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.