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I started to call this “Riding Dutchess”, but this title seems more apt. It is also a story about how events from the forgotten past can influence what we do today.
When I was in junior high school, most of my friends were horse crazy, which is certainly better than being boy crazy at that age. Few of the girls actually had horses, but one claimed to work at a riding stable and would talk about it. Her favorite horse, she maintained, was a descendant of Man of War. We were never sure how much to believe. Skepticism is a good mask for jealousy.
One of the privileged few, I did have a horse available to me, a Belgian draft horse named Dutchess. When I was small, Grandpa worked the farm with her and her teammate Jessie. After he got his Massey Harris tractor, the horses no longer had to work and would pass their time in the barn munching hay. My family was too sentimental to be good business people. Animals who had outlived their usefulness were kept around as pets. And they loved horses.
Jessie was a sweet tempered sorrel. One day I noticed her absence and was told she had been sent to a retirement farm for old horses. I did not question why she had to go to a special farm when she had actually been retired for years.
Fortunately, Dutchess stayed around for my horse crazy days. Not as even tempered as Jessie, she was almost as beautiful, a chestnut with a white blaze down her face. When I expressed a desire to ride her, my elders acquiesced. Grandpa built a mounting bench by the barn so I could climb aboard. I began feeding and grooming her and was shown how to bridle her. I was taught to put my finger into her mouth behind her back teeth, tickling her tongue to get her to accept the bit. That can be scary for a kid, even if the half-ton beast is a vegetarian. Soon I learned that Dutchess would open her mouth for me if I just put the bit up to her teeth. But that was the extent of her cooperation.
I was not allowed to use a saddle. I was told it was too dangerous, that I might fall off, catch my foot in the stirrup, and be drug to death. Apparently, tumbling down from sixteen hands high was an acceptable risk.
Possibly because she associated the outdoors with work, Dutchess liked to stay in her stall. The only way to get her to leave the barnyard was to use a switch. Only then could I coax her to carry me to my proposed destination, somewhere in the pasture. Grandpa said Dutchess had some race horse in her. I know that the moment I turned her head back toward the barn she would take off like a thoroughbred from the starting gate. I would grab her mane and if I managed to stay on, it was a wonderful ride. She had a smooth gallop, but if she trotted, I would bounce off. Sometimes she would wheel around without warning and make for the barn, leaving me behind in the mud.
My elders knew I was falling off. They could not help noticing how many times Dutchess returned to the barn without me. Once Grandma was walking down through the pasture as Dutchess and I went flying back toward the barn. Suddenly, Dutchess turned a sharp corner and I kept going straight. Grandma was alarmed, but I was unhurt.
Another time, my sister Jenny and I were riding Dutchess together, she behind me holding on around my waist. We made it to the farthest reaches of the pasture, turned around smoothly, and at breakneck speed down the hill, we came to the creek. Dutchess could not be bothered to slow down. We usually crossed the creek at the path built for farm equipment, but today she chose to jump over a deep part. What a thrill – just like in the movies! The three of us cleared the creek successfully, but when she landed on the far side, I could not hold on well enough for two of us. I guess kids were pretty indestructible in those days.
I didn’t fall off every time I rode Dutchess. I have a photo of myself sitting proudly on the back of a calm steed, but the times I fell off stick in my memory more than the times we successfully returned to the barn together. I was never injured and I was never prohibited from riding her but I could never understand why I could not use a saddle. Now I have the answer.

A Family Mystery Solved

Long before my father was born, when my grandfather’s parents were just newlyweds, on August 31, 1899, one Francis Marion Kidwell “bought a box of nails at a Higginsville, West Virginia store. The nails’ rattling spooked the horse. Since his feet were not completely in the stirrups, he died from being drug to the river.”
But what did this have to do with me? His sister, Mary Virginia Kidwell McDonald, was my great-great grandmother. I discovered this story last year when I was in Hampshire County, West Virginia doing genealogical research.
Uncle Frank’s death must have been a terrible shock to the family. This summer I visited the Kidwell Cemetery in Slanesville, West Virginia, where the graves are laid out in the usual neat rows, except for Uncle Frank’s, which lies at an angle to the others. It was as though his survivors wanted to make a statement that would impact the generations. It did.
This tale would have been told to Grandpa when he was a child, then some version to Dad when he was a boy, but I never heard it. Was this the reason I was not allowed to ride with a saddle? Unfortunately, neither is available today to enlighten me. So I asked my mother, who said Dad wouldn’t let any of us use a saddle because someone Grandpa knew about a long time ago was killed when his foot got caught in the stirrups. Three generations later, Uncle Frank’s name may have been forgotten, but the wisdom that stirrups were dangerous survived. Better just to fall off.
When I had children, they had a pony, but they showed little interest in riding her. We did not have a saddle. If they had asked for one, would Uncle Frank’s ghost have haunted my decision? Or would I have succumbed to reason and bought one? I hope so.
I am sure of one thing, that if I ever take up horse riding again, I will definitely use a saddle. But maybe I won’t ride to the store for nails.

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