I had just resigned myself to a long wait when an astonishing thing happened. As Chet started another swoop through the barn, John put a hand out and... caught him. This was not the act of restraining an animal, this was pure psychology. Something about John's body language convinced Chet that he was caught and it was time to settle down, and that's just what Chet did.
"Wow," I gushed as John led a mannerly Chet back to his stall. "You really have a way with horses!"
John looked uncomfortable as he replied, "I prefer mules."
And mules prefer John. Because, with much prompting, he proceeded to relate precisely what his "way" with horses was.
The history of "Horse vs. John Queen" begins with his youth. There was a time, apparently, when John got along well with horses. His favorite was a broodmare they called Frosty. She was the only horse that was ever kind to John. But the evening John's father tried to teach him to help deliver a foal was where it all went wrong. Being a young boy, John was not at all familiar with the back end of a horse, and when his dad told him to reach in and help pull the foal... yeah. You get the picture. From then on, Frosty wouldn't let John walk behind her and horses made John a little queasy. That was when earned John the nickname, "The Horse Whisperer".
The first time John ever worried that he might not have children was in another horse related incident not long after. A pony they called the Red Baron was giving John's little brother a hard time, and John was the only one light enough to hop on and see if a more experienced hand (so to speak) could correct the pony's behavior. Baron was well aware of his own height relative to the metal fence rails in the paddock, and he took off straight for the fence.
Baron went under. The saddle horn caught the fence and did not.
Baron stopped. John did not. Not really, at least.
(I actually didn't hear that story until after we were married, on the night I told John we were going to have a baby. There was a little explanation required when the first words out of his mouth were, "Ha-ha, Baron, I win!")
John spent many years following his family to horse shows and helping with the breeding operation. He has been stepped on by his sister's seventeen-hand show jumper. He has been dumped on trail rides. He has been bitten by cranky broodmares. He has cleaned more than his share of stalls. He has lived through the homicidal reign of Joker, the appaloosa stud horse who tried to kill John and his friends more than once. They were encouraged to work with Joker to help keep the animal schooled, but Joker made Baron look like Shirley Temple. He liked to take people under the metal overhang of the barn and then buck. To this day, John has a flat head and several unnaturally short friends.
By the time John hit college, he had developed an abiding fondness for mules. "They're laid back, and you can ride one without spilling your beer," he told me that day in the barn with Chet. I know he was joking. I've never seen him consume alcohol around riding animals of any kind. He can never tell when they might try to kill him.
"But you did a wonderful job with Chet," I remember telling him.
"Nah, he'd just heard of me. See the way he kept his hindquarters toward the wall?"
Still, for a man who professed not to care much for horses, I was impressed with the way John was getting along with my little appaloosa gelding. We had brought watermelon to feed the horse and they both seemed disappointed when the watermelon was gone and the afternoon was drawing to a close.
"I guess horses aren't all bad," John smiled that day, then sighed and looked through the remains of the picnic lunch for something else the horse might like. He came up with a red fruit. "Do horses eat tomatoes?"
"I don't know," I replied honestly.
John held out the tomato to my horse. Duke's ears perked straight up at the sight of something round and red in an outstretched hand. He leaned out of his stall and nudged the tomato into position to take an eager bite out of it, just like he would an apple.
A word of advice here, if I may: do not feed tomatoes to a horse.
A large part of the problem is consistency. Unlike apples, tomatoes burst under pressure. So when Duke bit down, the tomato exploded, shooting down Duke's throat. And all over John's front.
The rest of the problem is purely a matter of taste and shattered expectations. I have never seen such an eloquent and clear series of facial expressions on a horse, before or since: shock (ears back), confusion (ears forward), and then complete disgust (ears pinned flat). With an offended air, Duke gagged and spit the tomato out, pinned his ears at John and then retreated into his stall to sulk. John used his spattered shirt to wipe tomato seeds from his face and said to me, "That would be a 'no'."
"Wow," I said. "You really are a horse whisperer."
My horse still hates him to this very day.
This article first appeared in the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.