As I was struggling through Why I Write by George Orwell, someone thought I said “why I ride” when I mentioned the book’s title. Almost daily, I ask myself why I write, but I also ask myself why I ride.
On hot August mornings, that question comes up as I struggle up the small incline leading from the creek to the stalls and barn, leading Shooter with a piece of string. I have taught him not to run away when I approach (the carrot helps), but he only occasionally comes when I whistle. He knows it’s too hot to ride and won’t run up and volunteer.
So why do I do it? I have all sorts of answers, but none satisfy me. The truth is; I dread it, especially on cold or hot mornings and on mornings when I have low energy or hurt in the wrong places. I try to be thankful that I can still walk up that hill and keep pace with Shooter. When I swing the saddle across his back, trying to ignore the pain in my left arm and shoulder, I feel a little better. When I step in the stirrup and throw my leg across the saddle, better still.
But the next day, I dread it again. And if I skip two days, it is drudgery to go back. So why? First, there’s the thing about taking care of things that you own. It always bothered me to see a young horse just stand in the pasture and get fat. Their manes and tails usually need attention, their coats get dull, flies and other pests fly around their eyes and leave welts. They get stiff. They turn into decorations rather than useful companions.
And of course, horseback riding is good exercise for me. But I could burn an equal amount of calories in the time it takes to catch him, groom him, saddle and bridle him, bathe and feed him.
I can also hear my Papa Hiram (yes, he’s Papa Griff from the Follow the Rivers series of books) asking from long, long ago, “Ride that horse today, Bolivar?” And then there’s Teadon (Daddy, yes, he’s Rance)) saying, “A man does what he knows is right, whether he feels like it or not”. When I ride, I remember them both and think about the sacrifices my parents must have made so that I could have a horse as a boy.
And then there are the saddles. I rode bareback as a boy and wanted a saddle so much it hurt. I fear it has made me gluttonous about them. I own too many. Like old men, saddles crack and get stiff from lack of use. Riding keeps them supple and moist and it’s a lot more pleasant to clean and oil a saddle that’s used than one that’s not (it’s another strange mental thing).
I wouldn’t even have a horse if things had gone as planned. Still in grief over losing Rowdy, I thought I had owned my last one, but a friend needed a place to wean a colt with good bloodlines. I volunteered. It was good weather, and I soon began to teach him to lead, then to lunge in a round pen, and pretty soon I knew I had to finish one last horse. Before he wore his first saddle, I owned him.
He’s pretty enough as horses go, got good conformation. He’s not the most athletic or talented horse I’ve ever owned, but he is the most affectionate. He likes people and sometimes I think he especially likes me. Neighbors bring him apples on their daily walks. He’s obedient; stands where he’s left without being tied. I never tie him to saddle him and brush him and I leave him totally naked while I put up the tack. He turns, stands in the right spot, and waits patiently for his bath, then follows me to the open gate without as much as a string.
I feel better as I see him walk out into the pasture, all clean from a bath, “legged up” and muscled out, his eyes clear, his coat glossy, doctored for flies and pests.
But he’s a strange combination of gentleness and spookiness. He’s afraid of the oddest things. Big trucks; yard windmills that make loud noises; cars honking; no problem. But chickens scare him and we pass by a chicken ranch on one the many routes we take. I think it’s sensory overload. First the smell, then the shallow creek we have to cross, the overhanging branches, then a sea of chicken tents. Yes, I said tents—big white ones. Who wouldn’t be frightened?
He’s also scared of puddles left after a rain, any movement in woods or weeds made by things unseen by me, little blue flowers, and anything that wasn’t there the last time we came that way. I finally cured him of his fear of big rolls of hay (yes, he was afraid of the big bales).
He knows every detail of every trail. If anything is askew, added, or out of place, he comes to a dead stop and wants to turn back home—quickly. This can be disconcerting when you are in a pretty fast lope and he comes to a dead stop on his front feet without warning. I have never fallen, but have found myself across his neck or shoulder more than once if I don’t see the object before he does. I hope Jan is not reading this.
In my younger days, this would have embarrassed and irritated me to no end that a horse that I trained acted this way. He would have been punished until he learned to behave. I tried that. But I have decided that the horse simply cannot help being afraid. When I first started training him, I kept a log as a reminder of the steps he needed to complete so that he could be a finished horse. It gave me a sense of accomplishment as I checked off leading, lunging, saddling, mounted walking and loping, jumping barrels and rails, sidepasses, backing up, etc… But when we went outside our pasture, it was like starting all over again.
Because of the log, I know that he has ridden by the chicken ranch more than three hundred times, but he’s still a little skittish every time we pass. He no longer comes to a dead stop, but if someone has put a stack of wood beside the road or a limb has fallen, look out. I think only age will cure his fright.
When I first started my riding ritual, I was terribly bored (Shooter’s skittishness did not relieve boredom). I blame team roping and team penning. After you have competed using a horse and rope with cattle, ridden across Texas , participated on short roundups and cattle drives, just riding alone down the road ain’t much. Sorta like giving up. Growing old.
But now, I try to put a different spin on it. For one thing, I have discovered about a dozen alternate routes to ride. Thanks to a friendly neighbor, I ride in wooded areas a lot. I know most of the trails that they have cut through the deep woods. I can ride all the way to the river, see lots of wild animals, even a few I can’t identify, but mostly pigs and deer (Shooter is alert to them, but they don’t bother him as much as blue flowers or lizards).
Yes, Jan frets, and I guess I think about it a little, being out there all alone where vehicles could not reach me in case of emergency. Heck, it might take a day or two and a few good bloodhounds to find me.
Then there are those rare days when I feel myself “take a deep seat” in the saddle—the times when I return to those days of yore when I was nine; when I rode my little mare bareback; the days when I discovered I could control her with my seat, thighs, calves, and heels and by little flicks of three fingers of each hand on the reins; that she and I could lean into the turns together and I felt as if I could scoop up Mother Earth with a free hand; the days before I developed a fear of falling; the days when I achieved what Tom Dorrance called “true unity”.
Of course, I was too young to know what I had achieved. I felt like Little Beaver, but I wanted a saddle so that I could emulate great cinema cowboys like Joel McCrea, Ben Johnson, and my mother’s favorite (yes, she’s Mattie in my books), Dale Robertson. Remember Tales of Wells Fargo and that commercial he did for Pall Mall where he rides up fast and steps off his horse? “That’s my horse. That’s Jubilee.” Many decades later, a little filly was born on my place. I named her Jubilee. I met Dale in Ruidoso a few years ago. He was selling autographed photos of his Wells Fargo days. We lost him just a few months back.
When I return home, I take Shooter through a few rituals. He backs pretty good, can spin reasonably well both ways, is clumsy on rollbacks, and he knows that the last thing we do is to run full speed to the barn and make a good stop on his back feet just beside the horse stall that we never use. That’s when I start to feel good—when it becomes worthwhile. I think he feels better, too. When we miss a few days, he comes up and hangs his head over the fence and stares at me. Of course, that could be for a carrot.
And I occasionally ride the four miles to Cowhill Council, where a few well-seasoned friends gather for coffee by a pond with ducks, under big oaks. I have also discovered a few hidden meadows in other pastures, places where one can commune with nature.
I presented a program about my books a few months ago and someone in the audience asked if I still rode. I told them most of what I just told you. I told them it was an almost daily ritual. As I was leaving that evening, a lady about ten years my senior rushed to open the door for me. She gave me a penetrating, almost disconcerting look and said, “It’s not a ritual thing; it’s a spiritual thing. I see you taking off your hat and putting it over your heart, getting down on one knee all alone in those woods, and talking to Jesus.”
Now how did she know that?