Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — Old Possum, My First Horse, Part Three: A Place in the Country

To read the first part of this story click here. The second, click here.
Dad, me, and my brother — sitting on the front porch of the old cabin
on our 7-acre place up Withington Creek, in 1954
Having a horse in the family changed our lives dramatically. My dad had grown up on a farm near Rupert, Idaho, and enjoyed rural life. My mom grew up in a small town in Washington and spent summers in a cabin near the beach on Fox Island in Puget Sound. Both of my parents wanted to find a place out of town, and now they had incentive to do it because we needed a permanent place to keep our horse. That fall (1953) they found a little log cabin on 7 acres for sale. It was 16 miles from town, up Withington Creek, in the bottom of a canyon. The next spring we borrowed a horse trailer and took Possum up to our new place. For a couple of years, we lived in the cabin during the summers when my brother Rocky and I weren’t in school.

There was no traffic on the little dirt road; the cabin was at the edge of Forest Service land, above all the ranch land. The little creek was cool in the summer, and my brother and I spent happy hours playing in the water on hot afternoons. There was no electricity, so food had to be kept cool in waterproof containers in the creek, or in the old cellar dug into the mountain. We used candles and kerosene lanterns in the cabin at night and a flashlight to go to the outhouse in the dark — hoping we wouldn’t meet a skunk or a bear.
My little brother emerging from the old outhouse

When it rained, the road was impassable. Several times that summer our car couldn’t make it through the deep mud. We spent weekends at our house (the church parsonage) in town, to go to church and to do our shopping and laundry.

Mom took our week’s worth of clothes to town, to wash in our electric washing machine. But several times when the road was too muddy to get up to the cabin, we had to park the car a couple of miles farther down and hike. When we came back down later in the week, we carried our laundry in a big duffel bag. But it was fun being isolated in our little cabin, in our own little world, up the creek.

Sometimes one or more of my cousins came to stay with us for a few days; one of my favorite memories was when my older cousin Gail came to visit. She had ridden horses a few times and enjoyed riding Possum.
My older cousin Gail stayed with us
for a week and enjoyed riding Possum.

The most fun for me that summer was having new places to ride. Sometimes I took my younger brother with me, riding double, but often Possum and I wandered the countryside by ourselves. We explored the little jeep road up the canyon and into the mountains beyond. We saw deer, foxes, coyotes, and other wild animals and enjoyed the beauty of the forest. One time we went exploring too far, however.

At the head of the canyon up the left fork of the creek was an old copper mine. I’d heard many tales about the Harmony mine but had never seen it. The mine was active during the 1920s, and at one time the Chicago gangster, Al Capone, owned a major interest in it. The copper ore was hauled down the steep winding road in wagons pulled by horses.
My younger brother Rocky sometimes rode with me on old Possum.

One morning during our wanderings, Possum and I found ourselves at the fork of the creek, and I decided to go up the left fork — which I’d never seen. The farther I went, the more I wondered about the abandoned mine, and I thought we must be getting close to it. Possum and I kept climbing up the steep, rutted jeep tracks, even though it was close to lunchtime and Mom would be expecting me back at the cabin. But I’d gone so far by then, I surely must be almost there. Possum and I kept climbing.

The Harmony mine was much farther up the canyon than I’d expected, and it was afternoon by the time I reached the old mill building, set back against the steep mountain. Farther on was a group of old cabins, the old cookhouse, and a steep little road winding up through the timber to one of the mine tunnels. I was fascinated by some of the old things scattered around the area. The mine hadn’t been worked for many years, but there were so many things left in the buildings that it looked like people had been there only a short time ago.

After a quick look around, I rode Possum back down the jeep road, hurrying because we were so late. Indeed, Mom was very worried when I didn’t show up for lunch. She imagined all kinds of accidents, and since Dad was in town for the day with the car, doing his work at the church office, Mom, my little brother, and a cousin who was staying with us for a visit started up the jeep road on foot to look for me.

I met them at one of the creek crossings, where the old log bridge had washed out; Mom and my cousin were trying to get across on some logs and rocks without getting their feet wet. They were very glad to see me! After that adventure, I tried not to worry my mother so much.

I got a dose of worry myself one day when we came back up to the cabin after being in town for the weekend — Possum was gone. Fear clutched at my heart as I searched for him. There was a saggy place in the fence by the creek, in the bushes, and sure enough there were horse tracks on the other side of the fence, in the soft dirt. Possum had stepped over the fence—into a 160-acre mountain pasture belonging to the rancher who lived farther down the creek. I hiked and hiked around that big area and finally found Possum grazing in a grassy meadow along the brushy creek bottom, about a quarter mile from our place. I put his halter on, straddled his neck, and he lifted his head to enable me to slide onto his back, so I could ride him home.

It was a wonderful summer, living at the cabin. One of the highlights that year was a family reunion when several aunts, uncles, and cousins came to visit, and my grandma Lila Moser. She was past 70 years old and hadn’t ridden a horse since she was a young girl, but the family talked her into getting on old Possum. Dad put his old saddle on Possum, and he and Mom and an uncle helped Grandmother onto the horse, first helping her up onto our picnic table, and from there she could step into the stirrup.
My Dad helping Grandma Lila get onto
the horse from the picnic table

Once mounted, Grandmother proudly rode Possum up and down the jeep track in front of the cabin. Possum walked slowly and carefully and didn’t even try to stop and eat grass along the way. It was as though he knew he had a fragile, precious passenger.
Grandma proudly aboard the horse!
Grandma riding Possum

He was such a wise old horse. He behaved much differently depending on who was riding him. He would trot or gallop when asked by an experienced rider — and as I became a better rider, I loved to gallop him up a special place in the road that I called Possum’s Hill. But if a small child or inexperienced person was on his back, he’d never go faster than a walk and was always careful to not get close to the thorny rose briars or walk under a low-hanging tree branch. He took very good care of his inexperienced passengers.

The only time I ever saw him grumpy was when our old cat, Thomas, kept rubbing on his nose while he was trying to graze as I was brushing him. Finally, Possum had had enough of the tickly cat hair and took the cat’s tail in his teeth and picked the cat up by the tail. He didn’t bite hard enough to injure the cat; he just held old Thomas—yowling and clawing—up in the air for a moment. The cat was unable to reach the horse with his claws, and eventually, Possum set him down on the ground again. From then on Thomas left Possum alone and didn’t try to rub on his head.
Old Thomas in his later years (shown here with
my younger sister), after his embarrassing
moment being held up by the tail by old Possum

That summer we often ate meals outdoors, and my brother and I discovered that Possum loved watermelon rinds. After a while, however, he got fussier and would only eat them if there was still a little bit of the juicy red left on the rind!

The only downsides to summer in our idyllic little canyon were the biting flies that pestered Possum and the bright sunlight that made his blue eye weep. He often held it closed. Many times we carefully painted black ointment onto the white marking around that eye, so the sunlight didn’t reflect into it so badly, which gave him some relief.

Possum was probably the wisest horse I ever had. Even though I’ve owned and raised dozens of horses in later years, none of them was quite the same as dear old Possum. He lived with us for the rest of his life, and even though he became slower and stiffer in old age, he was still the perfect horse for any young or inexperienced visitors.

My brother and me swatting flies
while riding Possum (who is kicking at flies)

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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