Every night, before midnight, I walk out to the barn. The sunlight warms my shoulders and challenges the shade offered by the bill of my feedstore cap as I adjust my gait to where I step up naturally onto the concrete floor of the alleyway and walk one, two, three, four, five, six steps to the first stall door on the left. I reach for the halter hanging over a hook beside the door, then reach again for the chain which, when I pull downward, allows the stall door to slide to the right.
Stepping onto the rubber-matted floor, I walk to the door in the opposite wall and whistle. It's an age-old "Lassie" whistle which all of our horses over the last 3 and a half decades have learned to come to. A high note, then a note a couple steps lower on the scale, nice and clear and just right, the wind carries it to the "medicine hat" Paint who grazes out of sight in his pasture.
Shadow comes on the run and I watch, expectantly. He tops the little bank above the barn, ears perked up and looks to see it is me calling him, then he heads down the steep incline, the first step pausing almost in mid air before the weight of his body responds to gravity and he races quickly down the hill, through the gate in the back-end of the corral and across the pen to where I stand waiting for him in the stall, arm slightly extended with a horse-cookie.
As he munches on the treat, I hold the halter "just so," to where his nose enters the halter, my right hand flips the loose end behind his poll and my left hand brings up the buckle and I can instinctively, perfectly feel the tab of the loose end go through the top part of the brass buckle and the tongue slip into the familiar hole. I never put the remainder of the loose end through the rest of the buckle: that is a tiny bit harder and not necessary since I know I will soon be taking off the halter when I put on the bridle. I just tuck the loose end into the larger ring on the side of Shadow's cheek and, turning around, slide the stall door back open, and lead my boy into the alleyway and toward the front of the barn, to the grooming and saddling area, his hooves clop-clopping on the concrete floor.
He stands on the rubber mats while I tie his lead rope in the standard rancher's slip knot. My fingers do this without any thought from me, borne of 40 years of tying such knots every day.
I next turn to the tack box along the barn wall behind my horse and bring out a curry comb or brush, depending on how dirty Shadow is today. With the brush, I sweep short strokes down between his eyes, which he loves and nods his head up and down as if to help me do the job.
Then, I start up behind his left ear and start sweeping, sweeping to the right and as the hair lies. I see perfectly every spot of color in his mostly white coat. I see his withers shiver with the touch of my brush...I see the reddish-brown patch across broad back...I see the same colored ruddy shield of color on his chest. I inch down each leg, under the belly, over his hips and hind legs, then walk over to his off (right) side and repeat the process. I notice, as ever, the hidden patch of color under his white mane, the one that causes a few black hairs to thread their way through the tangled mass of white hairs.
When done, I return to the tack box and get my hoof pick and, picking up each of his feet consecutively, I clean them free of manure and rocks. I know his frogs like the back of my own hands.
Next, I bring out his saddle pad. Today, we'll go western, though some nights, we saddle up with English tack. I place the pad "just so" on his back. After twelve years of riding this animal, I know where the pad goes and I know that one inch forward or back of that sweet spot is simply unacceptable.
Next I bring out my trusty "Salisbury" saddle and, with a balanced swing, I bring the 35 lb. saddle poised over his back and allow it to settle gently. I walk to the off side and bring down the cinches and loop the breastcollar up over the horn, all straps are straight and ready to go.
Back to the near side, I reach under for the front cinch and can feel, perfectly in every way, the latigo as I go down through the cinch ring, back up through the cinch ring on the saddle, back down through the cinch ring again, snugging it all up gently and finding the right hole for the tongue in the cinch. Next comes the back cinch and then, the right hand reaches up to the horn, lets down the breast collar and pokes it under Shadow's neck to my waiting left hand, then run the strap up through the ring in the saddle and back to the buckle. Lastly, I reach between his front legs and buckle the breastcollar to the ring in the middle of the cinch.
Back to the tack room, I put on my chinks, the ones Pete made for me 30 years ago out of a piece of elkhide. Leaning forward first to one side and then the other, feet spread apart, I clip the 3 snaps down the outside of each leg. I put on my spurs, the right one lost a rowel a long time ago but I don't care. Shadow just needs to know I have them on and when I do, I don't need them. Horsemen know how that is.
I reach for his bridle, the one with the leather romal (reins) and the Sleister bit. It has fancy red and black braiding on the headband and cheekpieces and a little tassel of horsehair on the throatlatch. I shut the tack room door and then head back to Shadow who waits patiently at the hitching rail.
I take off his halter, always untying the rancher's knot at the rail so there is no chance of him stepping in the halter and getting hung up. Then my right hand takes the weight of the heavy bridle and rests between his ears...my left hand balances both the bit while at the same time, the fingers work to open Shadow's mouth. It's easy to do...I've done it far too many times to count.
With the bit in place, I buckle the throatlatch and lead Shadow out from the overhang at the front of the barn onto the dirt in front. I tighten the cinch and let down the left stirrup, put the reins over his neck, put my left foot into the stirrup, my left hand on his mane and my right on the horn, and swing effortlessly up, gently settling into the comfortable, familiar seat of my saddle. Shadow waits because I've trained him to wait and not walk off immediately. Then, I squeeze lightly with my calves and he steps out, neck and head level to his withers, ready to face the trail ahead.
If I'm lucky and I haven't fallen asleep yet, I can actually feel my hips moving with his motion. I can see his dark brown ears with the black tips on each one. It's all as real as if I am actually there.