horses. He used horses for haying in summer (pulling the mower, buck rake, dump rake, etc. for cutting and stacking the hay) and pulling the feed wagon or sleigh to feed the cows in winter. One of the most fondly remembered horses was “Old Dot.” She came to the ranch as a young mare and worked there until she was about 30 years old. Dot was probably the most versatile horse the Thomas family ever had. They used her for riding, packing, haying, pulling any kind of wagon or equipment, and for “snaking” logs and poles out of the woods when they were cutting firewood or corral posts and poles.
Dot was a bay mare, average height (a little over 15 hands), and stoutly built. She probably weighed about 1350 pounds. Her thick mane was split in the middle, on both sides of her neck.
Lynn’s older brother, Will Thomas, remembers when Dot arrived at the ranch. “She was just green broke. A man named Harry Bennett brought her and a brown gelding, in the fall of 1946. He wanted Dad to winter them, and left a saddle and bridle with the horses. That was the last we ever saw of Harry Bennett,” says Will.
The brown gelding died, but Dot spent the winter on the ranch. Come spring, when her owner didn’t show up to get her, Charlie trained her to work in harness. After he’d had her a few years, he advertised to try to find her owner. “By law, that was the only way you could legally become the horse’s owner; you could keep the horse if no one came forth to claim it. He advertised the necessary amount of times, and when Mr. Bennett never came forth, Dad owned Dot,” explains Will. “He let my older sister Edna and me ride her. She had a heart of gold but was the hardest horse to catch that I’ve ever seen in my life. If she didn’t want to be caught, it was an impossibility,” recalls Will.
“A lot of times, we’d want to go riding, and we’d start out trying to catch her in the morning, and by lunchtime we hadn’t caught her yet and we’d just give up! She was the smartest horse I’ve ever known. She knew that us kids couldn’t put the bridle on if she didn’t want us to. She’d raise her head up higher than we could reach. So we’d take her into the barn and tie her head down low, to the manger. Once you had her head tied down she let us bridle her.”
“Then we’d unbuckle all the halter straps so we could get the halter off, out from under the bridle, because Dad didn’t like it if we rode with the halter left on,” says Will.
But the next challenge was trying to get on the mare, because he and his sister always rode bareback. Charlie wouldn’t let his children ride with a saddle; he thought it was safer for them to ride without one. “If you wanted to get Dad irate, all you had to do was mention wanting to ride with a saddle! Years earlier, he had a neighbor in Wyoming (before he moved to Idaho) that got hung up in a saddle and dragged to death. He wasn’t about to let us ride with a saddle. He figured it would be safer for us to just fall off.”
To get on Dot bareback, the kids had to get her up close to a fence or gate so they could climb up the fence and get on her from there. “She’d stand close to the fence, but about the time you started to jump on her, she’d move, and you’d end up on the ground!” Will recalls.
Dot hated to be away from home. If she got loose, or you turned her loose, she’d go home. Every Fall Charlie took her up in the mountains behind the ranch, to use her for dragging logs or poles out of the forest. “She didn’t like to stay up there in the woods by herself so he kept her in a little pole corral, made from poles nailed to trees, for a couple weeks until we were done getting out posts and poles (for building corrals and fences) or winter firewood,” recalls Will. They hauled hay up there for her, and took water every day in 10-gallon milk cans.
“We kept her tied in the little corral, tied to a manger. If you didn’t tie her up, she’d get out of the corral and come home. We probably just had the corral to keep the range cows from eating her hay and drinking her water.” “Dad used to get out about 1000 poles each fall. I’d ride old Dot up there, because we didn’t have a way to haul her then. Dad drove the truck. He’d go up a little ahead, to cut down some trees and have them ready to snake out to the truck. It probably took half a day to ride her up there; it was 17 miles, and all uphill,” says Will.
“We hauled the wood home with the pickup. Dad put a bolster — a little 2-wheeled trailer we hauled back and forth — behind the pickup, and the tips of the poles would be on that trailer. We brought everything out tree length, and sawed it up at home,” recalls Will.
Dot was the only horse they took to the woods, because she was the best at snaking poles and logs, pulling tree-length poles to the road. She worked well by herself, though she was never happy about it. When Charlie got her hooked to the pole or log, he’d just throw the halter rope over her hame and she’d go right to the loading dock and stop at exactly the right place. “You didn’t have to lead her; you just had to get the heck out of her way! She’d run into trees or anything else in her path — she just wanted to get her job done and get out of there,” says Lynn.
“On the last day, when we had the last of the poles loaded up and ready to go, we’d take her harness off, throw her harness up on the load, and turn her loose. She’d take off at a run and take a shortcut down the mountain. She’d be standing at the gate to the ranch by the time we got home with our load,” recalls Will. She could come down out of the hills a lot faster than the loaded truck. It had to come down all the switchbacks and old Dot made a straight run down the canyon.
“She was smart, and knew how to get out of work when we were haying. When we worked her on the rake, she’d let the other horse do most of the pulling. She’d let the double-tree slip back to where it would catch on something, because she knew that if it caught on anything, the other horse would pull it all. You’d have to keep pecking at her all the time, to make her pull her share,” recalls Will.
“Dad bought an old horse named Black Dick, and he was a good old horse, but I think he’d run away with every piece of equipment he’d ever pulled. You always wanted to have a good hold on him at all times.” Will started driving teams at an early age, driving the dump rake, or bringing hay to the stack with the buck rake. One day when he was about 10 years old, he had a runaway with a new dump rake. “When we were raking, Dad always buckled the lines together — to give you a hand hold, and so the lines wouldn’t be dragging along behind to get tangled up in the teeth. But when that old black horse gave a hard jerk, I lost that line,” says Will. “He felt it go and knew he was free, and he was off! Old Dot didn’t want to run, but she also didn’t want to get run over by the rake. With her line in my hand, I kept them in a circle awhile, pulling on her, but finally they were going strong. Dad was coming to the field to buck hay with another team, and came to rescue me — but couldn’t get there in time. Dad always told us kids that if anything ever happened, we should try to get off the rake, and out of its way — just fall off backward so we wouldn’t get hit by it. But this was a brand new rake. I wasn’t about to fall off backward and let those horses ruin it!”
“I thought at first I could walk up the tongue and get on that black horse to stop him, but I soon realized that wasn’t going to work. So I ended up with my feet wrapped around where the seat went up, sitting on the tines, and they were dumping about every 15 seconds. It would dump and throw me up into the seat, but I stayed with those horses until they ran through the willows at the edge of the field — the only patch of trees on the whole ranch!” says Will.
“When the rake hit those trees, that factory-made tongue broke and snapped right out of it. The double trees splintered and broke off, and away the horses went — with the tongue. I was left sitting there with the rake, and they ran off into some dry ground and sagebrush and just stopped.”
The neighbor lady had seen it happen, and thought the boy would be killed. She jumped in her old car and roared down the road to come see if he was hurt. “The only thing hurt about me was my feelings, and the fact I’d busted up Dad’s new rake!” he says.
“Dad dragged the rake out of the trees and made a new tongue for it, and by the next day we were back in business. We hitched up the black horse again. Dad put a different bit on him, for a little more control. We worked him with Dot for several years and they made a good team.”
In later years something happened to old Black Dick, and Charlie paired Dot with a sorrel work mare named Bonnie. They worked together on the ranch until Dot was nearly 30 years old, and they both raised several foals that became good work teams.
Lynn remembers Charlie selling the old team to a sheepherder in Wyoming who wouldn’t be working them very hard. The old mares had several more good years in their semi-retirement, just pulling the sheep camp to follow the flock.
Old Dot was good at doing whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. “You could hobble her, in hopes she might not go so far or so fast, but she could outrun an ordinary horse, even with her hobbles on,” says Will. “Even if Dad sent the dog after her, to bring her to the barn, she’d stay just far enough ahead of the dog that he couldn’t reach her feet to bite her, and she’d kick him if he got too close. She was really smart, and very agile,” recalls Will. “She’d run right up to the gate, then spin around and run back to the far end. I bet I chased her more miles on foot than I ever rode her.”
But after she was caught, she was always good to work or ride. Will loved to ride her during the years he was growing up. “My friend Eron and I used to ride together. He lived in town, and he either rode to the ranch or I’d ride Dot to town.”
“A couple times a month or more, I’d ride her up to Eron’s place. He’d catch his horse and we’d ride all over the place — and then I’d have to ride clear home again. I put a lot more miles on Dot, but she could travel a long way and never get tired. She had really tough feet but Dad kept her shod during the summer when I rode her a lot. She didn’t have big feet, however. I think she wore a size 2 shoe, which was about right for her size and weight,” says Will.
Later, he and his friend Eron Coiner worked for a rancher in the Big Hole (near Dillon, Montana) one summer, and took Dot and Bonnie to snake out poles and build fence. “John had good fences and we’d let her graze a bit during the day, but we always put her in a corral at night. If you left her out in a pasture overnight, she’d find a way to get out and start for home,” says Will.
Charlie raised foals from Dot, breeding her to a draft horse stallion to raise more work teams. Dot was a good mother, and raised several good foals, but one of them had an interesting adventure early in life. “Dad had loaned Dot to my uncle Bob, who had a little ranch 20 miles down the river from our place, about halfway between North Fork and Gibbonsville. Dot was heavy with foal at that time, and she stayed on my uncle’s place ok without trying to come home.”
“One morning my uncle looked out the window and Dot had a new foal. About mid-morning he looked out again and she and the foal were gone. She and the baby had got out of the pasture. He caught up with them at North Fork, where there used to be a building with a lawn. She was grazing on that green grass. This was in June, and the river was really high. Uncle Bob got several people to help him and they cornered the mare and foal, right next to the river, so she couldn’t run off.”
So she took the foal into the river. “She got that foal on the upriver side of her, and reached over and grabbed him by the withers and kept him upright in all that swirling water, and the last we saw of her, she and the foal were coming out the other side. No one could get to her, over there, and it took her about 3 weeks to come home, grazing along the way,” recalls Will.
“The feed was good, and she knew nobody could catch up with her over there. She just grazed her way home, with that baby. You could ford the river in high water, if you were riding Dot, because she was a good swimmer and could always get you to the other side,” says Will.