The Rex Barton Story Chapter 4

Chapter 4
Chapter 4 
Lessons Learned

One Long Day
 
It was one of my most difficult days - ever. Confusing too because I still cannot believe that I was so lacking in love and care for something under my charge. I was stuck on selfishness, instead of putting important things first in my life, I treated them second in reality. Even after what could have been a deadly encounter, how could I endanger anything held in my circle of responsibility? 

I had learned when I was younger not to put any animal or bird or anything in danger. My job was to protect, teach, listen, and learn from each of them. Every creature God breathed life into is trying to communicate with us, and I was not doing my part to watch or listen.  
 
One very lovely Saturday afternoon Sheila, my eight-year-old Quarter Horse mare, Traveler, my trusty pup and I were on the beach a couple of miles from my home. As soon as we had arrived at our favorite spot, I took Sheila’s saddle and reins off.   It was time to ride bareback and sharpen her training skills while riding her bareback.

No ropes, saddles, harnesses or reins. We were engaged in a training exercise that I had done many times with her. Traveler would help direct Sheila by running along her right side just a few feet away.  Today I had blind-folded Sheila and hopped on her back. The training exercise was to gain complete trust between horse and rider by using touch commands only. 

I had learned from the original Horse Whisper to watch for communication tips. A nose wrinkle. An eye movement. An ear twitching. A chin or whinny movement. A tail whipping. Or any mouth movement. Look for stress signs, tripping, neck movement, and muscle twitches. Even the stance of an animal is a sign of permission to approach or stay away.  There are so many signs and many other ways to communicate as well. 

In an open area or arena, the larger animals such as deer, antelope, horses, even an elephant, facing you straight on means, 'Stop'. Don’t come any closer unless you want confrontation or I will run. If the animal turns its rear-end to you, it means you may approach. Anything else is merely waiting and observing, making ready the escape routes.

We had worked on this before, and Sheila learned through these exercises to trust me completely. Maybe she shouldn’t have today, but we had no idea what would come in our near future.  Probably more important than anything this day was that I learned to hear her and feel her and trust Sheila completely. Much more than she needed to trust me.   As it turned out, she was smarter than me. She had to be for all of us to have survived.   Even Traveler knew. I was the clueless one, not watching and paying attention.

Riding near the water’s edge would do two things, cause Sheila’s ears to bend left and listen right and to pay attention to my touches and posturing as well. Forward legs and feet straight was the 'go' position, with both of my feet just touching her shoulders.

Another touch with my feet up was letting her know to change gaits, just like shifting a stick shift car. Each touch of her shoulders by my feet was an indication to speed up, slow down, or to stop. Everything I did while riding Sheila was accomplished by touching her, signaling by my touch.  She had six or seven different gates before reaching warp speed or a full run. 

Tapping once on her right shoulder with my knee, signaled turn right. Touching on her left shoulder with my knee signaled turn left, sticking my feet straight out front and my knees in tight to both her shoulders meant to stop. The training exercises  meant we had to practice for many hours, trusting and relying on each other.

By my touches and shifting my weight to help her escalate speed, we were totally in sync with each other. I would bring her down to a slow walk and touch right, directing her out to sea. She would continue despite the waves, noise, and the water sensation around her legs. 

Sheila never hesitated to obey me. And Traveler, even though he might be swimming by this time, was beside her coaching her on. As the water rose to her withers, I would pull the blindfold off, and we would romp around in the ocean swimming.  It didn't matter if I was riding on top or swimming alongside her, she loved the freedom of the water to just play and follow me around. 

After a few minutes, she and Traveler would be tired of all the exercise and head back in towards the shore. I would laugh out loud from watching them start to shake off the excess water from their bodies.

Meanwhile, I would still be out in the ocean swimming.  I had turned my back on them both and was swimming parallel to the shore when I heard Traveler barking and Sheila standing up on her hind feet pawing at the air.  Something was up, but what? A swarm of bees perhaps that I couldn’t see?  

Sheila had never acted this way before and I was confused. But whatever was going on it immediately gave me the creeps, so I began swimming to the shore. I could see that both of them were now acting out even more. 

Then all of a sudden, Sheila ran at me in a full sprint, right back into the water. I wondered if I was a target of her retaliation to the training exercise. Traveler stayed back onshore and kept barking and circling.  We were alone on this part of the Mesa Beach, so all I had was the two of them. 

Sheila was angry, her ears were pinned back, she swung her head from side to side, then she stood up on her hind legs again and let the full force of her body come down hard to the ocean floor. Her tail was whipping all around and I knew she was mad, but I didn’t understand why. I kept missing her communication facts, but I did notice her eyes never left me. 

At least I thought she was looking at me, until she got closer.  As it turns out, she was looking over my head and beyond where I was swimming. It was at this moment that my whole body felt very strange. Goosebumps came all over my body. I instinctively swam harder and faster towards Sheila. I knew whatever it was, it wasn't good. 

I assumed it was a shark because of Sheila’s attack on the water and Traveler’s non-stop barking. I turned once and that was when I saw it. A fin sticking out of the water about thirty feet behind me. A shark was headed straight for my legs and coming up on me fast. My focus was swimming to Sheila.

Because of Sheila’s relentless attack on the water and her whole bravado, the shark turned at the last minute and left the scene in an instant, not wanting any part of a massive horse madly attacking the water. Sheila was approximately ten feet away from me when the shark made its turn away from me. 

I got to a shallow part of the breakwater where I could stand up and started running out of the water while Sheila kept up her violent attack. Traveler ran to me and was jumping up on me while wagging his tail frantically. There were licks, barks, and dancing around and around my legs. 

"Yes, boy, I know. That was a close one. Thank you, Traveler. I love you too, boy." 

Then I turned and yelled, "Sheila, come on girl, come on good girl!" 

Sheila ever so slowly backed up, keeping her eyes forward and her front feet flaying the water, scaring anything away within a quarter-mile. She would not allow a stupid shark into our area. After all, this was our beach and our swimming hole.  

But how did she know? How did either of them know? Neither Sheila nor Traveler had ever seen a shark before! Something they must have sensed. Some danger or threat that traveled the airways or vibrations around us that only they could understand.

I had missed all the signs and should have known. This particular stretch of beach that I surfed at so often had seen many small sharks, mostly sand sharks.  Never had I ever seen a shark with as big a dorsal fin as I had seen today!

 All I could do was sit on the beach in total amazement of what had occurred. My horse, whom I was training and swimming with, was teaching me instead.  I ended up gaining more of her trust that day. I realized too that I needed to reciprocate a little by trusting her a lot more.  I never doubted her again. 

I credit God, for having given a horse and a dog the empowerment to be aware and recognize the danger of a shark in reasonably deep water. I will be forever grateful to Sheila for saving my life by charging the water and attacking it with the full vengeance of her mind and body. She was willing to give her own life to save mine. Very few animals would do that. Dogs, yes, but horses? Yes, Sheila was the hero that day.  

When we were safe back on the beach, I gave both Traveler and Sheila fresh water from my canteen that I had draped over the saddle horn. Then I began lovingly wiping them both off with our only beach towel. I never stopped telling them both how much I loved them as I was drying them both off. We were all tired after the adventure, and I told them both it was time to saddle up and get back home. 

There was only one problem, in all the excitement we had stayed down at the beach too long. The tide was changing and coming in fast. No longer could I ride Sheila back around the point. The point avenue of escape was taken away by the changing tide action. The rocks were all that was left, and they were too big for a horse to walk on. Our only way off the beach was gone. 

I looked behind us now, up at the sandy cliff. I could make it. Traveler might make it with help, but Sheila? I don’t think so. It was just too sheer of a ledge at the top.  God, do you have another miracle for me today? What should I do? 

My way home was surrounded by water on one side with sharks swimming around and a sheer cliff on the other. We know we can’t stay down here on the beach tonight, Lord. The tide will soon reach the cliff in a few hours eroding the beach away entirely. I knelt on one knee and began to pray. God, I need your help in showing me the best pathway up the side of the cliff wall. If we can make it to the top, then we can escape our present danger. Saying it was one thing, believing it was another. 
 
We began to make our way and I would give Sheila a little pat on the neck.

"Good girl, Shiela, good girl." I kept repeating over and over with every touch.

"Can you do it girl?" I asked as I showed her the cliff in front of us.  "I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think you could do it."

That was just plain stupid talk, but I didn’t look for any other ways out of our situation.

"Do you think you can climb that dumb old hill? Of course, you can!" I would repeat. "You are my super horse, aren’t you baby?"

I looked at Traveler to ask if he was ready. Sure, stupid, let’s give it a try, he said with a bark. 

"Let’s go then. Let's start moving and get this climb done guys and get home. We are running out of time." 

We started up the face of the cliff step by step. About three-quarters of the way up the cliff I realized, none of us could make it up and over the jutting cliff top.  Traveler knew it, Sheila knew it, and I frightfully realized it myself. Then the weirdest of things happened, it nearly gave me a cardiac arrest at age sixteen.   

Sheila stopped, looked down at Traveler, and turned her head to the side toward me. Then she made a throaty noise, laid down, and slid almost all the way down to the bottom of the cliff. As I watched in horror, Sheila took pause, turned her head, and looked into my eyes. She turned her ears out, and then rolled over one time on the saddle at the bottom of the cliff.

To my utter astonishment, Sheila stood up, shook herself off, and waited for us to follow.  The only thing I knew for sure, Sheila was telling me she wasn’t taking another step up that cliff and was turning back to go down. I let go of the reins and Sheila showed us the fastest way back down the sandy cliff. 

My heart stopped for a few minutes. In my mind, I thought that this maneuver was the end of a beautiful horse. My mind could not accept what I had put Sheila through, knowing that this could very well be the end of my special horse. She was undoubtedly going to break her neck, back, or at least a leg or two.  Horses don’t just stop, look, and lay down to roll down a cliff.  

But she got up and shook herself off. She looked up at Traveler and me and shook her head at me some more. 

"I know Sheila," I yelled "I was stupid."

I half ran and half slid down the cliff to her waiting side. Putting my arms around her neck, I just cried from all the fear, exhaustion, and worry.  God, thank you for saving Sheila from death. Now I was shaking and even more scared than ever before.  What now, God? What do we do?  

I looked out over the surf to see if the shark was loitering around. Nothing visible.  I told both Sheila and Traveler that we had only one other chance of survival. Swim around the rocky point to the beach on the other side.  Fearfully, I motioned to them what to do and pointed in the direction we had to go. Both Sheila and Traveler seemed to understand. 

Far be it to me to doubt anything ever again of what they understood.  They communicated more than me, and I was not as good a listener as them. Someday maybe.

 I took Sheila’s saddle off and carried it around the dry rocks to the other side of the point. Came back and tied Sheila’s reins in a knot and flipped them around her neck. I left my boots on to kick at anything down in the water, and I retrieved my hunting knife. I looped my hand through the rawhide cord at the end of the knife handle. I didn’t want to lose the knife under any circumstances. It would be the only weapon we would have out there swimming around the point. 

"Ok, guys, let’s go.  Trust me on this one. I know we can make it."

Thank you, Father, for your protection in advance. With full confidence, we set out to swim around the point. I was surprised how well Sheila navigated the small waves and swam with such ease around the rocky point after all that had happened.  Traveler took a little short cut and headed for the rocks rather than swim with Sheila and me. I didn’t blame him. Climbing the cliff was hard on him too.

As we got closer, I helped push Traveler forward a little to help him reach the rocks. 

"Good boy Traveler. You can do it boy!" I yelled after him.   

"Come on, girl, you are doing good too," I would say to Sheila over and over.  

Finally, my feet touched the sandy bottom of the ocean floor. Sheila also stood up about the same time. 

"We did it, girl! We did it. Thank you, God!"

Tired and snorting, Sheila walked up to the warm sandy beach and just stood there looking back at what we had accomplished. 

"That was a big, big swim girl."

Traveler was too tired to bark and just laid down to rest with his tongue hanging out.  I got a little more water for them both, starving myself and sitting for a moment with them in awe of the miracle. Even though the towel was still wet from the last use, I wiped all the excess water off both Traveler and Sheila. Then we started our march toward home. 

I picked up the saddle and carried it on my back.  Then I put the reins over Sheila’s neck and let her walk beside us at her own tired pace.  About a half-mile down the beach was a waiting guard at the Hope Ranch beach entry point. His name was Ben, and I had met him several years before.  I asked Ben if I could use his phone, really quick to call home. 

"Sure, son, go ahead." Ben replied.

"Thank you, sir." I said.

Before I picked up the phone to call home, Ben told me that he saw what we did out there. 

"Good job, Hawk, not getting stuck on the backside of that point."

"Yes, sir."

I dialed the number, but there was no answer. I hung the phone up, thanked Ben again, and the three of us started toward home. 

It was getting late in the afternoon when we finally made it back to the barn.  Sheila got extra hay and grain that night and a good rub down including liniment on all four legs. She was done and resting when I left.  

Now it was just Traveler and I walking the last mile home alone in perfect silence.  We were exhausted, and heads down you could only hear the scuffing of my boots and a little jingle of Travelers dog tag hooked to his collar. Occasionally a passing driver would honk their horn, but no one stopped.

My family was one of the first to settle on the west end of the valley along with the early ranchers. Therefore, many of the new homeowners knew Traveler and me by sight. Strangely though, no one offered us a ride. I guess I looked too haggard.  I could only imagine, but I didn’t care, we were almost home anyway.   

I figured once we made it back, I would feed Traveler an extra portion of food and open a can of pork and beans for myself, then off to bed.  No need for further talk or discussions on how our day went. No, I was too tired. 

My dream that night was to wake up the next day and spend the rest of my life with Sheila and Traveler, and learning how to show the world how smart they were. An acquaintance of mine in my short life was a cowboy named Monty Roberts. He is the real horse whisperer, like I said earlier.

He found out how to listen to the wild mustangs of New Mexico ranges and later in Santa Ynez founded his own ranch and taught many people how to hear their horse and learn. He went on to be the greatest horse whisperer ever. He took horses with bad habits and training issues and trained them to become the best horses they could be. 

He would have had no trouble with Sheila. Had Sheila lived longer, I think she would have taught him a thing or two.  All I know for sure is that my horse had taught me to listen up and learn. My heart hurts for her even today, sixty years later. I miss the companionship, trust, and love we shared. Sheila and Traveler if you can hear me, I love you.  They both crossed over The Rainbow Bridge far too early.
 
That was a day for the books that I would never forget. The intelligence of a horse and a life-changing incident taught me about perception and the ability to understand. Through a horse and a dog, God taught me, through a horse and a dog, to be more watchful, to listen carefully, and to let Him reveal the way I should go. 

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