Rod Miller: The Thousand Dollar Horse

Columnist Rod Miller writes, "The Marlboro Man showed up at the ranch at the crack of dawn with a horse trailer. While we normally raised our own horses, Darrell Winfield had a proven eye for horses and it was always worth taking a look."

Rod Miller

December 17, 20235 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

The Marlboro Man showed up at the ranch at the crack of dawn with a horse trailer. While we normally raised our own horses, Darrell Winfield had a proven eye for horses and it was always worth taking a look.

“That one’s from the rez”, he said, pointing to a tall sorrel, “I call him South Dakota. And there stands a thousand dollar horse.”

He stood over sixteen hands, and had a blaze face and one white stocking. But all four feet were black and hard as an anvil. His conformation was far from classic. He sported a massive ass but a brisket barely a handwidth between his forelegs.

“Try ‘im out”, Winfield said. So I threw my saddle on him, more than anything curious about how a thousand dollar horse would feel, since a horse that expensive had never before made a hoofprint on the ID. This was in the late-70s. Money was tighter and things were cheaper back then.

I rode him down through the haymeadow and his ears pointed forward from the time I stepped into the stirrup. This was most certainly a horse that paid close attention to what was in front of him.

At a slow lope, he changed leads faultlessly. Same story in any gear, at any speed. Ears always forward. He turned like a snake, everything under control. But a thousand bucks worth of horse?

When we got back to the barn, Dad and Winfield were drinking coffee. 

“I like him,” I told Winfield, “Give you eight hundred for him.”

“Son, you’re sittin’ on a thousand dollar horse and you know it. What’ll it be? I have places to go.”

I don’t know what made me write that check, but I did. I have wondered since whether Dad and Winfield had cooked the whole thing up to see if I was gullible enough to pay a thousand bucks for a horse.

I re-named him Bradley Peak, after the highest point on the ranch. And the first time I got him near a bunch of cows, I knew that I’d gotten the better of the deal.

My granddad used to say that he only kept cows around to give his horses something to chase. Brad was born to work cattle. 

“Cow sense” is a difficult trait to describe in a horse. You need to be aboard, to feel how a horse responds to cattle, to feel how the good ones can instinctively anticipate what a cow or calf will do. 

Bradley Peak had cow sense to spare.

I rode Brad for several years, and he was always the favorite in my string. He was the best horse I ever roped from, and he had no bottom. It seemed like he got up in the morning to outwork everyone.

Every time I threw a saddle on him, he taught me something new about how men and horses should work together.

We had pushed cattle out of one of the winter pastures a few years later. A foot of snow fell that night and the temperature dropped to zero. Rimrock and I trailered out the next morning to backride, to see if we could cut tracks of any cows we’d missed.

It was a bluebird day, not a cloud in the sky no wind. An hour or so after we split up, the fierce sunlight off the snow started to burn my eyeballs, and the sunglasses didn’t help. My vision started to pinch shut from the edges in and my head began to pound. Then the world turned black.

That was the first time I was snowblinded, and I was lucky to be riding Brad. I was a few miles from the trailer and couldn’t see a thing. It was a helpless feeling. And then the wind picked up.

I knotted the reins, laid them on Brad’s neck and just sat there. Maybe Rimrock would find me before I froze. Cellphones were unheard of in those days.

Brad must have become bored just standing there, so he started to shuffle through the snow. I hung onto the horn, just along for the ride.

We had crossed rough country when I still could see, and I could feel Brad beneath me navigating the deep draws and rocky ridges. It seems like that went on for hours.

Then, above the wind, I could hear the clank of the gate chain against the trailer up ahead. I loaded Brad into the trailer by touch, and sat in the cab until Rimrock showed up. It took two days for my vision to return.

Like I said, I got a bargain when I bought that thousand dollar horse. 

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Rod Miller

Political Columnist