When I was a kid, we had a big black brown Thoroughbred mare we called Pretty Girl. We thought she was black, didn’t know the red on her flanks and muzzle made her anything else, and we admired the neatly made diamond and narrow strip that ran down her long angular face.
Hard to catch, she was prone to running away if she got her head and come shoeing day, just like the day they hung the steers up, I learned to be away on long rides. I understood everything about our lives. We hunted, fished, raised our own beef and pork. There were some things I didn’t like to see, and shoeing Pretty Girl was one of them.
We had a contraption of burlap bags and rope. A set of bags went around her neck, I think my guardian Corky even sewed some fleece on there to try to prevent rope burns of any kind. We were not inhumane, we just didn’t know any better. One or two feet got tied up, as Pretty Girl had a lightning fast kick with a wicked aim and I think she figured taking off someone’s head was just a fair part of this game. Often as not she ended up on the ground in a pile of thrashing feet, flinging head, wild eyes and dust.
One particular day maybe summerish, my other guardian, Everett, wanted to go ride with me. Of the two horses we saddled, one bucked, one ran off. I guess they put me on the one that ran off thinking I had a better chance with that one. The other was a previous year’s birthday present for me, a buttermilk Buckskin mare aptly named May Day.
I loved Pretty Girl and loved to ride her. So far, she hadn’t run off with me and I was thinking she might not. We rode that day over the leaf strewn forested trail that ran up and down the mountain behind our house. Crossing into our neighbor’s property Everett climbed down off May Day, opening and then closing behind us the four strand barbed wire gate that stretched across the road to Hidden Valley.
This was a lovely little golden gem nestled into an elbow of the tail end of the Northern California Sierra Nevadas where I grew up. There were a couple long narrowish meadows separated by ravines and on the east side some weathered tiny buildings indicating someone had once lived and homesteaded here. Whoever was long gone and their stories gone with them but the empty half falling down shacks remained, silent ghosts of another time.
We moseyed down the dirt road lined with tall elegant orange barked Madrone trees, some different breeds of Oaks, Firs and Pines. Maybe only 11 years old, I had a sense of the incredible beauty of the place and that I might not ever find it’s like anywhere on this earth. I never thought to be anywhere else in my life.
Circling down to the end of the long meadow, we turned and headed back. Now, why we did the thing we did next, I cannot tell you. You would have thought one of us , the grown man on the broncy horse or the girl that grew up in the saddle would have known better but we didn’t. It was traditional to run, race, lope, pick up the pace in some fashion when we turned for home and that is what we did.
“Hold her!” I remember Everett grinning tightly at me as he held May Day’s head up in a forceful grip. She only bucked when she loped and he was strong enough to not let her head get down in position. Pretty Girl lengthened her stride.
Suddenly there was no buckskin mare anywhere in my vision and we were streaking down the valley floor. I thought about the hairpin turn we would make at the end and determined I would stay on board no matter what.
That mare flew. We no longer heard Everett’s shouts or May Day’s hoof beats as she ran backwards into the distance behind us. That turn came and Pretty Girl made it as handy as any barrel or pole horse and we were blazing up the road. I remember like it is now, the turning of my stomach as I recalled the four strands of barbed wire tautly waiting across the road maybe an 8th of a mile in our rapidly approaching future.
As we neared the death trap, Pretty Girl suddenly relaxed the iron grip she’d held on the massive curb bit we rode her in, tucked her jaw and settled into a small lope. From there I easily pulled her to a stop. She shook her head and blew, quite pleased with herself, I am thinking. In awhile, Everett and May Day came pounding up the road, I am sure thinking they were going to encounter certain disaster.
It was some years after that a gal named Sally someone or other came to present to our local saddle club. I don’t know if my guardians would have cared much about it if it were not for Pretty Girl.
This woman said she was a student of a man named Pat Parelli. In 1975 no one had a clue or cared who that might be. She said bring the worst of your worst and I will show you some amazing things. Well, now, we were country folk and we enjoyed watching city people make fools of themselves and this seemed as good an opportunity as any.
Long enough ago, I don’t remember much of who all brought what but I know we represented with a spicy mix.
What I remember, again like it was yesterday, is what happened when Sally took over control of Pretty Girl. We cautioned her about the mare’s wicked left hook and her equally damaging right. Sally declined the contraption and instead asked for a long garden hose. I think Everett asked if she was planning to beat the mare with the hose. We were not going to be okay with that.
She smiled. No. That was not the plan. After maybe 20 minutes of running cool water on the mare’s legs, not allowing her to make contact with the flying hooves nor letting the mare drag her off her feet and escape, she progressed to touching Pretty’s back legs with a long whip. She rubbed up and down, not minding when the mare kicked, it was only a very small protest now, and following when Pretty would shift her weight away.
I know it was not even half an hour as I heard those words spoke in wonder many times before Sally could reach down, pick up a relaxed hind, stretch it out and clean her foot. I think I might have cried.
For the runaway part, she taught us an exercise that we did in Kip’s clinic last Saturday. We would take a certain amount of steps forward, an equal amount of steps back. Next time, subtract one. We would repeat this process until we were literally rocking our horse in place.
My friend, Lisa Askew, and I LOVED this game. My folks sold Pretty Girl to a guy who wanted to raise nice mules, much to my fury and indignation but there she went. In the time between, she never needed her feet tied up to shoe and she didn’t run off with me again, either.
I had my good Cisco Kid horse and Lisa had Comanche. Our tales would fill a many a more blog but we spent that summer rocking our horses in place up there in Hidden Valley. Giggling like fools, watching each other closely to see whose horse would mess up and step out of their tracks first. We also collected trophies.
Our saddle club held monthly play days. I was not allowed to ride into town for any reason, so the rodeo arena, barrels and poles were beyond my reach. We could practice in the Valley though, and so we did. We rocked, forward, backward and added sidewise. We ran serpentines though we just thought we were zigzagging down the valley floor. We rode tightest fastest figure eights. Time came to play the games in the arena, our horses were sharp, precise and quick. It was a toss up between us as to who would take home the high point.
Heck of a good summer, and lessons that stuck with this girl for the rest of her life.