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RANCHING : Fun-Loving? Nay : Life among the animals might look idyllic, but it's a horse of a different color for a city slicker.

June 07, 1990|LEO SMITH | This week's Reluctant Novice is Leo Smith.

A horse is a horse, of course of course. That's about the extent of your equine education.

You assume all horses play Ping-Pong, and you know for a fact they all talk.

Problem is, having Mr. Ed as your image of a horse is like having Jerry Lewis as your image of a typical human being. The real thing is fun-loving but not that fun-loving.

So on your first visit to a horse ranch, where you have arranged to work as a ranch hand for a day despite the fact that never in your life have you been in arm's length of a horse, you're equipped to do only so much.

You'll be working at the Oasis ranch just outside Somis. At 8 a.m., as you approach the front door of the two-story red barn that's been converted into a house, you kick something small but solid with your right foot. You pray it's a marble. It turns out to be a large, black stinkbug. Welcome to ranching.

No sooner do you enter the barn than you come face to face with your first horse. You know instinctively you can tame it. Sure, it's a stuffed toy, but it's a start.

Then it's out to the corral with ranch owner Patricia Campbell to feed and groom the yearlings. "How old are they?" you ask. "They're yearlings," says Campbell. "Oh." You notice that the ground is soft, your feet sink just a little with each step. You know what it is, but you have to look anyway. You were right.

Campbell says the horses are geldings and can't be kept with the stallions. You wonder to yourself why, exactly, but you figure it has something to do with their unmentionables. Then she mentions it. "You know what gelding means?" she asks. "It means to cut their testicles off." After letting you wallow in silence for a moment, she says, "When you're in the breeding business, you're not embarrassed to say anything."

Then you go visit the babies in their own wire-enclosed area. The babies are called colts. You watch as Campbell rubs them down. One cutie begins to nip at you and you back away. Just as you reach down to remove the wire that will allow you to get out of there, Campbell says, "That's a hot wire. It'll burn you." You decide you'd rather be nibbled than charred.

You watch Campbell ride a stallion around the arena in front of the barn. Now it's your turn to get to work. Finally, some real ranch-type action. Are you going to bust some broncos? No, you're going to kill some flies. You walk around the ranch dropping little pellets, doing your best Wild West swagger. It doesn't seem appropriate.

Actually, the flies are starting to drive you crazy so you're glad to help out. The stuff is made of some chemicals that not only stink worse than the manure but work as a fly aphrodisiac. They come over to introduce themselves to the stuff and then they die. As you sprinkle the pellets, you notice that the flies are starting to surround you. You tell them you're not interested.

Then it's time to feed the fillies. There are five in a corral, but they can only be taken out one at a time. As Campbell leads one of the horses to the pail of oats, your job is to close the gate as fast as you can, so the others won't leave.

In one instance you close the gate, but the horse has the idea that it can push its way out anyway. And you figure it's right. It's pushing one side of the gate, you're pushing the other. Campbell says to slap its face, and you do. It backs off. You win. It sneezes. You're covered with horse snot.

You head on over to help feed the horses. They get a mixture of oats, barley, fish meat, molasses, dried kelp and vitamins. You conclude that it's going to be the most appetizing and sweet-smelling thing you'll come across all day.

"Needless to say," says Campbell, "horse ranches are full of aromas. Horse people like most of them." This proves you aren't horse people.

It's about noon and you figure you've become well-acquainted enough to ask to use the facilities. Campbell points you to the door and says, "There's a kitten in there. Don't let it bother you. Don't let the ants bother you either." You don't, until you notice how many ants there are. You start longing for the flies.

Finally, it's time for your biggest job of the day. Campbell asks you to accompany her to the outskirts of the ranch to bring in one of the 30 or so horses that have been running around on the hill. She drives you up the dirt road in her pickup truck. She gets out to walk the horse back to the ranch, and you are to drive the truck back.

OK, but you can't help noticing, as you get behind the wheel, that the other horses have surrounded the truck, are chewing on it and are blocking your path. All you can see through the windshield is horse faces. As she walks away, Campbell says, "Just inch forward. They'll move." Fortunately, they do, and you make it back to the ranch safely.

And that's the end of your day. You hop into your wimpy compact, grab hold of the reins and drive off into the sunset. OK, it's only 2 p.m., but the sun seems low.

* THE PREMISE: There are plenty of things you have never done. Fun things, dangerous things, character building things. Dare you try? Let the Reluctant Novice try them for you. After all, the Novice gets paid to do them--and has no choice in the matter.

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