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One Bad Horse

By Mike McGough

November, 2018

The Homestead Act of 1862, the first of several such acts, opened up millions of acres of lands to homesteaders. Millions of Americans had the chance to grow and expand in the new lands of the west. There were also a host of difficulties and challenges associated with turning a claim into a homestead. Not the least of these was getting your family and your possessions to your new homestead. 

In time wagon trains were organized to move families and their possessions west. Wagon masters lead these adventurous souls from the established and the familiar into the often hostile unknown. The leadership of the wagon master was essential, and the help of others in the wagon train supported everyone’s best interests.

In the months leading up to the departure families, had to secure a sturdy wagon with ample space for passengers, cargo, and supplies. To pull that wagon, a team of six horses was recommended. One of the big questions each family had to answer for itself, was if they would have enough provisions, a sturdy enough wagon, and sufficient horsepower to make the long trip west. During a journey in 1869, one family learned that having the right horses was far more important than having enough horses.

When he learned that his family would be part of a wagon train west, Freeman Daniels sold what he had to in order to purchase a team of six horses and a well-made wagon. He worked with the team for a time, so that he would be used to them and they would be used to him. He noticed almost from the start that the one horse, Buck, seemed to have a mind of his own. He followed commands and directions, but not nearly as well as the other five. For periods of time, long periods in fact, he seemed to work well with the others. But then there were times when the exact opposite was true. Buck, true to his name, seemed to buck at commands and actually hindered the efforts of the other five horses in the team. Even though they were harnessed together, it was clear he was trying to pull away from them.

As the departure date approached, Freemen considered getting another horse, but none were to be had. Concerned that only five could not manage the strain of the long and arduous trip, he decided to proceed, allowing Buck to remain part of the team. He was concerned about Buck, but not yet enough to proceed without him. Not long into the trip, he began to regret that decision. Time and time again, Buck complicated the ride. On one occasion he did so to an extent where it was all Freeman could do to control the other five. That evening when they made camp, the wagon master paid him a visit.

“I’ve noticed that your one horse is giving you a good deal of trouble. Do you think he’s worth it?

Before Daniels could reply, the wagon master said, “I don’t think he is. I think he’s causing you trouble, and in time he’ll cause problems for other families in this train, and I can’t let that happen. We face enough dangers and problems with out add some of our own to the mix. I can’t tell you to get rid of him, but I’d certainly suggest it. Midday tomorrow we’ll be passing through an area where wild horses roam free. That might be a good time to cut him loose.”

The next day when they set out, Buck wasn’t hitched to the wagon. Instead, Freeman had tied him to the back of it. When the wagon train arrived at the area where the wild horses roamed free, the wagon master stopped the train for a rest. Sensing the time was right Freeman untied Buck. The horse ran to join the roaming horses in the distance, and never looked back.

That night at camp the wagon master again, came to see Mr. Daniels. “I’m sure that was a tough decision, but it was the right one. That horse was a major problem just waiting to happen. Five horses working together will be far stronger than six horses with one needlessly hampering and frustrating the other five.”

There’s a parallel people lesson in this story. Individuals on a team can be a lot like Freeman’s horses. From time to time there will be those folks who will frustrate and hamper a team’s best efforts and cutting them loose can be the best thing for all concerned. They’ll do better on their own, and the team will be better off without them. So just like team of horses, worry less about having enough team members, instead strive to have good ones.