I’d been looking forward to it for weeks. As soon as Amelia and I chose Amelia Island, Florida as our vacation place last June, I started snooping around for things to do there. One thing quickly steeple-chased its way to my “Must Do” list…the Seahorse Ranch. Horseback riding…the only place in the country where you can get aboard a bronco for a ride right on the beach! I had already saddled up in my mind before we got near the ranch or Florida for that matter.
Oh, I’m not much of an actual horseperson. I’ve ridden a few times in my life. Several ponies (one was particularly belligerent), a couple of horses, and I drove one cart pulled by an ornery mule who definitely had his own way of heading around the track at an amusement park. Yes, it was a real mule. In that instance, my cousin and I were just hanging on while that cross between a horse and a donkey decided he no longer needed to follow the rules. A wild ride! I also rented a pony for my two granddaughters’ fourth birthday party. It was great fun seeing Tigger the Pinto Pony clomping down the Schererville, Indiana sidewalk to my son Ben’s backyard.
I do love horses. And donkeys. Especially miniature ones. I like them so much, I plan to write soon about just donkeys, those little ambassadors of humility (did you catch that…email me). I’m also somewhat partial to aardvarks (this is what some may call an animal-related non sequitur; sorry I just can’t help it).
My interest in horses began when a man with a show pony came through my grandmother’s neighborhood in Ashland, Kentucky. I was just a little boy. This man was selling the opportunity for kids to have their pictures taken on his pony. Whoa! Pardon the obvious horse chat. I really wanted to ride that critter. Heck, I wanted to buy him. He already had a “B” on his stirrups. I think his name was Bruce but that could change to Billy or Boggsy. My brother and Jim and I climbed up into the fancy saddle. The three of us were captured for posterity, displayed here now some 50 years later.
Reading horse stories was another thing I much enjoyed. My mother worked at a Rand McNally book factory and often brought home books for me. I devoured titles by Marguerite Henry. “Born to Trot,” “King of the Wind,” “Misty of Chincoteague,” “Justin Morgan Had a Horse,” “Brighty of the Grand Canyon,” (okay, one donkey book), and “Mustang, Wild Spirit of the West” were favorites.
Of course I’m of the generation that grew up watching “Bonanza,” “Gunsmoke,” “The Rifleman,” “Wagon Train,” “Have Gun Will Travel,” “The Lone Ranger,” “Mr. Ed,” and “F Troop.” I’m a big fan of horse movies, too. “Hidalgo,” “Seabiscuit,” “Secretariat,” and “War Horse” are ones I love.
Horse racing’s Triple-Crown winner Secretariat is the only non-human on the “world’s greatest athletes” list. I saw him run in person at Arlington Park Racetrack near Chicago after his Triple Crown victory. Oh. Another reason horses became special to me was because my grandfather liked to read the “Racing Form” newspaper. It was around so I read it too. I raised rabbits for a while as a kid and ended up naming my bunnies after racehorses from the racing forms. One of the rabbits had the name “Dr. P.K. Smith” borrowed straight from a racehorse.
Yes, my grandfather liked doing more than just reading the racing form. It was “playing the ponies” as he called it. I placed my only real bets that day (through him…I wasn’t old enough) at Arlington racetrack. I put $2.00 on Secretariat to win the “Arlington Million” race. He was a heavy favorite and won easily. I was in the money and couldn’t wait to retrieve my loot! Collected exactly $2.05. Yep. I won a whole nickel but I didn’t realize I was watching history in that particular horse.
And then there’s Kentucky, my home state. Sort of the world capital of all things horse. The state motto is “Unbridled Spirit” with a simple drawing of a thoroughbred in motion. I love that. I have a t-shirt. I really love that. It resonates deep inside me. I yearn for that to describe me…to have an unbridled spirit, unencumbered with all the green bologna that so easily ensnares me.
On the way to Florida we stopped at beautiful Kentucky Horse Park near Lexington. Horse legend Man O’ War is buried there. No, I am not kidding. I paused for a moment of silence at his elaborate tomb in respect to that great racer. Little did I know I was soon to meet one of his great-grandchildren. I also got a hint of things to come as I attempted to straddle a saddle in one exhibit there. It hurt. Hip arthritis. I knew it but I didn’t care…I was riding in Florida. Now is a good time to mention a few lyrics from a country song I heard on the way to Florida (I learned that country music is the only thing on the radio between home and there…I’m still humming “5-1-5-0, somebody call the Po-Po). The singer musically proclaimed, “My body says, ‘You can’t do this, boy’ but my pride says, ‘Oh yes you can!” Indeed, indeed.
So excited was I to gallop on the beach, I signed us up for one of our first days on Amelia Island. The Seahorse Ranch was just what I expected. Everything about it shouted “cowboy!” It was rustic and horsey, run by an ex-rodeo cowboy and his wife. Nice folks. I was picked to mount up first and be first in line behind our guide. What that meant of course was some extra time in the saddle. Lucky me.
With a ladder to help me and some difficult maneuvering, I finally got aboard Sleepy. Sleepy he was not. Sleepy was no old nag put out on tourist duty while he awaited a trip to the dog food factory. No, he was a champion calf-roping, barrel-racing rodeo horse just months before I met him. They said he was a direct descendant of the great Man O’ War himself. As soon as I got settled in his saddle, Sleepy started testing me. He knew I was in pain and that I was a tenderfoot. I could see his lip curl to reveal his big teeth in a horse-face smile just like I’d seen Mr. Ed do when he had successfully scammed Wilbur. While the guides were helping the others get on their horses, Sleepy put it in reverse. Now what? He was backing right into a swamp to provide for me a coveted Floridian mud bath. I said, “Whoa!” He just laughed and continued to move backwards to demonstrate his superiority over me and his own rodeo prowess. I was convinced of both.
Helpless. I had the reins but I wasn’t getting his attention. The guide finally noticed and helped me avoid a dirt facial. “One hand on the reins. Not two.” Okay, Got it. “Nudge him forward with your feet.” Sure. Nudging him with my feet required a physical maneuver my body was seemingly no longer capable of performing. Not only did I have to straddle that 55-gallon drum of a horse’s back but then I had to move my feet inward with my hips outward. The pain was intense. My self-talk went like this: “Billy, (when things get serious, I call myself “Billy” because usually it means I’m doing something 7-year old Billy would do) you are now a bronco-busting buckaroo so you cannot show your little owie…what would John Wayne think?” So my self-talk went.
Sleepy did comply eventually. He knew he beat me and the fun for him was just beginning. He and I wandered into our position to begin the ride. I managed to get semi-comfortable by almost standing on the stirrups. A very tentative position for sure.
The path to the beach was a 20-minute trip through hilly woods. Sleepy intentionally chose to step in every rut and on every mound. Up, down, left, right. Sometimes all in the same step. A Vita-Mix on slow. Each time he plopped a hoof, chards of pain shot through first one hip and leg, and then the other. I was still playing it cool, though by now I was soaking wet with sweat from repeated but futile attempts at pain management. I told myself, “Self, this doesn’t hurt.” Self didn’t buy it. Self gave me a dirty look. Ever had that happen?
Twenty minutes seemed more like 17.23 hours. Sleepy and I reached the beach. I hoped for relief but it was too late. I tried to get the guide’s attention. I wanted to simply dismount right there on the beach, work on my sunburn, and try to imagine hips and legs that work. No way.
By then, another problem developed. Turns out I was highly allergic to Sleepy or at least the foo-foo “Handsome Horsey” cologne he splashed on to court the fillies. Not only was I nearly blacking out with hip pain, now my eyes were swollen shut and my arms wouldn’t stop itching. Yee ha! The cowboy life for me.
The front guide heard me and tried for another eternity to wait for the rear guide, still clomping through the woods behind the line of riders. The rear guide rode up and told me we would have to ride back through the hilly woods path to the ranch. Sleepy was visibly delighted. This was better than bucking me off, which would have been a welcome relief to me and a more exciting story.
Just like the first trip through the woods, heading back Sleepy managed to torture me even more. If anything, he picked up the pace to get back for some oats and his rodeo horse vitamin water. That just meant more jostling for me, the itching, blind, and mind-numbed-with-pain human heap on his back.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch (yes, I meant to do that), they were preparing to help me off Sleepy. Granted, this was something Roy Rogers or Gene Autry or Little Joe Cartwright never had to do. First a strategically placed step stool, then one of those “trust building” things they do at uppity executive teamwork events. I sort of rolled off Sleepy and onto the stool. Embarrassed, I hid under the picnic table and sobbed with no comforting possible. No, not really. But I was embarrassed to fail at what I had envisioned as a simple, enjoyable adventure. I sat by myself and moped for another 40 minutes or so until Amelia and the other riders returned. The two ranch owners tried to comfort me and I did enjoy talking to them about the rodeo life. Turns out the ex-rodeo rider had a hip replacement recently. Told me I needed one. I asked but he said they were sold out of them right then and to come back tomorrow. I said okay.
Though my shortened ride on Sleepy did cause me pain for the next several days, I managed to ride that rascal onto the beach if not down it. And I’m not giving up. Sleepy and I may not meet again, but I am determined to ride once more. Yes, after some muscle-strengthening exercises, a Claritin or two, and maybe a well-aimed steroid shot, I will be back in the saddle. I will look for a narrower steed.
And I did just buy a horse. I named him Stinky. Well, not one horse. Actually, Stinky is a whole herd of horses…300 in all. Yep. Stinky is a dark blue 2006 Ford Mustang GT, 300-hp V-8 engine and 5-speed manual transmission. He’s in near perfect condition, with only 22,000 miles on him, formerly owned by a man more meticulous about his car than my son Ben and me put together. A noted departure from my normal Honda vehicle loyalty, two of my boys are still in shock but happy about me “changing it up.” They’re excited about the dark blue result, even if they think it might be an early sign of senility.
Yes, I bought a horse I can ride. Its body style and color remind me very much of a 1967 Mustang fastback my betting-the-horses-mentor grandfather owned. It’s a “GT” which was a nickname my grandfather gave my mother. A mustang is a free-roaming American feral horse, a non-thoroughbred. And the Mustang “pony” logo on my car reminds me very much of the Kentucky motto, “unbridled spirit.” It’s a win-win-win. I guess that would be a trifecta. Or something.
I do love horses. I hope I can straddle a saddle again sometime. For now, giddy up, Stinky!