Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — Old Possum, My First Horse, Part Two: The First Summer on Horseback

To read Part One of this story, click here.
Possum’s pasture on the little ranch above town was about a mile from our house, but I happily hiked up there every day after school to see my beloved horse. At first the rancher, Mr. Kohl, helped me catch him. Possum didn’t want to be caught, and he’d kick up his heels and head for the far corner whenever he saw someone coming with a halter or bridle. Mr. Kohl and I would corner him by the barn fence.

After a few days, however, I was able to catch him by myself. I was very patient, and it didn’t matter to me if there were a few moments (or even half an hour) of cat-and-mouse games before he allowed himself to be caught. I was never in a hurry, never got angry. I was in love with that horse.

Maybe my lack of frustration and my easygoing attitude had an effect on the old horse. He realized I would just keep following him around until he gave in, so he no longer trotted off to the far corner when I came to ride him. Maybe because he had such easy work, he didn’t mind the riding. I never rode him very fast, and our lazy sojourns around the edge of town and up the mountain were never strenuous. In fact, I often let him stop to graze along the way. Possum began to look forward to our rides, coming to meet me at the gate whenever he saw me.

The hardest part, for me, was putting his bridle on. I was short, and he was tall. If he held his head up high, I couldn’t reach it. So I taught him to put his head down low by giving him a handful of really lush grass or alfalfa, which he loved. Then I could slip the bridle on. There were some clumps of green alfalfa growing along the lane to Mr. Kohl’s house, and I always picked some on my way to Possum’s pasture.

My portrait of Possum, drawn when I was 12 years old, in sixth grade

Getting on him was also difficult, since I didn’t have a saddle and was always riding bareback. I was too short to reach up and grab his mane and swing on, like I’d seen bigger kids do, so I had to lead him up to a fence, stump, or some other object I could climb onto and then slip onto his back. I often used the wooden gate into his pasture as a way to climb up high enough to get on.

After school was out for the summer, I had more time to ride, and I’d usually spend the whole day with Possum. I had to clean my room and wash dishes first, but then I could hurry off to Mr. Kohl’s place. I’d ride all morning, ending up at our house for lunch (and let him graze in the backyard), then have Mom or Dad boost me back on so I could ride again all afternoon.

My twin cousin Diane and me, the summer I got Possum

My twin cousin and best friend (Diane Moser, who was born the same day I was) sometimes rode with me. We rode double, spending hours along the quiet back streets at the upper end of town or in the hills. Occasionally, we were adventuresome and took longer rides, such as the time we rode out past the other end of town to visit a friend who lived on a ranch. The biggest problem with these extended excursions was finding a way to get back on Possum if we ever got off. One of us could boost the other one up, but then the second person had no way to get on and had to walk until we found a fence or something else to climb onto.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and I figured out a way to get on Possum without a fence. He and I worked out a system: I’d lead him to a good grassy area, and while he had his head down grazing, I straddled his neck, facing his withers. Then he’d raise his head, and I’d slide and wiggle to his back, turning around to proper mounted position. Possum didn’t mind, so that problem was solved.

Diane and I also worked out a way to take turns sitting in front. It was always more fun to be the “driver,” in control of the horse, deciding where to go. The person behind was merely a passenger. So we took turns. But we had to be able to switch places without getting off the horse, since it wasn’t always easy to get back on. Diane wasn’t brave enough to try the get-on-the-neck trick. So the person in front would scrunch down and scoot backward while the person behind would carefully go over the top of her and end up in front. Possum was patient and stood still, so we could do it safely.

He was accustomed to children and all their antics by this stage of his life and was a perfect babysitter. There were times I left him in the backyard at Mosers’ house, and all the neighborhood children came to see him. They’d pet him, walk under his belly, or run up behind him while he was tied up or grazing, and he didn’t mind. He never spooked, kicked, or bit. Even my mom finally quit worrying about the possibility of an accident.

Taking another cousin, Cathy, for a ride on Possum

The only “accident” that happened that summer occurred when there were no people around, and it taught me an important lesson. I occasionally rode with another young friend who had a mare named Dolly. That particular day Janet and I had ridden for several hours and stopped at my house to go inside and have some lemonade, since it was a very hot day. We tied the two horses by their bridle reins to an old power pole lying on the ground behind our garage, in the shade, next to the street.

The horses stood there patiently for about an hour as we talked and rested in the house. Then suddenly we heard a loud banging sound. We rushed outside to check on the horses and found that the big power pole had been pulled out into the street. The neighbor’s garbage can was rolling down the street, and Possum and Dolly were galloping away, heading downtown.

We ran after the horses and finally caught them. Dolly’s bridle was broken, and Possum’s headstall was completely pulled off his head. I found it lying in the road with the metal bit bent and smashed, where the power pole had rolled over it. When we caught up with the horses, I tied the broken reins around Possum’s neck to lead him back home.

Something had startled the horses, and one or both of them pulled backward. Since the pole was merely lying on the ground, it probably moved when the horses pulled back, rolling toward them and frightening them even more. So of course they tried to run away from it and pulled it out into the road, knocking over the garbage can (the noise we heard), and the clatter must have made them pull even harder! They broke their bridles and ran off. My dad had to take Possum’s bridle to the saddle shop to have Mr. Stone straighten the bit and mend the reins and headstall.

I learned a lesson that day: never tie a horse by the bridle reins, and never tie to anything that might move. Possum got over his scare and was still well mannered about being tied up, but if this had happened to a younger, more nervous horse, this bad experience might have ruined the previous training, making the horse untrustworthy for tying in the future. I tried never to do anything that foolish again.

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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