Barrel Racing

Hold Onto the Horn: My Life With Horses, Then and Now

(flickr.com/a4gpa)

When I was two years old, my father put me on a horse and told me to hold on to the horn. Then he taught me how to kick to make the horse walk and how to use my reins to stop and turn. When I was five, he bought me my first pony and western saddle. My saddle had silver trimmings and I felt like a real cowgirl.

My dad was a calf roper. We spent our Saturday summer evenings at Cowtown Rodeo in Woodstown, New Jersey where he competed. I sat with my mom and siblings on the bottom bleacher bench directly across from the first barrel of the cowgirl’s barrel racing. It was the best spot in the house as far as I was concerned. I had an up-close view of real cowgirls in action. I loved their cowgirl shirts and matching cowgirl hats with all of the sparkles. The sparkles illuminated even more under the arena night lights.

(flickr.com/skedonk)
(flickr.com/skedonk)

As each cowgirl approached the barrel, she put her whip in between her teeth and growled at her horse to go faster. With one hand on the reins, she grabbed the horn with her other hand and shifted her weight to make a tighter turn to save time. After the barrel, she would take the whip out of her mouth and whip and spur her horse to the next barrel and attempt another tight turn. On the homestretch, she’d yell, “Yaaa! Yaaa! Yaaa!” while whipping and spurring her horse until she crossed the finish line. Then the cowgirl and her horse would disappear into the darkness of the night. Moments later, the next cowgirl would enter the ring as the race continued.

I was nine years old when my dad told me that I had to wait until I turned 16 to barrel race at Cowtown. For the time being, I was barrel racing my pony Mitch at Delaware Valley Horseman’s Association in Lambertville, New Jersey. I would spur, whip, and yell, “Yaaa! Yaaa! Yaaa!” just like the big girls at Cowtown. I thought I was in my element.  However, my mother had another idea.

“English is more ladylike,” I heard her tell my father. “If she is going to ride, she must ride English and no more, ‘Yaaa! Yaaa! Yaaa!'” So from that point, through the rest of my childhood, I rode English. My horse, Hootenanny, was a Belgium Draft-cross. The two of us grew up together and excelled in everything we did. We competed successfully over courses of 5’ jumps, mastered some pretty tough cross country courses and won the Henry Bergh Medal National Championship when I was 14. We pony clubbed and fox hunted. It was an awesome time and all was right with the world.

The author and (Courtesy of the author.)
The author and Hootenanny. (Courtesy of the author.)

I rode professionally as a young adult. I fox hunted, started horses from scratch, retrained horses off of the racetrack, competed in second level dressage, and loved galloping through the meadows. It was life in the fast lane. I loved it. All was right with the world. Years later, I had a back surgery go wrong and lost 25 percent usage of my left leg. There would be no more life in the fast lane—no jumping and no more galloping through the meadows.

Now, I am in my sixties and a grandmother. I don’t miss jumping or galloping through the meadows. I decided to go back to my roots and give western riding another try. I have a wonderful horse, Homerun Joe (“Joey”). He, too, is a Belgium cross and a clone of Hootenanny. The two of us are growing old together.

The first order of business was to find a western saddle that fit him just right. At first, I tried my husband’s saddle for size. Since the saddle fit his 17.2-hand draft mule, I guessed it would fit Joey. It was a comfortable saddle with a very high cantle. I put the saddle on him and set out for a walk through the woods while my husband sat in the truck, talking on his cell phone. Joey is very finicky about how his saddle fits, so there would be no room for error.

 As I walked along, I kept checking if the saddle was pinching anywhere. After ten minutes, I decided that this saddle would not do and headed to the edge of the woods to dismount. My horse Joey and I have an understanding. After each ride, he is allowed to put his head down and eat grass after I dismount and my feet hit the ground.

I was about 300 feet away from my husband in the pickup and stopped at a patch of grass. I took both feet out of the stirrups, as I have always done in the English saddle. I leaned forward in an effort to throw my right leg over the high cantle. In the process, my jacket got hung up on the saddle horn, and left me hanging with my feet about six feet off of the ground. Joey, meanwhile, stood like a statue, keeping his head up as I hollered, “George, help me!”

I knew he may not hear me if he was in the truck with the windows up, but I continued to bellow out until my voice was hoarse. I was on the verge of tears and pleading to my horse to keep still. There was nothing I could do except wait for help. Joey was very aware of what was going on. He remained calm and never moved a muscle.

Five minutes later, George hung up from his phone call and got out of the truck. He heard me yelling and came to my rescue. “What the heck happened?” His face was as white as a ghost.

“Just go on the other side and undo the girth,” I instructed him. He did so; the saddle slipped down, and I was free.

“Good boy, Joey!” I threw my arms around my horse and cried. I was so proud of him. Joey nuzzled me, then put his head down to eat the grass he was promised.

I did purchase a western saddle with silver trimmings for Joey. I am not sure if I am still a cowgirl, but I am having fun with my horse. I hold onto the horn when I dismount so nothing gets hung up. I hold onto the horn whenever I want.

Peggy and Joey today.(Courtesy of the author.)
Peggy and Joey today. (Courtesy of the author.)

When the dressage bell rings, I head for ‘A’ wearing my sparkling cowgirl shirt and matching cowgirl hat. I don’t wear spurs. I tickle Joey’s rump with my dressage whip and I chuckle, “Okay Joe, let’s go.”

Joey turns on his horse show mode. He is on the bit and struts his stuff down center line. We halt at ‘X’ and give a big smile to the judge. From there, we gracefully dance around the dressage arena like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, keeping rhythm every step of the way. We get good scores and the judges always have a nice comment like, “Well suited pair.”

It is time now for life in the slow lane with my horse Joey. “Now” is an awesome time, and all is right with the world.

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