Thursday, June 30, 2011

Back in the Saddle

A little bit of history about me:  I was a horse-crazy girl.  This does not set me apart from just about any other girl out there, I know.  What DOES set me apart from at least a great  many of them, was that my dream to have a horse came true when I was twelve years old.

Though I had grown up in the suburbs of Kansas City up to that point, my parents moved us about an hour north, to a farmhouse sitting on 30 acres of Platte River bottoms land.  (One interesting/amusing/terrifying aside - at the time we didn't know it, but the locals referred to that stretch of land as "Rattlesnake Cut." With good reason. Joy.)

God bless my parents, they were willing to be a little adventurous.  A month after we moved into this place, sleeping on air mattresses on the floor while my parents gutted the place and renovated it, my father was a little late coming home one night.  And he topped the hill pulling a horse trailer behind his truck...  with my very own horse in it.  We knew nothing about horses.  Nothing.  I had probably ridden a horse about a dozen times in my life, and every time it was a very quiet, gentle animal, that was used to having kids on its back; trail rides and quiet lessons through the Girl Scouts.  I'd never actually been in complete control of a horse.

I named him Prince.  He was a strawberry roan Quarter Horse; though we later grew to suspect that he might have been a Quarter Horse crossed with a POA (Pony of the Americas.)  He was a good, gentle horse.  But he was young, mischievous, and oh yes, a lazy glutton, but in the nicest sort of way.  But oh, he sized us up.  We were idiots.  Complete amateurs.  How hard can it be to strap a saddle onto a horse, right?

We didn't even know to tie him up before trying to saddle him.  The result was that if he didn't want to be saddled, he'd turn his rump to us.  We'd been earnestly instructed to never stand behind a horse to avoid being kicked, so we'd skitter out of the way like frightened chihuahuas.  Prince thought that this was the most hilarious thing in the world and did it all the time.

He would also take ME for a ride. He'd graze along the way, and when he decided that it was time to go back to the barn, we went back to the barn.  I, the rider, didn't get a say.

A neighbor kindly taught me a few of the basics.  1.)  Tie the dang horse up before trying to saddle him up.  2.) Knee him (gently) in the gut when drawing up the cinch of the saddle to make him suck in his breath.  It's a common horse-trick to blow their bellies out when you're cinching them up - then the saddle is nice and loose when you're actually riding.  Your chances of falling off, saddle and all (as we learned) are quite high!  3.)  Be stern and make the horse go where you want him to go.

Up to that point, I'd been afraid to discipline him.  I was afraid that he wouldn't like me anymore.  My visions of a Lone-Ranger styled partnership were dwindling fast.  I desperately wanted to be friends with him, but he was taking advantage of me every day.  I was a bit afraid that he would hurt me - he weighed significantly more than I, after all.  I had to learn that I couldn't ever show him that fear.  And eventually, I lost it anyway.  Prince wouldn't have hurt me for the world, though he wasn't above bullying me just a bit.

And then I went to my aunt's ranch, out in Colorado, for a month one summer.  It was a life-changing event.

I learned how to master the horse.  Really, she taught me how to ride, and to do it well.  Along the way, I picked up a few other things just by watching her:  I learned how to put steel in my voice when I needed it, to make the horse obey me even without the threat of a riding crop.  I learned how to read the horse's mood by his mannerisms, the positioning of the ears, the posture.  I learned to have fun on the back of a horse, instead of being terrified or tense the entire time.  As a result, the horses that I was riding relaxed.  We had a good time.  I learned that if you fall off, unless you are so battered that you have to go to the emergency room, no matter how terrified you were, no matter how sore you might already feel, you hauled your butt off of the hard Colorado clay and you got back up onto the horse IMMEDIATELY.  It didn't matter if your legs were trembling so hard from fear that you couldn't keep them in the stirrups.  You got up, and you rode.  And you didn't stop until the fear subsided.  Back in the saddle.  Because if you didn't, you'd never get back up on a horse again.

I returned home with my second horse, Cody, a beautiful sorrel Quarter-Horse/Thoroughbred cross.  But Prince and I had some ground to cover too.  It was like a switch had flipped.  I was in complete control of him the very first time I got up onto his back.  He obeyed me.  My mother tells the story that when I first slipped up onto his back and confidently picked up the reins, and ordered him to c'mon, he turned his head completely around to STARE up at this strange creature sitting on his back.

I went back out to my aunt's ranch the following year, and returned with yet another horse.  She was simply named "Twenty-Nine."  I kept the name to avoid confusing her.  She was also a sorrel quarter horse.  She was young, and spirited, and would have scared the heck out of me just the year before.  She pranced instead of walking, and it didn't take much to convince her that she wanted to run run run and she could do it fast. She was a lot of fun to ride, and when I was on her back I felt truly free.  I showed both Twenty-Nine and Cody in the 4-H shows, and even further improved my riding skills.  I did well.

This series of horses taught me a lot about myself:  that I DO have a voice of steel when I need it, which is something that has served me well with horses, dogs, cats, and dare I say, people.  I could handle one of these beautiful half-ton creatures, even being "just a girl."  I COULD have a Lone-Ranger partnership, once we established a certain level of mutual respect.  It may have been the first thing ever, outside of my schoolwork, that I did well.  It built my confidence.  But I think that the most important thing that it ever taught me, and I hope that it is a life lesson that I take to the grave, is to get back in the saddle.  Even after falling off.  Even if the ground is hard and unforgiving.   Even when being unceremoniously thrown off and trampled.  It doesn't matter if your legs are shaking from terror.  You just do it anyway, because the consequences of not doing it are so very high.

I have no idea of why I've been thinking about those horses and the lessons that they taught me, but I haven't been able to get them off of my mind this week.  I decided to share the story on my blog, which was hopefully at least entertaining.  I hope that you enjoyed my memories.  I enjoyed writing them...  it's been a very long time.  I will have to try to dig out a photograph or two of me with the horses and scan them in.


  1. I love the story and I am so glad you shared it. It takes me back to my horse and some of the same issues. Although I didn't learn the lessons as well as you did.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    Berts My Vickie

  2. I grew up on a farm with horses, too. Well, we had sheep when I was younger, then got horses when I was around thirteen. It's a good thing I was a daredevil as a kid. I got run over by one of my horses once, and yeah, I got up and got back on. Later I had a lump the size of an ostrich egg on my shin. We had all sorts of crazy adventures with ours growing up! I loved your reminiscences about yours!

  3. Absolutely fabulous! How awesome! Thank you for sharing. I loved your story and the lesson. I really needed to hear that today. Thank you.

  4. I enjoyed your memories. Growing up I wanted a horse so badly. We had Shetland ponies, but they were kinda mean and not very "rideable."

  5. Great story! Took me back to my youth. Although I never owned my own horse, I sure spent a lot of time around them. Friends of ours had a dude ranch and I spent the summers there, for 10 years, milking cows at the crack of dawn, mucking stalls and the pig pen, teaching children to ride, and bringing the horses in from the high range.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Nellie's Mom

  6. I loved this story! It's really almost a story of growing up! And I love your sense of humor throughout!

  7. Melanie, this post hits a new high. Needs wide-readership publication beyond this blog (wonderful tho this medium is). I love it. It's perfect. The exact mix of love, pain, uplift, humor (STARED at you!) and learning, conveyed through meticulously observed real-life experience in precise and vivid language. Superb.

  8. I am glad that the post was well-liked! I have a lifetime of animal stories, even if I do usually focus on my current ones.

  9. You have been excelling yourself with your posts while I've been in my self imposed exile shifting my blog:) Love this one too.