I celebrated a monumental occasion yesterday. 50 years ago, July 10, 1971, I got my first horse. I was 12, and a total horse addict. All of my Scholastic Books orders contained horse books. I had read every horse book in both the school and town library by the time I was in 5th or 6th grade. It was clear to my parents that this was not something I was going to outgrow.
Unbeknownst to me, my Dad had been driving around rural northwest Connecticut on his lunch breaks looking for a horse for me. One day in July, 1971, he stopped by a dealer’s farm and happened to notice a bay mare (although he wouldn’t have been able to name the color or the gender at that time). He spoke with the dealer and made arrangements for us to go try out the horse that Saturday. I was over the moon excited!
When we got to the yard, the dealer asked me a few questions:
Dealer: Do you ride English or Western? (Read – let me start working on my sales spiel)
Dealer: Have you ridden much? (Are you likely to get killed by the horse if I let you ride her?)
Me: I can walk and trot and I’m in 4-H and want to ride in horse shows.
Dealer: This horse is going to be perfect for you!! She was owned by a girl who showed her in 4-H shows until she went off to college and had to find a new home for her.
The truth, we discovered much later, was that this horse arrived on a box car from Montana just a week or so before I went to try her.
The $400 was paid, and my horse was to come home in just a few days once we had everything ready for her. Like fencing. And shelter…
Neighbors of ours whose horse I had been riding, had an extra stall, and that’s where she spent her first few nights as my horse. My Dad, being of Irish decent and Scottish birth, suggested her name should be O’Malley, due to the OM brand on her left flank.
My Dad and I spent the next couple of days mowing the field, and putting up 1 strand of electric fence to surround it. Dad had already begun construction of a small barn to store his outdoor tools, and half of the 10’ x 20’ structure became O’Malley’s stall.
O’Malley was a wonderful first horse. She loved life in general.
- She went English beautifully. (I was ignorant enough not to realize that this could have been a problem).
- She went to horse shows – in the back of a pickup truck! We didn’t have a trailer, so we went to show with friends of my Mom’s. They put a wooden rack (for lack of a better description) on the back of their pickup, had a makeshift ramp, which she’d go right up and then stand trying to peek over the sides. (I was ignorant enough not to realize that this could have been a really BIG problem!)
- She LOVED trail riding and jumping cross country. We used to climb the Appalachian Trail which went up the side of a mountain a little way from our house. There was a State Forest at the top, and we poddled our way through it. Mostly on trails, sometimes through brush.
- She had very good horse sense. More than once on one of our mountain poddling adventures, (mostly when we were bush whacking), I’d lose track of where I was; but I never felt desperate or afraid. I knew (in general) which way our house was, and if I wasn’t sure I’d just let O’Malley choose the way home. We made it every time. And usually before dark. (Did I mention I was doing this at age 12 all by myself? Yeah – those were the days…)
- She was safe as houses. When I was a freshman in High School, our VoAg (Vocational Agriculture) department had an open day, and I got to bring my horse. But, we still didn’t have a trailer… So, I got to miss classes on a Friday to ride my horse the 12 or so miles to school. Fortunately, she didn’t object to the enclosure we made for her out of farm gates under an overhang of the building (possibly due to the amount of hay I gave her…) The plan was for her to stay overnight, be ready for the open house on the Saturday morning, and then we’d ride back home on the Saturday afternoon. Until it snowed… All in all, I believe she spent 2 or 3 nights at school, and never once tried to escape from her little covered corral.
The list of her positive traits was long, but there were a few she had that drove me nuts.
- She hated to be inside. The barn my Dad and I built didn’t have a door, just an opening where we were going to (eventually) put a door. O’Malley loved the whole no-door experience. Which was fine… except for the night before I was going to a horse show and I was trying to keep her as clean as I could. I used all sorts of barricades that I thought would work… Invariably, I’d get up at 6 only to find that she not only had gotten out, but had also rolled. Oh, and she didn’t particularly want to be caught, thank you very much. We only ever missed one show. She refused to load in the trailer that someone was picking her up in. She planted her feet and that was kind of it (despite royally pissing off the person trying to load her.) When the royally pissed off person kicked her in the stomach, I took the lead rope and took her back to the field. I didn’t want to show that badly…
- Oh, remember that horse sense? Yeah, there was a shadow side to that. We had an electric fence that made a steady tick – tick – tick noise. And it never took her more than 10 minutes or so to realize that there was no ticking, and she’d immediately escape.
- And the difficult to catch issue? She knew when I went to catch her after school that I was going to ride her, so she became rather difficult to catch. I can’t remember the number of times my Mom would come home from work, and O’Malley would be at the fence before Mom even came in the driveway. O’Malley knew the sound of the car, and that my Mom always brought her carrots. (The easiest way to a horse’s heart…).
As I mentioned earlier, O’Malley had an OM brand on her flank. It just so happened that a person who worked with my Mom (the wife of the man with the pick up with the rack), had an old brand book. Just on a whim, she looked up O’Malley’s brand – and it was listed!! I was so excited!
I wrote down the address (on the Montana/North Dakota border) and went home wrote a letter (it was 1976 at that point). I could not believe it when I received a reply a week or so later. They had bred O’Malley, and still had her Quarter Horse dam Lady, although her Arabian sire had been killed by lightning a few years before. They sent pictures and we began communicating. The summer between my junior and senior years in High School, my parents and I travelled in their motor home out to visit the Moe’s and see where O’Malley had started her life.
We were welcomed into the family, and I got to ride Lady on a roundup 2 days after we arrived. Fortunately, I had been getting O’Malley and myself fit for a Pony Club rally, so I’d been spending quite a bit of time riding. But not in a Western saddle… Let’s just say it was a long (and amazing) day. Lady decided to go after a stray cow at one point. I figured she probably knew what she was doing better than I was! Once Lady was satisfied with getting the cow going in the right direction, I looked around and couldn’t see anyone. Which is kind of scary when you’re riding a horse in an area called the Badlands. But I figured O’Malley had to get her horse sense from someone, so I let Lady choose the way and we were back together with the main group wishing about 5 minutes. (5 looong minutes!) .
I should probably close now. I could keep telling stories about O’Mally for hours. It’s hard to believe that that horse that “a college girl rode English in horse shows” turned out t be a much better horse than that dealer could even imagine.