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Posts Tagged ‘Horses’

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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Almost 150 years ago, a boy wanted to ride a carousel, but he was too poor to buy a ticket. He must have been fascinated by the brightly painted horses that galloped around and around to the cheery music. He made himself a promise that if he ever became rich, he would build carousels for children to ride for free.
When he grew up, he became an industrialist and owned several factories. He was a good employer and a benefactor to the communities that housed his factories. Among many other things, he built parks and donated carousels to the parks. There was one condition, that the cities would never charge money for riding his carousels.
This is a true story. My grandfather worked in one of those factories, and as a child, I rode those carousels.
My siblings and I were very fortunate. We lived out in the country where we could climb trees, swim in ponds, wade in creeks, catch fish, and roam about the fields and woods. The city children had to be content only with playgrounds. I’m sure that going out to the country was as much a treat to them as going to a playground was for us. But they were able to walk to their parks, and we depended on adults to take us there, so going to a playground was only an occasional pleasure for us.
The swings and slides were fun, of course, but the best of all were the merry-go-rounds. They were magic. The horses came in all colors and styles and there were also lions, tigers, and other wild beasts. For parents with babies too small to sit on a horse, there were chariots where they could be seated and enjoy the ride. Being a fan of the Black Stallion books, my mount of choice would usually be a black horse with a flowing mane.
My favorite merry-go-round had music from a Wurlitzer band organ. In my memory, it played one tune over and over but I never got tired of it. I do not know the name of the song but I can recall the melody and the words I put to it in my head. Beside the organ was a bass drum. A mechanical arm would strike the drum to the beat of the music. The drumstick had hit that drumhead so many times, it had worn a hole in the center, which was patched with tape.
Riding around and around with the music in my head, in my fantasies I was riding a real horse. When the ride ended, we would all exit and run around the pavilion to line up for another ride, over and over again, until we had to go home.
This summer, my son Joel told me he wanted to show his family where I had lived as a child and where his grandparents and mine had lived, worked, and gone to school. I did not tell him about the carousels before we made the trip. I wanted it to be a surprise. My favorite was closed for repairs, which is forgivable after nearly 100 years of delighting children, but my second choice was open and running.
This merry-go-round was in pristine condition. The pavilion it is housed in looked newly painted. Inside, around the top of the carousel, the panels painted with pastoral scenes and faces of Indians and frontiersmen looked as fresh as they had when they were first made. There were no wild animals to ride, but the horses were beautiful. They were of all colors and styles: some tossing their heads, some with fierce defiance in their eyes, and some intent on racing forward. The old music had been replaced with a modern sound system. This music was more varied, but it was still instrumental, with no lyrics to impinge on a private fantasy.
My son pointed out what a feat of engineering the carousel was. As a child I had never taken note of this. The large, round platform held 72 horses, four abreast. Each horse was suspended on a pole from a jointed rod which extended from the center pole. As this rod turned, each horse galloped independently of its mates. Platform, horses, hardware, and riders were all supported by guy rods from the single pole in the center. A motor turned the whole mechanism through a complex series of gears. Our ancestors managed to work wonders without the help of computers.
With still no admission price, and no posted age limit, I mounted a horse beside my grandson James and was carried away. The magic is still there.
I did not ride over and over again like I had when I was a child. Once or twice was enough. I wanted to take pictures, which was a challenge since the merry-go-round moves faster than my shutter finger, but it was pleasant to sit on a bench alongside the wall and watch my child and his enjoying themselves.
I look forward to going back again to ride the merry-go-rounds. Of course, it would be best if I were to take grandchildren with me.

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