My Forty Years Scribblin's
Personal Memories
Horse Tales

This piece was written in 1994 and published in the July-August 1994 issue of The Montana Journal. Mildred recalls her relationships with several memorable horses.


Horses were all important to Montana's settlers and are still a necessity to the rancher or outfitter. Old Dan was my first love, a retired racehorse transplanted to Montana from Illinois in the 1920s. Old Dan thought that retirement meant just that. It took two men with saddle horses to run him into the corral and get a saddle on him, but then any child could handle him. I began sharing a handful of little green pears from a sack in our cellar with him, and soon I could go out to the pasture, call to him, and ride him back without so much as a shoe string around his neck. But I lost him. The men didn't have time to feed him little green pears, so they "sold him down the river."

Darky was one that I remember for different reasons. I thought he was beautiful, but no one mentioned that he looked as if both ears came out of the same hole in his big head or that he was slab sided and had four workhorse-sized feet. He refused to leave the place until he had tried to scrape me off against the buildings or the gate post. He ran away with me at least once a week and finally went over backwards and mashed down a panel of the neighbors' board fence. So I lost him too. My grandad said, "I'm sellin' that horse before you get yourself killed on him!"

Peanuts was a nosey five-dollar barnyard colt, raised on a bucket and cows milk. He had to investigate every thing that went on. In his young life, he thought bucking was a way to solve all his problems, but gentle as an old workhorse, curiosity made him turn around in the harness to see what was behind him. This caused combustion and several runaways which were hard on the haying machinery.

Tony was a disaster that never should have happened. Tony probably didn't know he had a name; he was usually called something else. His habit of suddenly planting all four feet nearly yanked my arm out of the socket and caused me the ignominy of getting off in the middle of a mud hole to retrieve the halter rope. When the going got rough he liked to throw himself in the snow and lie grunting and groaning and rolling his eyes as though his end had come. He would do anything except get on his feet so we could get the pack string moving. He'd been loaned to us on a semipermanent basis, so we couldn't sell or even shoot him. We dragged him around the mountains in "The Bob" for several years and finally sent him back to a reluctant owner.

A big brown gelding that I like to remember was borrowed by a neighbor, Clarence Ripley, at Arlee, to go with us on a hunting trip. A Mr. McDonald delivered him from St. Ignatius and tied him in our barn.

"You's better not go near him Ma'am." he warned. "He's a bad one." Doubts assailed me. Why would he introduce such an animal into our pack string? When the man turned to leave, he looked at me in all seriousness. "That horse's name is Sleepy," he said. Funny name for a bad horse, I thought.

I soon perceived that Sleepy had been in camp before. Instead of going to graze with the other horses, he haunted the cook tent area bumming handouts. He would eat anything that was offered. The first time the tent went into convulsions, I ran out to find that Sleepy was jerking my laundry off the tent ropes. We would take the item away from him and whack him over the rump with it. He would trot away a few steps pretending to be scared, but by the time we'd get back to the tent. Sleepy would be there too, his head right over our shoulders. In the soft earth, he made no noise so we I decided to put a bell on him. This worked fine for a day, but Sleepy liked to prowl the camp at night keeping the hunters awake, so I had to put up with this "bad" horse.

When he went home to St. Ignatius. I was left with mixed feelings of relief and a sense of loss. He was a lovable mischief maker, and I am glad to have known him.

Rattler was a near-perfect "string horse," a linedbacked buckskin, and he would prance and fidget until he was put in the honored place at the head of the pack string. Rattler had but one fault. He hated kids.

Tuffy was, first of all, my private saddle mare, but I did allow her to be used for packing judiciously if I was busy in the cook tent. As the name implies, it took a lot to make her sweat. She was some what of a loner. She wouldn't eat her grain down at the hitch rack with the other horses but would come to the cook tent and stand looking at me until I poured her oats out where she could dine alone. If I tried to show her some affection, she would turn her head away and act bored. We whiled away a lot of hours in "The Bob," and she would sometimes stop and gaze intently into the distance, never showing fear. At my urging, she would continue on. But if she stopped a second time, I knew there were maybe some elk, goats, or even (shivers) a grizzly over there, and it was time for us to be gone.

I also did considerable hiking in "The Bob," but there was one trail where I did not venture far. At a certain point above our hunting camp I always got a creepy feeling, a sense of the unknown that always turned me back. On this day, I had a surge of bravery and taking my horse, headed up the Otter Creek trail. Tuffy would protect me. She always had. On reaching the place where the eerie feeling always took over, Tuffy stopped! She didn't try to turn around, she stepped to the right, she stepped to the left, she shook her head, and I saw that she was getting irritated with me. I urged her on, but she refused to go any further. Not wishing to get unloaded at this point in time, I let her stand a moment, both of us meditating. She seemed to be waiting for me to make up my mind—hers was already made up.

"Well, old girl, maybe you know something that I don't know." So I turned her around and we went home. It was the only time she ever refused me, and I still believe she was protecting me. Yes, Tuffy was a prize, but she did have one fault. If I dropped the reins and stepped away she would leave me to walk home. I found this out the hard way.

Ethel (Chaffin) Hoehn and little Dick in 1940.Last but not least among these special memories was a little bay named Dick. A reject from the Arlee fish hatchery, his mother was butchered for fish food, but he was too small, so he was given to my mother-in-law, Mrs. Sam Chaffin, who half led, half dragged him home. The pitiful colt was fed cow's milk, but winter came on, and his new owner had to allow him to be brought into her immaculate kitchen to be rubbed down and thawed out. Even so he barely survived. But by the time he was grown, he was the best horse of the bunch.

The trouble was, Dick thought he was a person. He would walk into the house, and if he wasn't stopped, eat anything he could get into—biscuits, pancakes, the dog's food, or drink up a pail of milk if he found one unguarded. My father-in-law, Sam Chaffin, set up a wood cutting camp on Saddle Lookout mountain near Arlee, taking a team to skid wood, a tepee for shelter, which he'd bought from an Indian woman, and little Dick to ride if he needed to come home for supplies. Coming to the tepee at noon one day what Sam saw was the latter end of the little bay horse framed in the tepee opening. Sam was apt to act first and think about it later. He picked up a chunk of wood nearby and laid it with emphasis on the horse's rump. That horse was surprised! He went out through the opposite side of the tepee, scattering poles, canvas, and Sam's batching outfit through the timber. My mother-in-law sewed up the rip that was big enough to exit a horse, and we used the tepee to store camp paraphernalia at our camp in "The Bob." This tepee caught fire and burned while drying wet saddle blankets one rainy season.

The settlers took their horses for better or for worse. And while some will bite on one end and kick with the other, most will serve you well for nothing more than a manger full of hay.