Thursday, September 6, 2012

Notable Wrecks

Recently, someone asked me if I'd ever fallen off of a horse.  While I think I know what people mean by that, I'm never quite sure how I should answer.  I usually take the tough guy stance, and say "I've been thrown off plenty of times.  But, I've never FALLEN off."  That may not be entirely accurate.  Some of my earliest "unintentional dismounts" could probably easily be classified as "falling off".   It all started with my very first solo ride.

My grandfather gave us a Shetland pony, named Nugget, when I was six years old.  My father coached us on how to ride while he led us around, and all of it made sense to me.  After a few days, it was decided that it was time to ride him on my own.   It never occurred to me, that a Shetland pony's stubby little neck was a lot stronger than a six year old boy's arms.  I took one rein in each hand, and gave his ribs a good thump with my feet.  Nugget took off with that teeth rattling trot that ponies are famous for.  About a quarter of the way around the yard, I felt myself leaning to the left.  I tried pulling back on the reins without effect.  I was still in the saddle, but listing hard to the left.  Forsaking the reins, I grabbed the saddle horn.  I continued to slide, saddle and all.  Nugget trotted one complete circuit of our big front yard with me hanging onto his side.  He stopped in front of my dad, who peeled me off of the pony and fixed the saddle.  Our household was well versed in cowboy lore, and I knew the saying that you always had to get back in the saddle.  So I did.

We continued to ride and learn from that little pony for many years.  He learned how to get us out of the saddle, and we learned how to stay on in spite of his tricks.  I suppose he tossed me many more times, but only one other really stands out.  I was still in elementary school.  Nugget had learned to take the bit in his teeth, and run for all he was worth.  Fortunately, by then, we had an enclosed riding area we had cleared out of the woods behind the house.  On this occasion, he took off, and try as I might, I couldn't get him to stop or turn.  A Shetland pony can only run so fast.  But, to a kid, who can't find the brakes, it feels like 90 miles an hour.  I resolved to hang on til he ran out of steam.  Then, I felt myself slipping over to the left.  I still didn't have that balance thing quite worked out.  I did have a death grip on something or another.  That refusal to bail out has both kept me on top, and gotten me in a bit of trouble over the years.  We're fairly certain that it was a tree stump that knocked me loose from the pony.  Nugget kept racing around the fence line.  I got up and started walking toward the gate.  Something sticky was running into my eye, but I wondered why my Dad wasn't trying to catch the pony.  Instead, he was running toward me, peeling his shirt off as he ran.  He shoved his wadded up shirt against my face, tucked me under his arm like a football, and took off for the house.  It didn't dawn on me for a while, what had happened.  I was still wondering why we had left the pony all tacked up, running laps around the field.  Turned out, that I wasn't hurt very badly. Several stitches in my scalp took care of everything.  The scar has faded over the years, but the crease in my skull is still there.  It wasn't until I had a kid of my own that I realized what my dad went through that day.  My brothers, sisters, and I all took some tumbles, and always got back in the saddle.  Nugget eventually settled down to become a champion show pony on the 4-H and local circuit. 

We learned to ride well enough that Dad bought a horse for himself, so we could range farther afield.  I survived into my early teens without getting banged up too  much.  We got involved in the 4-H club, where I got some excellent coaching, and experience.  We were growing and learning, and our horse herd was increasing. 

One of the new additions was a half wild pony meant for one of my younger sisters.  This creature had grown up in a herd of 10 others like herself, with little or no human contact.  We called her Bugaboo.  Dad gave my brothers and I the task of making her safe for our little sister to ride.  We handled Bugaboo until she would lead, and accept a saddle and bridle.  Then, we decided it was time to mount up. 

On the appointed day, we led Bugaboo to to the lane that ran the 50 or so yards from the house to the barn.  The area was mostly enclosed, and more importantly, I suppose, had no tree stumps.  Being the oldest, I was first up.  I think I made it about halfway to the barn before she dumped me.  Then, the next oldest brother climbed on.  When he got tossed, the youngest rode til he got thrown.  Then, it was my turn again.  We kept that up all day.  Ride til you're thrown, get in line, and ride again.  By the end of the day, the pony had stopped bucking.  It was a while longer before she would take directions from a rider.  But, I don't recall that she ever bucked again.  My sister eventually rode her to third place in the state in 4-H competition. 

About this time, I got the opportunity to work as a stable hand at the place that sponsored the 4-H club.  That was a memorable summer.  On the one hand, for the  chance to be out among working people.  But, also to be able to ride a different horse every day.  That was probably the best horsemanship training I could have gotten. 

There were three to five of us teenage boys staying in a small apartment built into the big horse barn.  We were to keep the stalls clean, and horses fed, keep the rental horses saddled and ready, occasionally lead trail rides, and do any other work that came up.  Each night, we kept a few of the rental horses penned up in the barn, "in case of an emergency".  It made perfect sense then.  Since then, I haven't been able to think of an emergency that would require a bunch of teenagers to dash out into the night, saddle up, and ride off.  The practical use was, that there were a few horses available each morning as soon as customers started arriving.  We also used one of them to ride out and bring in more horses for the rental line.  We took turns gathering up horses each morning.  It was on one of these rides that I had another wreck. 

There were several hundred acres of wooded pasture at this stable.  I'm not sure the owner knew how many horses he had out there.  One of them was famous among us.  Smokey was a one eyed gelding who was reputed to be an excellent riding horse.  If you could catch him.  Smokey always seemed to elude our morning roundups. 

This particular morning, I rode out, and found a small band of horses lounging in a patch of woods.  I circled wide, and started pushing them toward the barn.  These horses always broke into a run when we gathered them up.  I'll confess that we encouraged it.  Partly for the excitement.  But, we also knew that there were often teenage girls standing by the fence when we galloped up with a herd of horses.

I kept the horses running toward the barn, and noticed that one of them had only one eye.  My mind raced ahead to the bragging rights I'd have when I rode up with Smokey in the herd.  In my excitement, I suppose, I pressed them a little closer than I should have.  We were at the last creek crossing, at a turn in the trail, about 500 yards from the barn, when Smokey made his break. 

The herd splashed into the water, and Smokey peeled out for the back forty.  I was riding a rather indifferent horse who wasn't quite up to the occasion.  He had already set himself up for the galloping turn into the creek, when I tried to turn him in the opposite direction to catch Smokey.  His legs tangled up, and we went over the bank, into the creek.  We had stayed upright, and I had stayed on top, but we ended up with his legs folded under him in the mud and water.  I stepped off of him to let him untangle himself and stand up.  We were both soaked and spattered with mud, and my boots were full of water.  The horse was more puzzled than hurt.  The herd scattered to the winds and I had to turn around and find some more.  Instead of bragging rights, I had to explain why it took me so long to find a few horses.

Most of the spills we had were minor.  But, the really good ones seemed to happen when we were showing off.  One night, the owner came in from Texas with a truckload of new horses.  We took them one by one to a holding pen on the back side of the barn.  As each one was unloaded, one of us would throw the lead rope over its' neck, and hop on bareback.  Just to see what it would do.  Things went routinely, until we were almost done.  That's when we noticed that one of them liked to crow hop.  Everything had to stop while each of us took a turn riding that horse down the aisle.  Just to see what we could do. 

Being the youngest, I was last up.  By then, the horse had grown tired of us.  He was doing more running than bucking.  Then, he took a little hop, hit on all fours, dropped his head, and threw his rump in the air.  I sailed straight over his head, and turned a complete somersault before I hit. The horse kept running.  I landed sitting upright, with my legs splayed out in front of me.  Then, I fell back, unable to move.  I heard the hoof beats, and thought "Well..... I'm gonna get stomped on."  I closed my eyes, and tensed up as the wood shavings from the floor rained down on me.  Then, everything stopped. 

The horse had slid to a stop, and was standing with his nose in my face.  He had a "What are you doing down there?" look in his eyes.  I just blinked back at him.  The guys helped me get up.  We all had a good laugh, after we realised I wasn't dead or crippled.  It was a while before I could sit in a saddle again.  And, I took a good ribbing about my bruised tailbone. 

I got through my teen years without any more major spills.  About this time, I began starting colts.  Despite the common perception, few of them have ever bucked with me.  The worst was a skittish arab-saddlebred cross.  No matter how much groundwork I did with him, he wouldn't settle down.  I figured the only thing left was to climb on and expect a fight.  I saddled up, and before stepping into the stirrup, I cheeked him.  This technique involves holding the cheek piece of the bridle along with the reins as you mount.  In theory, this turns the horse directly under you as you mount.  In practice, it only ensures that you know which direction a horse will move if he blows up.  I stepped on board, expecting a contest.  But the horse simply laid down.  I stood up, and stepped over him.  He eventually stood back up, and I got back on.  Things were fairly uneventful after that. 

Most of us grow up, and leave home.  I joined the military, and had fewer opportunities to ride.  Then, I found out about the amateur rodeo associations.  I had a rather short and sporadic rodeo career.   Most of the time, I ended up in the dirt.  When I did stay on, I never scored high enough to place.  My last one convinced me that enough was enough. 

Bareback bronc riding was my event.  A bareback rider uses a small rig that only covers the withers area of the horse.  Where the pommel of a saddle would be, the rig has a little handle.  Sort of like a suitcase.  The normal routine for starting a ride, can be a drawn out process.  First, you put your rig on the bronc.  Then, you stand over him in the chute, warming up the resin on the handle by twisting your gloved hand over it.  When it's good and sticky, you settle down onto the horse, get a good grip on the handle, and pull yourself up close to the rig.  Then, you give a signal, the ground crew opens the gate, and you ride.

At this rodeo, I drew a bronc that had a reputation for blowing up in the chute.  The tactic I was advised to use was to get a good grip on my rig, drop onto the horse, and give the ready signal.  I wasn't quite quick enough.  I got a good grip, and dropped onto the horse's back.  He sat down and tried to roll.  The ground crew knew they had to do something, or I'd be turned into sausage.  They opened the gate.  The bronc exploded up and out with me still attached.  It only took him a couple of strides to shake me loose. 

I don't remember this broncs' name.  Just his attitude. 

The judges decided that I didn't get a fair shake, and awarded me a re-ride.  The second time around, I told the ground crew to open the gate as soon as my butt touched the horses back.  The re-ride was anti-climactic.  I stayed on the eight seconds, but I was on my way off when the buzzer sounded. 


One of my duty stations in the Army was with the First Cavalry Division Horse Platoon, at Fort Hood, Texas, now, the First Cavalry Division Horse Detachment.
We performed close order drill and weapons demonstrations from the 1880's era cavalry manuals.  Our shows took us to rodeos, county fairs, and other celebrations all over Texas.  We even went to Washington D.C. for President Ronald Reagans' inaugural parade.  In the two years I spent there, I only had a couple of mishaps.  One of them probably could have been prevented by one more tack check prior to our show that day. 

We got through the the demonstration without a hitch.  That was about twenty or thirty minutes of precision drill, individual and team weapons drill, and rescue drills.  This show was in an open field, so we finished up with a cavalry charge.  I was carrying the guidon, so I was in the center.  I had the staff of the flag jammed into my right boot top, instead of the little flag cup attached to my stirrup.  We had just started when I noticed my saddle slipping to the right.  I tried to correct it by pushing down into my left stirrup.  Without realizing it, to keep my balance, I was also pushing down with my right hand.  The one holding the flagstaff jammed into my right boot top.  The more I tried to right the saddle, the more it slipped to the right.  Once I passed the balance point, down I went.  I had the presence of mind to pull the guidon out of my boot, and let go of it.  After tumbling around for a while, I got up, picked up the guidon, and ran after the troop. 

They finished the charge, and returned in a column of twos.  One of them had caught my horse.  I handed off the guidon, and hopped on bareback.  I still don't remember if they undid the girth, or if the saddle fell off.  Afterwards, our medic determined that I probably had a concussion, and took me to a doctor.  Lot's of "if onlys" in that story.  But, I can say I've had an experience unique in modern times.  I've been run over by a cavalry charge.

First Cavalry Division Horse Platoon circa 1981
The other spill happened at the big exercise ring, behind the Horse Platoon barn.  When we weren't on the road with our demonstrations, we were training back at Fort Hood.  Of course, we practiced our drill, but we also played a variety of horse mounted games.  This improved our horsemanship, our confidence between mount and rider, and in each other.  This particular day, we were having a type of relay race.  We had to start dismounted.  At the signal, one trooper from each team mounted, and raced to the end and back.  Then the next in line did the same.  We couldn't cross the start line until we were fully mounted, with feet in both stirrups.  I was riding Chuckles, my primary mount for most of the time I was there.  Chuckles, for some reason, never stood still to be saddled or mounted.  She was otherwise a superb mount.  We simply found ways to work around her peculiarity. 

When my turn came, I tried to get my toe into the stirrup rather than jump into the saddle.  Chuckles, being accustomed to rescue drills, would have blasted off, and I would not have been "fully mounted" when we crossed the start line.  With all the excitement, She was  more fidgety than normal.  No matter how I danced around, I couldn't get my foot into the stirrup.  So, to keep her off the start line, I crowded her into the fence corner and jumped up.  Keep in mind that this was more than thirty years ago.  In those days, I could leap directly onto the back of a fairly tall horse.  (These days I've grown fond of short horses.) 

I sprang up, expecting to settle into the saddle, find the stirrups, and go.  Instead, the saddle came up to meet me.  Chuckles was trying to jump the five foot tall fence from a standstill.  We went up, and up, and then, her front feet caught on the top rail.  Her head disappeared from my view, and the saddle shot me forward.  Everything seemed to switch to slow motion.  I arced ahead of the somersaulting horse, and planned my "tuck and roll".  I hit the ground rolling, but the horse was bigger than me.  She rolled faster.  As we tumbled along together, I saw grass and dirt, then sunshine, then grass and dirt, then her belly and hooves, then grass and dirt.  When I stopped rolling, Chuckles had rolled over me, regained her feet, and was high tailing it for the barn. 

Remarkably, I was untouched, but I lay there, working each joint in turn.  By the time the other troopers had gotten to me,  I had found that everything worked.  I got up, and we went to check on Chuckles.  She had escaped injury the same as me.  Later inspection showed that the antique saddle had come through unscathed as well. 

The rest of my military career kept me overseas most of the time.  That, and a tight family budget, limited my riding to the occasional vacation rental or weekend with friends horses.  I picked it back up after I retired.  Nothing so exciting as before.  I'm happy to say I've had no spills since Chuckles tumbled over the fence with me.  For several years now, I've worked green and problem horses for a local riding stable.  Most are already trained, and simply need "tuning up".   I have to admit, I still enjoy the thrill of anticipation when a new project is described as "nervous" or "spooky".  I guess I am a lot more careful than I used to be.  The ground seems to have gotten farther away, and I don't bounce as well as I used to.  I still believe that the safest place is on the horse's back.  But I've learned to heed "the best advice never followed" from the rodeo circuit.  When you lose your seat, BAIL OUT.  There is a technique that I've learned and used, called the emergency dismount.  The best description of it I've found is here: 

Boiled down to basics it's get out of the stirrups, drop the reins, hug the horses' neck, throw your legs over the horse's back, and push AWAY from the horse.  If you ride western style, you have a saddle horn to worry about.  But, the techniques I've seen designed for a western rider seem dependent on the saddle staying in place.

This one assumes that the rider is also an acrobat.

Whichever one appeals to you, learn it, and practice it before you need it.  Seems that I'm getting a bit preachy here, so one more thing, then I'll stop.  This is advice that I don't follow myself.  But, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention it.  You probably should wear a helmet.  While I don't wear one myself, A friend of mine is alive today because she decided to start wearing one.  The second day in the helmet, she was tossed headfirst into a fencepost.  She is bruised, and has a concussion.  The helmet is broken in two places, but she is alive and healing. 

Another friend is fond of saying that "when a horse isn't actively trying to kill you, he's thinking of how to kill you."  I'm not quite so pessimistic, but I still recall a bible verse from my youth.  Psalms 33:17.   An horse is a vain thing for safety: neither shall he deliver any by his great strength.

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Short Workout With Ginger (pt 4)

Weather, work, and family obligations have kept me away from the stable for over a week.  I did get to work Ginger briefly the other day.  She has been integrated into the field with the other mares.  She was keeping to herself on the wooded side when I went to fetch her.  So, that's an improvement in her living arrangements.  She was a little antsy when I mounted her, so I took her into the arena to work it off.  To my surprise, she stood still while, and after I mounted.  I dropped the reins, and gave her neck and withers a good patting and scratching, reinforcing it with an enthusiastic "good girl!"  Don't know what caused it to click, unless it's been the constant correcting her each time she tried to walk off before I was settled in the stirrups.  I also don't know if she'll remember it next time. 

She seemed nervous, and wanted to move out, but I kept her to a walk for the duration of the workout.  She crossed the various obstacles without any problem.  She got anxious whenever horses in the adjoining fields came to the fence to investigate.  I wanted her to know that, as a team, we outranked any of them.  I spoke sharply to them, and swung the ends of the reins at them, being careful not to hit Ginger.  All the while, keeping her in her position on the rail, and moving forward.  That seemed to calm her down.  The kicker came when one of the mares charged the fence with her ears pinned back.  I slapped a fence post (I couldn't reach the mare) with the reins, and shouted at her.  Ginger held her ground.  I had to laugh when Ginger wanted to turn back and do it again.  I kept her moving forward, but the mares didn't bother her anymore.  We cris-crossed the arena and negotiated the obstacles for about half an hour.  Then we finished up with mounting and dismounting, praising her profusely for standing still. 

You never know how each session will work out.  We'll see how much she retains next time out.