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Lightning Creek Horse, back.jpg
In the Wax

Lightning Creek Horse

24"h x 20"L x 8"w
Lamb Ferrying at Lightning Creek.jpg

In the 1930s my grandfather ran sheep in the lower Imnaha River drainage, on Lightning Creek and Cow Creek, which are in the NE quarter of Wallowa County, in the NE corner of Oregon. It is the habit of Lightning Creek to sometimes freeze from the bottom up, which is somewhat unusual, but does happen elsewhere. The result of this type of freeze is that the creek bottom is so slick that it almost can’t be walked across by hoofed animals, let alone big-footed humans. There were no roads in this area until sometime in the 1950s, so horses were the primary tool for most any transportation needs. In the winter, the ranch kept its horses and mules sharp-shod in order to have better traction on the steep slick canyon trails.


My grandfather had a well worn photograph that was taken of him with his pack string of mules, loaded with two lambs each in rope slings, hanging on either side of the pack saddles. It was one of the most amazing photos of that time and place that I’ve ever seen, but it has gone missing now for twenty-five years or so. As I recall, there were ten or twelve mules thusly loaded, in preparation of crossing the creek. The point of course, was to keep the lambs dry and to keep them from floating away after losing footing on the ice. 


I’ve taken a great deal of liberty in my depiction of this fording method. First off, I’ve chosen to depict a horse as opposed to a mule, although either could have, and likely would have been used for this chore. Mules are more stable and have the better temperament for such a job, but they are mules, and so less graceful in their build. And secondly, I probably should admit that I’ve taken some liberty in my melding of horse with shipping vessel, by “breeding” a variety of horse that is more ark than animal. In my piece,  Lightning Creek Horse, I see the horse as a somewhat bemused but dedicated caretaker of her cargo, and the lambs as thoroughly enjoying the ride. 


It never ceases to amaze me how we humans have conjured up so many interesting ways of doing things with animals, that seem, at first glance, not only unlikely, but almost unbelievable. Through breeding, we have selected for disposition and physical traits that we want in our animals, and through training and manipulation we have succeeded at some pretty remarkable feats of husbandry. 


As is often the case, my first thought regarding this creative use of our fellow creatures is one of empathy. (How would I like it if it were me in that situation?) But often enough, the answer to that question is hard to parse. A good cow dog will work all day (like a dog, as the saying goes) and be roaring to go the next day, and do it all again. All indications are, they want to work, and they want to please. Does a horse want to work like a dog? I don’t know the answer to that. Horses seem to keep such secrets pretty close to the vest. If we were talking about a cat, I could tell you. They don’t work and they won’t work. But in the meantime, I’m entertained, and I hope my audience will be, regarding the use of pack animals as creek-fording vehicles for lambs.

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