Saturday, October 25, 2008

Pa's Riding School

Some people call their parent’s fathers grandpa, granddad, or I have even heard papa and gramps. Mine was just called Pa. He was a simple, country man and “Pa” fit him perfectly.

I met my Pa at the end of my 6 year old year/beginning of my 7 year old year. We became family in what has become the traditional way, divorce and remarriage. He was part of the package with my new step-mom.

Thus far I had grown up in the city, but I was in the horse crazy stage that most little girls go through. So, when I went to visit my new grandparents on their 250 acres in Oklahoma, it was a new experience for me. The best part was that Pa raised registered Quarter Horses.

I don’t know if he ever thought through the teaching of horsemanship or if he just taught like he was taught, but Pa had a certain training process for teaching his grandchildren about horses.

First, he never forced any of the (well over 30) grandchildren to be interested in horses. If it came naturally, he allowed it to take its course. For me, it came naturally.

His system was twofold; it involved location and horse. First there was Trixie, a horse that was truly on her last legs and well into her upper twenties, but perfect for a first time rider to learn the basics.

I still remember my first riding lesson. As we headed to the barn Pa told me, “If you want to turn left, move your hand to the left. If you want to turn right, move your hand to the right. If you want to stop, pull back. If you want to go, squeeze with your legs.” That’s it. That was the extent of what I needed to know. Pa then saddled Trixie with his old roping saddle and turned me loose in the corral.

The corral was the second part of his system. Built by Pa, it was a welded pipe holding area off the side of the hay barn that could hold roughly, 5-10 horses at a time with a large cattle chute in the middle, again, perfect for a novice rider. I could go around in a circle but couldn’t get up any speed (should a miracle happen and Trixie want to move faster than a slow crawl).

From my perspective at the time, I was riding an amazing, huge, flashy bay horse that could fly if she wanted to. I was hooked. The addiction has lasted, and will last my entire life. My grandparents lived 4 hours away and I visited every chance I got, which was usually every few months and most of my summer breaks.

Next, I got to take Trixie out into the “trap patch”. There was about 10 acres around the house that was fenced apart from the horse pasture. How it got its name, I have no idea, but that was always what it was called. Maybe it got its name because that was where the older cousins convinced us younger ones that you could trap snipes?

Now I was really riding! Sometimes I could coerce Trixie into a few steps of trot. Mostly I just walked around and around and never wanted to get down.

Next came Star, a beautiful light chestnut with a small white dot on her forehead. She was younger and livelier than Trixie, but certainly didn’t have a mean bone in her body. Again, I started in the corral then moved on into the trap patch. Unfortunately, Star died in foaling and I wasn’t able to ride her much. Though, Star started me on my ground lessons. There is quite a bit to learn about horses that does not involve riding, mostly referred to as “ground lessons”. Saddling falls into that category. Pa would come out and saddle the horse, start me on my ride, then go back inside. I was at the mercy of his schedule as to when I rode and when I was done. First, I learned how to pull the saddle and bridle off and put everything away. That way I didn’t have to figure out how to let Pa know I was done since I couldn’t leave the horse alone for me to run into the house. It was the natural progression, as soon as I was big enough that the saddle didn’t completely crush me as it came off the horse, I was unsaddling on my own. Though, I still wasn’t strong enough to lift the saddle up onto the horse, since that old Western saddle easily outweighed me.

Next, I was moved on to Paint. Paint was, yes, a Paint. She was my main teacher and the horse that I rode the longest. I went back into the corral, but this time for horse training. Paint was a rearer, which is a dangerous habit for a horse to get into as they can fall backwards injuring or killing both the horse and the rider. As Pa stood at the railing calling out instructions I was riding and doing my best to follow his directions. The confidence I got from actually teaching a horse something was amazing, only feeding the addiction. I’m not sure my Dad was too thrilled with that.

Paint was the horse I started cantering on, the one I learned to ride bareback and, in the summers, swim with in the ponds. Paint was also the horse that took me to the next level, the pasture, 240 acres to roam and explore. Hills, ditches, fields, creeks – one word, Heaven.

But, all was not perfect. Paint was stubborn. Pa had always sent me out into the pasture to catch the horses with a bucket of grain. Most of the time it worked. I figured out that I needed more than just a handful of grain. It was important to keep the horses interested by actually giving them a bite every now and then. But, if I ran out too far away from the house, they knew and wouldn’t follow anymore. I had my share of frustrated hikes into the pasture on hot, Oklahoma summer days. So, again, out of necessity I learned how to take a halter out with me and catch the horse and lead her back to the house. It worked wonderfully…when I could get close enough to actually get the halter on her.

She taught me well, and now I can catch just about any horse anywhere. I was also getting big enough that I could start saddling on my own. It gave me such freedom and I started riding both in the mornings before the heat of the day and in the evenings when the day started cooling.

As much as Paint taught me, I wasn’t done with the riding program. I still had two more hoses to go.

As I mentioned, Pa raised Quarter Horses. So, each spring there was a new crop of foals. I loved seeing the babies and getting to pet and play with them. One year there was an especially wonderful little filly. She was a beautiful chestnut with a white stripe down her face. I spent many hours trying to get close to her and finally brush and pet her. She was, by far, my favorite.

The way the operation worked was, Pa owned the mares and his brother owned the stallion. His brother got to pick a foal each year to keep. I’m sure there was more to the business than this, but that was all I cared about - Which foal would stay?

That year my filly was picked, and he named her Sue. I watched Sue grow each year and when she was two she was sent off to a trainer. She came back ready to ride. By that time I was ready to ride her, so I thought. She was nothing like Paint. She was fast and she was young. She taught me to think faster and anticipate anything. I learned how to voluntarily dismount before I got dismounted. I learned to ride a buck and hold on until we slowed down. She was also the first horse I ever bonded with, I loved that horse.

Right about the time I turned sixteen I made the switch from Western riding to English riding. I bought an old, almost worn out, English saddle and started riding Sue with it. I was young and stupid, but, boy did we have fun.

It was also with Sue that I finally got sick of carrying the halter, for what felt like miles, and leading the horse back to the house to saddle. I started just bringing the bridle and riding bareback to the house.

The day came when Pa’s brother passed away and Sue went to live with his son. That day, I said goodbye to a wonderful uncle and a beloved horse. And I moved on to the next, and final horse of “the program”, Missy.

Missy was Pa’s favorite, and for good reason. She was beautiful. A dark chocolaty brown bay, compact, fast, with feminine features and an attitude. When you rode her you knew she was going to buck. All the fun I had had up to this point didn’t compare with the adrenaline that came with riding Missy. But, Pa had trained me well. I was prepared, capable and competent. I was proud to be one of the only grandkids to get to ride Missy.

Since then, I have gone on to ride many more horses. I have taught lessons and trained horses. I’ve had to relearn some bad riding habits and mature as a rider and a person, but my foundation was solid and my confidence intact. I will always be grateful for Pa’s riding school.

A few years ago, Pa passed away. I still miss him and, I’m sure, I always will. When we went back for the funeral I took a few minutes to wander through the barn and walk out into the pasture and remember so many good times both with him and because of him. And when I left to go home, that old roping saddle was in the trunk of my car. I hope my kids can ride in it one day.

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