Before I start my newest story, I have to say we had a great ride last night, despite the nine other riders going every which way in the arena. Our canter gets better and better every time I ride. I did better at keeping my weight balanced in the saddle and finally, finally, able to relax and just ride in both directions. One year and eight months after I started riding again, I can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel. Ashke was a little sweaty and warm and very tired when we were done. Cantering is very hard work. I need to get him outside on a trail on Saturday, if I can. We are both a bit over the indoor at this point.
Ok. Back to my story. I can't promise this is exactly what really happened, but it's what it felt like.
Wild, Wild West
One of my earliest memories is of riding. My parents knew a man who had a horse. Or several dozen horses. His name was Merrell and when I was four and five he lived on a sweet little horse ranch nestled in the hills ten miles or so outside of Firth, ID, where I grew up. His ranch was framed by mountains on the left side, rising in steep ridges above his house, with fenced pasture land stretched out behind and to the right side, where he ran his horses and a few cattle. There was a canal or small river that ran to the right, behind the pasturage, between his place and the Indian reservation.
His ranch consisted of a small, two bedroom house, painted white with green trim, several corrals and stock pens, a couple of lean-tos and several sheds, all in various states of disrepair. Merrell raised Appaloosas on his land, standing a blue roan stallion that was the father of Queenie. He had numerous horses broke to ride, so my parents always had solid, well-broke mounts to ride whenever we went out there.
[Quick side note: The last summer I spent at Firth was spent riding. My sibs were all in California with my Grandmother and I stayed home to work my horses and ride. It was my final year in 4-H and my 4-H group was led by a woman named Deb. Deb was also the President of my very first 4-H group when I was eight and riding the shitland. She had long, dark hair to her waist, dark eyes, rode a bright bay Arabian gelding and was magnificent on horseback. Or at least so it seemed to the eight year old me. I was absolutely in love with her, wanted to be like her, wanted her to like me. So, to have her be my 4-H leader eight years later (where I was in love with her all over again for vastly different reasons) was a bit surreal. To make this story even more convoluted, she lived on Merrell's ranch and I spent a lot of time at her house, even pasturing Ace there with her QH yearling. I think she was the motivating factor in my learning to ride properly and correctly and learning to show when I was a kid. Anyway.]
My mom's horse was a 15.1 black mare with small white splotches on her hindquarters they called Button. I remember Button's foal; a small black and white coat horse that followed her on our rides. At least he did until he got big enough to leave behind. Button was a very nice horse and behaved well for my mom, except she wouldn't stand still for mounting. She would wait until my mom had her foot in the stirrup (Western saddles and no mounting blocks to be seen) and then she would pace in a circle, my mom hopping on one foot, trying to get enough momentum to swing up on this mare. Uncle Merrell and my father would laugh uproariously at the sight. Bastards. Finally, my mom would wrestle her to a stop and swing up, then Uncle Merrell would lift me up behind her to cling to the back of the saddle.
Western saddles, at least the saddles I rode on when I was young, had a wide skirt that flowed out behind the saddle. This skirt was designed to protect anything tied to the back of the saddle from being covered in horse sweat and hair, plus it would keep the stuff behind the saddle from abrading the horse's back. It was exactly the width needed for a small child to sit on, hands clenched around the curled edge of the saddle's cantle, face turned sideways and body snuggled up against my mom's back. My brother, about three at the time, rode in the same way behind Uncle Merrell's saddle. Uncle Merrell rode a buckskin Appy, with a white blanket and black legs and mane. He wasn't too big either, about 15.2, but built nice with the blocky Roman nose of Merrell's stallion. My father rode a big, rangy, rawboned bright chestnut mare, who stood 16.3 or 17hh. She had to be thoroughbred, with her long legs and tall stature. My little sister, about a year old, rode in front of my father clinging to the saddle horn with her chubby fists.
Funny thing about that rawboned mare: she had a mind of her own. When we rode out from the ranch down the road, there was a narrow goat trail that led up the side of the hill that she would take. There was a fence on the hill side of the trail and a twenty foot drop off on the downhill side. She would follow that narrow track, her hooves a couple of feet above my mom's head as she rode Button down the road. I know it made my mom very nervous to have her year old daughter balanced on top of that crazy mare, but she never put a foot wrong and always came back down to the road at the other side.
We would take off on a ride up the road onto the Fort Hall Indian Reservation. We would go for hours, riding through the rolling hills and treeless prairie in aimless, wandering exploration. I am sure my thirst for and love of the high plains of the west stem from this conditioning at such a young age. It filled my soul with wanderlust and created the need for wide open places to explore on horseback. It also, in some ways, made me fearless. It had the opposite effect on my sibs. At some point in our ride, we stopped on a high vista, looking back down at the Snake River Valley of my youth from the high, wind swept grasslands of the Shoshone Nation. I remember my first taste of beef jerky, salty and hard between my teeth, and the sweet taste of Pepsi following after, that Merrell shared out of his saddlebags, the condensation running down the slick glass of the Pepsi bottle. After our impromptu lunch, we would mount back up and head for home.
The ride I remember started as we crossed out of the Fort Hall reservation. We were headed home and still had several miles to ride. The road was packed dirt and unrutted. They began to canter. The horses, heading home and knowing it, moved from a canter to a gallop and then from a gallop to a flat-out run. I wrapped my five year old hands around the cantle of the saddle and pressed against my mom's back, clenching with my legs and held on for dear life. My father had wrapped the latigo from the horn of his saddle around my sister's belly, tying her to the saddle in front of him. I remember my brother's face, white with gritted teeth, as he held on for all he was worth.
The horses stretched out, running like deer, the bits between their teeth, three abreast as the rounded the corner of the road and headed down the last quarter mile stretch, the house and corrals in sight in front of them. I honestly think that all three adults had forgotten about the cattle guard between them and home. This cattle guard was eighteen feet across with the rails set about six inches apart, wide enough to show the deep, dark four foot deep hole beneath it. Back then, cattle guards were serious stuff, intended to keep the cattle and horses in. This one had a small gate to the right of the guard, with a post set about three feet in front of it, which a rider on horseback could maneuver through, but the cattle would just walk around. The gate was only big enough for one horse at a time. When the riders saw the cattle guard they yanked back on the reins in a sudden panic, but the horses had no desire to stop. They could see home right in front of them and they were running three abreast.
There was absolutely no stopping the horses.
I think my heart would have stopped in my chest, if I had been my mom.
The cattle guard was stretched across the road and the only gate through was very small on the left side, blocked by a fence post.
My mom yelled to me and my brother to lift our legs up. I did, still clinging to the back of the saddle with small, white-knuckled hands, and tried to stay on without the safety of my strong legs. I saw my brother do the same, bouncing up and down on the dun's back like a small demented monkey. Uncle Merrell's horse and my mom's horse hit the gap in the fence at the same time, each horse weaving around the fence post a couple of feet in front, one to either side. The fence exploded into small pieces of wood and twanging wire, the top of the gate post sliding past the bottom of my small foot, the dun pressed tight against the black mare on the other side as the two horses became one for a small moment in time. My exhilarated grin met my brother's terrified one as the horses jerked and lurched through the gate, coming out the other side in one piece amidst the broken and shattered fence.
I heard a wild cry and turned my head to the left. My father, one arm wrapped around the waist of the toddler in front of him, her hands clenched in terror around the horn of the saddle, his other hand fisted in the reins of the big, rawboned mare, a look of exhilarated terror on his tight-lipped face, leaned forward in the saddle as that mare leaped the cattle guard in a perfect jump, front legs curled tight against her chest, her body arched high and wide. And she landed perfectly balanced about three feet beyond the cattle guard, continuing her race for the corrals, where she pulled up in first place, blowing and snorting and covered with foam. With my baby sister tied to the saddle strapped to her back.
It is a miracle we all survived to adulthood.