Ranching Blog: Saying Adios

Ranching Blog: Saying Adios

Letting go of a good horse never gets easier.

Jenn Zeller's stallion Nukie

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By Jenn Zeller

The saying goes, “All good things must come to an end.” That is all too true when it comes to saying goodbye to our equine partners.

In the early morning hours of February 5, at about 10 after midnight, the dogs started barking. And it didn’t sound like just any barking: It was frantic. Then I heard a horse, furiously whinnying. 

Once. Twice. Three times. Something was amiss.

I jumped out of bed, grabbed a flashlight and tried to see what I could see out the door – nothing. But what I heard was awful, deep, strained breathing that wasn’t right. I woke up Zach, my other half, and told him something was wrong. 

He threw on some clothes, and of course, I beat him down the stairs into the sub-zero, cold night.

There, in the yard was our 22-year-old stallion, WDX Nukem (“Nuke” or “Nukie”). He was thrashing about, and his breathing was terribly strained. What really threw us for a loop was that he was in the yard – he shouldn’t have been out of his hot wire trap. We rubbed on him, and ran to check the fence, as well as the other stud and older gelding he lived with, just to make sure something bad hadn’t happened with the fence. It was up.

By the time we got back to him, after a quick check of the fence, he was gone. Just like that. Twenty two years of legacy, taken in an instant. One of the toughest horses I ever got to throw a leg over was gone. To be honest, when I first met him, I was a tiny bit terrified of him. He was big, strong, quick, full of fire and gusto and he knew it. But he was also the kindest horse one could have ever hoped to have siring colts.

He could be counted on to do any job you had for a horse to do and he'd do it with style. Long black mane flowing, tail out-stretched and he’d drop three inches in height to work a cow.  A favorite mount of the crew, he'd been retired from the riding pen for about five years, due to a bad knee, but that didn't stop him from breeding mares.

In his prime, he carried a handful of people through hundreds of miles of country, chased down and moved countless cows, drug countless calves to the fire, and had one of the best long-trots you could ever hope to ride.

You knew when you went out to visit him with his mares, that he’d be friendly and happy to “hang” with you. Yet, even until the day he died, he was the top stallion on the place – though he finally did get to co-exist with two other horses in these past few months. 

Prior to the Fall of 2020, you couldn't turn him out with anything – he was the supreme being on the place.

In fact, Zach once said, "we'll just have to assume he'll be the head horse until the day he dies" – he was. He had his other two trap-mates buffaloed into thinking he'd kick their tails if they tried him!

His papers bore the likes of Doc Bar and Jet Smooth. He was cowy, and could fly.

Once I got over my fear of riding him, he became one of my go-to mounts.  Below is my recollection of one of the coldest, longest rides I’ve ever made horseback, and Nukie, never wavered.

In the winter of 2010, our cows got pushed through our fences into a neighboring pasture. That Christmas Eve blizzard dumped 25 inches of snow on us.

We obviously had to get the cows back, and my father-in-law told me to ride a stud. I had already planned to ride Nukie and I was glad I did.

It was roughly 10 degrees when we started out that morning at 8:30 a.m. We had to ride about 2 or 3 miles to where the cows were on this January day.

To get them gathered, we rode through chest deep drifts, Nuke, me, and Jake the English Shepherd. Jake had actually been told to stay home that day and I’m glad he didn’t listen, because he saved us a lot of miles getting cows to go to the cake truck without us having to go after every one of them.

Nuke was fearless. He took me places that day I’d have never ridden – because we didn’t have a choice.

By the time we got the pasture cleared, they’d had to head back to the ranch with the cake truck because the cows weren’t going to wait any longer.

As we rode down the hill, at about 3:30 p.m. that afternoon, I saw nine head of cows selling out on us, going east, back towards our pasture.

They were crossing on the frozen river. So I found a “plowed” cow trail and trotted after them calling “Hey boss! Hey boss!” Basically screaming at the top of my lungs. I wanted this job to be over. I was beat.

Had our smart longhorn, “herd-marker,” not been leading that getaway, we would likely have been unable to save the mess, but Nukie got us close enough to get her turned and she brought the rest of the sell-outs with her. 

He plowed through a lot of snow that day.

By this time the sun was going into hiding for the day, the temperature was dropping and I was beat. Nuke was still going strong and Jake was still by our side.

We got the cows about halfway home, and my brother-in-law, who’d been on the four-wheeler that day, took one look at me and said, “Uh, Jenn, your lips are blue, so you should get to the house. We got this the rest of the way.” I long-trotted Nukie to the barn, unsaddled him and gave him some oats — he’d sure earned them.
Had it not been for Nuke that day, it wouldn't have gone nearly as smooth. You could always count on him to make your day enjoyable, regardless of the weather, or the job.

His get will be found in our lines for the next generation to come. His colts are some of the friendliest, easiest to start horses we've ever encountered. In fact, mostly you just catch them, rub on them, saddle them and go to riding. They're dang near that easy. DX Nukelear Fuzion, his son and our replacement sire for him, has already had his first foal crop and they’re proving to be just as amenable. 

Nukie will be sorely missed by all of those who rode him and loved him.

Thanks for the rides, the colts and all the memories, pal. Rest easy, buddy.

Jenn Zeller is an aspiring horseman, photographer, freelance writer, barrel racer and collector of horses and chickens. She resides in South Dakota on the DX Ranch, a third-generation cattle ranch where the family raises Angus and Brangus cows, as well as Quarter Horses. Contact her at jennifer@thesouthdakotacowgirl.com.