Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Last Post

I find that I'm running a little thin on animal stories for now, and so I intend to let the subject drop. I'm going to leave these stories up for a month and then either delete the blog or add more stories, if any more have occurred to me.

I hope you have enjoyed these stories, but this will probably be my last entry here.

Ken Harris

Thursday, March 19, 2009


In March, 1961, we were living in El Monte and actively involved with children, jobs, and, whenever we could find the time, horses. Equestrian Trails, Inc., or ETI as we all knew it, was a large statewide organization dedicated to procuring, retaining and maintaining riding trails throughout rapidly urbanizing Southern California. Work at the local level was done by individual local chapters called “corrals.” We belonged to Corral 36. ETI corrals provided our social lives with trail rides, barbecues, entry-level horse shows and gymkhanas.

Barstow’s ETI corral annually put together a week-long trail ride from Barstow to Las Vegas. I had a little vacation time coming from Occidental Life and so took a week off to make the safari with my wife’s sorrel mare, Legend. Joanne had been conditioning the mare to make the 100-mile-in-24-hours Tevis race from Tahoe City to Auburn. There was no question in my mind that an animal able to cover 100 miles over the Sierra Nevada mountains in 24 hours could easily go 130 miles from Barstow to Las Vegas in one week. Legend would probably think she was on vacation as well as I.

We had a neighbor who regularly made this ride and through a cost sharing arrangement with him I was able to get Legend to Barstow. We couldn’t have made it on our own because we had neither horse trailer nor pickup to pull it with. We arrived in Barstow after dark and threw out our sleeping bags and I drifted off to sleep assuming everything was well.

It wasn’t.

It was a strange, but throughout her life most horses hated Legend on sight. They struck at her with their forehooves, slashed at her with their teeth, squealed insults at her. True to form, the other horses in the van on the way to Barstow brutalized Legend so that by next morning she was hunched up like she was standing in a blizzard. Her urinary bladder was stopped up. Or her kidneys. Or something.

Her condition put me in a quandary. The horse transportation had already departed and if Legend were too sick to make the trip to Las Vegas she and I would be stranded in Barstow without shelter, food, love or money. On the other hand, if we attempted the ride and she broke down, then we would be stranded in the desert, same situation except more cactus and no telephone. I decided to go for it and began the ride on a borrowed horse leading Legend at the gentle walk. By now there were about a dozen riders.

We ambled along for a half hour when Legend decided to urinate. And so she did. And did. And did. After a while she commanded quite a bit of attention from everyone else. If I had known she was going to present such a virtuoso urinary display, I would have sold tickets in advance.

I say that other horses did not like Legend. There was one exception. Beanblossom, a large, rangy buckskin gelding with a forceful personality, homely to look at but more intelligent than most humans I’ve dealt with. Not that Old Bean ever misbehaved. He was very well trained and did whatever his rider wanted, but you had the idea that he was well aware that he had options and was just going along with the gag.

Beanblossom had been a range horse and I think there was a lot of mustang in him. He had been trained by a teenage male who had some curious training tactics. For instance, he would approach the horse, whip out a hidden loaded water pistol and squirt him in the face. Most horses would have responded badly, but not Old Bean. He thought it was a great joke. He immediately took to holding a last mouthful of water when he drank and then sneaking up behind someone and letting him have the whole liter. Beanblossom had quite a sense of humor and it made him famous throughout the Barstow area.

Beanblossom’s owner, if such a horse can be said to have an owner, was Jobert Williams, an Armenian-Cherokee American who had been a bull rider, run his own undercapitalized saddle shop which failed, and was the mover and shaker in a local fast-draw gun club. I would never have the nerve to go into business for myself and you couldn’t get me into the same corral with a bull, let alone on his back. And I don’t believe in playing with guns. Talk about the odd couple. Nevertheless, we got along great together and so did our horses. We rode most of the 130 miles together.

A truck carried our sleeping bags and other gear and met us each night at the new camp site. More importantly, the truck met us twice a day, at 10:00 and 2:00 with beer for the humans and water for the horses. Well, there was one day when the terrain was too rough for the beer wagon. The horses knew when 10:00 had arrived as surely as if they had tuned into a satellite, and when it became apparent that water was not to be forthcoming, they made their displeasure known.

A motorized chuckwagon provided civilized food. So in the evenings we didn't have to eat meat that had been wrapped around a stick and undercooked over an open fire. Instead, we sat around the open fire and pretended we were real cowboys. And cowgirls. We would talk about things that concerned riders. One evening the subject was tethering.

Most of the riders used the Horseman’s Knot to tether their horses. It’s a nifty little hitch made with a couple of quick flips of the wrist. The beauty of the Horseman’s Knot is that a horse cannot free himself by pulling back on the rope, but the rider can untie it by simply pulling on the loose end. One tug, a flying mount, and you’re on your way out of Dodge leaving the sheriff in a cloud of dust, spluttering and gnashing his teeth. Joe Williams didn't use the Horseman's Knot because Beanblossom had figured it out. Easy, easy, easy.

But, me, I didn’t know how to tie the Horseman’s Knot. Joanne had tried to teach me several times, but I have this problem, have had it all my life. Joanne says I’m stubborn, but I think I’m just unable to tie knots. “Well, I never use the Horseman’s Knot. I just use a bowline.” I didn’t mention that I used the bowline because it is one of the two knots I know how to tie. “I’ve never had a horse get away from me yet,” I added.

Everyone burst out laughing. That puzzled me because I didn’t think it was one of my better one-liners. Then I looked behind me. You guessed it. There stood Legend, looking for me, dragging her lead rope behind her. Apparently my heralded bowline had simply dropped off and Legend had come to me for advice.

Two days out of Las Vegas we crossed into the Great State of Nevada and camped at the town of Goodsprings. We were 12 miles east of Sandy Valley and 7 miles north of Jean, to locate this place precisely for you. In 1961 Goodsprings was as close to a ghost town as you could get and still not be haunted. There were around 20 old houses in varying states of disrepair and two others were actually occupied.

Goodsprings also sported a weathered hotel that looked like it was falling apart. But it had a well-stocked bar. Unfortunately, I had very little money with me, so the abundance of alcohol was really irrelevant. Then I had a happy thought. I sang my repertoire of Tom Lehr songs and Jobert added a few golden ditties he’d picked up on the rodeo circuit and that provided a few drinks while my trusty steed stood by the campfire. I would have invited her into the bar with me, but I was afraid she would fall through the floor.

Meanwhile, I can tell people I’ve entertained in Nevada, in a hotel just outside of Las Vegas.

The night after Goodsprings we camped at a hobo jungle near a railroad track. The campsite provided an epiphany for Legend in the form of an artesian well. She had never seen water just come out of the ground like that. She wouldn’t even go near it. I had to fill a bucket with water for her so she could drink.

That night we made sure all the horses were secured to the picket line and that the pickets were firmly anchored into the earth. I especially double checked my bowline. We thought the midnight special might come by and frighten the horses into pulling their pickets. The visual of a dozen horses connected by 50 feet of chain running through the desert was not a pretty one.

Jobert also made sure Beanblossom was tied and double tied because Old Bean would think it a great joke to untie himself and all the other horses and go into Las Vegas without us. But we weren’t as careful with our beer cans, and Beanblossom found one. He worked it to where it lay between his front hooves and then gently kicked it from left hoof to right hoof. And then back again. Click click click. Click click click. We all lay awake listening. Click click click. Finally, our ride leader, a heretofore gracious lady, could stand it no longer. “Williams, take that goddamned beer can away from your goddamned horse!” she screamed. Jobert did, but Beanblossom gave him his innocent, “what did I do?” look.

We finally made it to Las Vegas in time to participate as a riding unit in their Pioneer Days parade. But our horses, so surefooted over sand, rock, and shale, stumbled and slid all over the pavement. Luckily, no one was hurt, but it wasn’t our fault.

Eventually we fetched up at the Clark County fair grounds where Joanne met me. She had found a sitter for our two little ones, probably her long suffering mother, and came up to spend a wild night on the town with me. Legend had her stall, a very nice one with new straw for bedding. Joanne and I had the stall next to hers, and we had clean bedding straw as well. Jobert and his wife and Beanblossom were in stalls across the aisle. Life was good.

Copyright Ken Harris 2008

Wednesday, March 11, 2009



This is the saga of Legend, the flying horse. We lived in Auburn, California in the mid-1960s, and involved ourselves with the Tevis Cup One Hundred Mile ride group. Joanne and I had both done the ride and we wanted to keep our horses in condition. On weekends would take twenty-, thirty-, forty-mile pleasure rides. In the spring we took these occasions to clear and remark the trails after the harsh winter months.

That's what we were doing one day when we found ourselves on a steep hillside. Usually when I tell this story, it’s a cliff. But the slope wasn’t ninety degrees, it was more like seventy. It was certainly too steep for ballroom dancing. The slope had a few oak trees growing on it, but you couldn’t see their sides, only their tops.

Wendell Robie was the guiding light for the Tevis Cup ride and, as I stop to think of it, figured in several of our misadventures. He was in the lead, followed by Joanne on her horse, Country Girl, followed by me on Legend. We came upon a pine tree that had fallen over during the winter rains leaving its rootside uphill of the trail and the topside dangling out into the air. Wendell rode around the obstacle. A horse is perfectly capable of negotiating a seventy degree slope if the rider just gets out of his way and lets him do it. Joanne didn’t want to go around the tree, she wanted to jump it. And jump it she did.

Legend got ready to jump the tree from a standstill, but I didn’t want her to. I wanted her to go around the obstacle, not over it. I pulled back on the reins and turned her out facing the slope. I figured we would go off the trail and down the slope, around the tree and up the slope, the way Wendell had done. I had forgotten my earlier jumping lessons at the Arroyo Seco Stables in South Pasadena. I had forgotten that to Legend could and would jump from a standstill.

She did jump from a standstill.

I wish you could have seen the look of amazement on legend's face when she saw nothing but air beneath her feet instead of firm ground. I saw it, and I wish you had been there instead of me. As soon as I realized we were airborne, I let go of the reins, kicked my feet clear of the stirrups and tried to abandon ship. But the higher I went, the higher she went. My ship wouldn’t let me abandon her. I don’t know what she thought I was going to do, but she clearly expected me to save us.

Fortunately, we landed in the top of an oak tree where we parted company. If we had augured into the ground I wouldn’t be writing this story now. We filtered through the tree and fell to earth, taking branches with us, and landed one on each side of the trunk.

Joanne tells me I was knocked unconscious, but that isn't true. I was merely laying face down wiggling fingers and toes, rejoicing in the movement of each digit. It took a while. After all, there are twenty of them. Legend had a scrape above her left eye and I didn’t get a scratch, although some years later a chiropractor looked at an x-ray and asked me about my whiplash.

The rest of the crew continued with clearing the trail, but Joanne and I repaired to a sandy beach on the river and fished what was left of our lunch out of the saddle bags. Our friends said that if I’d do it again they’d bring a cameraman along and do a cigarette commercial. Then we could all split the money. I have such good friends.

Meanwhile, I learned two important lessons. One: horses can’t fly. Two: I can’t either.

Copyright Ken Harris 2009