Photo by Donald F. Wallbaum
Riding with Joy: An Interview with Joy Miller-Upton
by Gina McKnight
“That is one of the amazing and fun things about associating with these wonderful creatures. They teach us lessons we can never learn in school.”
Living in southeastern Ohio, I am surrounded by thousands of horse-lovers. Ohio is, after all, the home of the American Quarter Horse Congress, one of the largest one-breed horse shows in the world. Running into equestrians is a daily event for me. One of my favorite equestrians is Joy Miller-Upton. I met Joy several years ago through a mutual friend. Since, we enjoy sharing horse stories and collaborating on horse-related literature. I caught up with Joy and asked about her horse history, trail riding, and much more…
GM: Joy, it’s great to connect and share your horse adventures! I know you have a vast horse history, but we have never talked about your first horse. When was your first encounter with a horse?
JMU: Actually two first encounters stand out in my mind. One was when my aunt and uncle took me to their farm in Hocking County (Ohio) where I live now and set me up on the back of a huge dark Draft horse in a very dark barn. The second, when I was probably five, was with a burro my dad borrowed to use as a prop for his costume in the Calico Days parade when we lived in the Mojave Desert in a tiny town called Yermo. That was in the 1940s. I would go out to where we had the burro tied to a tree in our yard and crawl up on his furry back and pretend I was galloping across the desert. Since my first two experiences were on the bare back of an equine I must’ve thought that was how you rode them, because when I got my first horse when I was 12 that was the only way I ever rode, bareback. The saddle that came with my first horse was a 1918 McClellan’s saddle and it was so weird and so uncomfortable I only ever used it once. But I wish I had it now!
GM: You are a seasoned rider with lots of trail miles. Tell us about your ride along the Underground Railroad…
JMU: A friend and I decided to try to trace a route across Ohio, beginning at the Ohio River and headed toward Canada, and ride it on horseback, that would approximately follow routes used by freedom seekers escaping the south. To prepare for the 550 mile ride, we did practice rides in 1998 and 1999, riding for a week each year.
The first year we started our ride at a historic black church in a small area in Lawrence County (Ohio) called Poke Patch. The church members helped us get started and allowed us to use their church grounds to camp the first two nights. We literally camped amongst tombstones in the cemetery while our three horses were tied nearby in the woods. That year we were riding on tiny back roads winding our way through an area now almost totally owned by the Wayne National Forest. That was ideal because we could camp almost anywhere.
It was August and very hot and dry. We counted on local people to assist us, just as freedom seekers would have been helped as they made their way out of slavery. One night we found ourselves in a dry camp with no water for the horses. Using an old type cell phone, standing on a very high hill, we were able to reach one of the church members and ask for help. Within an hour a truck pulled up with a large tank of water for us and our horses.
The second year we were assisted by a black historian, Henry Burke, and we rode in Washington County. Henry helped us define routes that we would ride between safe stations that had actually been used for underground railroad activity in the 1800s. That year I rode alone with my Chincoteague pony, Jaca, and her daughter a “ChincoFino,” Pearl, as my friend had broken her ribs during a training ride. She assisted by driving her truck loaded with hay and water for the horses.
As I rode the back roads, I met many helpful people, like the family who invited us to sleep in their tiny backyard. They had many children but we were willing to share whatever they had, including a toilet that you had to flush by pouring a bucket of water in it.
Throughout that ride, Pearl was a challenge as usual, showing great displeasure at having to share a field next to sheep one night and prancing backward through an entire field another day because there were cattle in a nearby field.
GM: A great story, I understand you will be launching a book in 2021 about your journey. For such a journey, what type of horses are needed? Do you prefer one breed over another for long distance riding?
JMU: My book is actually about six horse journeys. The first one I rode in 1973 was for 30 days. I rode my big Appaloosa, Jubilee, and my packhorse was a Quarter horse, Tony. They were perfect because I had ridden them on other long trail rides, some overnight, and they were very physically fit. They had also been around all sorts of traffic and other distractions.
For a long distance ride the breed of horse may not be as important as the horse’s conditioning. Still, a lazy horse would drive you crazy on a long distance ride. For the underground railroad rides I had considered using a Quarter horse I had at the time, but he was extremely lazy and I would’ve worn myself out riding him. Pearl, being half Paso, had lots of energy. Her mother, the Chincoteague pony, was also very energetic. For any horse being taken on a long distance ride they need to have that energy as well as being traffic safe.
GM: Wow! That sounds like an amazing journey. When trail riding, what’s in your saddlebag?
JMU: Water, snacks, an extra lead rope, a few first aid supplies for both horse and human, and maps. That’s for a day ride. If I’m riding for several days, there would be a lot more than that. The important thing is to pack for your horse‘s needs.
GM: Your horse wisdom and horse adventures are well-known throughout our area. Do you have advice for novice riders and those looking to purchase their first horse?
JMU: Find a knowledgeable person to help you. Try riding and also helping around the barn before you buy a horse so you have an idea what is involved in both work and the expenses. Buying a well-trained, older horse is the only way to go for a novice rider. Go to horse events, read, watch videos, and talk to other horse riders. Just sit and watch horses. I have been riding more than seven decades and I learn something new all the time, often from the horse herself. That is one of the amazing and fun things about associating with these wonderful creatures. They teach us lessons we can never learn in school.
GM: Every horse-lover likes the thrill of horses in the rodeo. What is your favorite equestrian event/discipline in and/or out of the arena?
JMU: Challenges that showcase the horse performing natural horse activities is a beautiful thing to see. When a human asks and a horse does that, whether mounted or from the ground, it is awesome. I love watching someone work with horses at liberty.
The closest I’ve come to that was as a child with my first horse. I think one reason kids and horses are such a good match is that kids don’t overthink things like I as an adult do. My first horse, Calico, and I had a job of leading our cow to a pasture each morning before school. I would ride my horse with just a halter on and to turn her I would reach up behind her ear and tug on the halter. Soon I realized all I had to do was touch her behind the ear and she would turn. Then I discovered if I thought about stopping to get off, she stopped. I began riding her around the neighborhood with no bridle, halter, or saddle. Once someone asked me if she neck-reined and I said no. I was a little ashamed that my horse hadn’t learned to do that, but what I now realize is that I never taught her to do that. But I did teach her to ride at liberty!
GM: Thanks, Joy, for sharing your horse stories. Congratulations on your success as a horsewoman and your new book coming out in 2021! Finally, I ask all the people I interview about horsemanship. What does horsemanship mean to you?
JMU: Horsemanship to me means that with every interaction, whether feeding the horse, grooming, teaching or riding, the horse always comes first. It means paying attention to what that individual equine needs and what he can and should do. It means developing a partnership and friendship in which both equine and human have an equal say. It means showing leadership and bravery to a species that is not always brave. It also means trusting the equine you’re with to make choices beneficial for both of you.
Connect with Joy…