As the year draws to a close, regular blog contributor Heather Smith Thomas reflects on the inevitabilities of ranch life, and celebrates the animals whose presence has loomed large for Heather and her family in Idaho over the decades.

Horses often become part of the family—especially ranch horses that have spent their whole lives being part of the “team” and doing their best with any job they are asked to do. This past fall, our family had the sad task of putting down 4 elderly horses who had served us loyally for many years. The oldest was Molly, at 31 years of age.

Molly’s mother Sally wouldn’t let anyone come near the new baby for a couple of weeks.

This mare was raised by my daughter-in-law Carolyn, when Carolyn was still in high school. Her family had Angus cattle and a ranch near Arco, Idaho. Molly was born on April 17, 1982. Carolyn recalls, “She was planned to be my horse, from the time her mother was bred. Her mother was my dad’s old black Quarter Horse mare named Sally.” In spite of Quarter Horse lineage on her mother’s side, Molly took after her sire, a Morgan stallion. “She was a horse everyone could ride, and I took her as my project in 4-H. She was a good cow horse, and also my mom’s hunting horse.”

“Molly was a light chestnut (and turned darker chestnut later). I’d wracked my brain trying to think of a name, and I remember my dad telling me the foal would name itself. When we finally got close enough to find out what sex the foal was, we caught her, and started giving her leading lessons. Dad said, ‘Come on, Miss Molly Brown’ and that name stuck.”


Molly was born in April 1982 on Carolyn’s parents’ farm near Arco, Idaho and spent her first weeks at pasture without being caught.
Since it was the first foal Carolyn had  trained by herself, she did everything she could think of with Molly. “We never rode our young horses until they were 3 years old. Dad never wanted me to climb on them the first time; my older brother Brian was the one who broke all our young horses. Brian climbed on Molly and rode her around in the round pen for about 20 minutes and then got off and said, ‘No, I don’t have to break her. She’s yours. Just get on and go.’ I’d worked with her so much that it was easy. I’d put my little saddle on her (the one we used on our Shetland pony) from the time she was a yearling.”

Carolyn just kept putting bigger saddles on her as the filly grew. Molly was used to being saddled, and Carolyn ponied her everywhere, leading the filly from the horse she was riding. “She was my buddy, and never learned to buck. She’d do a little crowhop in later years when she was feeling frisky but she was ‘broke’ from the beginning.”

After Michael and Carolyn were married, they brought Molly and Comanche, one of Sally’s geldings, up to our ranch on Withington Creek, near Salmon.
That fall Molly had her first encounter with a bear. Carolyn, Andrea (my daughter) and I were riding up the creek to check cattle on our high range pasture.  When we came around a corner, the horses were startled to see a young bear playing Tarzan, with humorous acrobatics pulling chokecherry branches down to his level to eat the fruit.  The waving branch and gyrating bear were too much for Molly. She panicked and tried to whirl and run, but Carolyn kept her under control. Finally the bear saw the nervous horses—and Molly jumping around—and took off. From that point on Molly was afraid of bears. She could smell them long before anyone could see them. Nothing else bothered her. If she started snorting and dancing, the rider knew there was a bear nearby.  
By that time Molly was a horse that anyone could ride. She was also a calm, dependable influence for the young green horses we were training. The first summer Carolyn was here on the ranch, she often rode with me when I was training a young gelding. He was nervous and skittish and Molly was a great “baby sitter” horse.
Young Heather (about 3 years old) ready for a ride with her mom on Molly, riding with Grandma Heather
Molly also had patience with cattle. “She loved cows and every time we rode her into a herd of cattle the calves would walk up to her and smell her. She was a magnet for calves; they thought she was wonderful. She’d stand patiently as they sniffed around her, or even tried to nurse her!”  
Young Heather (age 8) riding Molly to help her mom (Carolyn) move cows, with a curious heifer sniffing Molly’s tail.
Michael says the cattle “weren’t at all afraid of her, and if you rode through a bedground the cattle wouldn’t even get up, or if they did they would come to her. They were curious about her,” he says.
Michael and Carolyn have two children, Heather and Nick, who learned to ride on Molly. Carolyn recalls, “When we’d round up the cows that were hanging too low on the range pasture and push them up the hill, Heather had to go first, ahead of the cattle, because the heifers were so in love with Molly. They would follow Molly up the hill, with one of our heifers, Miss Piggy, chewing on Molly’s tail. It was always hard to sort cows on Molly because they would gravitate to  her and want to be next to her.”
Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising HorsesStorey’s Guide to Training HorsesStable SmartsThe Horse Conformation HandbookYour CalfGetting Started with Beef and Dairy CattleStorey’s Guide to Raising Beef CattleEssential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook. She blogs at heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com.

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