When I was a teenager, I was immortal. I don’t know about the rest of you, but my guardian angel worked overtime when I rode ponies. There is no real reason why we should have survived what we put our ponies through.
Advance warning: no ponies were injured, and no humans were irreparably harmed (except for egos) during these episodes. The patron saint of adolescents and idiots kept us from fatalities.
The barn where I rode had a lot of sale horses and ponies that came and went on a regular basis, and there was a pack of kids, the Barn Rats, (less charitably known as Hells Angels) who hung around the barn and did chores in exchange for riding privileges.
Since we were small, we got to spend a lot of time with the sale ponies. We were instructed to make sure that when these ponies left our barn, they were reasonably civilized and could be trusted with small children. We were told that we could do whatever it took to make these sale ponies bomb-proof. Bad move.
Rest assured that when the ponies left our barn, they really were bomb-proof. Our definition of bomb-proofing ranged from umbrellas opening over their heads to chickens running under their feet to being mounted, movie-style, with a running jump from behind.
Learning to mount, movie-style, with a running jump, is not as easy as it looks in the movies. More than one of us knocked ourselves out learning how to do this.
The ponies would stand their ground and laugh at us. We also discovered that this stunt is better learned bareback than with a saddle. Fortunately, we were all young enough that the baby teeth were loose anyway.
Once mounted, we learned to stick like glue to anything with four legs. We rode with and without saddles, with and without bridles, and, on one memorable occasion where a tidy sum of money was being wagered, without girths. We certainly learned balance.
We played games of all kinds—if we could play it on foot, we played it on the ponies. We even tried our hands at polo, although the owner of the barn drew the line at the hard ball and mallets. I suspect she feared for her windows.
We had corn brooms and a beach ball to play with and jump standards for goals. This was fine until one of the ponies accidentally stepped on the beach ball and popped it. After the chaos resulting from the ensuing explosion died down, we got another one, only to find that the pony involved had figured out that if he broke the ball, the game was over, and he could go home. So much for beach ball polo.
The Brat Pack Meets Officer Ed
The barn backed onto a national park and had miles and miles of incredible trails. We were in hog heaven with the ponies. We discovered several trails that were set aside exclusively for hikers. The Park Service had, so they thought, blocked the trail by dragging very large fallen trees across the trail so that horses, dirt bikes, dune buggies and the like could not use them. They trimmed the trees so hikers using the trail could climb over them easily. Bad move.
There is nothing so alluring to a pony-mad pack of kids as a jumping trail. And a manicured trail with neatly-shaved obstacles evenly spaced and varying in height from 2’6” to 3’ screams JUMPING TRAIL to adolescents with good jumping ponies. After one or two encounters with hikers, we were informed that we weren’t welcome on the hiking trail. Did that stop us? Do pigs fly?
Matters eventually reached a head when someone complained to the Park Service. Could it maybe have been the time we more or less sideswiped a couple of hikers during a gallop? The next weekend, as the Hells Angels on Ponies prepared to romp up the trail again, we failed to see Officer Ed lurking in the shrubbery at the foot of the trail. Our bad.
Officer Ed, although normally a great favorite at the barn, was a mounted policeman whose duties included safeguarding hikers using the park trails. Unfortunately for us, Officer Ed’s reliable partner was Greek Money, a retired steeplechaser recently donated to the Park Police. We took off at our usual gallop, and Officer Ed and Greek Money took off after us. Greek Money thought Christmas had come early, getting a chance to run and jump again. Officer Ed ran us down (none of our ponies cleared Greek Money’s belly, and they took three strides to every one of his) and proceeded to read us the riot act.
Our ears burned with Officer Ed’s description of our behavior, and he and the owner of the ponies really laid it on the line for us. To make matters worse, Officer Ed knew our parents and promptly called them. This was back in the days when parents listened to and believed other adults’ complaints about their offspring, and children were, shall we say, corporally punished.
Playing Cowboys And Indians With The Dairy Cattle
Did this end our youthful stupidity? Of course not. Near the park, there was a huge pasture where Farmer McDonald kept several dairy cows. He had, for the convenience of the local hunt, put gorgeous, tempting, big coops in the fence line. Being young, stupid and dreaming of cowboys and Indians, we would jump the coop, spend some time herding the poor innocent cows like we saw the cowboys do on TV and in the movies, jump the coop and head home.
Anyone who knows cattle knows that one DOES NOT, under any circumstances, chase dairy cows. We were, as previously mentioned, young, stupid and heedless. So the farmer, after asking us to cease and desist politely a couple of times, wired the coops when hunting season was over. He didn’t want anyone hurt who tried to jump the coops and was ignorant of the wire, so he put fabric flags on the wire. What followed does not reflect brilliantly on any of our pack. The next weekend, the leader of our pack brought wire cutters, cut the wire, and we jumped the coop, chased the cows, jumped the coop and went home, with plans to do the same thing the next time we came that way. Bad move.
Farmer MacDonald was ready for us, with a slingshot and rock salt. I still pick the occasional bits of rock salt out of my bottom. That man was one heck of a shot with a slingshot. He too called our parents. Our parents were not amused.
The Show Pony Gets A Haircut
As we got a bit older and slightly more reliably responsible (the operative word being “slightly”), we started being invited to show the sale ponies. Since we couldn’t afford professional help with turnout, we had by necessity learned how to turn out and braid properly. There was one particularly nice pony that was going to a very prestigious show in the hope of bringing in a very prestigious price. The chosen jockey was our best, and we all pitched in to turn the little darling out to perfection for his big afternoon.
We did a really good job on the tail and then went on to the mane. The pony had quite a thick mane, so we kept adding braid after braid until we were finished. We stood back and decided that the whole effect was far too cluttered, and that too many braids didn’t set the pony’s neck off well. Being young, stupid, in a hurry, and possessing a sharp pair of scissors (a really bad move with the above young, stupid and in a hurry) we proceeded to carefully cut (yes, I said cut) out every other braid.
The pony looked spectacular and went like a dream. Until, of course, we took the braids out and had a zebra on our hands. Needless to say, the owner was not amused. We ended up roaching the pony’s mane until it grew back in. We did get lucky there—his mane grew back a lot thinner and nicer than it had been before.
Once we understood the rudiments of showing, things started to go better. By this time, of course, we were in high school and were expected to know better. Since we didn’t own transportation, we found a man with a nine-horse rig who would haul us to shows. The great thing about his rig was that if he took the partitions out, we could get 14 ponies in it. Granted they were packed like sardines, but it didn’t seem to bother them. It was always exciting when we’d get to the show and lower the ramp. The last-in, first-out pony would usually pop out like a cork from a bottle, but otherwise there were no incidents. At least not pony-related incidents.
One show was fairly close to home, and some of the bigger classes were timed inconveniently. I had final exams that I couldn’t reschedule in the morning that day, and a friend who was also one of our pack had offered to care for the three I was to ride until I could get to the grounds. I accepted gratefully and went on to sit for my examinations with a light heart. I knew I’d be showing my lovely ponies after the exams were over.
Now remember, this was back in the days when girls did not wear pants to school, even in the depths of winter. So after the exams were over, I dashed to the show grounds in skirt and stockings with my boots and other gear. The driver kindly let me change in the huge cab of the truck, which was heated. I pulled on my breeches and boots, stashed my clothes and went on to ride my guys without another thought.
I got a call that night from the driver. Would I PLEASE explain to his wife why there was a pair of stockings in the cab of his truck that were not her size? In my rush, I hadn’t tidied up after myself. Oooops. We eventually smoothed that over, and he continued to drive for us.
All things considered, I am still amazed that some of the adults with whom I interacted as a kid actually allowed me to reach adulthood alive.
Kathie P. Mautner grew up as a “Foreign Service brat,” and now she works as an insurance attorney and competes in ballroom dancing. Her horse experience includes eventing, dressage and hunter/jumpers as well as volunteering as a Pony Club D.C. “I’m a survivor of ponies of all sizes,” said Mautner. She also writes humor pieces for the Chronicle recalling her mispent youth as well as a serious column every now and then.