© 2014 Photo and Article By Bob Litton
NOTE TO READER: This article was published in the summer of 1977 in the Clarendon Press, a small weekly newspaper in Clarendon, Texas, a small town in the Texas Panhandle. That was my first news-reporting job, and it was brief because I was not really prepared adequately for the responsibility, minimal though it was. The periodical’s name was changed to The Clarendon Enterprise soon after I left because orders for books intended for the Clarendon Press (in England) too often were received there. The town of Clarendon was friendly and pretty, and the air was sweet, which makes me regret that I had not done a better job and stayed there. I am leaving the verb tense and other time-related elements as they were in the original article, because to change them would be too confusing. Just make believe you have just arrived in a time machine. — BL
“You better grab the twitch, Jimmy. She ain’t gonna like this,” said Burl Hollar, 32, as he plugged a shearing machine cord into an electrical outlet.
The sorrel yearling filly tossed her head nervously as 19-year-old Jimmy Stewart brought two small steel rods, connected together like a pair of pliers, up toward the yearling’s head. He patted her nose briefly and then clamped the rods around her nostrils. Hollar stuffed a cotton tassel into her ear and started trimming the hair growth within the ear of the young horse. After finishing both ears, Hollar trimmed and curried the mane.
“She’s never had this done to her before,” Hollar explained. “That’s why we had to use the twitch. After she gets used to the shears, we won’t need the twitch anymore. I put the pompon into her ear to prevent hairs from falling inside and starting an infection.”
When the haircut was completed, Stewart led the prancing yearling into a sandy pen within the breeding barn, tied her halter to the back wall and then turned a hose on her at slow speed. The filly obviously wasn’t used to water either. She tensed her muscles, flared her nostrils, whinnied and stomped about as much as the short halter’s length would allow. As her hide wetted, gleaming highlights gave depth to her musculature. Her eyes were at their widest, and short wheezing noises came from her flaring nostrils. All the vitality of Nature seemed concentrated in that one being.
“This is her first bath, too,” Hollar said. “We’re getting these yearlings ready for a sale in Ruidosa Downs this coming Labor Day.”
Burl Hollar is the stallion manager and resident trainer on Vera Lewis’s 160-acre horse breeding farm in Ashtola. He’s the archetypal trainer: tall, lanky, affable and patient. He wears high-topped boots with his jeans stuffed into them and a red baseball cap while working.
Hollar loves horses enough to take exception to any suggestion that horses are less intelligent than cows. “I guess what they mean by that is that a cow wouldn’t damage itself like a horse will,” Hollar said. “A horse will run straight into a fence. “Still, you can’t train a cow to cut out calves — or colts. You can train a horse to do a lot of things, and then he’ll seem pretty intelligent to you. It’s all in the training.
“Of course, I’ll get mad at them, and then I’ll call them the dumbest creatures alive. But usually, when they do something that makes you mad it will all be because of something you did that was wrong in the first place.
“Horses have personalities just as people do. That’s why you can’t say it takes such-and-such a time to train a horse. They’re just like children. If they’ve been trained to do something and they don’t do it right and you spank them, they’ll know why you hit them. “But if they don’t know what they should have done and you spank them, then they won’t know what the spanking’s for.”
He held up his right forefinger, which was swollen. “A mare kicked me there,” he said, “and I was mad, but later I realized that it was all due to something I had done wrong, not the horse.”
Besides being stallion manager and resident trainer, Burl Hollar also functions as medic. He filled two hypodermic needles with a sulfa drug and gave one to his visitor to hold, saying with a grin, “If you stick around here long enough we’ll put you to work.” Then he walked over to a chute where a four-month-old colt stood with flies about its eyes and a thin line of foam along its lips. Hollar injected the sulfa into the colt’s neck and rump and set it loose.
“Distemper in a colt is just like the cold or flu in a human baby,” Hollar said. “The sulfa will help him get through it.”
Stitched into the front of Burl Hollar’s cap was a patch with the words: You can believe in Sonoita Blue, AQHA Champion. Sonoita Blue had served as a stud on the Lewis farm for four years before he died last year after eating a rare poison weed. He was seven years old at his death.
The top stallion on the farm now is Goldfingers, whose titles include AQHA Champion; National High Point Steer-roping Stallion; World’s Champion Heeling Horse; and High Point Halter Stallion of Nebraska in 1976. He has serviced 80 mares this year on the Lewis farm.
“Mrs. Lewis keeps one to two stallions here,” said Bob Boston, general manager of the farm. “She has about thirty brood mares of her own, and about four years ago we started accepting mares from other places for breeding. We get mares from as far away as Maryland. Last year we had one from Florida.
“Most breeding takes place around the first of February because the gestation period is eleven months and all the registering of new colts is done in January,” Boston said. “But we get stragglers in until mid-July. Most people quit breeding their horses by the first of July.”
According to Burl Hollar, however, it “just ain’t natural” to breed horses in the late winter. “The mares aren’t settled yet,” he said. “From April to July is when the mares are more settled.” Hollar said that determining when a mare is in heat is probably the hardest part of his job. “Every once in a while you’ll get one in ‘silent heat’,” he said, “some are so quiet about it.. And some might stay in heat for as long as ninety days after they’ve been bred.”
“Ordinarily,” said Bob Boston, “it takes twenty days to breed a mare and another forty days to tell if she’s pregnant. We don’t like to keep them in these stables and corrals any longer than we have to because it wears a horse down to be out of pasture too long.” In one of the stables a yearling filly whinnied excitedly, bucked and rammed against the gate as she watched another yearling being led out of the stable yard by Jimmy Stewart. Shortly, however, Stewart returned and took the excited filly out, too.
“Jimmy’s taking them to the hotwalker,” Hollar explained. Around one corner of the barn under some shade trees stood a large metal-and-rope contraption that resembled a merry-go-round. In the center of the “merry-go-round” — or “hotwalker”, — as Hollar termed it, stood Stewart. Around him trotted four yearlings.
“They use hotwalkers at race tracks to cool horses down after a race,” Hollar said. “Here we use it as an exerciser. That’s all that filly was making the ruckus about. She just had excess energy and wanted to get out and play.”
A young horse’s way of saying, “Let’s go out and play!” certainly differs from a pup’s scratching on the screen door. And giving a filly a bath seems in no way to compare with dunking a kitten in the tub. Yet it’s all a matter of magnitude. A full grown stallion pawing at the ground and letting out a hearty whinny is a good antidote for a man who, used to manipulating pups and kittens, has come to assume he can easily master the entire animal kingdom.
— Clarendon Press, Summer 1977