Riding 29 year old Sandy in 1997

Friday, October 7, 2011

How it all began

I thought today I would put a couple chapters from my book so that those who don't know me well can see how it all began:


A “Tail” Not Foreseen

I HEARD A LOUD BANG and ran out of the feed room to find Zipper hanging by the groin over the barn door, forefeet barely touching the ground. Blood was running down the inside of his right thigh from a gash torn by the top latch that was now bent at an odd angle, leaving the door ajar. The other latch dangled uselessly in its bracket. He tried to lurch himself free, slid sideways against the doorjamb, and finally gave up and stood there on his toes, his desire to get to the other horses suddenly forgotten.
He sighed and looked at me as if to say, “Well, now what?”

“Now what?” indeed!

The books never mentioned situations like this. Considering how often situations like this apparently occur, you’d think they would. This was my third.

I was expecting a load of crushed granite and needed to open up the fence panels so the dump truck could get to the low spots in the corrals. The corrals held my three horses – pregnant but flirty buckskin mare Dottie, palomino gelding Dutch, and proud-cut (improperly gelded) wannabe stallion Zipper, a tough little buckskin of Mustang breeding who still retained herd sire instincts. While Dutch could share a corral with either of the others, I had to keep Dottie and Zipper away from each other or the “stallion” would try to breed the mare, never mind that she was already pregnant with a real stallion’s foal.

I had to move two horses out of there until the truck came and I didn’t want to stress the pregnant Dottie by leaving her alone in the back, so the simple solution was to put Dottie and Dutch out front in the grazing pen and leave Zipper in his own corral. So that’s what I did, leading first Dutch, and then the mare, out the gate to the fenced area in front of the house where an unmowed lawn awaited their pleasure.

A simple thing, or so it should have been. I’d done it before. But things are never as simple as they should be with horses, especially not when hormones get involved.

As soon as I led the mare out of sight, I could hear Zipper raising a noisy protest. I quickly put Dottie in with Dutch and ran back to the barn to find Zipper galloping back and forth, frantic to get to the rest of his herd which he could no longer see on the other side of the house. In his single-minded determination to join them, he reared up and tried to climb a five-foot high pipe corral fence. I saw the top rail bow under his weight as the comparatively short horse tried to chin himself over the top but failed to make it.

He wheeled and charged into the barn, thrusting his chest against the wooden door, and whinnied again. Dottie answered. He galloped back out, desperately looking for a way to get to his lady love.

Worried whether the two gate latches would withstand another assault by the agitated horse, I ran inside the adjacent feed room and was just reaching for a flake of hay, hoping that I could distract him with some food, when I heard Zipper gallop back into the barn. Then I heard a loud bang and knew I was too late. He’d gone over the wall.

Well, almost, anyway. I looked around the edge of the feed room door and flashed back to a similar sight from twenty-five years before – another buckskin stallion hanging in the air, front feet scrambling for purchase while he whinnied frantically after the mare he loved. And I remembered another incident when there had been a white stallion needing rescue, hanging over a barbed wire fence by his most precious parts. This made three times I’d been first on the scene of a situation like this. Was I just lucky?

Stallions! The things they do for love! I thought as I ran around to the back of the stall to see what was going on with the horse’s back end. I had had help with the two previous incidents, but now I was alone. How was I going to get him down?

His hind feet were dangling with the points of his hooves just brushing the foundation of the stall. The stall door had been wrenched ajar, bending both latches, and the horse was hanging over the top of the door by his groin, much as his predecessors had hung over their respective fences. The weight of his body slumping against the doorjamb prevented the door from opening wide enough to let him slide free.

I tried shoving his salt and mineral blocks under his hooves, trying to give him enough purchase to shove the door open far enough that he might slide off the edge of the door, but the door must have been pressing on a nerve for his legs seemed to be paralyzed.

There was nothing to do but to holler for help. I ran back around to the front of the barn and grabbed the phone, speed-dialing the number of the next-door neighbor. I’m as liberated as the next cowgirl, but sometimes a cowboy comes in handy.

In minutes, Cliff was there and I was relieved that at least I had reinforcements. Zipper in the meantime had figured out he was stuck and miraculously stood quietly on his tiptoes while we contemplated the situation. It was soon clear there was only one way out of this mess – the horse wasn’t coming off the door, so the door was going to have to come out from under the horse.

Cliff stayed with the horse while I ran through the house into the garage to get the socket wrench and ratchet. There were four three-inch long hex screws holding each hinge in place – twenty-four total inches to back out of the wood. I could have had them out in a minute and a half if I used the drill to drive the socket, but I didn’t dare try. The noise might scare the horse into struggling and hurting himself worse in the process – to say nothing of the risk to myself, crouching on the ground two feet from his front hooves. Cranking those eight screws out an eighth of an inch per twist of the ratchet seemed to take forever, but I finally got the last screw out and tossed the wrench aside, massaging the cramp in my right forearm.

“Now what?” I asked Cliff. The door was still exactly where it had been, perfectly vertical, with a thousand pounds of numb Mustang bearing down on it.

“I guess we pull,” he replied. He grabbed a crowbar that was hanging on the tack room wall and stuck it between the doorjamb and the top of the door. He leaned against it, tipping the door forward while I tried to lead the horse forward on his front feet. The door started to tip, and, once he felt the ground again, Zipper scrambled forward, knocking the door the rest of the way to the ground. He gave a defiant stomp as if to say, “Take that!” as he lurched free of the door to stand shakily in front of the barn, blood running down his leg.

He seemed to have forgotten all about the mare by this point.

One hundred and thirty-five dollars later, Zipper’s laceration had been “zipped” up with a neat row of stitches and he was sleeping off the sedative in a very small three-sided enclosure I fashioned from the corral panels I had swung out of the way for the dump truck. He didn’t have enough room to try anything even if he’d been inclined, which he wasn’t.

It was just another adventure in the life of a suburban cowgirl. Who would have thought nearly fifty years ago that one day this city-raised kid would be living alone in the horsetown of Norco, California, trying to figure out how to wrestle a “stallion” off the top of a barn door?

Nobody would have thought it. Not even me. I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the road I would travel to get to Norco and actually live my dream, nor the adventures – and mis-adventures – I would have along the way.

It started when I was a tiny child in Prescott, Arizona . . . .

Cowboy Dreams

IT WAS MAY 16, 1957.

“Come help me with the cookies, Laura,” said the gray-haired older woman. “The Colonel will keep your sister occupied.”

Laura got up from the floor, taking her doll and her toy horse and leaving her not-quite-two-year-old sister clutching her own stuffed pony. The little girl reached for her sister’s lifelike model horse. “Horsey!” she protested.

“Play with your pony,” Laura said firmly. “I have to help Mrs. Hart with the cookies.”

The old man in the rocking chair set aside the paper he was reading. “Come here, sweetheart,” he called to the little girl who looked as if she would cry. “Let’s do Pony Boy.”

Clutching her pony, the child toddled over to the man who had been like a grandfather to the two girls during the two years they had lived in Prescott. “Pony boy!” she shouted happily. She dropped the pony and held up her arms. Colonel Hart lifted her to his knee and, holding her carefully with both hands on her waist, gently bounced his leg and began to sing, “Pony boy, pony boy, won’t you be my pony boy?”

Gleefully bouncing on the old man’s knee, the child giggled, clutching his kneecap with her chubby hands, the stuffed pony forgotten on the floor.

From the kitchen, Laura looked back into the living room at the sound of her sister’s happy squeals. She shook her head with all her six-year-old maturity and said, “That’s all she ever wants to do, Mrs. Hart. Ride a pony. I wish she’d quit playing with my horses, though. She already broke the white one trying to ride it. She even tried to ride the dog one day, but he just laid down on the ground and rolled over.”

Mrs. Hart chuckled, dropping spoonfuls of cookie dough onto the pan. “She’ll outgrow it someday, Laura. She’s not even two years old yet. She just likes being bounced, like babies like to be rocked.”

“Do you think my mommy will let me rock the new baby sometimes?” Laura asked. “I’d rather play with a baby than horses anyway.”

“I’m sure your mommy will need all the help you can give her, Laura. Your sister will be able to help, too. Once your new baby brother or sister comes home in a few days, she’ll probably forget all about horses.”

Another gleeful shriek could be heard from the living room. “Again!”
Once again, Colonel Hart sang, “Pony boy, pony boy, won’t you be my pony boy?”


A few months after my baby sister Mary Ann was born, the family left Prescott for a new house in the suburbs of Phoenix. Colonel Hart’s “pony boy” was going to do her growing up on the fringe of a concrete jungle.

As a little girl, I spent Saturday mornings watching a whole lineup of westerns on the old black-and-white television set. Straddling the back of a blue plaid easy chair in my pajamas, I galloped across the plains on Fury, Flicka, Trigger, Champion and Silver. My first true love was Roy Rogers and at the age of three I decided someday I would marry him.

How bitterly disappointed I was when I learned that he was already married to co-star Dale Evans in “real life.” But, not to be dissuaded, I decided instead I would marry Trigger.

Those old westerns formed the basis for a lot of my core values – truth, honesty, justice, protection of the weak or innocent, fairness, loyalty, kindness to animals – all these things were modeled to me by my hero Roy. My role model for what a woman’s life should be was not my suburban housewife mother, but the exciting cowgirl who galloped after Roy across my TV screen every week.

The fact that Roy rode a gorgeous palomino stallion and Dale rode a beautiful buckskin
only made me want to live in that world all the more. If Roy had ridden a plain brown horse like the bad guys he chased, would he have been quite the hero? The message I got was that good guys rode beautiful horses. I’ve always preferred buckskins and palominos, no doubt as a result of my childhood hero-worship of Roy and Dale and their beautiful mounts.

While my mother stayed home with the kids, my father went to his job working as a research biologist for the Arizona Game and Fish department. Part of his job involved going to where the deer and the antelope played for the purpose of counting them, their babies, their droppings, and occasionally their predators. It was his job to know how many deer lived in an area so they knew how many hunting permits to issue during deer season. He also studied the plant life in the area, to learn how many deer the area could support without the deer starving during the winter, and he needed to know how many lions were in the area that might also influence herd size, although a man named Al did those surveys, much to my mother’s relief.

During the summertime, my father would make the trip to the White Mountains in eastern Arizona to count the deer that lived there. He would take his vacation at this time, so that he could work for a week, then have a week off to fish the local lakes.

Since part of the trip was vacation, the family got to go with him, and if Laura and I got up with him before dawn we would be allowed to accompany him on the deer surveys. He used a pre-printed form for this purpose and would record where he looked, what the weather was like, how many deer, elk, and antelope he found, and whether they were males, females, or babies.

Laura would mark the deer, elk, and antelope on her form.

I counted horses and cows.

The public land on which Dad counted the deer and the antelope was leased to ranchers for the purpose of grazing cattle. I found it much more interesting to know where the cows and horses were than the location of timid creatures whom I could never hope to ride. Nothing was more exciting to me than when we got a glimpse of cowboys in the distance, herding the cattle from pasture to pasture.

One day when I was three, the family was fishing from the shore of the lake when two cowboys rode up on their horses to let them get a drink. By this time, I’d been on a carnival pony ride once, but this was the closest I had ever been to a real, live horse, and I looked up at the animals in awe. “Daddy, look!” I said excitedly as they drew near. “Horses!”

One of the cowboys heard and looked over at the little girl who was being restrained by her father from running up to the horse. “Little horse-lover, huh?” he said to my dad.

Dad laughed. “You could say that. It’s all she ever talks about.”

Then the cowboy said the magical words: “Would she like a ride?”

I tore my gaze from the magical steed and looked at my daddy. “Please, Daddy, please? Can I ride the horsey?”

Thus it came to pass that Colonel Hart’s “pony boy” took her first ride on a full-sized horse on the front of the saddle of a real, live cowboy. The second cowboy gave Laura a ride, while one-year-old Mary Ann looked on with little interest, clinging shyly to our mother.

Clutching the saddle horn with both hands with the cowboy’s arm across my stomach, I grinned as we trotted across the grass, up the hill away from the lake, then broke into a canter and swung in a wide arc back to the shore. The canter was the best part.

I patted the horse’s neck before the cowboy handed me down to my father. “What’s his name?” I asked.

“Charlie,” the cowboy answered. “Charlie Horse.”

He was just a plain brown horse, but the man on his back was clearly one of the good guys and that made Charlie a special and beautiful horse in my eyes. “Thanks, Charlie,” I said as my father set me on the ground. I patted the horse’s leg one more time, then my father led me away, thanking the cowboy for indulging his daughter.

“Someday,” I declared, “I’m going to be a cowboy, too, and I’ll give rides to little kids who don’t have horses yet.”

It’s been well over forty years but I’ve never forgotten that moment and that promise I made to myself that day. Throughout my years of horse ownership I’ve remembered those who shared their horses unselfishly with a horse-crazy kid and have tried to pass that on to other children who have looked up in awe at my own mounts and asked permission to touch.

That first ride on Charlie was the beginning of a lifetime love and association with horses. I was raised in the suburbs of Phoenix, and my family never had the opportunity to keep horses, but I clung to the dream that someday I would have a stable full of them and would be the greatest trainer and rider that ever lived.

Well, I said it was a dream, didn’t I?

No comments:

Post a Comment