Monday, October 12, 2020

A Horse is a Horse, of course, of course


A cowboy is nothing without his horse. In fact, I’m not sure a cowboy can really be a cowboy without his horse. To me, it’s almost blasphemy to see ranches having their cattle herded by helicopters and ATVs. I’m not sure what the advantage is – after all those helicopters sure cost more than horses, their maintenance cost is more, obviously. A helicopter pilot probably has to be paid more an hour than a cowboy. And as far as the romance factor is concerned – well, there’s no contest. Nothing tugs at my heartstrings more than a cowboy on horseback, working his magic as he rides the range.

And the ATV’s – well, that’s just sad. No cowboy worth his salt would rather ride a motorized mule than a living, breathing friend on four hooves.


I have owned horses and cattle and made money off them. However, my ranching enterprise was more for joy and nostalgia than for necessity. This is the way it is for many ‘cowboys’ and ‘cowgirls’ these days. Surprisingly, nationwide, there are fewer than 10,000 ranching jobs for men who consider themselves to be cowboys. Of course, there are those who ride the rodeo circuit, but that’s not a huge number either. The opportunities for a man to have a working relationship with his horse are few and far between. 

Having said all of that – I’ve discovered an avenue whereby those who are itching to have a reason to mount their horse and head off on a trail riding adventure can accomplish their goal and still have a worthwhile, soul-fulfilling reason for doing so.   

Wilderness Search and Rescue.

In the last decade, outdoor recreation has surged. In 2019, there were over 290 million visits to national public lands – including state and national parks, wilderness areas, and BLM land. This increase in activity has resulted in an equal increase of people going missing, getting lost, or sustaining injuries on these public areas. Each one of these folks has to be rescued – by somebody. While the park employees are trained for this task and local law enforcement pitches in to help, having the crews available to devote the time, energy, and money necessary for these massive searches is an overwhelming responsibility. That is why volunteer Search and Rescue teams have sprung up all over the nation.

These SAR people are private citizens who volunteer their skills, money, and time to search for and rescue those who find themselves in an emergency situation – from a fall, from being lost, a bear attack, a skiing accident – and countless other ways a person can get in trouble in the wilderness.

In my Hell Yeah! Series Search and Rescue plays a pretty big role, not in every story, but the theme has been featured in several books. Several of my ‘main’ reoccurring characters are involved in this public service. In fact, they have their own team – HILL COUNTRY SEARCH AND RESCUE. I found the idea intriguing, so I have spent many hours researching the topic.

Like ranching in this age of technology, Search and Rescue has also gravitated away from horses and toward high performance off-highway vehicles (OHV’s), drones, GPS, and other modern conveniences. After all, you don’t have to feed and clean up after an OHV and a horse can’t be stored in a garage until it’s needed. While there are some undeniable benefits from using these machines and some circumstances where they are the logical choice, there remains instances where the use of horses and the men who understand them provide a great advantage.

Motorized transport, while undeniably faster, cuts down on the rescuer’s ability to use his eyes and ears to look for clues. When you’re trying to look for tracks or listen for cries for help, nothing beats being up close and personal with the land. While there are some areas where a searcher can only go on foot, there are many instances where a rider with a well-trained tracking horse has a distinct advantage. Mounted teams can travel at twice the speed of a person on foot, plus their vantage point provides a better view. Gear can be more easily transported via horse than on foot and exhausted or injured victims can be packed out to safety.


Another undeniable and surprising advantage to the horse as part of the SAR team is their innate ability to track. A cowboy familiar with his mount’s abilities can mean the difference between life and death in the right situation. Since horses evolved as prey animals they instinctively use all of their senses to monitor their surroundings. When properly trained, this ability makes them a natural search partner. Horses are able to detect threats downwind, using their eyes, ears, and even from sensing ground vibration. They can be schooled to seek a human, much like a ranch horse learns to monitor a herd of cattle. Also, the horse’s rider will be familiar with the horse’s body language and can watch for specific alerts that something caught the animal’s interest. The cowboy will know to look where the horse looks.

Another skill a horse possesses is their advanced sense of smell. Dogs don’t have a corner on the market when it comes to their ability to track by scent. Since they’re taller, horses can vary their sensing level from the ground to over seven feet. In fact, their olfactory equipment is superior to most canines, thereby essentially creating a search dog you can ride. There have been many cases where those in trouble were saved by the talent and determination of a cowboy and his horse.


 Search and rescue aren’t the only service skills a horse can be taught. I have read about several seeing-eye horses. In rural environments, this relationship can be a godsend to those who wish to remain active on their land.

Horses are also far more intelligent than most people realize. They have an instinctive curiosity and can be precocious learners. While digging around for information on equine behavior, I came across information on an amazing horse that history has forgotten and that shouldn’t be the case.

The story began with a slave whose name was William Key. No, it actually began with his owner, who was the original William Key, a planter in Shelbyville, Tennessee. In fact, this story will boil down to one factor – and that is kindness. The old William Key chose to treat this young man as his own son. He raised him with his own children and made sure he was educated. In addition to teaching him the basics – like reading, writing, cooking – etc., young William’s greatest talent lay with animals. He was a self-taught veterinarian and animal dentist.

When the Civil War broke out, young William accompanied his Key brothers to Fort Donelson where they would be fighting for the Confederacy. To be near them, he constructed his own shelter, a dugout covered in logs. When the Union attacked, he hid his brothers in the dugout and helped them escape capture when Fort Donelson surrendered.

During his time hiding near Fort Donelson, William had set up a contact with the underground railroad and helped smuggle many slaves to freedom. Even though he was successful at keeping his Key brothers alive, he was caught transporting another slave and was condemned to die, guilty of treason. Luckily for him, his captors discovered he had a magnificent talent for both cooking and playing poker. He was so good at poker that he managed to purchase his release from a Union officer in exchange for forgiving a gambling debt. Thanks to his skill in poker, William managed to squirrel away a tidy sum and would leave the war a fairly wealthy man. This wasn’t his only arrest, however. He was captured and sentence to hang on another occasion but managed to purchase a stay of execution with a thousand dollars he had sewn in the bottom of one of his shoes. The very next day he was liberated by Confederate raiders.

Upon arriving in Shelbyville, he and his brothers discovered their home in ruins. So much of Tennessee was destroyed in the war. Finding old Mr. Key had lost the planation, William bought it back for him and the boys and restored the family to their property. He even paid for the younger Key boys to go to college. To fulfill his own personal dream of owning a racehorse, he used the remainder of his money to set up a fine horse operation, a very unique accomplishment for a former slave.

To the ridicule of others in the business, William – now called Bill – purchased an abused Arabian bay from a circus. He saw something in the mare that others didn’t see. Paying a hefty fee, he bred the bay to a prominent racehorse of the era, Tennessee Volunteer. The colt they produced was so sickly and wobbly that many advised Key to just put it out of its misery with a bullet. This was something Bill couldn’t do, so he decided to keep him, naming the colt Jim, after the town drunk who moved with the same uneven gait.

Moving into the stable, Bill nursed Jim back to health. When the colt was able, it followed him around like a little dog. At first, he didn’t notice but it soon became apparent that the colt wasn’t ordinary. Jim was letting himself through gates and opening drawers to find apples. Lucinda, Bill’s wife, discovered one day that he could respond to questions with an affirmative or negative nod. When she asked him, “Jim, would you like a slice of apple?” he nodded ‘yes’ that he did. Curious as to what else the horse could do if he spent time with it, Bill put Jim through a training regime that lasted seven years. During that time, the horse learned to spell words by putting cardboard letters on a rack in the correct order, to distinguish coins and make change, write the alphabet and his name on a blackboard, play a hand organ, and respond with an answer when asked about his political affiliation.

Seeing he had a unique opportunity Bill began to exhibit Jim to the delight of any who saw him. He performed at fairs and expositions all over the country to growing crowds. He even performed for President William McKinley at the World’s Fair, where his act was the most profitable of the entire event. Jim also became a ‘spokesman’ for the humane society having gained a million signatures to the Jim Key Pledge to be kind to animals.

Bill and Jim worked together for many years, traveling to New York, where Jim became quite the celebrity. They retired in 1906, after performing for over two million people – which was quite a hefty number considering this was before television or the internet. Bill died in 1909 and Jim passed away peacefully in 1912, a testimony to what a little kindness can do.

This is the story of Jim’s life on Amazon if you want to learn more. 


So…today, I have rambled all over the place and I apologize for that. The topic was influenced by the contents of my latest book – THE STORM YOU CHASE


 – where Clint and Jensen served as mounted Search and Rescue volunteers, working with their horses to save four people lost in Glacier National Park.

Thank you for listening –

Sable Hunter 

1 comment:

Julie Lence said...

What a wonderful story about Bill and Jim. I love horses and agree their talents are endless, and what they can do with SAR is remarkable. Thank you for sharing all the history and info you researched. Hugs, Sable!