Sunday, April 15, 2012

Horseback Riding With My Dad

My older brother affectionately called them Dumbass and Shithead.  Euphemistic terms of endearment I'm sure.  And in many ways, a direct reflection of how our dad thought of us as kids.  But the horses' real names were Stormy and Lancer.  Stormy was whitish in color. Lancer, a much younger sibling to Stormy, was black.  I wasn't a fan of most horse names.  I usually just referred to them as "The Black One" and "The White One" because I couldn't think of anything better.

They were, if I recall correctly, part Arabian and were rather feisty. They weren't the first horses my dad brought home though; the first one was a whitish mare named Lady Mary.  She died of something when she was around 8 years old.   She had only been with us for about a year when she developed some health problems, I thought, at the time it was probably from eating moldy hay, I didn't really know and wouldn't know until just a few months ago when talking to my mom about this story that I found out what really happened.   Lady Mary was pregnant and her uterus had detached.  I can imagine that she had suffering pretty badly.  She was not very old.  Shortly after she died, my dad got Stormy and Lancer.  But they were both sold about a year later so we could relocate to Northern Utah.

Growing up, I never knew much about horses despite the fact we spent a good number of years living in the southern Utah ranching country, where pretty much everyone was some sort of cowboy or ranch hand.  Not us though, we were somewhat city types even though we had never lived in a big city.  A few years before we had horses, when I was about age 9, my dad, on a few occasions, would disappear to help a friend from work setting up things for the local rodeo.  Occasionally my brother and I would go with him but we were too young to help.  I vaguely remember a scary incident with a raging bull that got loose, but I never saw my dad on any horses. 

Most of the time, while dad was off doing whatever it was he did while helping with the rodeo, my brother and I would just play under the arena stands, searching for money that had fallen there during the last rodeo event.  Bonus when we actually found paper money.  But most of the time it was a few dollars in coins, which we would then go spend on candy.  In those days, a few dollars bought a few bags worth.   Dad really didn't pay much attention to where we would run off to.
Also, during those early years, I once got to sit on the back of a pony at a birthday party.  I was by myself and the pony was there for riding so I got on jerked the reins and kicked just like what I saw on TV, but he didn't move.  I felt stupid sitting there so I got off.  I felt even more stupid when another kid grabbed the reins from me, got right on and took off, riding around the side of the house as if there was nothing special about it. 

A few years later, we moved to another small town in south-central Utah.  Even though it was a small town, it was in a much larger ranching community.  In the previous town, the primary industry was the saw-mill, here it was farming and ranching.  Many of my school classmates were avid horsemen or horsewomen who would ride in drill or rodeo events. 

I was always made to feel like I should know about many things that I had never seen before growing up.  But no one really offered to teach me anything and oddly, I never feel it was my place to know. Although, I was rather envious that I wasn't given the opportunity to learn about horses or riding other than a token effort to get a Boy Scout merit badge, which I was never able to get because I didn't have a horse or, by the time we got some, I didn't get the support from my parents to get acquainted with them.   But at the same time, I was ok with it, because, again, I didn't think it was my place to know about horses, and also, I was somewhat scared of them anyway.

My older brother once attempted to ride with a friend but was bucked off and bruised up pretty badly.  My dad was always telling us about how they were easy to spook and that you should never stand behind them or they'll kick you and that they could be very dangerous and we should stay away from them!  And yet, I also had been led to believe from somewhere that horses would never purposely step on you.  I have since realized that even though they may not do it on purpose, they will still step on you!
We, as city types, didn't seem to fit in here even more than in the past town we lived in.  But, it was here that my dad decided that he wanted a horse.

We all thought at the time that his reason for getting a horse was mainly for show.  But perhaps he wanted something more out of it.  He was much more motivated to do things to keep up with the Jones's, as he was to satisfy some unknown want for something.  But perhaps it was practical.  After all, we had 2.5 acres of alfalfa that had to be cut and baled at least once during the summer.  More if we had actually watered it.    But with a horse, that field was turned into complete dirt in a matter of weeks.  We didn't have to cut and bale that damned hay anymore. The bad news was we had to buy hay.  Lots and lots of it.  I was very allergic to hay as a kid.  VERY!  Eyes swollen shut for days sort of allergic.

We were not equipped to handle horses.  We didn't have shelter for them; we didn't have any way to keep the stored hay from getting moldy.  We had no means to ride them, no halters or lead ropes, no saddles or bridles or even any grooming equipment.  We didn't even know how to ride them even though the first two had been "broken in".  But ultimately, they were just out there as pretty things to watch.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, they were wonderful to watch, but they were also a burden to take care of especially when we had no idea what we were doing. 

We didn't even have a proper fence to keep them from getting out.  The fence we made only had two wires and it was not electrified.  The lowest wire was high enough for a horse to slide under.  All it took was just one little roll in the dirt, in the right place next to the fence, and upon standing again, one of them would find  himself on the other side.  It was fine when only one horse got out because they hated being separated.  They would stay by the fence looking confused by their predicament until someone could help them back over.  It was this little fence trick that prompted my brother to start calling them Dumbass and Shithead.

My dad brought these animals home with no intention of doing anything to take care of them, that all fell on us.  Just like us kids -- brought into the world to be someone else's responsibility.

We were never instructed on what to do about anything.  Mowing the lawn, installing a sprinkling system, driving a car, or taking care of a horse, it didn't matter, we had no idea.  If we asked in any way what we were supposed to do, my dad would invariably say, "The fuck if I know.  Figure it out, I don't care."  Or on rare occasions he would try and be helpful by saying something like, "Just give them a little hay and make sure the thing is full of water."  The "thing" was a large plastic garbage can.

But sometimes, if we did not execute the chores in the exact manner that he was expecting, never mind that we had no idea what he was expecting, we would get a Final Dismissal with him yelling, "What the hell are you doing?  I can tell you've never been around a horse before!" as if we should fee shamed for the truth.  At which point he would do it himself, swearing and screaming at us the entire time about how useless and stupid we were.  

It was like that with everything; just replace 'horse' with any other noun that is applicable to the situation.  And sprinkle in some choice profanities as adjective such as, "I can tell you've never driven a goddamn truck before." or "I can tell you've never installed a fucking sprinkling system before!"  It hurt because it was all true.  I had never done any of those things before.  I was only 13 years old.  You can't expect me to know all this stuff, can you? 

It was a late fall evening when dad decided that it was a good idea to try and saddle up Stormy and take him for a ride.  He had found someone who loaned him a saddle and bridle.  I was curious but scared that he would ask me to put them on thus making me go through the usual routine of disappointing him for being stupid.  I hadn't seen him do any of this before so I wasn't even sure if he knew how to ride the horse.

But apparently, as far as I could tell, he did know how. He slid the bridle bit in Stormy's mouth and mounted that confusing array of leather straps on to his head as if he had always known how it was done.  Once he had him saddled, he got on as if he had always been a rider and rode the horse around in a slow walk for a few hundred feet.  Even my younger sister had gotten to ride the horse as my dad led it around.  I was no longer envious, I was jealous.  This man was holding out on us.  Why wouldn't he teach us anything?  

I wanted to ride, so I went out there and asked. 

"Sure, just hop on."  He said.

Ok, How? I said to myself.  My nose was even with Stormy's shoulder.  I mustered up the courage, realizing the verbal abuse that would erupt if I were to ask, but in this case, I needed to know so I went ahead and asked.  Sure enough, the response used at least one 'fuck' word.  But he did explain which foot to put in the stirrup and where I could grasp to pull myself up.

Sadly, I had very weak upper arm strength, which caused me to struggle while climbing on.  The whole time I was scared I might accidentally kick his hind quarters and spook him.  But the worst thing about it, as I was getting on, was that I was feeling extremely embarrassed, exposed and vulnerable.  Not because someone took a picture of me, which I didn't appreciate, but because here I was on a live animal and I didn't know what I was doing.  And even then, it wasn't so much that I was afraid of the animal, but that I was afraid of doing something wrong that would elicit a verbal and abusive tirade from my dad.

Once I got situated, I sat there, looked around at my surroundings, everything looked different at this height. I looked down at the horse, his ears were focused on me and it felt like he was standing rigid, calm but not relaxed.  I wasn't sure really how to read the horse.  It all could have been more of how I was feeling.  I was definitely tense and unsettled and quickly growing impatient.  

The sun had just set a few minutes earlier; it was getting dark.  I finally asked him, "So, what do I do?"  

"The fuck if I know.  Just ride him, you should know."  He said.

"How do I go?  Or turn?"  I said.

"That's what the reins are for."  He said.

"I know, but how do you use them?" 

"Jesus Christ, I can tell you've never ridden a horse before."

And there it was, the Final Dismissal.

I was done.  Despite how often I would hear him say that, it would still sting every time.  I sat for a few more seconds until I could no longer stand the shame of the moment.  Then I decided that this would never be for me; carefully and clumsily I slid off the horse, walked in the house and never got back on another horse for 27 years.


  1. what a sad story :( I'm so sorry you never had the chance to learn how to ride horses, or had kinder words spoken to you by your father. My father was the opposite, always eager to teach his offspring everything he knew, and was very big on sharing new experiences with us, if he didn't know something we all learned it together. not so much, we were more of a burden to her, to be ignored and pushed away, she was never happy ever, the only time she took any pleasure was when she was gloating at our failures, but Dad was always there to pick us back up, laugh and encourage us to try again til we got it, no matter what anyone said.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I've since had a chance.

      You know, I've been wrestling with this story for awhile and have had trouble wanting to tell it. It's like it's not an honest story anymore. You see, although it is factual, my dad is no longer the same person now as we was then. A part of me just wants to forget about the past, but another part needs the story to be spoken. He has mellowed out a lot in the last 30 years. Still a difficult man at times but shows more remorse now than he did then.

  2. :/

    Such a sad story. I mean, I think the worst part is...he must have KNOWN that you guys had, in fact, never done the things you were asking about how could that be used against you?

    1. The truth is, he did know. He absolutely knew. And yet his irrational behavior continued. But then, when has dysfunctional behavior ever been rational?

  3. So sad that you have not tried to ride a horse again. Totally understandable too. It is amazing what a huge influence that our parents ( in your case, your father ) have on us as children, and how it continues into our adulthood. The sad part is, that some of those experiences are ones that effect us for the rest of our lives and some of those experiences could have been wonderful, freeing, exciting, and confidence boosting, but all shot down by a stupid parent that just had no idea, nor care for what effect it will make for his child for years to come. This saddens me. Like you, I too had abuse from my father, but what motivates me with my own children is that the abuse stops here and thus a new generation begins. :) Love the writing even if it is a sad one.

    1. Thanks for you comments. Even from sibling to sibling we all passed that abuse down the line. Awareness was the key. About this time my youngest sister was born, and I had become aware of the abusive patterns we were carrying out on each other. So I had made conscious decision then and there that she would not be subjected to the same abuse that we were all dishing out on each other. Ironically, she still managed to end up having her own set of emotional crisis, as even though her siblings didn't deal out the abuse, she still had the crazy parents. She wrote and published book about her experience.

  4. OMG, this made me cry! I have a friend who does this to his kids (minus the cussing) and it breaks my heart.


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