Wednesday, November 25, 2015
Missouri Misery: Guest Post by Candace Wade
“We were nothing alike except for the unrestrained willingness to do something, anything, to help a being in need. Loner Girl and that horse were two wounded creatures. They had needed each other. “
by Candace Wade
Author and Equestrian
GaWaNi Pony Boy was my introduction to the rapture of equine clinics. My riding buddy Penny and I sat in rapt awe at his appearances from Tennessee to Alabama and Ohio. We collected his books, videos and paraphernalia. I knew it was a message from the Horse Goddess when I read he was going to be the guest star of a trail riding week in Missouri that fell on my 50th birthday! My husband Bill signed on to escort me on the week of Pony nirvana.
Pony would lecture and walk among us Pony devotees. I crafted vagrant dreams of dude ranches in the sky on the foundation of my fantasies. Percolating enthusiasm and projecting happy experiences help us crawl out of bed in the morning.
Bill and I checked in at the souvenir shop, a sort of combination tourist store and front desk. Useless knickknacks, like painted rocks and foam beer cozies, and the usual junk snacks tempted from dusty shelves. It looked wonderful to me. I took stock of the crap and imagined how Pony and I might mosey on back after a fabulous afternoon ride. Maybe I would treat him to a Twinkie.
Bill negotiated the dirt road up to the resort. The trailer/camping area was a swarm of some pretty talkin' rigs. Some of these people must have sunk six figures into their trailers and trucks. Pup tents, lean-tos and Scamp trailers were dwarfed, tucked back into the trees. Next came the dining hall, with a settin' porch that was a charmless, chairless, running rectangle. The barn was on the way up the hill to the resort lodging. This building was for us city slickers. “Ranch lifestyle” can mean many things. In this case it was Kafkaesque. We're talking cardboard walls, a bed with a concrete mattress and a pervasive chlorine smell. We were given two sets of thin towels, one hanger in the closet, and a TV with fleeting reception. My fantasy pivoted to Rod Sterling stepping in to whisk us back to the ‘60s through the TV as a portal to The Twilight Zone. The toilet flushing from the next room sounded like a 747 taking off. The poor guy next door must have had a "going" problem, 'cause the metallic scream of water pipes jarred me several times a night.
"Okay, it's primitive. I can deal," I justified to myself. My future promised miles of trail riding and Pony -- what's a little chlorine smell?
The dinner bell rang. Like zombies, guests on foot wandered in from all directions to the dining . . . no . . . mess hall. Bill and I scattered out of the way when a pack galloped up, full throttle, yanked their horses into a skid turn, and leapt down to tie up.
"What the hell!" I protested to Bill as we entered the building.
The mess hall was set with long metal tables and faded, corny cowboy pictures. It was expansive and spare. An echo would have gotten lost.
Still pissed, I hissed at Bill: "There's such a thing as horse etiquette. I'm going to say something . . ."
A commotion behind us: in clattered "The Posse." They were pungent with machismo, decked out in snake boots with jangling spurs and legs swathed in black leather chaps. Big silver belt buckles glittered at the pubic bone. Muscle tees displayed arms and chests adorned with skull and snake tattoos. These ensembles were crowned with cowboy hats of various hides. The finishing touch was the 15 inch Bowie knives tethered from knee to thigh . . . and these were the women!
"I'm shocked to actually see how long those things are!" Bill whispered.
Having a word about almost getting trampled by this crew became a bad idea at the glint of the Bowie knives. I slid in line for food instead.
Food was slopped into the little cubbies on plastic cafeteria trays, most of which seemed to have the oily sheen of the meal before. I opted for anything that would be served in a Styrofoam bowl. I ate a lot of fruit gelatin and cottage cheese. Everyone else dug right in, shoveling food into their mouths, lips smacking, plopping second helpings on their trays. Even my prissy, gourmet-driven husband thought the food was passable. I appreciated what a sport he was.
A day into the adventure, I realized that the wranglers and barn manager were the same ones scraping and washing the trays -- multi-tasking as it were. The trays looked as if the washers were either in a hurry to get through the washing to move on to their horse tasks or just not interested in hygiene. Yuck!
"Okay, Bill seems to be fine with this and I can live a long time on cottage cheese and fruit gelatin. This is about riding! And Pony!" I justified, dewy-eyed with anticipation. I'm a Horse Slut. I'll do anything to wrap my legs around Pony, I mean, a horse.
Our first ride was with the guide. I think he was some old neighbor who sort of knew the area and helped out. "Snib Clinnart" was a man of few words, a dull razor and threadbare plaid shirts. He sat stoop-shouldered on his horse, leg over the pommel, waiting for the group to assemble.
I'm rather a safety nut when it comes to riding. Part of this comes from guidance from instructors, part from an unwillingness to put my body in unnecessary peril. I wasn't a very athletic kid, more of the pink pinafore and patent leather party shoes type. I'm more than willing to take on the inherent dangers of trail riding, but, I'm skeptical riding in large groups -- too many opportunities for chaos. I rely on the knowledgeable leader.
Bill and I were matched with Tennessee Walking horses. Other riders began to appear. Swarm is more accurate. They cantered in from the camp grounds. Doesn't anyone walk their horses around here? Parents, kids, singles -- there was a churning, teeming energy, to me bordering on pushy. Imagine the biomass of krill.
We were about 30 strong. Consider each person with a distinct personality astride a horse with a distinct personality. Riding in a crowd was new to me. Four was a crowd up at Big South Fork. I was not thrilled, but, okay, I'll be a good sport. I can ride. I can do this. That was me, good sport. The operative word here is was.
Snib was a leader only in that he rode in front . . . sometimes. Everyone did what they wanted. After the initial lurch out onto the trail, the herd performed a constant shuffle for position. Riders muscled past without so much as an "on your left." Seemed everyone wanted to be in front, in spite of the fact we were on a two-horse-width trail. Thirty riders jockeying for position -- riding abreast à la the credits for Bonanza. There just wasn't room. The children were unsupervised, allowed to race up to strange horses and push their way in front. No one had a red ribbon on their horse's tail to warn of a kicker. My horse didn't like strange horses putting their noses up his butt. I can't blame him.
We rode in this "relaxed" manner for a couple of hours. Snib never said a word. I was relieved to see the ranch in the distance across acres of meadow. Bam! The group charged without warning. There was no concern for other riders or possible chuck holes.
To me, it was nuts. I struggled with my feelings because Bill wasn't fazed. The other riders had a great time. My "caution-toads" were croaking like mad. Was I a wussy? Was I a ‘fraidy cat? Were the other riders nuts? This created an emotional struggle within me. I felt redeemed the next day when riderless horses galloped across that same field and an ambulance was summoned to collect riders who had raced across the field unsuccessfully. Is it possible to be the one sane person in the herd?
Our next ride, I talked Bill into the two of us going it alone. This time, he was nervous -- about getting lost. The chance of getting lost concerned me less than riding with the wild bunch. We had to urge the horses to part from the herd, but this was a good test of my leadership. I led us around the paths surrounding the dreaded meadow. Once again, other riders rushed past to charge across the field. Bill was more eager for speed than I, but we both performed a respectable, lively jog to the barn. That was one in the confidence column.
Snib guided our next ride. This was a group of eight. I think everyone else was enjoying the calf herding contest. The calves seemed to outwit most of the contestants. What a surprise! Snib warned that the trail "gits steep." After our horse-rappelling rides in the mountains at Big South Fork, I felt sure this wouldn't be a problem.
The ride went fine until . . . one of the horses sliced his leg on a shrapnel chunk of karst. We're talking blood, and a lot of it. Snib didn't carry an emergency kit. No one seemed prepared. I donated my bandana for a tourniquet. Being in the depths of a gorge, there was no cell phone coverage. The horse was in trouble.
Snib just kind of stood there. We agreed to send him on to the top of the ridge to call the farm. Duh! We all helped to encourage the injured horse slowly to the summit. A trailer was going to take some time. At the top of the ridge, it was decided that Snib would take most of us back to the ranch, leaving a couple of volunteers with the horse. A spooky "Loner Girl" decorated with raven black buzz-cut hair, piercings and full body tattoos volunteered to stay back with the horse.
Loner Girl was one of those little mice sleeping in a pup tent beneath the shadow of the expensive behemoth trailers. She had saved up her money to come for the week by herself. She had slept on the couch in her brother's house since she escaped from her abusive boyfriend. Her jobs at two fast food restaurants gave her "savings money" to get her own place and to support her beloved little Mustang horse. She came to Missouri for a week of camping and riding to help put her past behind and to re-start her life. She sat by herself at meals and haunted the back of the group on the trail rides. Her small, dark presence glowed with its loneliness.
Back to the horse. They got the poor animal back to the barn, but there wasn't any plasma or medicine on hand to help him -- no vet on staff. The local vet's practice was mostly cows. They took precedence. The horse would have to wait his turn. He was starting to go down. I stormed into the office to motivate someone into action. Nothing. I was angry about the careless situation and that I was useless.
Who saved the day? Loner Girl. She cajoled the horse to his feet. She ran cold water on his leg to stop the bleeding and take down the swelling. She got him to drink water. She stayed with him until the vet came later that evening. She stayed with him all night. No one else did a thing. They shrugged and wandered away.
You never know who the hero will be. It could be the dumpy, dark, scary girl with whom no one will sit at dinner. Because of her, the horse survived. From then on, I sat with her. She and I drove out and explored Wal-Mart one afternoon. She told me all about her life and why she was there at the horse camp . . . alone. We were nothing alike except for the unrestrained willingness to do something, anything, to help a being in need. Loner Girl and that horse were two wounded creatures. They had needed each other.
Pony -- At Last
Pony Boy. Ah, Pony. He was the grail for which I coerced Bill to drive all the way to Missouri. Pony was scheduled to give a fireside lecture in the evening. I dragged Bill down the hill to the campground an hour early, regaling him with warm-up stories of the wonders I had seen Pony perform at other events. We joined the other acolytes perched on hay bales swapping Pony stories. I heard the jangling of "The Posse" as they swaggered up, switching their Bowie knives off their thighs to keep from amputating themselves at the knees as they sat.
GaWaNi Pony Boy was everything I knew he'd be. He was elegant. He was wise. He was inspiring. He was funny as hell. Plus, Pony is yummy in an exotic, Native American sort of way. Bill got into him even though he believed the rumor that Pony is really just a nice Jewish boy from New York. I don't care if he's an Albanian sausage maker; I think his methods make sense. Unlike John Lyons and the Parellis (although I have great respect for all of them), Pony didn't bring his own Stepford horses. He was not into tricks. Pony was about the predator/prey relationship and how to use it with care to get the best out of a horse.
Pony invited anyone who wanted to walk with him at 6 a.m. the next day to meet at the barn. I was going if I had to crawl on broken legs. Sure that I would be one of a few who were willing to walk, I was disappointed to see that Pony had a crowd of 15. I could tell by their trudging gait and too-many-Snickers bodies that most of them would poop out and leave me and Pony to a more intimate walk. "These people will shed like skin off a lifeguard's nose after the first mile," I smirked to myself.
Wrong. Tough, determined and talky, the troupe trooped on. Not only that, many had brought muffins for Pony! What a bunch of suck ups. Wish I'd thought of it.
Auntie Em! or Ditch or Die
After another scrumptious dinner of slop and glop (gelatin and cottage cheese for me), Bill and I retired to our room in the cardboard shack. The rolling picture on the five-channel TV with the coat hanger antenna (that's where the other hanger went!) warned of tornadoes. Tornadoes!? And we were holed up in this construction paper building!? I hurried into my clothes.
"I'm going out to see what's going on."
Bill just smirked, adjusting the coat hanger antenna.
I scouted for intel from anyone I could find. Yes, tornadoes were reported. I ran back up to our hovel.
"Get up. Put on your clothes. Tornadoes are coming!" I urged, breathless.
"Where the hell are we going to go?"
"There's a ditch down past this building. We could lie down in there," grabbing my purse.
"I'm not lying down in a ditch," was Bill's not unreasonable response.
I couldn't convince him. I felt like Lillian Gish in the closet scene from Broken Blossoms as the wind whipped the driving rain sideways against our windows. I scurried back and forth, unsuccessful at motivating Bill and trying to decide if I should abandon the fool and hurl myself into the ditch. There was the other possibility -- that I would be the only lunatic lying face down in the mud in a ditch. The danger passed while I was weighing those options. We went out to the landing to reconnoiter. Many of the campsite people were huddled together in the ditch. Even Loner Girl was there. Ha! Vindicated!
The Party's Over
That was it. I got up the next morning, had my swill and came back to pack. Missouri is the "Show Me State." Well, show me the way to go home. I'm tired and I want my own bed.
"I'm packing. You go on your ride. I'll be waiting at the barn at 12:30. If you aren't in the truck by 12:45, I'm leaving." After that, I went quiet. Bill knew better than to challenge me when I go quiet. There's a chance if I'm still yelling. Game's over if I go quiet. Bill strode off to have what turned out to be the best ride of his whole life.
I packed up our Ranger, then headed to the settin' porch to read and wait. Twelve thirty, I fired up the truck and spit gravel as I drove up to the barn. I sat there with the engine running. A gorgeous sight on a big black Tennessee Walker, Bill was a vision in motion in a haul-ass, fast, gaited walk.
"Wow, you look amazing, Bill. Get off and get in the car."
What did I gain from this experience? All adventures have value. Savor the anticipation. Better to venture out to the uncharted territory than not try. Hey, I handled a variety of personal and riding challenges, some that kicked holes in my "comfort fences."
The real lesson was, we never know the true heart of an adventure. I thought I was there to commune with GaWaNi Pony Boy, but Loner Girl ended up being the star for me. Watch the quiet, odd one in the corner. That person may be the most valuable being in the room. She might save a horse . . . or you.
Candace Wade wrote the book Horse Sluts - The Saga of Two Women on the Trail of Their Yeehaw. She has contributed to Horse Nation, Mature Lifestyles and The Tennessean. Candace writes political diatribe, wrote “Hillary’s View” pet column and four unpublished film scripts. She learned to ride at age 46. Still rides at 59+.
Read Candace's Riding & Writing interview here.