Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — Old Possum, My First Horse, Part One

In my first blog (October 2009), I introduced myself to Storey readers and mentioned my first horse. This is the story about that very special horse.

When I was a little girl, I wanted a horse. My parents lived in town (my dad was the preacher at the Methodist Church), but I always dreamed about living on a ranch. When I was nine years old (in 1953), my wish came true. This is the story of my first horse — the beginning of a long love affair with horses.

The next few blogs will be dedicated to the memory of
my first horse,
Old Possum, who changed the life
of a little girl. Even though
I don't have many photos
of this very special horse,
I want to tell his story.
I can’t remember when I first fell in love with horses. My parents told me that before I could walk or talk, I enjoyed looking at pictures of horses in storybooks. My favorite stuffed animal was a funny-looking, long-necked horse with a string mane. I called him “Shore-shay,” which was the closest I could come to saying “horsie.”
When I was very young, I spent much of my time playing with small plastic horses, making my own farms with Tinkertoy corrals in our living room or galloping the little herds of “wild horses” over the front yard lawn and flower beds. If my young friends came to our house to play, we usually played with toy horses.
Sometimes we pretended to be wild horses, snorting and galloping around the backyard. I perfected the athletic act of galloping four-legged, on my hands and feet (a tricky stunt that my youngest granddaughter — age six — has now been doing for several years, also pretending to be a horse).
On other occasions my young friends and I rode broom-handle stick horses, playing cowboy. I had a sleek black handle from an old janitor’s mop; in my vivid imagination this was a fiery black steed with a long black mane and tail.
I wanted a real horse, but we didn’t have a place to keep one. My dream seemed impossible, but I started saving all my pennies, nickels, and dimes (my allowance money) and birthday dollars from grandparents, in the hope that someday I could buy a horse.

From the time I was very young,
I wanted a horse. In my first blog,
introducing myself to Storey readers,
I entitled this photo: "Waiting for my first horse."

My parents were probably exasperated sometimes, wishing that I could be more interested in sensible, practical things, such as learning to cook or sew, or music lessons. They wanted me to learn to play the piano (like my mother), but I preferred to spend as much time as possible outdoors instead of taking piano lessons after school. My father bribed me a little — promising to get me a horse (and I wanted a black one or a palomino!) if I could learn to play the piano as well as Mom did. So for a while I resigned myself to the lessons, but my heart wasn’t in it. I daydreamed about riding horses.
Finally, my father must have realized that the piano would never be a serious interest, and maybe he and Mom got tired of my constant badgering for a horse. Maybe they sensed that my desire might not be just a passing fancy. For whatever reason they eventually decided that I could have a horse.

Here I am with my twin cousin, captured
at a rare moment when we weren't "playing
horses," but wearing our mothers’ hats instead.

The spring I turned nine, my dad started looking for a horse. A retired rancher, Fred Kohl, lived at the edge of town, where the mountain behind our town got steeper, and he agreed to pasture a horse for us. After looking at several horses, my father found one he felt was suitable for a child. One warm afternoon, a few weeks before school ended for the summer, my parents took my little brother and me to see the horse.

His name was Possum — perhaps because he was lazy and often pretended to be asleep. He was owned by a teenage girl who was buying a younger, faster horse. Possum was a medium-size bay gelding with a white face and a blue eye on the right side of his face where the white marking surrounded the eye. He was calm and gentle and very accustomed to being handled by children.
He’d been retired from a riding stable in a larger town some years earlier because he was getting old and was purchased by a family with young children. He was resold when those children grew older and resold again. It would be hard to guess how many children had learned to ride on him.
It was also hard to tell how old he was. The present owners didn’t know, and it was difficult to tell by looking at his teeth. He was long past the point where a horse’s age can be accurately determined by the teeth. He was somewhere between 18 and 25 years of age, probably in his early 20s. But in spite of his advanced age, he was healthy and sound and seemed to be a very safe mount for a small nine-year-old girl.

Linda Jo, the teenager selling him, put on his bridle, and my dad boosted me up onto Possum’s broad back. I rode him slowly around the pasture bareback, after a few instructions from Linda Jo about how to pull on the reins to stop him and how to make him turn right or left. It was so wonderful to be sitting on a real live furry horse!

He was lazy and wise, very accustomed to children who didn’t know how to ride, and at first he just stood there — until Linda Jo told me I had to kick with my heels or slap him on the rump with the reins. I finally got him into a plodding walk, but I didn’t care if he was slow and lazy. I was just so happy to have a horse. It was love at first sight.

Possum was well past middle age when we bought him,
but it was difficult to tell how old he really was.

My dad paid for the horse ($50), and I chipped in my life savings ($5.55) as part of the payment. This was the happiest day of my life. My dad went to the saddle shop in town and bought a bridle. He adjusted the headstall to fit old Possum and boosted me onto him again, and I rode him out of the pasture and along the road — with my parents and brother following slowly in our car to make sure I didn’t have any trouble. I rode Possum the 2 miles around the outskirts of town and up to Mr. Kohl’s pasture, which would be Possum’s new home.

Possum and I had an immediate understanding: I didn’t care if he walked slowly, or if he stopped now and then to eat grass. I was just so happy to be up there on his back. The old horse was wise and experienced and didn’t pay any attention to all the cars and trucks going by. In his long life he had encountered many things and had been ridden by so many children that nothing bothered him. He was a perfect horse for a beginner like me.

To be continued . . .

To read previous entries in the Notes from Sky Range Ranch series, click here.

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook.

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