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I grew up with Will James. His artwork and his best-seller, Smoky the Cowhorse, tucked under my pillow at night. I dreamt of that horse, so unlike other horses: blue roan, wild, and loyal to one man. But it wasn’t really *that* Smoky that I imagined. It was the Smoky of my childhood that tracked through those dreams.

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I first saw him when I was but a toddler, and my dad was stationed at Pole Creek Ranger Station in the Jarbidge District of Humboldt National Forest. He stood 17 hands and was a blue roan, wild as the high desert around him – and my father’s favorite horse of all the US Forest Service animals.

My mother feared him.

Smoky could escape any enclosure less than six feet tall. If he couldn’t jump it, he merely broke his way out. He was more than half-wild, a mustang rounded up for use by the Forest Service, and duly branded as such. he was never truly tame.

Nearly 60 years later, looking at his photograph, I can see the Quarterhorse lines through this horse. Someone left him out on National Forest land and lost a truly beautiful stud (that the USFS acquired and gelded). That’s a horse with amazing conformation and bloodlines.

I own the bridle and bit he wore – he was not a small horse.

Dad told me that he would take Smoky out and the first mile or two, Smoky bucked, crowhopped, and kicked. After that, he settled down into a long and steady gait. He was trustworthy in the worst of conditions, but when my dad made camp, Smoky has to be double-hobbled: hobbles on the front and rear. In the morning, despite the double hobbles, they had to hunt down Smoky. He was too wild to tame, and too crazy to know it.

I knew Smoky vaguely as a toddler. The photo above is of him in a corral at Pole Creek RS in the Jarbidge District of Humboldt National Forest.

002The color photo is faded with time. Same place. Smoky, saddled and ready to go. Alert and fiesty.

The last time I saw Smoky was when I was about 11. He was confined in the cement-and-brick water pool of Paradise Station in Paradise, Nevada. The hole was supposed to be a water container for fires seasons, but they had this especially crazy USFS saddle horse to contain, one that defeated all wood fences – even at his old age, which must have been 14 or 16 at the time.

My father kindly never told me when Smoky died, or how. What remains in my head and heart is a picture of a blue roan with a wild spirit – and impeccable Quarterhorse conformation.

I wonder what idiot rancher let this animal trespass the USFS so that they claimed him as their own? And I thank Smoky, because he has infused all my dreams of the perfect horse with images of roans. Blue and red and… Because roans are the most beautiful horses, ever.

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