Around 1970 Pops started hanging out with a lodge buddy named Jim. While they were at lodge meetings on Friday nights the rest of our families hung out together. Soon we started spending weekends together. Jim’s oldest was named Ben. He was about my age and had been taking riding lessons. He had the loan of an experienced gymkhana pony and was competing in 4-H.
One Saturday we all went out to spend the day at the stables where Ben trained. Like any nine-year-old girl I was crazy about horses. I spent the whole day petting ponies and watching Ben practice barrel racing and pole bending on Sunshine, the 15-year-old welsh pony he was training on. As the day turned into evening, the owners of the stables hosted a neighborhood BBQ. Since ribeyes and Bud was on the menu, Pops was happy to stay and mingle with the neighbors. As the evening wore on Pop became louder and louder. Soon he was talking to a woman from the next lane over about a horse. My heart leapt – she was telling him about a small bay mustang, saying how it would be the perfect starter horse for me. I crossed my fingers behind my back as Pop put his arm around me and asked if I would like to have my own horse. Of course I would like it – I practically squealed at the idea of not just borrowing, but owning a horse of my own. The lady offered to show it to us the next day and Pops decided right then and there – he didn’t need to see that horse – he opened his wallet and gave the woman her asking price, fifty dollars cash. I was beyond thrilled.
The next morning we got a phone call. I heard Pops say, “I think you have the wrong number. Why, yes that is my number.” He pulled his wallet from his pocket, inspecting the bills inside. “Funny, I don’t recall buying a horse.” The woman from the night before was calling to remind him that he had promised last night that he would pick up the mare this morning first thing.
Pops called Jim who connected him with Aleda and Fred, the owners of the stable where we had spent the day. They made arrangements to board our new mustang and Aleda agreed to give me riding lessons starting right away. Within 2 weeks I was competing in my first event. Soon I was running a whole slate of events and winning ribbons. The man who forgot he bought a horse hung each and everyone on the wall overlooking his corner in the living room – my personal wall of fame.
Weekly gymkhanas became the norm for us. I spent the next year and a half competing in 4-H. I started running against other 9 year-olds and then moved up to ten and eleven year olds. I was doing pretty well. I brought home ribbons every time out. My horse, Tina, was not very large. If she did not have shoes on she was just short enough to be considered a pony. We were running her against a few ponies but most of our competition were running quarter horses or thoroughbreds. I’m sure all of them cost more than fifty bucks. Within the bounds of 4-H Tina was doing OK. One parent politely told my Pop that I was “under-mounted” to face any real competition.
I, for one, was not buying it. I believed that like anything else, practice makes perfect. If I tried hard enough and put the work into it – we could be bringing home blue ribbons every week. I just needed to practice more. After all, Tina and I were regularly beating Ben and Sunshine (we had a foot in height so it wasn’t exactly a fair contest). Aleda was a pragmatist. She knew I had serious limitations and that it was important that I loved riding more than I loved winning. She decided that it was time for me to enter a “playday” – a wide open gymkhana not regulated by 4-H rules. Instead of competing with about 10 kids in my narrow age bracket, I would compete against over 50 who were under 15 years old. Tina and I ran our hearts out, but we never placed higher than 12th in an event.
I was devastated. I had never had a day where I didn’t break the top five, where I wasn’t in the running for high points. I was disappointed that I had not tried harder, practiced more, executed better. Aleda was all smiles – 12th out of 50 was better than she had hoped for, but I was having none of it. There are no 12th place ribbons. I was going home empty-handed. Aleda sat me down and explained that I was going home with new experiences – riding in front of a larger and noisier crowd, doing my best and not quitting, believing in Tina. She told me that I owed it to Tina to enjoy the experience – Aleda was a wise woman.
Being that this was an open event, my Pop entered some of the adult events. He had watched me for a couple of years and had no worries about learning the patterns. I knew Tina knew that patterns and she could get him through it. We had a bunch of Pop’s buddies there that day and they had been having a good time in the stands. Since this was not a 4-H event, there was no need to hide your beer in a thermos – you could just drink in the open – and drink they did. One of the last events of the day was a complicated pattern called the quadrangle. It was like running a four-leafed clover with very specific turns. Pops had no clue which way to turn on which pole, and in his state I wasn’t having any success telling him before the event.
He got into the starting area and took off. Tina wasn’t used to carrying someone so large, but she ran it full-out anyway. Pops was not the best rider, he didn’t move with the horse. At the first pole when Tina leaned into the curve Pop didn’t and he flew off and landed in the dirt. The crown let out a simultaneous gasp. Tina continued on to the next pole riderless, and as she took the turn the crowd began to cheer. By the third pole they were on their feet, and when she made that final turn towards home the sound was deafening. As she ran through the timer she hunched her back and let loose a flying buck, she had completed the most complicated pattern without any help from a rider! She may have been small and underpowered but at that moment she was the finest horse in all the land. In the coming months and years I would have people come up to me and ask if Tina was the famous “quadrangle” horse.
The “quadrangle incident” was late in the day and between the pep talk from Aleda and the crowds adulation over Tina, I had a new perspective. Pops saw it a bit differently. He knew I wanted to win and that I was used to bringing home some hardware. He had taken a very visible fall and had a bruised ego. We loaded up the horse trailer and he left Tina’s transportation to Aleda and Mom. He would drive me back to the stables. The two of us could commiserate together.
We pulled out of the arena grounds and headed north up Nellis Boulevard. Back in the day Nellis was a lonely road filled mostly with cowboy bars. We stopped in at the first one we saw. Pops lifted me up onto a bar stool and ordered me a Shirley Temple. While I sipped it down he told the bartender how I had tried my best, how I had ridden my heart out and come up short. After about a half an hour we headed out again only to stop at the next bar, and the next bar, and the next – stopping a dozen times on the way home. My sweet silly Pop was helping me to drown my sorrows. It was long after dark when we finally got to the stables. Pops was completely shot. He passed out on Aleda’s couch while she and mom made some supper for us. I snuck outside and hugged Tina’s neck hard. She had given her all and I never loved her more than I did that day when we won nothing.