He bought the big bay from the Miller Ranch remuda because he’d never seen another horse climb solid rock like this fellow. They would never have sold such a capable colt, but he was crazy and none of the ranch hands wanted him. Too much trouble, they all agreed. He was a fighter. He was too sensitive. There were too many others to ride.
Arlo was thrilled to find a blood horse for pennies, but quickly learned that the bay was hell to saddle, and was even more resistant to the bit. After the Miller boys tried the hard way with ropes, tie down and a blind fold, Sangre was having none of it. He was as cold backed as they come, bucking like a bronc the moment the saddle was tightened. He’d dump even the most capable vaqueros, and Miller couldn’t afford to lose a good man to such a rank colt.
The old man did not ride Sangre back home to the Sierra Nevada foothills. Yet the Spanish gelding followed his stout pack horse without a single balk, proving to be a well mannered and good tempered. Arlo quickly discovered Sangre had a good mind and he wasn’t stubborn, he was just scared. Scared of men.
Those nights on the trail the old man got to know the horse a little better. He began with touch, the sure soft pressure that was the language of horses. As he ran his hands over the hair, Sangre would set the tip of his back hoof into the ground in preparation to jump away when the pain began. But the pain never came, and after a few nights the hoof was no longer poised to flee. Arlo felt tension rolling off Sangre’s flanks like a waterfall.
It didn’t take long to discover the colt wasn’t really cold backed or untrained, he was simply intolerant of the bit. No doubt a heavy-handed vaquero had torn his mouth up with a spade before the colt was far enough along in training to carry it. So Arlo fashioned a bosal out of rawhide reata, creating a headstall that would sit lightly, but securely. He used it as a lead halter day after day across the great valley of California.
Once he’d arrived back home at his cabin on the Yuba River, he worked Sangre on the ground, restarting the colt with a gentle hand. During those days he studied the places on either side of the withers that had turned white from the Californio saddles with their narrow forks. He knew the old pressure points had healed. So long as they remained pressure free, Sangre could carry both him and a saddle without discomfort. But none of Arlo’s saddles nor any that he’d seen would solve the problem. The colt’s front legs were wide set, granting him unusual power and stability. The only way to get that horse comfortable was to make a special tree. It had to be wide as it was long to fit the gelding with mutton withers and a short back.
During that first year Arlo rode Sangre with nothing but a thick wool blanket to keep his britches clean. The soft bosal was all he needed to control the colt that gradually lost his fear of tacking up. The troubled horse came to trust the old man. Then one day they loaded up the pack horse and rode eastward into the Sierra.
On the third day crossing the foothills he stopped at the remnants of a lightning fallen black oak. He hobbled Sangre in the tall grass, then pulled his tape measure, axe and saw from the pack horse. For hours Arlo measured and cut the base of the tree where the wood was dense, the grain straight. It wasn’t until the next day that he hoisted an odd looking chunk onto the packer, then tied it fast.
A month later, in the small shed behind his house, Arlo roughed out that saddle tree. It was a slick fork, but the gullet was much wider than the Californio style. He carved and shaved, then tried it on the horse and shaped it again and again until a simple saddle tree emerged from the solid burl. Its bars gently curved into the hollow behind the withers, shifting the pressure points back into the fleshy muscles that flanked the backbone. Then he cannibalized his other saddles to outfit this tree just like those simple frames he’d ridden for the U.S. Cavalry during the war.
At the sight of the tree with its skirts and stirrups, Sangre still grew agitated from memories of heat and pain and pressure. But Arlo was patient, speaking softly to the horse during each fitting. He scratched Sangre all along the roots of his mane, the way he’d seen wild horses do to one another. Arlo slid the saddle down onto the gelding’s withers, pleased to find enough room for two saddle blankets. It fit comfortably with pressure in different places than before. Sangre seemed to understand as Arlo slowly tightened the cinch, the dark eyes growing soft followed by licking and chewing to show his relief.
“No more pain, my good friend,” Arlo said as he removed the saddle and returned Sangre to the corral. He stood at the fence line nose to nose with the horse. “In a few weeks we will finally throw a rope from this saddle, then we will find out exactly how much Mister Miller gave away.