Horsing Around

I’m a pretty sad excuse for a Texan. I can’t even ride a horse properly.

They keep falling out from under me.

Seriously. If I’d been born before pickup trucks were invented, I’d have had to walk everywhere. I’d have been the guy in the cowboy movies who drove the wagon. No self-respecting steed would ever allow me anywhere near it.

My inability to stay atop a horse is even sadder knowing I’ve loved horses since my first encounter with them. It’s not their fault I lack sense enough to stay upright in a saddle.

I don’t have a decent excuse for my equestrian failures. I was around horses at an early age. Surely, one might think, I would have learned back then how easy it is. All you gotta do is roll when the horse rolls, and dip when the horse dips, right?

Not me, man. I dipped when they rolled, and rolled when they dipped. As a kid, a fall off the top of a horse felt the same as falling off a house. (Yes, I’ve done that, too.)

I certainly can’t blame the animals. Bless ’em, they tried to train me. When I was around 8 years old, a young couple rented space in the barn next to my house in East Tennessee. They wanted stalls for their three horses. They actually paid me to go over every day and check the horses’ feed and water, spread a little hay around the stalls (and do a little mucking) and brush the animals whenever I felt like it.

I always felt like it. Those majestic creatures truly were beautiful animals. Through my interactions with them, I learned horses have their own personalities. I had no idea they could be so intelligent.

There was Pepper, who was the feisty one. He’d be the one knocking the bucket out of my hand, or bumping me against stalls when I tried to brush him. If a horse can offer a mischievous expression, Pepper had it down.

Shane, a palomino, was more playful. The guy would pull my shirt over my head with his teeth, or jam his snout into my pockets looking for the apples I’d bring to them. If I walked him, he made a game of jerking his head and tugging the rope just hard enough to make me lose my balance. For a long time, I thought a horse’s neigh was pure laughter.

Then there was Penny, my absolute favorite. She was sweet and gentle, and the only one I felt comfortable riding when the couple showed up to let me. Penny was affectionate, something I’d never considered in a horse. She’d drape her head over my shoulder for a horse’s version of a hug, or let me rub her face with mine. I was in love with that animal. Nevertheless, as soon as I climbed into the saddle, I’d fall right back out as soon as Penny took a couple of steps. Her neigh-giggles were a little quieter than Shane’s.

When the couple finally moved away, I shed some kid tears telling those three horses goodbye. I still remember petting Penny through a slot in the trailer as the truck hauled them away.

I swore one day, I’d have my own horses.

Sure enough, not long afterward, our family got a horse. A really, really short one, I thought. But Honeybee was a small pony, not a full-blown horse. Surely I’d be able to ride her, right? I mean, the fall wasn’t near as daunting as what I’d experienced before.

Nope. Honeybee wasn’t fond of having a scrawny, awkward boy astride her back. She didn’t come with a steering wheel, and she ignored my attempts to convey my changes of direction through the bridle. She figured out how to walk through a low-hanging doorway on the side of the barn, scraping me off in the process. She’d let my sisters ride her, but she had no problems discriminating against me.

When Honeybee dropped a little one, I again learned how those beautiful animals had their own personalities. Sugarfoot (named for the white around her feet) grew up around our dogs. I’m convinced she thought she was more canine than equestrian. When I walked through the pasture with buckets of water, Sugarfoot pounced around and chased me just like our dogs did. I never considered trying to ride her since I’d never thought of trying to ride a dog.

I think those early experiences were a big reason I became so fascinated with horses later. I was a huge fan of those old westerns on TV and the big screen, and I spent as much time watching the horses as I did the human characters. I still remember Roy Rogers’ horse Trigger and the Lone Ranger’s “Hi, ho, Silver, away” from my youth. I cheered as hard for Secretariat and Seattle Slew in the Kentucky Derby as I did for any of my favorite football teams.

Still, despite my admiration for horses, I never learned to ride one properly. One day, somebody’s gonna revoke my Texas ID.

As much as I loved horses, my feelings could never compare to the way my sisters adored those beautiful beasts.

There’s something about a girl and a horse incomparable to any other human/animal relationship. Those horses and ponies so heck-bent on throwing me off? They’d let my sisters ride ’em from Tennessee to California and back if they’d wanted. And had I listened to my sister Darlene at the time, I’d have racked up on betting on Secretariat and Seattle Slew. She told us those horses were gonna win big even before the rest of us had even heard of them. Darlene wanted horse toys like we boys wanted GI Joes.

Several years ago, I went to visit my family in Tennessee. My sister Donna and my niece Alora invited me to watch them compete in a horse event nearby. I watched in awe as my “baby” sister backed up her truck, hooked up the big goose-neck horse trailer herself and led Scout and Misty (their horses, both of which were Tennessee Walkers) for the trip. There, the ladies then unloaded their favorite beasts, brushed them down and saddled them, and rode them as part of a horse show. They’d spent countless hours working together for such moments.

Just before she mounted Scout, Alora gave him a big ol’ kiss for luck — right on his velvety nose. The horse seemed to love it.

When did you ever see the Lone Ranger smooch Silver? Or Roy Rogers plant his lips on ol’ Trigger? Never, that’s when.

Girls (and ladies) and their horses. It’s as if they were made for one another.

I read an article in Psychology Today describing a lady’s relationship with her horse as mutually beneficial. The woman/girl uses her powers of persuasion to train her horse instead of physically trying to restrain it. In turn, the woman draws a sense of strength only such a magnificent animal can provide. The connection is as much a mental one as it is a physical one.

Makes sense to me, and might answer why horses don’t care to have me riding them. It also explains how my sweet wife is able to get me to do things no one else can.

April is the month for rodeos, even right here in East Texas. The next time you attend one, pay close attention to the relationships between riders and their animals. In the bronc-riding portion, you’ll see guys sitting astride horses that don’t want ’em up there. See how those guys go flying off? I look the same way even when a horse is sitting still.

And then watch the ladies in the barrel-racing competition. They and their horses move in unison as if they’re part of the same body. The leaning, the “pocketing” (trying to narrow the gap between the barrel and the horse during a turn) — all of those have to work in perfect coordination. The rider and the horse have spent many an hour developing the sort of trust in their relationship any human couple would envy.

Basically, the horse has to be OK with having a rider on top.

Finally, watch what happens after the ladies dismount. More often than not, there’ll be an exchange of affection.

A pat, a hug and — yes — maybe even a big ol’ horse smooch.

Man, those girls aren’t horsing around when it comes to their horses.