Wednesday, May 15, 2013

My Life With Horses

                                                by Laura Crum

            My first memory is of riding a horse at the family ranch. I believe I was about three. I am sitting in front of my uncle Todd on a dark horse, I remember the black mane. We are loping alongside a dirt road that led from the main ranch to the lower barn. My parents are driving in their two tone gold and white sedan (this would have been 1960) along the bumpy road. From my seat on the horse they appear small, far beneath my lordly height. They wave to me.
            I remember the wind and the flying dark mane and the rhythm of the lope, the sense of power and speed and freedom. I remember feeling both literally and symbolically above my parents in the car. We were going FASTER than the car. I was on a horse. I do not know if I was obsessed with horses before this moment, but I certainly was afterwards. I can chronicle my life through horses from this point forward.
            I don’t have a photo of that early ride; I do have a photo of a moment that I don’t remember. My uncle was selling a pony named Tarbaby, and apparently I was placed on the pony to show how gentle he was. The notation below the photo indicates that I was two years, three months. I certainly look happy. The back of the photo reads, “Pony For Sale.”

            After this my horse memories become random. I remember once being at the lower barn with my father (who was no horseman). Again, I would have been three or four. My uncle had a sorrel horse tied to a hitching rail. I must have begged to sit on the horse, though I don’t remember this. I do remember my father asking my uncle if he could put me on the horse. And all these many years later, I remember the hesitant tone in my uncle’s voice as he said, “Sure.” And I remember him quickly stepping up to untie the horse (good move). I sat happily on that horse for a few moments and then was put down again. End of story. But I wonder if that horse was all that gentle.

            My uncle only occasionally made time to put me up on his horses. But I helped him feed, if I was allowed to, and I just plain followed him around whenever I could. By the time I was six or seven, I knew all his “regular” horses by name. Since my uncle was something of a horse trader, there were horses that came and went. But Lad, the gentle brown gelding with the blaze face, was a good rope horse and a permanent resident. I was sometimes allowed to ride Lad, when my uncle had time to supervise. There was Dutch, who had to be put down due to a broken leg. And when I was about eight years old, my uncle bought a wonderful horse named Mr Softime.
            I don’t have any photos of Mr Softime, but I remember him perfectly. A bright bay with no white and a big kind eye. Softime was an ex-racehorse, an appendix bred QH, which means half TB and bred to run. In short, he was a hot horse, and only four years old. I was not allowed to ride him—for many years. But I hung around his corral and fed him grass all day, if nobody ran me off. Many years later I bought Burt, pictured below, because he reminded me of Softime.

            As I got older, I learned to ride—because I insisted on it. My parents had no interest in horses, but I pestered my uncle, and I begged my parents for riding lessons, which they somewhat grudgingly agreed to. I rode English at a local riding school and learned to jump. But my heart was always with the cowboys.
            Once I could ride tolerably well (at about eleven or twelve), my uncle let me ride his rope horses and his trading horses. And thus I grew up riding a wide selection of horses, some of whom were quite willing to buck and bolt and rear, let alone spook and be what you English riders call “very forward.” I rode them all. But Lad, with his big white blaze, and a sorrel horse named Tovy were the two steady Eddies who stayed until they died and carried me on many of my childhood horseback adventures.
            And I had my share of adventures. We used to slide the horses down the fifty foot sawdust piles at the old ranch and jump them over handmade jumps created out of pallets and crates, and when I was fourteen I regularly rode Lad solo through the hills and down the suburban streets—usually bareback. At fifteen I was allowed to buy my own horse (with my hard earned money) and for $175 (cheap even then) I bought a recalcitrant bay gelding named Jackson.
            Jackson had many faults and few virtues. The virtues were that he was sound and cheap and an OK trail horse. The faults were that he was ill broke and stubborn, willing to kick and rear and not particularly cooperative about anything. But I was fifteen and I thought I was tough and I rode this critter solo through the hills and down busy roads and often swam him across the San Lorenzo River (again solo—I have no idea what my parents were thinking or if perhaps they secretly wished to be rid of me). Once when I was saddling Jackson by myself at the small shack of a barn behind our neighbor’s house where I kept him, he kicked me in the head and knocked me out. When I came to, I finished saddling him and went riding. I never told my parents.
            Eventually I figured out that Jackson was not much of a deal and I sold him to the local riding school. I was all of nineteen and I had an even BETTER idea than buying another ill-broke backyard horse. I would buy an unbroken colt and train it myself(!)
            Never mind that I had never actually trained a horse myself. I had ridden plenty of green horses and I had survived Jackson—what could go wrong?
            So did I buy a gentle colt, carefully chosen for me by my experienced uncle? Well, no. I bought a completely untouched four-year-old mare with very hot bloodlines, and this choice was Ok’d by my experienced uncle. In retrospect I’m pretty sure he must have wanted to be rid of me, too.
            Honey, the mare, was a handful. She was also a very “marish” mare. Pretty much put me off mares for life. And really, she would have been a difficult project for an experienced horseman. She barely knew how to lead when I got her and she was in the fall of her four-year-old year and as full of herself as a horse can get.
            I got her broke. I didn’t die. But by the time she was five and was reasonably safe to ride, I had learned that she did not love me and I did not love her. So I sold her and bought a very cute 5 year old green broke gelding who was for sale cheap. I was in college by then and I took this horse, Hobby, off to school with me.
            Hobby was cute, but stubborn. I found out very soon why I had been able to afford this horse. He bolted whenever he felt like it, and nothing, including pulling his nose around and dallying the rein to the saddle horn, would stop him. He just ran until he fell down.
            A year of this and I had him cured of most of his bad habits, but once again, I was sick of him. I sold him to a woman who kept him the rest of his life and taught her kids to ride on him (and they won a bunch on him in the show ring), so I guess I did an OK job with his training. But I wanted a forever horse. One that I really liked. And then came Burt.

            (to be continued)

PS--I want to add that I am not terribly proud of the way I grew up with horses. I took many chances I probably shouldn't have taken, I never wore a helmet...etc. My son has grown up with horses in a very different way than I did. I wish I had thought more about the consequences of my choices when I was young, particularly when it came to buying and selling horses. My only excuse is that I did not have a lot of help. My uncle was a horse trader and treated horses more or less as commodities. I had to learn as an adult what true horsemanship and love for horses really means. It was a path I found on my own, as future posts on this subject will tell.


Dom said...

I have to say that I ADORE this entry and can't wait for the next bit.

"again solo—I have no idea what my parents were thinking or if perhaps they secretly wished to be rid of me"
I laughed out loud because that's how I feel looking back on some of my adventures as a teen. Di, the failed Australian-bred trotter who slammed me head first into a metal fence, comes to mind. I rode that horse EVERYWHERE. Solo, in the roads, and in the mountains. I was only 16 and I thought I was SO tough.

Unknown said...

The thing is very few, if any, of us rode with helmets back in those days. Did they even make them? My best friend and I literally raced our horses bareback as fast as they could go through the neighboring alfalfa fields. We rode to town (mesa Az) which had busy roads and lots of traffic. We would get up in the mornings and jump on our ponies and ride all day until the sun was coming down and then ride home. We never told anyone where we were headed because the truth is, we didn't know. We just followed our noses. Our horses were pretty good horses, but we all know there is not such thing as truly bombproof. Even the best horse can spook, and ours did on occasion. One time we were grabbing some pomegranates off an old man's tree and he came out the front door yelling his head off waving a shot gun. That was a little scary. We rode through the orange groves and out to the desert,to the "water tanks", to the sand dunes, to the gravel pit, raced along the canals (which many people have drowned in) We jumped dirt burms and fell off. Nothing we did was "safe" but gosh did we have fun!
Why did we do it? Because that is how things were done back then. Life was different.

Laura Crum said...

Dom and Cindy D--Sounds like you two grew up on horses the same way I did (!) Glad we all survived.

I've tried to give my son a fun childhood with horses, too--but he does wear a helmet and I chose a really reliable horse for him and I ride with him on our horseback adventures. And you know, I think he has had as much fun or more than I did--and a great deal less frustration. On the other hand, I don't think his passion for horses is anywhere near what mine was.

Francesca Prescott said...

Laura, we were young and crazy and immortal... Like you, I did all the crazy stuff with ponies, and later with horses. I remember racing along the edge of a canyon in Alum Rock Park, California (I was there for about two years in the eighties) with my sister. Racing! There was a sheer drop on my horse's outside shoulder! No helmets. No clue. But it was fun!!

Earlier than that my friend and I used to take the farmer's ponies out for hours at a time, most of them barely broken in. We once got lost in the fog up the mountain, it was autumn and it was cold and all the adults panicked and sent out search parties...and we got such an earful when we turned up. That was less fun!!! But yeah, crazy days.

Anonymous said...

I grew up next to a (very bad) livery stable - the kind that rents horses by the hour to people "who want to make them run". Horrible place, and the horses were horribly treated - the owner had a bad temper and severely abused many of the horses. As a child, I just put up and shut up, and never told anyone, which I still feel bad about. But I rode, and rode and rode there, and by the time I was 10 I was in charge of trail rides, riding bareback on whatever horse I chose. I also never wore a helmet, and did some pretty dangerous things, such as riding any horse next to the state highway (still bareback) into town, several miles away, to ride in parades. My parents never paid any attention, but then they never paid any attention to me in general so that was consistent. They did get me a horse when I was 8 - a vicious, barely trained mare (made that way by the horrible livery stable owner), who I was very proud of until she "disappeared" one day.

After that, I had a whole series of horses, some better than others. My last horse, who was the best one, was a cremello mare that I called Snow - she must have been a QH. We did everything - Western, jumping, you name it we did it. She was fabulous, but my parents sold her when I was 16 - we were moving (again) and I didn't get a vote about whether we took her with us.

I only started wearing a helmet regularly once I got to college.

Anonymous said...

I love all the stories and can't wait for the rest. I really love the one where you got knocked out and didn't tell your parents. It sounds like me. I wasn't lucky enough to have horses as a child, but I was always doing something I shouldn't, like jumping off the roof of the garage. More than once I thought I broke a bone, but didn't tell my parents because they might not let me go water skiing or whatever I wanted to do next. I was horse crazy and remember the first time I saw someone ride a horse. I would have tried to ride a wild pony.

Laura Crum said...

Cesca, Kate, and redhorse--Its interesting that so many of us have the same basic "ground." And we also have much in common in our present feelings about horses. I really enjoy hearing other horse people's thoughts on this "growing up horse crazy" thing.

kerrin said...

I grew up on the East coast. My sister and I haunted our local riding stable. We got to take one lesson a week in the summer. We learned to ride (starting on day one) on the bit, in a double bridle. We spent every Saturday at the stable. We lived for the chance to clean a stall, fill a water bucket or go get a horse out and groom it for some other kid's lesson, or to ride a sweaty horse bareback back to his stall or pasture.
My father's friend bred Shetland ponies. He broke them by picking one of us kids up by the upper arm and plopping us on a pony. Leading the pony with one hand and holding the kid with the other he led them around bucking and cavorting. He also had a huge Standardbred mare and occasionally let us 'breeze her' on his oval track. What power.
Then we lived somewhere where there was a big field with ponies in it. The farmer let us ride them if we could catch them. No tack. We made halters and bridles out of braided hay twine and rode bareback. One really bad naughty pony named Hoodie (Whodee) was uncatchable. One kid would hide up in an apple tree and the other kids would ride the rest of the herd beneath the tree and the waiting kid would try to leap out and land on Hoodie.
When we were in highschool my sister begged and pleaded and got her own horse. She soon lost interest but I rode that horse all over the mountains, got stuck in a swamp up to her hocks, crossed a concrete weir over a spillway (horse fell off and got all acraped up), parents never knew where I was until I got home.
That horse lived loose on 80 acres. In the morning my sister would let her out of the barn, face her toward the hills and whack her butt. In the afternoon she'd come home and graze on the back lawn until we put her in the barn for the night. The neighbors or police occasionally came around and let us know our horse was grazing the side of the road a ways away. Didn't seem to occur to my parents to enclose her with a fence and nothing bad ever happened.
My high school friend had a huge ill tempered black quarterhorse mare that lived in our barn with my sister's horse. I'd ride her to my job petsitting some neighbor dogs. I'd tie her to a tree and when I wanted to ride home she often wouldn't let me get back on, so I'd mount with her tied (craziness!!!) and then lean over and unhook the rope and leave it tied to the tree until the next day. One time that mare got loose from our barn and bolted for her home (my friend's house) with me in pursuit, bareback on my sister's mare with a dog leash in her jaw like a Cherokee bridle. I can't remember worrying about falling off. Flat out bolt across the two lane highway and several miles uphill until the mare ran out of steam and I caught up with her. Had to hold two horses with one dog leash until my friend and my dad arrived in our family car.
My parents seemed happy that we were "playing outside." To this day, my mother has no idea of the adventures I had. I was horse crazy then and never lost my way.

Laura Crum said...

Wow Kerrin--I think you were wilder than me. (Credit to Fred Eaglesmith "She's wilder than me...")

RiderWriter said...

O.o WOW!!!

Goodness gracious, I have no idea how ALL of you ladies are still alive n' kickin' today, truly. Some of these adventures are making my hair stand up!

On the other hand, all of this is making me feel a bit sorry for myself, because I had no opportunity to get into any horsey shenanigans myself as a kid. All I ever really wanted was to get on a horse and do what I wanted, and I never, not ONE TIME, was able to do that. Why not? Lesson student ONLY. It was tack up, get on, obey instructor, get off. The most freedom I ever got was when we could cool off our horses by walking them on a track in the back pasture.

The first time in my whole life I got on a horse and went off by myself was at an almost complete stranger's house, at age 23. All I did was trot and canter around in a pasture but I was pretty darn happy. I found a livery stable that turned people loose (I'm SURE they're long since out of business!) around then as well and rode there a couple times, but it scared me because the horses were in poor condition.

Then I didn't ride at all for many (sad) years...

I finally back to taking lessons. A couple years into that, a lady at the barn asked me if I'd like to exercise her mare once a week. Mare had used to be in lesson program so I knew her well. I was in heaven; for about five weeks I got to show up at the barn, groom, tack and do whatever I wanted to (as long as it wasn't jumping, which was only allowed in lessons). It's the one and only taste I've ever had of owning my own horse. Unfortunately, the BO pulled the plug on the arrangement. He didn't like that he wasn't making any money off of it, I can only surmise, OR it was a liability thing because I had no contract with the owner. Regardless, I was heartbroken and cried for days.

The only riding I'm doing these days is very occasionally I can ride my friend's horse. I am grateful for this, of course, but I can only ride when she's riding the other horse and we can only do what she wants to do. It's better than nothing but again, not the same.

In other words, all of you who grew up bombing around on your own (or even borrowed) horses are SO LUCKY! :-)

Laura, I absolutely LOVE your telling this story. Keep the installments coming!

The Equestrian Vagabond said...

LOVE part 1!!!
- The Equestrian Vagabond

Laura Crum said...

Thanks Merri! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Riderwriter--It makes me sad to hear how frustrating some of your experiences have been. I hope you persist and eventually have the freedom to ride and enjoy a good horse.