Learning to Ride
When I was three, my cowgirl mother taught me how to ride a horse. She began our lessons by helping me clamber up on the bare back of our bay mare, Queenie. Queenie’s soft, round body welcomed me. Grasping the coarse hair of her black mane, I laid my cheek down against her brown furry neck. Everything felt so familiar, perhaps because while pregnant with me, my mother went riding. Even before I was born I felt the rhythm of a galloping horse.
For my first real riding lesson, Mom saddled up Queenie, lifted me aboard, and adjusted the stirrups up high for my legs. At first I clung to the horn, but I soon learned how to sit in the saddle with my boots secure in the stirrups. “Keep your heels down, Mary,” Mom said. “The reins go in your left hand so you can open a gate or rope a calf with your right hand.”
I listened. I felt at home in the saddle on Queenie. Before long we moved around the ring at a walk, trot, and gallop.
As I got older I learned to groom Queenie. The taller I grew, the higher I could brush her on her shoulders and rump. Each day before riding, my mother lifted Queenie’s hooves so I could gently pry out the rocks and mud with a blunt screwdriver.
With an open palm, I gave Queenie crisp carrots and red apples. She nuzzled them gently off my hand and crunched them greedily. We put our nostrils close together and inhaled each other’s breath, creating friendship beyond words.
These early experiences with Queenie gave me self-confidence and comfort around horses, a godsend. My mother may have started me riding early because I was born with flat feet and bowlegs. The doctor prescribed metal braces for me to wear on my legs after school and at night. My friend Martha McKenna watched my mother put on the braces.
“Does that hurt?” she asked.
“The metal is cold,” I said.
For school I wore clunky shoes with laces tied up to my ankles, never cute flats with straps like the other girls. Cowboy boots felt the most comfortable of any footwear. Every afternoon after school when I put them on, in my mind I became a real cowgirl. Finally I kicked off the braces forever. Hurrah!
My leg braces are off. My parents, my older brother, Bill, and I take a pack trip in the high Sierra Mountains of California. We start at Courtright Reservoir and ride up the steep trails in exposed granite areas toward “Hell for Sure Pass.”
We ride separately on our assigned horses heading for our destination, Hell for Sure Lake, following our packer who guides us. After four hours in the saddle I’m hot and tired. I spot the lake and inhale the scent of the pine trees. The air is clean and crisp. Dragonflies float nearby and I hear insects buzzing.
The packer-guide unsaddles the horses and takes them to graze.
The lake beckons to my fisherman father, and the rest of us join him, throwing in our lines, and between us we catch enough trout for dinner. With a razor-sharp knife, my father slits the white trout bellies and removes the guts. My mother rinses the trout, rolls them in cornmeal, and lays them in a cast iron frying pan over a green Coleman camping stove. After twenty minutes of cooking the trout and sliced potatoes in the fresh mountain air, we eat. Our dinner tastes better than at home.
Our descent from the lake a few days later is faster and more difficult than the climb; I notice now that the trail disappears in many spots. My horse’s hooves clatter on the slabs of granite — she slip-slides, choosing her own path down. A horsefly lands on her shoulder and I slap it dead. My legs are sore; a dark cloud covers the sun.
As we ride toward the rendezvous point with the horse trailers, we hear a rumbling. Louder and louder, until the noise blasts our ears. A colossal dump truck barrels past us full speed ahead. My horse spooks and bolts in a panic, racing away from the rest of the group, faster and faster. Terrified, sore, and trembling, I cling to the saddle horn and pull back on the reins with all my might. “Whoa, stop!” I holler. But I am no match for the mare’s strength. She bucks and loosens the grip of my legs and sends me sailing through the air. My body crashes down onto the hard gravel road. Ouch, double ouch, I hurt all over — I have the wind knocked out of me, with bleeding elbows, torn jeans, and rocks and dirt in my hair. When I catch my breath, I cry and wail, “Help, help! I need help.”
Moments later my family rides up next to me on their horses. After dismounting and checking me over to make sure I’m not seriously injured, my mother buzzes louder than a wasp. She gallops off on her horse, chasing the truck, racing full speed. I dust myself off and my father puts Band-Aids on my elbows.
When Mom returns, she says, “The truck driver pulled over and I said, ‘Mister, I’ll give you a piece of my mind. Don’t you know enough to slow down when you pass horses? You spooked my daughter’s horse, which caused a nasty fall. She could have been killed!’ The truck driver said to me, ‘Woman, I’ll give you a piece of my mind back. I work for the Bechtel Corporation. We have a dam to build!’ And that sucker drove off leaving me spitting out dust.”
“What a toad,” I said.
My brother, Bill, catches my horse and leads her back to me.
As they say in the horse world, “You fall off, you get back on.”
And that’s what I do.
San Mateo, California, 1950–1952
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