The behooved keeper of secrets
With the afternoon sun glaring down on the pasture in west Carson City, Will Keating carries his blue bucket across the grass to Michelob, who walks up to meet him.
The once black, but now mostly gray-faced horse lowers his head into the bucket and gums the feed, chewing with the two teeth he has left.
Keating suspects that somehow the old horse has learned to tell time.
“If you show up late for a feeding, he will let you know about it,” Keating says.
At about 45 years old, Michelob has long outlived his equine life expectancy, and may even be in the running for one of the country’s oldest living horses.
But it’s not his age that makes him remarkable to the Keating family.
For them, Michelob is at once their cherished friend, adventure buddy, secret keeper, the holder of childhood memories and source of certain frustrations. He’s part of the family.
In 1977, Keating began looking for a second horse to go with their mustang, Shadow, so all four of his daughters – Lisa, Miya, Shana and Trena – could ride, usually bareback and double.
One Saturday morning, he saw an ad in the Nevada Appeal for a riding horse.
“All of the kids and I jumped in the station wagon, went past the prison and sewage plant to the end of Fifth Street, and turned onto Hells Bells Road,” Keating recalled. “We saw this black horse with a white star on his face and one white stocking, and it was obviously all over.”
He paid $200 for the horse the veterinarian estimated to be about 12 years old.
“We didn’t have a trailer, so the girls rode him the two hours home. By the time they got there, he was loved and named Michelob,” Keating said. “Michelob was put into the pasture with Shadow, and the two became best friends and sworn enemies all at the same time.”
He described Michelob as “spirited, with a tendency to throw his head and rear, no doubt because of some tough treatment in his earlier life.”
As the same time, “he was also gentle and tolerant, and lightning fast. An excellent counterbalance to the reliable and consistent Shadow.”
He remembers his daughters riding every day after school, every weekend and throughout summer vacations.
Keating was along for some adventures, like the time he and Miya rode up to Hobart Reservoir to go fishing. During a shortcut on the way home, both horses got mired in a marshy part of the creek.
“Miya was sufficiently savvy to suggest that we remove the horses’ bridles and saddles, and let them get out on their own,” Keating said. “It was a good suggestion because after considerable effort the horses made it out. A calamity was averted.”
Other adventures he’s only recently learned about.
The girls often rode the horses into the foothills around town. Only now have they told their parents about “bullies on motorcycles, rattlesnakes, and questionable characters up in the hills.”
“They got caught far from home in storms, had falls from the horses and were followed by a pack of coyotes.”
It’s probably best, he said, that the girls kept those secrets between themselves and the horses.
“If they had told us about these happenings back then, some of their freedoms might have been abridged,” he said. “But they survived, and these rides filled their eyes with the details of this majestic desert, their minds with a lust for adventure and their hearts with the self-reliance that saw them all safely and confidently into adulthood.”
Not only has Michelob witnessed the growing and changing of the Keating family, but he saw Carson City change as well.
In the late 1970s, the girls would cow hand for Buzzie Andersen as he drove his 150 head of cattle through the center of Carson City to rotate grazing pastures.
The cattle would winter at the Andersen River Ranch and summer in the Andersen Home Ranch pasture, which is just behind the Keating house.
“In the fall they would start the cattle at the west end of Washington Street, drive them east to Roop Street, then south on Roop to Fifth Street, and then east until they got to the River Ranch pasture on River Road,” Keating recounted. “It was probably about 10 miles, all on paved roads. Even if you missed watching the herd of cattle stroll Main Street, the biannual event was well evidenced by the cow pies marking the path through town. I suspect that it was complaints about the splatter on everyone’s cars that led to the demise of the cattle drives.”
Shadow died several years ago, around the age of 28 – a typical horse lifespan. But Michelob has continued on.
“I have been quoted as saying that we might have shopped around a little more if I had known that he was going to live this long,” Keating joked.
Although Michelob has a little shelter, he prefers to remain in the open pasture where he’s lived the past 33 years. He doesn’t seem to mind the summer’s scorching heat or the freezing snowstorms of the winter.
“Michelob’s last ride was well over a decade ago, but he can still gallop at full speed when he gets excited or playful,” Keating said.
The grandkids now sit on his back, sometimes going for short walks.
And every morning and evening, Keating brings him a bucket of “mature horse feed,” much of it spilling onto the ground. Michelob later returns to nibble it up with his lips.
“I admit that there was a period, perhaps even a decade, when his upkeep felt burdensome,” Keating admits. “But he and I have been dancing this waltz for 33 years now.
“Together we watched four sprightly girls turn into wonderful women, successful in their professional careers, and then mothers, and have welcomed new small people into our family. I am grateful to him every time I lift a grandchild onto the back of the horse who once carried our young daughters because the magic of that moment is not lost on me.”