My son rode out in the pasture with me last weekend, one of his first trips that involved traversing real landscape, and I was reminded of how it was to be a kid in the saddle. Especially a really short kid.
Horseback riding is not friendly to the vertically-challenged, unless you happen to be a Kentucky Derby jockey with a groom on hand to give you a leg up. Think about it…the shorter the person, the shorter the stirrup leathers, and therefore the greater the distance from stirrup to ground, when I already started at a serious disadvantage compared to my longer-legged cousins. How is that fair?
Sadly, I never found any spare grooms loitering around the barn on the ol' ranch, although the hired man could be pressed into service in a pinch, if I caught him passing by on the way to the shop for whatever the only tool was that hadn't been packed in his toolbox, but turned out to be essential to replace a broken section on the swather.
More often, I had to make do with a hay bale or a bucket. Want to guess how long it takes a horse of average intelligence to figure out all he has to do is sidle away from the bucket to keep you from mounting up? About thirty seconds less than it takes a meaner than average horse to realize it's more fun to just knock you off the bucket. Or reach around, grab the hay bale with his teeth and yank it out from under you.
Somehow or other, I always managed to get aboard. Feet in stirrups, reins in hand, ready to go…except the horse didn't move, because a horse doesn't see a lot of sense in leaving the place where he gets grain and hay.
"Just kick him," my dad always said.
Yeah, sure. Easy for you, your feet reach down past the saddle blanket.
Once I got free of the barn's gravitational field I'd be on a roll, until we crossed the first slough west of the house, where the grass grows belly high. How was a horse to resist reaching down for a bite, ripping the reins right out of my hands? They'd slide clear to his ears, and despite hanging upside down from the front of the saddle by the tips of my boots I couldn’t reach them, so there we'd stay, the horse happily grazing, until someone noticed we'd stalled.
My horse had two speeds: plod, and bone-jarring trot. The average rider counteracts a rough trot by placing weight on their feet. This is somewhat more challenging when your legs are stuck straight out on either side of a flat-backed, hog fat kid pony. I'd be pulling on the reins for dear life, every slam of his front feet on the ground bouncing me a little higher, until I looked like a paddle ball on the end of a rubber band. At some point my butt would fail to contact the center of the saddle and plonk! Off I went.
The north pasture was a field of horrors for a kid rider. Right off the bat, we'd have to cross a coulee. Going down usually wasn't bad. Going up was steep, though, and my horse would break into a lope, lunging for the top. If I wasn't screwed down real tight, he'd blow me right out the back of the saddle. Plonk! Arse over teakettle off his rump.
The absolute worst was crossing creeks. Now that I'm an adult, I own a whole herd of horses that will step sedately over and through waterways. Not so when I was my son's age. Back then, my horses approached creeks much like Evil Knievel approached Hell's Canyon, settling back on their haunches, winding up, and launching. My neck would snap, my feet would pop out of the stirrups, and…splat! Kid, meet creek.
Or hole. Or ditch. Or tree branch. Or plain old dirt, thanks to a rabbit or grouse popping out of the brush and sending my horse ten feet sideways. Good thing the ground wasn't near as hard back then as it is now, because most days I considered it a major victory to only fall off once. On the rare occasion I made it all the way home without a single tumble, my horse had one last trick. The shaking started at his ears, grew in magnitude as it traveled up his neck then burst into a full body earthquake, rattling my teeth, jangling my brain and rearranging every vertebrae in my spine.
Figures, that'd be the only time I couldn’t seem to fall off.