The noise trailed off for only a moment before it began again, “Bzzzzzt.”
I, playing in the backyard with my two siblings, turned to see where this sound, which was somewhere between a buzz and a whistle, was coming from. I knew it was directed at me.
I noticed my Dad, Randy, in his black cowboy hat, was trying to get my attention from the other side of the yard.
“Little Bird,” He whispered loudly, motioning his large, leathery, tanned hand for me to come toward him.
I looked back at the others playing and snuck off in his direction.
Without saying another word, we made our way to the barn where my family kept a small number of our horses. There, I found two horses tacked and ready to ride. One for me and the other for my Dad. We were going for a ride down the gravel road and up by the creek as we did often during the summer. He had snuck me away from the others because these two horses were barely broke, unruly two-year olds and I wasn’t afraid of them.
I don’t remember ever being afraid of a horse; my Mom taught us that a horse can sense your emotions and intentions, that he knows if you are timid, angry, or afraid. She also explained that a horse knows whether or not he can trust you and as such it was up to me as a rider to lead my horse well and treat him respectfully. I was just over a year old when I was on a horse with my Mom for the first time. By three, I got the chance to ride a horse on my own. Perhaps parents didn’t worry as much about their kids in those times? I can’t fathom my niece, who is a toddler, riding horses by herself.
Regardless of my early experience on horseback, I still found myself in a number sticky situations while riding a horse. I was five the first time a horse ran off with me, when my uncle was leading my pony around our yard and spooked her. She threw her head, yanked the lead rope from his grasp, and took off down the road.
“Whoa!” I commanded her to stop while I clenched the horn on my saddle with both my tiny hands and squeezed my little heels into her sides. The adults, one by one, leapt at her in a vain attempt to grab her lead rope, which only served to frighten her more. She eventually stopped running and I don’t remember being upset about it, at least not as upset as the adults at the house.
A few years later I was knocked off a horse because I failed to mind the metal pole above my head while exiting a corral through the gate (is there any other way to exit?). It smacked me square in the forehead and hurled me off the back of my horse. Without thinking, I grabbed the metal pole both hands and, with the momentum from my horse picking up speed through the gate, I was propelled up and around the pole like a gymnast on the high bar. I’m wincing right now just thinking about it.
Growing up on a horse ranch meant that we didn’t do things most other families do. For example, our family vacations where nothing like the Griswold kind, packing up a small vehicle for a cross-country trip to amusement parks. Instead, we went trail riding in South Dakota’s Sica Hallow. This, of course, doesn’t mean that our vacations went any smoother (sica means ‘evil’ in Lakota), but they did, at the very least, provide my siblings and me with a sense of adventure.
In preparation for trail riding, my mother would spend days cooking and packing coolers with food. There was a cooler for the meat – brats, hot dogs, and burgers she’d already shaped into patties for the grill, and another two for salads, eggs, and fruit.
The morning before we left came the infamous french braid. My sister and I had long hair, mine all the way down my back, that required a french braid for the weekend so my Mom wouldn’t have to mess with our hair in the woods. But, in order for a french braid to last a handful of days, she would pull on our hair so tight our eyes slanted. My headache usually went away by day two but I was too impressed with my teal leather cowboy boots and mauve suede cowboy hat to mind much anyhow.
Once the horses were ready to go, we’d drive the two hours to Sica Hallow and set up camp before our first ride. One by one each of us kids followed my father in the front of the line while my mother took the back. There was a bit of bickering and nagging going on – “Mom, so and so’s horse is biting my horse in the butt!” kind of thing – but generally we all kept quite and soaked up the outdoors.
One trail ride sticks out particularly well in my mind. I had taken a palomino named Coke for the ride. I believed his name was cool in a have-a-coke-and-a-smile kind of way, but he turned out to be the most intolerable horse I ever rode. Just when I relaxed and allowed my mind to drift, he would pull some kind of stunt. This time, we were following in line as usual when we came to a fork in the path. I was looking off to my left at a cluster of berries I found interesting, oblivious to the direction we were taking. All of a sudden, Coke jumped with all of his weight to the right, nearly knocking me off and certainly taking me by surprise. I could hear my mother laughing at me when I realized what Coke had been afraid of was a small folding chair placed at the fork of the path. That’s right, a folding chair.
Perhaps Little Bird should have been more afraid of the horses.
Growing up on a horse ranch in South Dakota is something else entirely. I didn’t understand at the time, but what my siblings and I had out there in the middle of nowhere was, regardless of its misadventures, something special. I don’t know if my kids will have the same childhood experiences we had, but regardless of where I end up, I hope to pass along that same fearless respect of animals and of hard work.
The following is a proper cowgirl trail riding treat from my mom’s kitchen! I hope you all enjoy it.
Happy trails to you and yours,
Erin writes a blog called Lavender Honey, where she tell stories and makes things.