Horse-brained and Happily Hobbled
Some folks are born to love horses. A child whose attention is riveted to the horses in a movie rather than to the dialogue is a child who is horse-brained. The Western movies that were so popular from the 1920s through the late 1950s had two attractions to some people—the heroes/heroines and the horses. Even by the time Clint Eastwood began to make movies, the horses were the beautiful Spanish barbs that made riders seem secondary necessities. Some of us just enjoyed watching the horses and dreaming of being the riders of such wonderful steeds.
My first ‘horse’ was the saddle that my daddy had stored in the old well house on Granddad Pollard’s farm. Dad brought it home and fastened ropes to it and hung it from our swing set. It didn’t last long, but oh the dreams that rode out on that saddle! But then, Dad would tell stories about his horse Rabbit and how the paint horse could outrun just about anything around. This same horse was the one that Dad had taught to take off as soon as Dad’s foot was in the stirrup. That lightning take off happened to be the cause of Grandmother Pollard’s injured kidney after she chose to ride the horse to the field to take Granddad his lunch and drinking water. Rabbit was well trained, but Grandmother wasn’t prepared to play a cowboy chase scene.
In among the pictures taken when I was a young child was one showing Dad leading a little pony with a happily grinning daughter sitting pretty with her skirt spread out over the top of the saddle. Little girls did not wear jeans in those days. The pony was one of those little Shetlands that were used in a circular riding ring that kept the children out and the ponies in. No doubt the owner made enough money to feed the ponies and pay for whatever tack might have eventually worn out. But back then paying even one dollar to let a child ride a pony was an extravagance.
Another picture shows a little girl in a winter coat up---way up—on the back of a mixed breed work horse of huge dimensions. Old Dan was a gentle giant that was used in a team to pull stumps out of the Louisiana gumbo. And that gumbo was dirt, not something to eat! Strength and patience was in Dan’s blood line, but for the little girl who was turned loose on his back, he was the nearest thing to heaven that a horse crazy child could imagine. One summer Dan was the center of one of those “take turns” that every child dreads. His back was plenty big for two children, but holding the reins and deciding the destination was part of the excitement of riding the horse. So when one rider ducked as the horse went under the clothes line and the second rider was left hanging by her chin, well, it is just possible that taking turns turned out to be a little less equal than expected.
One grandfather had a beautiful mare named Nellie who had a very deep objection to a curb bit strap. A sweeter little horse and more docile horse one could never expect, but just fasten her up with a curb bit that had a strap under her mouth and watch her head go up! She was good with the cattle as long as the rider didn’t try to do too much reining. Hit that bit a couple of times and the rider could expect some fireworks. One rider ended up in the middle of a stock tank when he could not get the mare to turn loose of the bit and turn. But he learned how to rein and began to leave her mouth alone. One summer she even worked as a diving dock out in the middle of a stock tank as the grandchildren swam back and forth in the pond. It was a sad day when she left the farm to go to another family.
Dawn and Patty were the offspring of Nellie. Neither had her fire, but Dawn was a pretty good horse for a child to ride just for fun. She had no problems with a curb bit and enjoyed a good run over the meadows just as much as her rider enjoyed the ride. It was Dawn who ran through the winter snow and fell, rolling over her rider. But that is another story all by itself.
Another wonderful horse was named Dusty and lived in a pasture near Granddad Pollard’s farm. He belonged to a man who worked with our dad. But Jeff Jeffries hardly ever rode Dusty because Jeff was getting pretty old and stove up from the work he did during the week. Dusty was spirited and had a tendency to rear up when he was in a tight place, so Jeff rarely used him to go get the cattle from a pasture south of Granddad’s place.
Jeff once asked that one of us kids ride his horse to go get the cattle for him. In bringing the cattle down the hill below the tank, Dusty slid in the mud and fell on top of his rider’s leg, but both horse and rider got up and moved the cattle on back to the barn. Somehow little mishaps like that were never shown in the movies.
The movies always showed the wonderful Mustangs and the friendly horses of famous cowboys, but never did those horses attack a rider. One rancher, Buster Zachary, kept rodeo horses on his ranch one year under a contract to keep them pastured and fed for the winter. When Buster rode out to check on the heifers in his cattle herd, the stallion that was kept with the rodeo mares attacked Buster and his horse. Buster ended up with a huge hunk of his leg torn and bruised. Shortly thereafter the rodeo horses were moved to the pasture north of Granddad Pollard’s place. It was there near the lane to the farm that we would stop and watch the horses as they grazed. And the little horse crazy girl would dream horse dreams for days.
Once upon a time Christmas seemed to make the impossible possible—at least for some of us. Dad did his best to make Christmas wonderful, but he still asked about our heart’s desire. A selfish little girl said that a horse was the only gift she would ever want. Frustrated, Dad quipped that a jackass might have to do. The girl’s smile was too much for Dad. That afternoon a muddy little donkey arrived to be kept in the back yard for the next four or five years. That was back in 1959 right before John F. Kennedy was to run for president in 1960. That donkey with a patriotic hat was one of the first pictures of Sir Clyde the First. He went on to become a symbol of more than democratic politics; he was the first of the flying donkeys. No one who has ever ridden a donkey bareback for any length of time needs to be told how wonderfully balanced a rider can become after riding for a few months. And a donkey that runs and jumps with its rider is especially good for building confidence and strength.
Family dynamics are not always sweetness and light, and for that reason, Dad felt that he needed to put a big raw boned gelding in our back yard. Chico was over seventeen hands tall and so skinny that he seemed mostly bones. He needed what the horse trader called ‘groceries.’ He survived being wormed and stumbled around until he was well fed enough to be ridden. It was the dead of winter when he came to us, but his presence became the foundation of a warm friendship. Chico understood his rider without reins or any other accoutrement of tack. Not many horses are as forgiving of a rider’s mistakes or awkwardness as this horse was.
Duchess came to us as a yearling. She was wearing her scraggly foal coat and needed to be brushed badly. And she had not even been weaned. She stood under the clothes line in the back yard where Chico’s saddle blanket was hung. She rubbed her head on it and lay down on the ground under it. Poor little filly missed her dam. After a year of training and handling, no one could have asked for a better young horse. But she had spirit and speed and the youth that made each fairly unpredictable. It took very little effort to take a wild run down the lane to the Groves’ farm, but then, she also was willing to work around the cattle with her head held down and her eyes on the cattle. The only problem with Duchess was really that she did not like to be alone. She could jump anything around four feet tall with plenty of space between her and the top of a fence or a pole. So she would not be kept away from the house or from our home overnight. It only took once for us to understand that she would NOT stay on the farm unless we were there too. Four gates and cattle guards were nothing to her. And because she demanded personal attention, she remained in my parents’ back yard when I went off to college.
The stories Dad told about his days on the farm and the horses and the big Holloway lake always made us wish we could have been back there with him in those days. Truth be told, he was probably pretty lonely out there on the farm with no other kids around for more than three miles. And I realize now that he relived those happier days in his memory from a different perspective than he had back then. Like the cowboy movies never showed the accidents, the tired muscles, and the lack of food out on the prairie, our memories often leave out some of the harder parts of reality. Maybe that is why it is so easy to love horses when the price of hay, the lack of pasture, the price of veterinarian bills, and the assorted heartbreaks involved can be left in the background with the typical movie music.