Originally written December 2010, still true today.
I’m not entirely sure what has prompted this memory, but it surfaces now and then, so I’ll share it here. My grasp of the years and specific dates of things that happened when I was growing up is rather fuzzy. Yet I do remember that there was a period of two years, maybe only one and a half, during which I spent almost every weekend in heaven.
Well, not literally in heaven, mind you, but as close as a pre-teen girl growing up in Texas could get: on a ranch surrounded by horses. My entire life I have loved horses. When I discovered that I could draw, it was horses that appeared on my pages. Many of my homework assignments had bright little steeds cantering up and down the margins of the notebook paper. I knew precisely where the horse books, fiction and non-fiction, could be found in the school library, and those were the books that I checked out—repeatedly. One summer, my parents rented a pony for my exclusive use from a nearby farm, and though I wasn’t allowed to sleep every night (or any) in his stall, that pony made for a fabulous summertime.
I swooned over photos and posters of horses the way other girls were swooning over Donny Osmond. My favorite smells even involved horses. Burying my face in a horse’s neck and mane and breathing deeply; the smells of saddle leather; even shoveling a stall conjured vibrant, familiar, “horsey” scents. The softest and best sensation in my memory is stroking a horse’s nose: the places right in the center and on the sides of a horse’s muzzle are the silkiest things I’ve ever touched. And then there are the sounds. Hoof beats at every speed; the creak of leather as I settled into the saddle; the clinking of the metal bit as a horse tossed his head; the swish of a tail; gentle nickering—all music to this Texas girl.
My desire to spend more time with horses inspired my Mom to find an outlet for me. She discovered that a distant relative owned a ranch outside of town and rented horses for an hour at a time to city folks who wanted to go for a ride. We made the half-hour drive one Saturday morning to the Lazy J Ranch and met cousin Randy for the first time. (On a side note, my memory of Randy has him looking exactly like young Matthew McConaughey. ) For a mere $4 one could purchase the ride of a horse throughout the many wonders of the pasture beyond the corral. (I’m being facetious here—it was the most boring acreage in north Central Texas, and that’s saying something! However, from the back of a horse, those acres were my favorite place to be…)
I can’t remember the name of the broken down, sway-backed, black mare onto which Randy first put me, but the ride was calm and sedate. Not quite what I’d had in mind, but cautiously safe for my first ride. In the days and weeks after that first ride, and as Randy grew more confident with my riding skills, I came to know many of the other horses. Highpockets, a tall, rangy bay, was quite a fun ride, and therefore not always available. There was a brown thoroughbred mare, whose name I forget, which I rode on a number of occasions. She was a safer choice and yet fun as well.
The quieter horses (meaning, boring) were the last requested by the regular customers, so I had to get there early, or wait for hours if I wanted to be choosy. That was fine with me, because I stayed all day long. While I wasn’t riding I learned to muck out the stalls and groom and feed the boarded horses. I paid my $4 for one hour of riding and worked like a slave for the rest of the day—for free. Yet, I’d have paid them for that privilege too, I loved it so.
There was one horse which was not often requested by regular customers. Peanuts, a deep bay Welsh Pony / Quarter Horse cross, with a stiffly upstanding black mane, and a white stripe down his nose, became my favorite horse. Peanuts had the stubbornness of a mule, and if he wasn’t ready for a ride, nothing would move him. Many a customer would howl for Randy’s help to get the little guy going, only to request another mount when nothing of their own effort worked. There were times when I’d arrive and Peanuts would already be out with another rider, so I’d sit by and wait. Before long, a lone rider would come early into the corral saying that their friend’s horse was in the middle of the pasture and wouldn’t move. Randy would hop up onto the nearest horse and ride out to rescue the marooned customer. He’d lead them back in, help the poor fellow or lady off, and look my way. “Show them how it’s done Barbie!” he’d call, and I’d run over, jump into the saddle, and spur Peanuts into a quick canter around the corral. There was no magic to it, I just knew this little horse, and he knew me.
The hours we spent in the pasture were filled with imagination, and an occasional jackrabbit to chase as well. If I rode to a certain point, along a little rise, when the sun was sliding lower in the sky and the shadows were growing long, our combined shadow looked like a Spanish Conquistador astride his mighty steed, with Peanut’s legs lengthened and his valiantly arched neck emphasized… One weekend Peanuts’ saddle broke. Randy left it in the tack room, and I was allowed to ride Peanuts all weekend on my own—bareback—since he was “un-rentable” without a saddle. I adored that little horse.
I not only rode Randy’s horses, but was privileged to ride some of the boarders’ horses as well. A woman named Joann boarded her mare Sharlee and Sharlee’s filly, Shandy, at the ranch. Many horses are named from a combination of the Sire’s and the Dam’s names. When Joann had Sharlee bred to Randy’s stallion named King, she decided that “Shar-King” would sound more like a burger joint than a fine, purebred Quarter Horse, so she named Shandy after my cousin Randy. Shandy was a high-spirited, finely-tuned two year-old mare with a deep brown coat, dappled a bit across her rump. What a beauty.
After Joann had her “broken” by a professional Wrangler, Shandy still needed to learn her “manners.” Joann was too old to climb into the saddle on such a flighty mare, so she asked the fearless girl who groomed her every weekend to give it a go. Shandy was a whole new experience after riding the rental horses. If her hooves ever really touched the ground, I didn’t feel it. I spent hours in the saddle teaching Shandy to neck-rein, back up, smoothly transition from walk, to trot, to canter, and back again, and generally behave like a lady.
Then there was the Blacksmith’s stallion, Tres Bar (Trey Bar). A big and powerful Quarter Horse, Tres Bar wore a spectacularly bright chestnut coat. Though he was as light on his hooves as Shandy, there was a strength beneath the saddle which I hadn’t experienced with the mare. Riding Tres Bar was like sitting on a thundercloud before it breaks into storm: with a current of electrical expectation conveyed through the reins to my hands. Though he was powerful, he was also a gentleman, his strength held in check by a gentleness which spoke to careful and consistent training. They may have been mad to put me into his saddle and send me off, but I loved the few rides which I was allowed on this magnificent animal.
I’d take him into an unused pasture, with no other riders in view, and put him through his Rodeo paces. We’d gallop and slide to a stop, pivot in place, and curl around imaginary barrels. There was no jarring to his trot, and his canter was as smooth as floating, but to gallop Tres Bar brought a thrill of adrenalin and imminent danger as we took flight down the bare dirt track between the pastures. This was when, hanging on for life, I felt like an afterthought on his giant back, with my hands grasping his mane and the reins as the steel pistons of his legs drove us forward, his hooves pounding the dirt and his rhythmic breath sounded like a freight train. Those few moments stretched to feel like a lifetime, and yet were over in a flash.
On rare occasions now, 40 years distant from those blissful rides, something will trigger these memories, and I can hear the creak of saddle leather, smell the musky, warm scents, and almost feel that nameless elation of riding these horses which live in my memory. The days of going out to the Lazy J Ranch ended with our move to San Antonio in 1980. I’ve been able to ride friends’ horses, and have had an occasional rental ride here and there in the years since. Yet it just isn’t the same. Randy’s horses and the others which I rode there weren’t mine, certainly. They were as close as I would ever come though, to feeling as free on horseback as if I were on my own horse. I’ve not been blessed with the privilege of owning a horse, and likely never will. But God gave me a season on horseback which will forever be mine to recall with gratitude.
(And, for the record, unless it’s the year 1979 and you are Randy Jones, I won’t respond to the name “Barbie.”)