Monday, January 26, 2009

Another Op'nin', Another Blow

Another Op’ning, Another Blow
©Kenneth Harris, 2008

We lived in Auburn, California from 1962 to 1970. For much of that time I worked for Intercoast Life Insurance Company, home office in Davis. For all of the time we lived in Auburn we were involved with the Western States Trail Ride.

The Western States Trail Ride occurs once every year on the Saturday following the “Hunters Moon,” which occurs in the hot days of summer. Starting out at o-dark-hundred, riders attempt to take their horse from Tahoe City to Auburn, over the Sierra Nevadas, in 24 hours.

But there's more. Each year the trail has to be reopened, rediscovered, or relocated after the winter snows and rains. This involves hardy horsemen riding out on many weekends armed with hatchets, bow saws, yellow tape to mark the trail, and lots of muscle and good will. My horse, Legend, and I were usually part of the trail crew and, in general, I enjoyed being a part of it all.

One day in 1968 sitting at lunch in the safety of the insurance company home office with a co-worker named Dave de la Cruz, I nattered on about the joys of riding in the mountains. I didn't mention anything about hazards and hardships, just the pleasure of communing with nature. Dave said, “Gee, I wish there was someplace like that we could ride. Dixon is so flat.”

What could I say? Dave lived in Dixon. Dixon is in the Central Valley. Dixon is flat. I don’t want to downgrade the place, but it is pool table flat.

What could I say? I could have said any number of things, but what I did say was to invite him and his wife to go riding with me on the following Saturday morning. I had thought of a ride across two canyons from Michigan Bluff. We would go down a steep canyon and out of it, across Deadwood Ridge, into and out of another steep canyon to Last Chance Mine, and then turn around and come back again. By the time we returned to Michigan Bluff we would have ridden a distance of 20 miles or so, but have involved ourselves 7,500 feet of ascent and descent. Beautiful country, but you needed strong horses and strong butts. Iron horses and iron butts would be even better. I was looking forward to it.

It never occurred to me that Dave and his wife, used to the loamy flats of Dixon, might not be able to make a ride like that in good style. Or at all.

Fortunately, the matter never came up because we didn’t make that ride. We would have had to trailer over mountain roads, paved but steep and curvy, and we needed to leave by 8:00 o’clock. Dave, and his wife, and his car, and his trailer, and his horses, arrived at 10:00 o’clock. Two hours late.

They arrived in an elderly station wagon that could barely pull the steep hill up to our house. When Dave opened the hood to his vehicle to see why he was having such power difficulties we saw sparks flying from loose and cracked wiring. He had eight cylinders, all of them firing about forty percent of the time.

A Michigan Bluff ride was out of the question, but we could trailer down to Robie Point, just outside of Auburn, and then ride down the Old Stage Coach Road to the American River, follow a few trails for a while, and still get back in time for a late lunch. And this became our new plan.

We trailered to Robie Point, the de la Cruzes with their quarter horses and me with Joanne’s pet horse, Ringwraith, since my pet horse, Legend, was unavailable. (We had acquired Ringwraith just after we had read The Lord of the Rings. Ring was a big, strong animal with very dark brown hair. His ears lopped, which made him look as though he would love to stomp a hobbit. Consequently, strangers gave him a wide berth. But Ring was really a nice guy, mainly, I think, because people left him alone.)

When it came to trailering, Legend and I had spoiled each other. I would put food in the trailer manger, lower the tail gate and rump chain, point Legend in the direction of the food and in she would walk. I would fasten her halter to the manger by means of a breakaway chain, drape her lead rope over her back, hook the rump chain back up, and close the tailgate. When it came time to unload the horse, I was supposed to unsnap the chain from the halter. The horse’s head is free, it backs up, feels the rump chain, and waits until the universe is in better order. But with Legend I had got in the habit of doing things in reverse order. In this case I first did the tailgate, then the rump chain, then tried to unchain the halter.


Ring felt the rump chain give and backed up. But his head was still confined, held by the breakaway chain. At that point he lost his head. And I almost lost mine. He swung his head back and forth wildly while I tried to undo the chain. His head hit mine accidentally and split it open above and to the side of my right eye. Popped it like a grape.

Eventually I gained control of Ring’s head and backed him out onto the street. Now we had a slight complication. Blood had stuck my eyelids shut and I couldn’t see. I asked Dave to hold my horse. He said, “No.”

His wife added, “I think I’m going to be sick.”

I realized I had a problem, maybe two or three.

I pried my eyes open so I could see at least a little bit, tied Ring to the trailer and then washed the blood off my face with water from the nearest garden hose. I dripped back to my horse, untied him, climbed into the saddle and said, “Let’s go.”

Just then the guy who lived in the house with the garden hose came out and asked, “Are you all right?”

But for some reason my company felt we ought to return home. I took stock of myself and saw that I looked like I had fought on both sides at the Battle of Shiloh. I looked like I had all of my blood on my clothes and none in my body. Even I realized we didn't need to go on a ride. The morning had already been perfect.

When we reached home Joanne drove me to the doctor’s office for some fancy whipstitching. The doctor was a horseman and treated the whole episode with jovial manner while I had unkind thoughts. When he was through, Joanne pointed out that there were still a few bits of flesh sticking out at odd angles from my face. Not to worry. He snipped them off with scissors. That part of my face wasn’t numbed, but I was fairly numb all over anyway.

We had a light lunch and Joanne took the de la Cruzes out for a gentle ride in an area we called Big Hill. Not mountains, but rolling hills with oak trees and magpies. It was a nice ride. They rode for half an hour, but when Joanne asked them which direction they wanted to go next, they said back to the trailer. They were exhausted. I hate to think what would have happened if we had tried the Michigan Bluff canyons. We’d still be there.

Lesson one: Just because someone says he can ride doesn’t mean he can ride.

Lesson two: Just because someone says he can unload a horse doesn’t mean much either.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Great Horse Race

The Horse Race
Copyright: Ken Harris 2006

The time: a winter morning in 1957. The place: the trail between the Arroyo Seco Stables in South Pasadena and the Rose Bowl.

Bobbi Williams kept Bonny Pico, a racing Thoroughbred, for her own pleasure. Bonny Pico had raced several times and won or placed on those occasions. But she was temperamental and often “blew her cool.” Very soon into her career she tangled herself up in the starting gate and damaged her legs. She was was still temperamental after her accident, just not so fast. She frequently “flew into alt,” to use an old, old phrase. If you weren’t careful with her, you would fly even “alter” before you hit the ground. Not many people besides Bobbi rode Bonny Pico: she required an experienced or firm hand, usually both.

We three, Joanne, Bobbi and myself, decided to ride to the Rose Bowl for breakfast. A recent rain had “gifted” us with a muddy trail. Bobbi wanted to ride Bonny Pico and give her an opportunity to run. It must be miserable to be a race horse in a rental-schooling stable. Always wanting to run, never getting to? It must be like an AA member working in a bar.

On this fine day Bobbi wanted to let Bonny Pico out a bit on the trail to the Rose Bowl. She volunteered to give us a half mile head start. Sheba, the little Arab mare, and I formed a second “racing team,” if you could call us that, and Legend, a 3/4-Arab, and Joanne formed a third. Sheba, while willing, couldn’t match Legend for speed. Soon Joanne and Legend immediately left Sheba and me behind with globs of mud on our faces.

We stood no chance of catching them, but we tried our best. A few minutes later I heard a buh-duh-BUMP buh-duh-BUMP coming up behind me. Bobbi and Bonny Pico passed Sheba and me like we were hobbled. And Bonny Pico wasn’t even running. She was galloping. Huge, yard-eating strides. And as she galloped by, she had this dreamy, ecstatic, “free at last” look in her eye.

Bobbi and Bonny Pico zoomed past us, coating us with lots more mud. Then they passed Joanne and Legend, giving them an adobe facial as well. When we finished our course, Bobbi and Bonny Pico were in fine fettle and Sheba, Legend, Joanne and I felt as good as mud lumps could.

I may never get to Heaven, but I know what it would feel like from the look in Bonny Pico's as she passed Sheba and me by like we were chained to a tree.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Dandy, Ironsides and Salty

Three More Horses, Dandy, Ironsides and Salty
Copyright Ken Harris, 2009

I don’t believe Dandy was a U.S. Cavalry veteran, but he was interesting. For one thing, his neck was thicker than his head and jaws. Halters and bridles dropped off him like rain off a slicker. Escape was his specialty. But when he had freed himself, he didn’t want to go anywhere alone, so he would untie all the other horses as well. Chuck or Bobbi Williams would periodically take the working horses down to play in the Arroyo Seco water, back n the days before it became a concrete ditch, and to soak their hooves. If Dandy had not been working during riding lessons that day, he was left behind. Not to worry, he would soon show up minus his halter. After that the Williamses decided that whenever anyone went for a cooling footbath, Dandy got to go as well. It was easier than hog tying him.

Ironsides was a boarder, but he loved to jump so much that he was used in jumping lessons as well. The horses lined up and jumped in turn. Ironsides was so keen that he would cut in line to get in more jumps. Most of the other horses didn’t mind since they could live their entire lives and never jump, prefer it, in fact. A professional trainer whom I shall not name, borrowed the horse for further schooling. She “crammed” Ironsides against a jump and ruined his front legs. He was good for the occasional pleasure ride, but his jumping days were through. The trainer, by the way, was not my landlady, Bobbi Williams.

The last horse I shall discuss was neither the most beautiful nor the most obedient. Certainly not the latter. His name was Sultan, but everyone called him “Salty.” That should give you a clue right there.

On this particular afternoon I had just returned home from work. (So many of my adventures begin with my just returning from work to discover what my frau has been up to.) On this afternoon, she had been dutifully washing the dishes. She had put her hand into the top of a glass holding a wash cloth, and made a circular washing motion when the rim broke and she gashed her hand deeply.

Bobbi Williams loaded Joanne into her elderly Cadillac and took her down to the Los Angeles County Hospital Emergency Room where they administered medicine in the rough. They held her hand over a pan and poured alcohol over it, and then stitched it up without benefit of any pain deadening injections. Fortunately, I guess, the alcohol on the fresh cut caused the nerves in Joanne’s hand to shrivel because she didn’t even feel the stitches. It’s like curing a headache by cutting off a toe.

They got back from the hospital just as I drove in from work. Meanwhile, Salty ran out of the stable with his saddle underneath his belly, leaving his rider, a teenage girl, lying face down in the middle of the ring. Salty hung a right out of the stable driveway and began his mad escape. We piled into Bobbi’s Caddy and began a hot pursuit. We’re talking Friday afternoon rush hour here.

It was easy to track Salty. You just went in the direction people were looking and pointing. When we caught sight of Salty, he had slowed to a canter. Just then an intrepid soul in an MG convertible tried to head him off. Salty was a jumper-and-a-half at need, and he easily cleared the MG, saddle under his belly and all, giving the driver an object lesson in why people should think before they act.

By the time Bobbi caught up with the horse, Salty had slowed to a walk and was on the on ramp to the Pasadena Freeway. Cars were lined up for a half mile in every possible direction. Bobbi pulled up beside the horse and drove slowly, perhaps 1- to 3-miles-per-hour, as slowly as she could without stalling. Joanne stepped out of the car to catch the horse.

Joanne was carrying our first child. Her balance must have been a little off because she did not land gracefully on her feet, but flopped around like a scarecrow in a whirlwind, finally landing in a supine position on the street. At this point, the cars stopped.

Joanne got to her feet. Still silence. She walked quietly by the horse, not even looking at him. She’s just a girl going her own way, minding her own business, catching a horse the furthest thing from her mind. She suddenly reached out and grabbed one of the broken reins dangling from Salty's bridle and stopped him. Quickly she uncinched his saddle and stowed it in the car.

The trip back to the stable was almost anticlimactic. Joanne began to walk Salty home and soon Bobbi slowly drove by in the Caddy. They women changed places, Joanne drove, Bobbi and Salty walked, and order was restored in the universe.

I never before believed in miracles until this incident, but in all that time, with all those cars stopped, not one Los Angeles motorist honked. Now that’s a miracle.