Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — Ginger, Part Two: My First 4-H Project

For Part One of “Ginger” click here.

In 1958, when I was in the eighth grade, ranchers Jerry and Velma Ravndal moved to a smaller ranch closer to town to raise Arabian horses. Their stallion, El Khamis, later sired many half-Arab ranch horses in our area, including several good horses for my family. Jerry Ravndal used that versatile little stallion for many things — roping and holding calves for branding (helping many of the neighbors with their cattle work), packing out deer and elk during hunting season, winning the Arabian costume class at the local county fair.

Jerry Ravndal in Arab costume, riding his Arabian stallion El Khamis

The Ravndals started the first 4-H horse club in Idaho, the year they moved to town from their remote ranch on the North Fork. I was part of their first crop of 4-H kids. About 25 of us kids (ages nine through fourteen) met at the Ravndal home for 4-H meetings, and I decided to use Ginger, the orphan/pet filly, as my project.

My mom drove me to the first weekly meetings at the Ravndal place. It was late winter, and the weather wasn’t nice enough yet to bring our horses. So the first meetings were spent indoors, learning about horse breeds, horse terminology, basic rules of horse care and good horsemanship. We did a lot of reading and studying. This wasn’t just a riding club; it was a serious learning program so we could take better care of our horses and learn how to become better riders.

Through the course of that first year, we learned the proper ways to groom a horse and catch and halter a horse, how to properly saddle and bridle our horses, how to tie them, correct ways to mount and dismount, and how to ride in balance with our horses at the various gaits. The goal was to improve our communication with the horse and learn about various aspects of feed and care to keep our horses healthy.

Many of the things covered in those first lessons I already knew, because of my early interest in horses and reading everything about horses that I could find in our local small-town library. But there were still many important things I didn’t know. Velma divided our group into beginners and advanced riders, and I was happy to be in the advanced group.

We started calling ourselves the 5-H Wranglers. The fifth H stood for “Horses.” We held our summer meetings out at the fairgrounds on the edge of town, and we came on horseback. We continued our lessons with hands-on demonstrations and practiced the fundamental skills we were learning.

Jerry and Velma Ravndal helping one of the 4-H kids
give a demonstration of the proper way to saddle a horse,
at one of our 4-H meetings at the fairgrounds

Most of the club members lived in or near town and didn’t have very far to ride, but Ginger and I had 14 miles to come. My mom thought that was too far, but I was confident that it wouldn’t be any problem. Ginger had a fast trot, and I knew we could easily make it in a couple of hours. The first time, I started early — just to make sure I could get to the fairgrounds in time for the meeting.

I knew it would be shorter to cut straight across through the hills, but I wasn’t sure how to get through some of the ranches close to town, not knowing where the gates were. I decided to stay on the road (4 miles of dirt road from our ranch, then 10 miles along the highway). Ginger could trot along the edge of the road where the ground was soft (not so hard on her feet and legs), and it would be about as fast as trying to go through the hills with all the ups and downs.

I wasn’t sure how Ginger would react to cars whizzing by on the highway, since she’d never seen a highway before. Back in those days there wasn’t much traffic, and I knew I could ride along the wide, grassy space between the highway and the fence—except when crossing the bridges. I always rode facing the traffic because Ginger wasn’t as scared of the cars and trucks if she could see them coming. She was more skittish and jumpy if they came zooming up behind her. The big, noisy trucks were her worst problem, and she’d try to spin away and bolt. If the truck was coming from behind us, I had to turn her around so she could watch until it went by. She’d stand there trembling, but I could keep her from bolting by talking to her calmly and keeping a tight hold on the reins.

The only time a scary truck nearly caused an accident was when my brother was riding Ginger to town the next year — when we were both in the 5-H club and I was riding Nell, one of our other ranch horses. As the noisy truck approached, my brother Rocky noticed that his saddle cinch was fairly loose. Ginger had a round back — not enough withers to hold a saddle very well — so we always had to keep the cinch snug. Rocky realized that if Ginger tried to whirl away from the truck, his saddle would slip sideways. So he quickly jumped off and held her until the truck passed, then tightened his cinch before we continued on our way.

Our 4-H group heading out for a trail ride into the hills behind the ranches

Ginger had a very fast trot. That first year when I rode her to town for our meetings, I timed her by the mile markers and found that her medium trot could cover a mile in about 10 minutes and her fast trot covered a mile in 4 to 5 minutes. I became better at judging distances and our speed, and as Ginger got in better shape (able to travel farther and faster without tiring), I realized we didn’t have to leave so early. We could make it to town in about 1½ hours, alternately walking and trotting. It often took a little longer coming home in the afternoons. If it was really hot, we didn’t trot as fast.

That summer was glorious. Velma was a perfectionist about good horsemanship, and our advanced group soaked it all in. We learned how to handle our horses properly on the ground when leading them, how to teach them to walk faster when we were riding, how to post the trot, how to change leads at a gallop, how to “collect” our horses so they could move with more precision and agility when changing direction, and so on.

Our meetings were mostly lessons and hard work, but now and then the Ravndals took time to give us some “fun” rides, too, like the time we all went on a trail ride into the foothills behind their ranch. We took our lunches and had a picnic out on the trail.

As we came to the end of our summer’s work, we were proud of our progress and accomplishments. The beginners were no longer bouncing at the trot or inadvertently jerking their horses in the mouth. Everyone was riding better, in balance with the horses’ movements, and the horses were responding better to leg and rein cues. For most of us, horse and rider were becoming truly a team, working together in harmony and unison.

At the end of the summer we put on a horse show for our parents, friends, and the community. We all wore white shirts with green neckerchiefs, and dark-colored pants — so we all matched. We cleaned our saddles, washed our saddle blankets, and had our horses neatly groomed. During the show we gave demonstrations on correct methods of tying, leading, saddling, and bridling our horses and had several horsemanship classes to test our riding skills and our horses’ training. The advanced riders demonstrated figure-eights at the canter, mounting and dismounting, and backing up.

We also had some special events, including a costume class. We were judged in pairs. My friend Marilyn Muench and I spent hours making Indian costumes to wear, using burlap dyed brown, decorated with painted seashells, beads, and feathers we sewed onto the burlap. We practiced riding our horses with just jaw ropes (no bridles) and rode them bareback.

Me on Ginger and my friend Marilyn on SweetHeart,
dressed as Indians and ready for the 4-H costume class

Ginger was very calm and trustworthy for this kind of fun. Her upbringing as an orphan/spoiled pet made her perfect for this role. She was tolerant of many things that a more nervous, flighty horse might not be able to handle. By that time I was tall enough (and Ginger was short enough) that I could mount her bareback by grabbing her mane and swinging a leg up over her back.

Marilyn’s horse, “SweetHeart,” was also fairly gentle, and we didn’t have any trouble riding our steeds in the costume class, walking, trotting, and cantering as a matched pair, controlling our horses with just a rope through their mouths.

The next summer my brother Rocky was old enough to be in 4-H, and he wanted a horse project, too. Our parents thought he should use Ginger. At first I didn’t want to give up Ginger because I enjoyed riding her so much. I thought he should use Nosey (the big buckskin mare). But Nosey was very tall for a small boy and more nervous than Ginger. Possum, my first horse, was getting too old and stiff for that much trotting back and forth from town. My dad talked me into taking our other young mare, Nell, as my project, so Rocky could ride Ginger.

My younger brother Rocky was old enough to be in 4-H in 1959,
and he used Ginger as his project.

So that summer Rocky and I rode to town twice a week on Ginger and Nell for our club meetings and drill practice; the 5-H Wranglers were planning to put on a special mounted drill for our horse show and for the fair. The two mares were in excellent physical condition, making the 28-mile round trip to town 2 days each week and riding range in between — to check on our cattle.

Ginger was the reason I learned how to shoe horses. One week our parents were gone to a church conference and Rocky and I were taking care of the ranch. On one of our rides to move cattle, Ginger lost a shoe. She made it home without going lame, but I knew she wouldn’t be able to travel 28 miles the next day to our 5-H meeting without becoming tender and sore. We had a pile of old horseshoes in the shed, and I searched through those. I found some that Dad had taken off Ginger the year before, that still had some wear left, and were the proper size and shaped to fit her feet.

I got Dad’s shoeing tools, found the horseshoe nails, and bravely tried my first attempt at putting the shoe on, while Rocky held Ginger for me. Her foot didn’t need much trimming because she’d worn it off a bit after losing the shoe, and fortunately, the hoof hadn’t chipped or cracked. I smoothed it a little with the rasp and then placed the shoe as perfectly as I could.

Ginger and Nell in a corral in town. Rocky and I rode these mares
to town twice a week that summer for 4-H meetings and drill practice.

Driving the first nail was the big challenge because I wasn’t sure which way it should go. Horseshoe nails are beveled on the tip, so they curve outward when driven — to come out the side of the hoof wall instead of going straight into the foot. I knew that if I placed it incorrectly, it would curve into the sensitive inner tissues and make her lame. So I only pounded it in a little ways, very carefully, and when it didn’t start to come out, I pulled it out and set it the other way — and it worked perfectly. I realized that the nail heads were a clue; one side was smooth and the other side was rough — probably so a person could easily tell by look and by feel which way the nail should go. Thus I learned my first lesson about horseshoe nails: rough side inside.

I got that shoe on, and it stayed on through our trip to the fairgrounds and back the next day. When our parents got home later that week, Dad looked at Ginger’s foot and thought I’d done a good job. After that, he let me start shoeing our ranch horses. I’ve been doing it ever since (for more than 50 years now). Dad gave me some advice, and so did Jerry Ravndal. He was a farrier and guided me through a “horseshoeing apprenticeship” as one of my 4-H projects.

Rocky and I made many trips to town with our horses, and sometimes it was really hot in the afternoons on our way home after the 4-H meetings. We often stopped at the Baker Store, the little country store at the highway junction where we turned off to go up Withington Creek. Mr. Crooks was always friendly, and on hot afternoons he’d bring each of us a glass of water.

Rocky and I made many trips to town with our horses
during the several years we were in 4-H. In this photo
Rocky is riding Ginger bareback at the ranch.

On really hot days we also stopped on our way in and out of town at the Arctic Circle, near the fairgrounds. This was a drive-in place that sold milk shakes and ice cream cones. We didn’t have money to buy anything, but we could use the water fountain in the parking lot. The amusing thing was that Ginger quickly figured out how to get a drink, too. The first time Rocky tried to get a drink she pushed him out of the way with her nose and tried to sip the water. So we’d always turn the water on for her and let her sip from the spouting fountain. People passing by would always stop and gawk at the horse delicately sipping water from the drinking fountain. Nell never would try it, but Ginger looked forward to these water stops as much as Rocky and I did.

[to be continued]

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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