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Growing Up Ranch Chapter 3

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Four Hoof Drive

Growing Up Ranch Chapter 3 My Bike Toby


What boy doesn't dream of the day when he has his very own bike? A way to fly down the street; wind in your hair; running wild all on your own. I had similar dreams, but my "bike" was a good fast horse.

Not even most of the farm and ranch kids I knew would grow up riding horses or ponies nearly every day. On the SPAR ranch, there was no paving of any sort; a hard packed dirt path was the closest thing. Even the groomed fields had rocks after years of harrowing to remove them. In the Back Country, the trails were so rough only horses or hikers on foot could navigate them. Learning to ride was an expected thing, like learning to walk, so you would be able to help out on the ranch.

Learning to ride was a step by step process that started early. When I was only about two or three years old dad would let me ride double in the saddle with him. At first, this was in front so he could keep me from falling off. Later on, as I got better balance, I could ride behind him. Occasionally dad would put me up in the saddle alone and gently lead the horse around as I rode tall and proud "All By Myself".

Different horses had different opinions of the noisy little kid riding them. Most were kind of just tolerant and obviously looked forward to the end of this "scary" duty. Others just didn't care at all no matter how much noise and commotion I made. Then there was dad's horse Spot.

Spot was a genuine mustang born on the Prager ranch and bought as a two-year-old for new riding stock. A handsome horse, he was a pinto or "paint", red, white and black patches with a mane and tail to match. Even as a gelding, he was a spirited and bossy horse who led the herd. The traditional spirit breaking methods didn't work with him; he fought so hard he was liable to hurt himself or the cowhand breaking him in. Dad took the horse whisperer route and gentled him rather than breaking him and Spot and dad became best friends. The only problem was Spot didn't really trust anyone but dad.

One time dad had Spot all saddled up in the corral and ready for a ride. I was tagging along as usual and dad asked if I would like to ride Spot. Now that was sort of like asking if you wanted to ride on the big red fire engine, of course, I did! Dad lifted me up into the saddle and I suddenly realized how tall Spot actually was. Not only that I could feel Spot all tensed up and sort of shuffle dancing around trying to decide if he should buck, bolt or just tolerate me. I wanted down and Spot wanted me off right now! Dad calmly picked me off and set me back on the ground where Spot looked a lot less like a good horse to ride.

Even Granddad Art only tried to ride Spot once, and that was a 5 minute out and back to unsaddle and saddle up a new mount.

Finally, the time came when I could guide a horse around the corral if I got a boost up into the saddle. At this point most ranch kids had to learn to ride the oldest gentlest plug horse around, one that was too worn out to be real trouble but never the less a full size just barely controllable horse who could overpower a young rider at will. Dad wanted a mount more appropriate for kids, so he and Granddad Art went shopping for a pair of ponies. A neighbor Vera Dunham had two and was willing to sell them especially since they would be well kept and ridden.

And so Toby and Sacky came to live with us. Toby was my favorite, a tractable brown pony with golden dapples and a white mane and tail. Sacky was a cantankerous pinto pony with a mind of his own. Toby got to keep his name, but Sacky soon got a new "Indian" name, Tonka. This was short for Wacken Tonka since we were always having to whack on Tonka to make him mind.

When he got really bratty dad would climb on, and legs dangling to the ground give him a no-nonsense ride around until Tonka finally gave up and decided to mind. Toby always seemed to be so much easier to manage that he would lull you into not paying attention.

At first, we were only corral riders and a runaway only took you in circles for a few rounds then stopped. The worst stunt was the dreaded "scrape off". As the nearest large post or gate corner approached Toby would sidle over until he could rub his side from shoulder to rump against this handy scraper and neatly remove his rider. In some ways, this was good training because it taught you never to go to sleep at the wheel while riding. Very few mounts were trustworthy enough to let them completely free wheel; That freedom only came with special horses and long association.

As I got more skilled the next step was to let us ride around the yard. At first, this was a huge deal! The yard was about four acres and had open areas, woods, ditches to cross and all the houses and buildings to ride around. "Scrape off" was now a more serious game, since low tree branches and the barbed wire fences could not only scrape you off, they could inflict damage on their own.

Runaways were a good deal more serious too as a pony could get up a full head of steam before a sudden turn or stop would dump me off onto the hard ground. Still, this was a "safe" place to ride with help ready to hand if something serious happened.

Finally, real riding began. Permission was given to ride down the meadow so long as we told a parent where we were going and when. Since I was older now and tall enough to put the bridle on myself I started riding bareback instead of saddled up. Riding was a lot more fun since there was more to see but ponies could be more contrary since adult eyes were not right there. I can remember a number of rides coming home crying, clinging to the pony to avoid getting dumped, furious because I couldn't stop the return home. At least it wasn't a “run home” run away.

With time Paul and I became real riders, and our ponies were made to mind by us instead of dad. We practically lived on pony back at least in the summer. If you were watching, you would see two boys riding along bare back. Suddenly, there we were laying belly flopped over the horse, plucking grass stems. Next, we would swing back up vertical and take off at a full tilt gallop. You might even see us riding Indian war party style hanging over the side ready to shoot an arrow under the neck. Or maybe we would just turn around and ride backward for a while.

Now just because we were so comfortable on horseback didn't mean that it wasn't just a split second from safe to danger. One morning, as I rode out to bring the riding horses in, Toby managed to get me. The horses were out in the Far End in sight of the house so I could just ride straight out to them. There was a fairly deep draw with a small wet weather trickle of water running down it that you had to cross before climbing the ridge where the horses were grazing.

Where the trail crossed and went up a hill, it split to go around an aspen tree that had fallen across the trail but not all the way to the ground. Its top had hung up in other tree tops, and it leaned over the trail, a perfect scrape off opportunity. I guided Toby around the leaning tree and went up to bring down the herd.

Our horses always went home at speed, trotting, and galloping along the trail. Downhill was especially made for a good gallop, so we hit the draw crossing at full tilt. I knew I needed to slow down and steer right, and thought I had signaled Toby to do just that. However, as I leaned forward to duck under branches, Toby sped up and went left! I don't really remember the crunch, but the world exploded into a blaze of stars followed by black.

When I came to I was already on my feet walking home and through my blurry, glasses gone, eyes I could barely make out Toby dragging his reins and running home. My head was killing me, and I realized I was pouring blood from a nasty scalp wound. I was over a mile from home, on foot, bleeding, and no glasses: not good. There wasn't much to do besides start walking and hope Toby stopped and let me catch him.

Unfortunately, between my bleeding and staggering, Toby was way too spooked to stop and took off after the herd. As I came in sight of the road, I saw Mom bringing the pickup to come get me. After a short ride home, Grandma Ruth, a Registered Nurse, came to check me out. "Yes, he needs to go in for stitches."

Remember that 40 mile drive into town? How about making it laying flat on your back, trying to hold a rag on my head? The pillow I was using started out nice and white, and by the time we got into Douglas, it was a beautiful crimson. A dozen stitches later I was sewed up, and my mild concussion only cost me a few days of memory. Nothing was broken, but my balance was so bad I couldn't ride for two or three months. Now, what bicycle would purposely drive you head first into a tree like that?

There was another side to Toby that more than made up for having to never take obedience for granted. Like all horses and ponies, Toby had a "homing" instinct for finding the barn. While it made for some over eager and dancey - prancey riding home, it could come in very handy if you ever got lost. As a young boy, I listened to dad telling stories of how he had been carried safely home through blizzards by his horse when he was completely lost. We were reminded of this as our rides ranged further afield. "If you ever get completely lost just give the horse his head and he will take you home." was the advice given and repeated occasionally, so it would stick.

This finally came in handy not when I was alone but in charge of guiding a tour group through the Back Country. We started out in familiar territory riding up Bollen Canyon where we enjoyed the shaded trail along the little creek. As we climbed out of the Canyon,

Laramie Peak loomed large in the foreground as it rose up from the valley below. We crossed over our neighbor's, Warner's land and began working up the rocky, narrow trail that leads up this side of the Peak. Our goal was a natural formation known as the Lake in the Rocks.

The "Lake" was more of a pond. It was well hidden from view and it took someone who not only knew where it was but also had sharp eyes to spy out the trail. Originally it had been found when a windy day sent gusts of wind-driven spray soaring up from the pond looking very much like smoke to Granddad and dad as they rode the Canyon rim. Seeking out the "fire" they rode up until they were able to find the source, a natural pond fed only by rain and snowmelt. The swirling wind, pounding rain and the freeze and thaw expansion of ice cracking the solid rock hollowing a huge bowl out of the granite.

Like many natural wonders I grew up around, this was special and beautiful but easily damaged by large numbers of visitors. Therefore it was more often viewed in photos than in person. Our small band of riders arrived on schedule at the Lake in the Rocks.

After a photo session and suitable oh's and ah's we mounted up and began the ride over several ridges to Lost Creek where we enjoyed the beauty of the Elk Meadows. These were formed by a series of beaver dams that were gradually silting in and becoming bogs. Wood Lilies, a brook trout swirl or two, and we mounted up again for the last leg of the ride home.

Now is when I got in trouble. There were a number of places in the backcountry that looked very similar, and in the rugged, heavily forested, mountain country it was easy to take a wrong turn. Somewhere, intending to take the trail from Lost Creek over into Ashenfelter, I took a turn that led me out onto Roaring Fork Ridge instead. We had ridden for a good thirty or forty minutes before I noticed that the trail was turning back, and the open ridge I expected was turning into a thick jack pine patch.

I was the guide only because of knowing the country, not by age. I was "just a kid, " and I now had four equally lost, and now worried, adults trying to help me remember the way, without panicking me or themselves. I was near tears but knew they would do no good.

Suddenly I remembered the advice..."Just give him his head...he'll bring you home". Mounting up I slacked reins and gently urged Toby to go. He gave a short head toss and turned about, then began working down the side of the ridge through the tangled jack pines. He finally halted when the way turned into a thirty-foot drop off (ranch for "cliff").

Below I could see one of the small creeks but still didn't know where I was. Toby obviously wanted to reach that stream so I took a few minutes and found a steep slide path that could be scrambled down on foot leading our horses. Toby now started confidently downstream, and within a mile, I recognized the creek as the headwaters of Roaring Fork.

I knew my way from here though Toby and I differed as to the details of which way to go. As I took the reins back, I guided us over a ridge, nd a short time later we arrived at the forks of Roaring Fork and Ashenfelter creeks. From there it was an hour's ride on into the ranch. The afternoon was becoming late but we had made it back safely thanks to a "bike" with a mind and compass of his own, Toby.

Nowadays a good mountain bike and GPS would probably have done nearly as well, but no bike could possibly teach the lesson's of life, respect, and trust I learned from this one steady but spirited pony. When the ponies first came dad remarked that "They are a good match, there's nothing as stubborn as a boy except a Shetland pony." Sure enough, these ponies had enough spirit and attitude to challenge the headstrong temper driven will of a growing boy. Here are a couple of examples of the mutual learning both acquired until when we graduated to full-size horses, we became not just riders but horseman.

Both Toby and Tonka figured out that they were a slippery seat if they worked at it. One of the easiest methods of removing riders was to simply rear upon their hind legs and let the hapless young rider slide down and over their rump. There was little I could do, holding Toby's head up didn't help. I wasn't heavy enough to lean forward and force him down. Losing my temper and clouting him in the head only made him head shy and almost un-ride-able. (more on that later). The solution was discovered by accident as Paul and I were having a water bottle fight on pony back one day. Ponies didn't figure this new game was much fun and they wanted it over so the old rear up and dump em’ trick came into play. In disgust at being once again left on foot, I squirted Toby in the ears, mainly because there wasn't anything else to do.

Imagine my surprise when Toby ducked his head, shook it vigorously, and forgot all about rearing up. So distressing was this harmless technique that once or twice was all that was needed to induce most any horse or pony to permanently give up rearing.

Now remember that bit about head shy horses? This was a case in which the ponies taught us a good deal about compassion, and respect for our faithful ponies. As I grew older and stronger, I acquired a habit of punishing Toby or any pony for the slightest infraction. Slapping them in the head was the easiest means of punishment and became my standard method.

It wasn't long before the tiniest move of hand or raise of arm resulted in a fearful head fling. Sadly it was some time before it penetrated my thick skull that I was mistreating and terrorizing these poor horses and I had ruined at least Toby and to some extent Tonka. It took me months of humble and patient care to re-establish trust between us so I could depend on my pony at all, and over a year before the ponies really trusted me again.

Bicycles can't teach you lesson's in mutual respect and earned trust like this. The ponies had their day as well. When I was still small but getting old enough to catch and bridle my own horse, the ponies decided that they were not going to take this "abuse" of riding lying down. To enter the corral I usually just crawled between two rails of the fence rather than open the gate. Toby and particularly Tonka would see us coming and as soon as we stood up, nip or kick at us. Circling round they would keep worrying at us until we had to flee the corral.

Dad saw what was happening and took measures. He cut three or four, three-foot-long black birch switches and placed them at the two normal entry points to the corral. Our instructions were to take one in with us and if the ponies came near give them a good lick on the side or rump, just enough to sting but not inflict any kind of actual hurt. It wasn't long before our approach meant pricked up ears. Actual entry meant no panic but a very respectful facing and attentive following, not a hint of the old nip and kick.

Both Paul and I gained such a trust from these two ponies that we were able to ride them in some very unusual ways, even to the point of riding Indian style. At first, we would always bring them in for the morning wrangle ride with a bucket of grain and a bridle. The treat coaxed them in and then they would submit to the bridle before mounting up and going after the rest of the herd. Carrying a bridle and bucket wasn't hard but eventually the thought occurred to me that a halter gave you almost the same control just no bit and only one rein and it was much easier to carry. So one day we tried it out and sure enough no problem; just put on the halter, hop on, and ride to the barn where the halter was traded for a bridle before the roundup.

Now school studies of Indians and a natural laziness led to yet again thinking, "What if we did it like the Indians did? Just use a simple jaw rope." Sure enough, this too worked fine, some loss of control but nothing too scary. Soon this became the standard morning wrangle mode. Of course, "real" Indians supposedly didn't even need a jaw rope. So you guessed it, soon we were carrying some cattle cake for a treat and nothing else.

We just swung up and guided our ponies with leg pressure only as we rode them in. The only real problem was that when a pony began to run it was pretty much impossible to make them stop. About the only thing that worked was to force them onto rough ground, so they had to slow down or put them into a continuous turn until they decided to stop being foolish and slow down. Most of the time we just let them have their heads and rode like the wind.

While Toby was the first, he wasn't the only pony I got to ride. There were a number of other horses as we worked the SPAR exclusively on horseback. What bicycle could possibly compare to a pony?

I wasn’t always without a true bike; sometime when I was around nine years old, dad bought a couple of old unused bikes, the big heavy beach bomber tire kind. They weren’t that much use on the ranch since the terrain was steep and there weren’t any paved or even graveled roads. About the only thing going for it was that if you bailed off to run down to the creek, it wouldn’t get bored or hungry and wander off.




This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

Copyright © Copyright © 2016 by Vernon Fawcett

All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the copyright owner, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the copyright owner, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.

Vern Fawcett
710 Charter Place
Charlotte NC. 28211

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