Paul McHugh, left, and legendary California horsewoman Lari Shea ride on hills of her Simcha Ranch on the North Coast.

I imagine that every rider can visualize a favorite horse.

Lucky folks who’ve ridden a great deal might even be able to recall a handful of ‘em. But in my case, I’ve got just one single fave—a stout and muscular Morgan gelding who went by the name of Rebel.

And I must say that name was totally ironic. I’ve never known a horse so physically mighty, yet also so friendly and compliant. I’ll explain…

Rebel entered my life when I was in my teens, after I’d ridden for a fair number of years. By then, I’d been kicked, bitten, stepped on and bucked off to some degree. All of which taught me to stay cautious and careful around cayuses. In addition, I‘d try to suss out their characters before putting myself into a vulnerable position.

A major datum to bear in mind about horses is this: they’re pack animals. By which I don’t mean (necessarily) beasts of burden. I mean it in the sense of a wolf pack. Out in nature, horses tend to arrive as members of herds. A status dynamic is baked into herd life, which then translates into individual character. Horse herds have pecking orders of an intensity a barnyard rooster might well envy. For a given individual, to belong means to select and next to try to insist on a level one hopes to occupy.

And this equation includes both equine and human individuals. As you and a horse get to know one another, a key question to ask and answer will be your relative positions in a herd hierarchy.

Horses have a l-o-n-g memory for that sort of thing, and there’s not much of an escalator available between levels. Sometimes a change in status is dynamic and quick, more often it’s incremental and subtle. Complete reversal is quite rare.

So, any horse who decides he or she’s gonna be the boss—not you—won’t be a ton of fun, unless you happen to fancy yourself a gen-u-wine buckaroo. A horse that makes such a combative position obvious can at least be respected for his or her clarity. That enables you to respond in kind. But a horse choosing to be sneaky about it can pose a threat to life and limb.

That’s my view.


My go-to way to detect any horse’s character is to put them in a stout halter, then tie them up on a short lead as I give them a good grooming. This announces that I’m prepared to be gentle, smooth, slow and kind with them, that I care about their well-being, and that I wish it to be pleasant for them to be near me. Plus, amid the process I can proffer certain small instructions about their movement, then observe their response, be it compliance, reluctance, or refusal.

When Rebel came into my life, I was instantly impressed by his size. Not his height—Morgans don’t often exceed 15 hands or about 60 inches from hoof to shoulder and he didn’t—but his bulk. He was an exceedingly thick and muscular animal, probably due to being a “proud-cut” gelding. That meant one testicle hadn’t descended before he’d been castrated as a colt, so he retained a bit more hormonal clout than most geldings.

His obvious oversupply of power and strength made me feel particularly wary. However, I did proceed in my usual manner, trying to find out if a horse named Rebel indeed might tend to feel rebellious—or mean or gloomy or resentful. A horse’s name at times constitutes a signal from a previous owner/rider. (For instance, I’m not sure I’d ever want to try to throw a leg over a mustang some cowpoke had named Wacko.)

I began by trying to clean Rebel’s hooves. I put my left shoulder against his, pushed him to the right, asking him to shift his weight. He did so. I bent and lifted his front hoof placed it on my knee and began to scratch pebbles and mud from the frog with a pick.

Suddenly the horse’s muzzle rammed into my unshirted back. I froze. I hadn’t imagined a gelding with a neck so massive and thick could bend it around that far. I was also caught in a very vulnerable spot, fully at his mercy. He could sink those big square teeth into my hide and tear off a hunk, I feared… Perhaps even rip out a rib or a kidney.

However, instead, Rebel just wiggled those big lips around as he tickled and nuzzled my bare skin.

In horse-talk, Rebel was saying, “Hey there. You’re being so nice to me! Well, I’d like to be nice to you, too. Forget that whole herd dominance game. Couldn’t care less about it, frankly. Let’s you ’n’ me be pals, okay?”

I laughed out loud. Sure, some hilarity came from my relief at an escape from injury. Yet a larger component was joy. I was making a new friend. I looked over my shoulder to see Rebel’s deep brown eyes gazing back at me. I even imagined I saw a twinkle in them, as if the critter knew he’d briefly scared or at least shocked me.

After I finished with his hooves I went on to curry and brush him, and he leaned lightly into my strokes like a purring cat.

Over the course of five long decades since then, I’ve never met a better-humored horse than Rebel, or one with a warmer heart. He not only carried me joyfully down many a mile of trail, he transported me into a deeper grasp of the inner life of horses.


This may not sound possible, but my involvement with horses began long before I was born.

That’s because my father was a horse-adoring farm boy who signed up with a cavalry regiment back in 1940. (It was the 101st Cavalry of the New York National Guard.) He and his buddies had a high old time galloping all over New England, as they rode and camped for weeks at a stretch.

But their heyday drew to a halt the very next year, after Pearl Harbor was bombed and the USA plunged into World War II. The 101st speedily got absorbed into the U.S. Army and just as swiftly became mechanized. My father hated seeing all those magnificent, snorting steeds sent off, to be replaced by stinky, exhaust-spewing military vehicles. He transferred as soon as possible into the U.S. Army Engineers, where he could at least acquire some practical skills that might prove useful in a post-war era.

As the war ended, he married my mom and moved to South Florida, where he sought to establish himself as a building contractor. Still, he kept a few relics around to celebrate one of the cherished phases of his former life: a corner of his bedroom closet held a highly polished pair of his old cavalry boots, as well as a set of long spurs he’d once worn on the heels.


Part of my father’s military service did him a giant disservice. He’d made it in rank up to Second Lieutenant, and along the way he developed a taste for displaying a “command presence”—which included a stern, unyielding demeanor, a penchant for shouted orders, and a default mood of judgment and simmering anger toward almost everything and everyone in his immediate vicinity. 

Being a building contractor in South Florida during the post-war boom should’ve meant a ticket to stand under a golden waterfall gripping the handles of a wheelbarrow. Not in his case. His style as a domineering martinet made him unpleasant to be around. Such a huge amount of construction was underway that carpenters and laborers had a choice of bosses. They didn’t pick him. Next, working all by himself, he threw out his back trying to pick up a roll of tar paper while he stood on a slanting roof. That put him out of business entirely.

Consequently, our family went through quite an extended period when money was truly tight, most of our clothing came off thrift store shelves, and there wasn’t a whole lot of food in our house—certainly nothing extra. However, after a few years of this, Dad lucked into a job as a real estate appraiser for a local savings-and-loan bank and our joint affairs began to improve.


Allow me to present the situation of our family’s five kids at a certain point in time: the eldest son is a sailor in the Navy; the oldest daughter is getting a degree in Colorado to become a Park Service naturalist; I’m a teenager who lives most of the year at a Catholic seminary where I study to be a priest; the two youngest, fraternal twins, are just starting high school and still live at home.

Mom, Dad and the twins sit at the dinner table one evening. I’m there too, temporarily back from the seminary. Dad gives a speech. We’re now financially secure, he says, and able to take on some new project. He asks what we’d like to do—for fun. I’ve never heard an offer remotely like this ever before, so I’m suspicious, so I hedge. I say that, since I’m gone most of the year, such a choice should be left to the twins.

Diana and David look at each other. Almost instantly and nearly simultaneously, they say, “Get horses!”

Unsurprisingly, Dad thought that a tremendous idea. After a few days, he showed up at our five-acre lot in the Florida woods with a tall, frisky, thoroughbred named Candy, a chestnut mare. He’d already ridden her, and now asked if any of us wished to try her out. I knew zip about riding but I stuck up my hand.

Well hey, if Hoppy and Zorro and Roy and Wild Bill and Bat and Matt and Paladin all made cantering across the West look so effortless, how hard could it really be? As it turned out, way-y tougher than I imagined.

Suddenly, Candy had a tenderfoot on board. She could do anything she wanted. She wanted to take off. Paltry instructions my Dad had given about basic “aids” or signals availed me not a whit. In a second, that mare was galloping full tilt, with me clinging to the saddle horn. What finally stopped her was none of my bleated “Whoas!” or clueless sawing on the reins, but the fact that our property was fringed by dense brush and trees. Candy ran into the woods as far as she could go. Luckily, I was not impaled on any branches before she stopped.

It was a priceless lesson—a glance into the abyss of what I didn’t know about horses. Lord A’mighty, did that ditch ever appear to be deep! Wide, too.


Candy was a strong-willed and highly spirited animal. It was quite telling that the first horse my father bought and brought home in answer to the twins’ request was a frisky mount that only he could ride.

Other horses eventually paraded through our jury-rigged corral, in a wide range of breeds, abilities and temperaments. I learned something from each, gradually improving my own skills and confidence. Yet none hit the interspecies communications sweet spot with me in the soulful manner that Rebel did.

To this day, my sister Diana thinks of Rebel as hers. And truthfully, she took much more care of Rebel over the years, and likely rode him hundreds of times more often than I. He earned pride-of-place as her mount when she won Queen of the Rodeo in our hometown. Even so, I tend to think of Rebel as ours. And we did share an admiration of him, and she was happy to let me ride him too.

Rebel had ridges of muscle so high and firm on both sides of his spine that he was comfy for a man to mount bareback. Soon, I dispensed with saddles altogether, except when competing in a rodeo event such as a barrel or pickup race. The sole tack that boy needed was a hackamore, to neck-rein him. I rode with Rebel’s hot sweat soaking into my jeans as we galloped over stony ground or even leaped over logs. I had no fear of falling because I knew Rebel liked having me aboard. He’d do whatever it took to keep me up.

I’d sing, he’d canter along in rhythm. I’d snort, he’d snort back. Even after traveling for hours, he’d still inject a dose of sashay or some prance into his gait. The lad’s style demanded pep in his step. Even now, decades later, if I’m out for a trail run, I try to replicate Rebel’s playful gait and deep breathing, since he was so tireless that I can yet feel some of his energy flow into my human lungs and legs if I imitate him.


Gradually, I came to see that the way Rebel and I engaged in our relationship was remarkably different than the dynamic occurring between Candy and my father. I realized that those knee-high boots and his set of spurs—stored on that low shelf in his closet like icons in a shrine—not only indicated how he thought about horses, they also revealed something of his whole approach to life.

Perhaps due to growing up on a hardscrabble dairy farm in Vermont and trying to come of age amid the Great Depression, he had decided early on that his only credible route to success lay in presenting himself as the predetermined master of any situation, no ifs, ands or buts about it. That was his grand secret, the pole star by which he navigated. Any other consideration came in as a distant second.

Feelings were mere distractions, especially the feelings of others, in comparison to that main point—he had to engineer a string of victories to demonstrate that he could vault over or past any obstacle. He no more bonded emotionally with Candy than he did with his own kids. That feisty mare over the course of years stayed a challenge to ride, an aspect which he rather enjoyed, since it was one more type of encounter he felt destined to always win.

What he failed to see was that, while Candy had endured his mastery over the whole period, her resentments had steadily built up. And then one fine day she chose to test his dominance. It happened when he was putting her in a pasture following a ride. All seemed tranquil enough, and I guess his vigilance slackened. Abruptly, she threw a shoulder into him and knocked him down. Then she took off, even though he still had an arm hooked through the joined reins. She never gave him a chance to get up, just dragged him over rough ground as fast as she could go.  He yelled at her while he was tobogganing along but she paid no attention. She refused to quit and he refused to let go. Finally, Candy dragged him over the rock that broke his hip.

Then he let go.


Candy got sold not long after he fully healed from his hip operation. Her replacement was a somewhat more placid quarter-horse named Franky, and my father mounted and rode him for a period to prove that he still could. Achieving that was one more victory of exactly the right stripe. Anybody who happened to fantasize that he’d been beaten or taken down a step? Dead wrong.

And not long after that came a day when my sister arrived home to discover that Dad had sold ALL of the horses—including her buddy Rebel—without telling any of us that he’d chosen to wipe our horse slate clean. See, he himself was done with it. Which meant the entire affair also had to end for the rest of us, no consultation required. Any emotional shock was collateral damage, a mere by-product. Diana was enraged to arrive that afternoon to find an empty corral. But she decided not to confront him about how hard-hearted his decision had been. That would have been utterly pointless.

Instead, she set out on a quest. For weeks, she drove to stables, fenced fields and corrals all across the region, until finally she found Rebel. He whinnied as he saw her approach. And then she was able to hug him goodbye.

I myself never scored the dose of closure that Diana had so pluckily won for herself. Perhaps that’s one reason—whenever I’ve gone around horses ever since—that I always seem to find myself looking for another Rebel. I have indeed found some nice animals to make friends with, yet never a match for the big guy. That happy, four-legged lad still seems like one of a kind.

Even so I feel quite fortunate to have long retained a legacy from my contact with Rebel. Dominance has its uses, for sure, and yet its deployment also arrives with plenty of perils. Whenever possible in life, partnership has definitely been my preferred path to trot.

In a combative and competitive world, that’s a true rebellion.