One of the first things my dad had to do in preparation for the arrival of my first horse was to sell the 1967 Mustang he thought I would chose over a horse on my sixteenth birthday.
My dad was a mechanic by trade, as was his father. I learned from my aunt that dad was in the garage cleaning tools for his father at an early age and naturally followed in my grandfather’s footsteps.
She told me how one time my dad lit an oily rag, placed it inside a can and put it in his pedal car so it looks like exhaust fumes as he pedaled down the road. She couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t tinkering with something. Not only was he creative, he was an exceptional mechanic as well as a perfectionist.
He had gone through every inch of that Ford Mustang mechanically to make sure it was a sound vehicle for his daughter. That combined with some bodywork and a new paint job, and the Mustang was akin to any car in a dealership showroom.
I have to admit, it was a little sad to see it sitting out by the road with “for sale” signs in its windows. This was 1971 and the Mustang hadn’t reached the classic status it has today, but still, it didn’t sit there long.
My horse over car decision meant more work for my father and the rest of my family. After our move from San Diego to Michigan, we had ended up on a two-acre property with a house and three other buildings. There was a large shop that my father used. He would fix up cars to resell them and do work on the vehicles belonging to our family and friends. There was always a crowd of men busy out there on the weekends.
Sometimes there would be a dozen cars lined up from dad’s shop to the road. There was a small, one-car garage that sat to the east side of our home that wasn’t used for much of anything, and a long building behind the house that had been a greenhouse at one time.
I had collected magazine articles on horse barns. Everything from converted chicken coops to one made from stacked hay bales. In the end, my dad decided that the garage could be moved back to the field and converted into a barn for my first horse.
It was a big Saturday project and all of the usual weekend crew showed up to help. Dad had borrowed a flatbed truck from work to haul the building to the back. They braced and supported it with heavy timbers and used hydraulic jacks to raise it high enough to sit on the flatbed. With its many layers of siding, the garage was much heavier than anyone had anticipated and the beams were starting to crack.
A call to my uncle, who was the supervisor at a local steel mill, brought in metal I-beams to reinforce the timbers. As they inched in front of the house, a pine tree interrupted their progress. A second uncle left and returned with a chain saw; problem solved. By the time they had the makeshift barn in place back in the field, the bottom was barely clearing the ground and the steel I-beams were bent.
Dad went to work on the garage to change it into a one-horse barn complete with food and tack storage areas. He built a divider that gave me about a quarter of the barn space. He added a manager to the horse’s side and built in a box for feeding grain. On the smaller side, he built a saddle holder that was parallel to wall with just enough room to hold a saddle. It wasn’t convenient, but it did save space.
Above was a rack with four large wooden pegs for hanging tack and below sat two new garbage cans to use for grain storage. They had left an old three-shelf cupboard at the front of the building, which would come in handy for more storage space for brushes and other necessities. My dad even built a gate that could be lifted between the storage area and stall so I could lead my horse through the barn and out the side door.
The next weekend dad and his weekend work crew dug a trench from dad’s shop to my barn to run water and electricity out to the building.
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© 2012 KA
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The next major undertaking occurred during the following week. Someone knew of someone else that had a grove of locust trees at the back of their property.
Neighbors, family and friends all converged in the woods to cut fence posts. They loaded them up on my dad’s new truck and made multiple trips through muddy fields to bring them home.
Men and women joined the work crew and even my younger cousins got involved, stripping the smaller branches from the freshly cut trees. Then came digging postholes.
The facility for my new horse was starting to emerge from a vacant field. Dad used three of the freshly cut posts and made a hitching post in front of the barn. He was smart enough not to hold the cross beam in place with merely nails. He had two long bolts with lock washers and nuts to make sure it held up.
An old, claw-foot bathtub that had come from our home during one of the first remodeling efforts was drug out to the field to be used as a watering tank. Finally we were ready to put up the electric fence.
We made a trip to the local farm bureau. I loved that old farm bureau. It was an immense building located in the middle of town. There was a loading dock you could back your truck up to and an area that opened up in the ground for the farmers to dump their grain into.
The building had wood plank floors that creaked and echoed when you walked on them. There was always the sound of machinery running in the background. Old farmers wearing bib overalls worked there and they could toss around 100 pound bags of grain like they weighed nothing at all. And it smelled of earthy things: grain, hay, and sweet-feed.
You went up stairs into an office to place your order and pay for your feed. The office doubled as a small livestock supply store.
We picked out rolls of wire, ceramic insulators, special nails, and the pre-bent wires used to hold the fence onto the insulators. The corner insulators looked like donuts and where held in place by wire. A couple years later, someone came out with plastic insulators that didn’t need the holding wires, and the ceramic variety became as obsolete as eight-track tapes.
In the years that followed, I became an electric fence wizard. I could test it with a blade of grass to see if it was working, I could stretch it tight using only a claw hammer, and I could immediately recognize the “zit-zit-zit” sound it made when something had it grounded out.
While I was in the co-op I splurged and bought a couple of brushes. My grandmother had given me an old, rusty currycomb that had belonged to my grandfather. I looked at a metal hoof-pick and put it back.
A few months earlier I had received a letter with “Congratulations! You’re a winner in our Name the Quarter Horse contest”. I was so excited when I saw the envelope that I was shaking and choking back tears of joy. It was a major disappointment when I opened it and discovered my prize was a plastic hoof-pick.
Being both an optimist and a cheapskate, I recovered after my initial disillusionment in not winning the horse, and tucked the hoof pick away knowing I would put it to good use at a later date. It turned out to be the only contest I ever won in my life.
Now that we had everything ready and in place, it was time to find the horse. Surprisingly, we were sensible enough not to purchase the first horse we saw. We didn’t even purchase the second one. We took our time, called on some classified ads and followed up on word of mouth recommendations.
It was after looking at some ponies near Kalamazoo that their owner told us about a place he knew of with horses for sale. It was on the other side of the Interstate, about a mile away from his farm. That is were we found Cherokee.
They saddled him up and I took a ride around the arena. Things were looking good. They opened the gate and I rode down the street apiece and then back. I could make him go where I wanted to go and stop when I wanted to stop without any difficulty. The price was right and it included all of the tack needed for a new horse owner. Never mind the old adage about not buying a young horse for an inexperienced rider.
We either didn’t know about it or had forgotten that primal rule. As it turned out, it wasn’t a problem. Cherokee was only three, but he was good-natured, not flighty, and eager to please. My mother still remarks how lucky we were to end up with such a nice horse when we didn’t know what we were doing.
The second issue we should have taken into consideration was his size. The big chestnut gelding was at least 16 hands high. I, like everyone else in my family, was incredibly short. All through my school years I was almost always the shortest kid in class.
My uncle later commented that I looked like a peanut on an apple when I was riding my new horse. But thanks to my youth and flexibility, I didn’t have a problem mounting him when he was saddled. It was the times when I rode without a saddle that I couldn’t get up onto his back without finding something to use as a makeshift-mounting block.
I had watched my television idol, Ranger Joe Riley on “Laredo”, frequently mount his buckskin horse without use of stirrups. He simple threw his leg over the horse’s back and he was on. This is much more easily accomplished by someone over six-foot tall than by someone under five-foot.
Cherokee was a willing and fast learner. It didn’t take much for me to train him to side step up to whatever I was standing on – watering trough, roadside guard rails, tree stumps or big rocks, by tapping him on his off side.
The Saturday he was delivered was like a circus at my parents’ house. The usual crew was there at my dad’s garage, most of my relatives and everyone that had helped out preparing for the big event. Of the entire crowd that was there to witness my dream come true, only my aunt was smart enough to have a camera present. She took three pictures using good old black and white film. I’m fortunate that she held on to these and gave them to me many years later.
I hadn’t slept much the night before the delivery of my first horse. Dreaming of a horse of my own had been such a major part of my adolescence, it was hard to comprehend that it was actually going to happen.
The night after Cherokee’s arrival, I drug a chaise lounge into his pasture. I spent the night there in the summer heat, covered only with a sheet. I don’t know if I was afraid he would somehow escape during the night or if I would awake and discover everything had been an elaborate dream.
When I woke in the morning, I could hear the sounds of a horse stomping flies and munching grass. The big chestnut gelding was still in the field. I was the proud owner of my first horse and my life was about to change forever.
© 2012 KA
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