by Bob Hightshoe
I rode a pony once when I was about 3 years old. Well, I didn’t actually ride it, I just sat on it because Mom wanted my picture taken. The pony was a pinto like the Lone Ranger’s sidekick, Tonto, rode. I was even dressed like a cowboy with the hat, chaps, six-shooter and all.
When I was a teenager, I had the opportunity to actually ride on a horse. I went on a trail ride into the hills behind Valley Mount Ranch in Valley Park, Mo. Each trail ride lasted about an hour and cost $3.50. I rode a Paint Horse named “Scout.” He plodded along with the others single file, and nose to tail. The horses all acted as if they were bored to death. Apparently, they had made this trip hundreds of times carrying riders, like me, who didn’t know how to ride, who didn’t sit up straight in the saddle and who pulled on the reins to hang on. Up to that point, that was my entire experience as a horseman.
Rolling the clock forward a few more years, I was married and my wife wanted to buy a horse so she could go on Competitive Trail Rides through the North American Trail Ride Conference (NATRC). I know she didn’t know anymore about horses than I did, but she swore she knew how to ride.
To prove how little we both knew about horses, we went to a horse auction. She bid on and won a big Palomino single-footing gaited horse, which refers to an ambling gait where the horse always has one foot on the ground at any given time. Someone told her gaited horses would be more comfortable to ride. It didn’t matter that the horse was older than we were and couldn’t breathe very well. She actually bought it because it was big and pretty, and she thought she would look good in the saddle.
She wanted to name the horse “Rags.” Okay, so I helped with the name and we officially named it “Riches to Rags” because I envisioned with the cost of boarding, tack, a horse trailer, ride entrees, travel and possibly training, we’d be broke from then on out.
She boarded the horse at Valley Mount Ranch, which meant she could use their trails to ride, and if I wanted to go along they would rent old “Scout” to me. Oh boy!
Soon thereafter, she actually entered a couple of competitive trail rides, and I accompanied her as her driver and manure-fork operator. I set up camp and took care of the necessities. She went on the rides. The trail rides are typically 50 miles over a period of two days. I soon learned that once she saddled up and rode away, I didn’t have anything to do for the rest of the day until the riders returned. Occasionally, I had the opportunity to work with the pulse and respiration (P&R) crews and watch and listen closely when the ride veterinarian checked each horse. He checked horses several times each day.
As pit crew, I learned what people were doing for training and what the horsemanship and veterinarian judges were looking for in the way of riding skill and conditioning. I also learned how horses were presented to the judges and how various elements of the competition were scored.
I could do this, I thought. I needed a horse for me.
We moved boarding from Valley Mount Ranch to the Greensfelder Park stable behind Six Flags in Eureka, Mo. Greensfelder is very hilly and has more than 100 miles of trails – a great place to train for competition. Greensfelder would even host a Competitive Trail Ride on occasion. Perfect!
Horses in barn stalls are like zoo animals in cages. I must look to see what is in each one. One day while checking out the stalled horses at Greensfelder, I spotted a big Paint, gelding. He looked like something I deserved, or at the very least wanted to own. There was a sign on the stall door, “Rex” owned by so-and-so, attorney-at-law.
I found the stable master and said, “Do you think the guy who owns Rex would be interested in selling him?” He said, “Well, he never rides the horse. It won’t hurt to ask. I’ll give you his phone number.” I called the guy and told him I had seen his horse at Greensfelder and wondered if he’d be interested in selling it. Without hesitation, he said, “YES!” That was easy, maybe too easy. When I asked, what he wanted for the horse, again without hesitation, he replied, “$850. I countered by offering, $650. He said, “SOLD! Give the money to the stable master and the horse is yours. Good luck!”
I didn’t know how to ride, didn’t even own a saddle or know how to put one on a horse. But, I just bought a big paint horse named Rex for $650.
We couldn’t afford to pay for boarding two horses at Greensfelder, but with a stroke of luck, I found a nice couple who lived on 40 acres bordering Greensfelder Park. They offered to let our two horses run free on their land for less money than we were paying to board one horse in a stall. Good deal!
The people were very nice. They let us park our horse trailer at their place and even offered to make certain the horses were fed and always had plenty of water. We could ride out of their place straight into Greensfelder and could come and go as we pleased.
A guy with a horse who doesn’t know how to ride probably shouldn’t consider riding bareback. I needed a saddle. I had once looked at the Mounted Police Patrol in St. Louis and really liked the saddles they were using. They were lightweight, open down the center like the old time cavalry saddles. The mounted officers said the saddles were very comfortable. Comfortable is good, I thought!
I learned from one of the Mounted Patrol Officers the saddles were being made for them by a retired saddle maker in Beauford, Ga. When I called him, he said he had one in stock and shipped it to me. No one had mentioned anything about putting a bit in the horse’s mouth, and there were some minor restrictions in the trail riding rules about horses eating while wearing a bit. I ordered a mechanical hackamore, which is a type of headgear for steering and slowing a horse without putting a bit in his mouth. I had everything I needed to train the horse for Competitive Trail Riding, and I was about to learn why his previous owner was anxious to make the sale.
I put a halter with lead rope on Rex and walked him to the horse trailer. I tied the lead rope to the trailer and got out a brush so I could groom him. But, when I approached, he panicked pulling back on the halter and lead so violently he broke the tie rope, then ran to the barn. Well darn, obviously he knew how to do this and had done it before. We both needed training.
Paul Chipman, an experienced cowboy at Valley Mount Ranch, was our farrier. I told him what had happened, and he agreed the horse was big and probably knew he was capable of breaking the halter or rope. Paul suggested the next time I tie Rex to the trailer that I also run another heavy rope around his girth area behind the front legs, up through the halter and tie it to the trailer. He said that the horse wouldn’t be able to break the rope tied around his girth and would eventually learn that he could no longer pull back to get away. I gave it a try.
Rex pulled back so hard, long and violently I thought for a time he might turn the horse trailer over. But after a couple of practice sessions with Paul’s rope trick, Rex gave up. Strangely enough, he didn’t mind me brushing him at all. I was able to groom him; clean his hooves with a hoof pick and saddle him without incident. All was well, or so I thought.
One day my wife and I decided to go for a ride together. We each saddled and mounted up. She rode Rags and I was on Rex. My first step into the stirrup was a big one. Rex measured 16.2 hands high, which is 5-feet-6-inches tall at the withers. We walked our horses side by side and everything seemed like it was going to be okay, then Rex ran away with me.
I’m sure that I could be heard galloping through Greensfelder on my runaway horse yelling, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” I managed to stay on, but apparently Rex had not only learned to break halters when he was tied, he had learned to run away with his rider anytime he chose. My life expectancy was shortening rapidly.
Back to Paul, our cowboy farrier, for ideas on how to stop Rex from running away with me every time I got in the saddle. Because Greensfelder has some very steep hills, Paul said I should walk my horse near the base of a hill and mount up. When the horse started running, he would soon be going up hill and would easily get tired. Once he started slowing down, I should take out my crop and tell him I liked to run; in fact, I loved to run. Let’s run! It didn’t take long before he never attempted to run away again. Apparently, he decided he knew when to stop running but I wasn’t smart enough. He never ran away with me again. Given an opportunity, my horse had a devious side to him. I changed his name from Rex to Shenanigans.
It was time to train for real. I read a book by a famous runner who said he ran every other day to train. He would run one day and rest his muscles another. I thought if it would work for him it should work for Shenanigans. Shenanigans and I rode every other day, seven days a week, rain or shine.
Our first Competitive Trail Ride was in Versailles, Mo, and we were ready. He was in excellent condition and I had learned to ride and take care of him. Shenanigans turned out to be a Missouri Foxtrotter, and he had five different gaits that I could find. Most of the time I just kept him in his Foxtrot gait at a couple of different speeds. However, I learned that when he was going up hill, if I stood in the saddle and asked him to step it out, he would do an extended trot, which really covered ground and saved his energy.
The veterinarian Judge for the Versailles ride was credited with having judged the 100-mile Tevis Cup race in California more than 10 times. I got in line on Friday evening for my first Vet Check. The vet went over Shenanigans from top to bottom and had his secretary make notes on my ride card. Holding the lead rope, I ran my horse out and back so the judge could see how it moved. We then ran around in circles both left and right. The training had paid off. Shenanigans was not only big, he was exciting and did everything I asked.
There were about 50 riders entered for the weekend in various classes, and we were in the Open Heavy Weight Class. Someone pointed out a beautiful Appaloosa stallion to me. He is the No. 1 ranked horse in the country right now. I’ll bet he is worth $30,000.” Wow!
I don’t want to bore you with details of the entire ride with all of its P&R checks, veterinarian checks, obstacles and horsemanship judge checks both on the trail and at camp. However, one instance is worth noting. The group had stopped for lunch. As each horse came into the designated area, a timekeeper would note the time in and time out again. After the lunch stop, Shenanigans and I were back on the trail following the trail marker ribbons, which hung from trees. On long rides the ribbons helped to keep riders from getting off the trail and lost.
We came around a bend in the trail and a rider ahead of us was jumping off of his horse. Obviously, something had gone wrong and the horse was in some kind of danger. I could have gone around but this fellow and his horse were in trouble. I dismounted, tied Shenanigans to a tree and ran over to see if I could help. His horse’s back leg was caught in barbwire and was bleeding. The horse was panicking trying to free his leg and only making things worse. Between me and the other rider, we were able to get the horse free of the barbwire, but the horse was bleeding badly. The other rider took off his belt and tied a tourniquet around the horse’s leg to see if he could stop the bleeding. I told him that I’d go get the vet and took off on Shenanigans back toward the lunch stop.
We had gone several miles out of camp and to follow the trail in reverse would not only take more time, but also I would encounter all of the horses coming from the opposite direction. I didn’t want to spook the oncoming riders and I was in a hurry.
So I ran Shenanigans cross country in the direction of the vet. We galloped most of the way. My every other day rain or shine training was paying off. We galloped into the Vet area with me yelling, “A horse is in trouble, we need the vet!” I was able to show the Vet on his map where the injured horse was located. Fortunately the vet could get very close to the spot using the local road and going by truck. He went off to save the bleeding horse. I rested Shenanigans.
After about 30 minutes, we were back on the proper trail recovering ground we had ridden before. When we came to the area where the bleeding horse was, no one was there. The barbed wire had been pulled to the side, and a bunch of red ribbons had been tied as a warning for future riders.
Aware of my time, I worked Shenanigans methodically toward the end of the day’s ride. I didn’t want to push him more than I already had and I also didn’t want to come in past the designated time and lose points. We made it past the two-mile marker and came into camp with just minutes to spare. We may have been the last horse in for the day. I saw the vet smile when we came in. Shenanigans was doing great!
Day two of the ride ended without incident, and we stuck around for the awards ceremony. I was pleasantly surprised when Shenanigans was awarded 1 st Place! We were acknowledged and given a horse blanket with the Versailles ride info on it and several other small gifts. When I looked at my ride scorecard, I saw that Shenanigans had not lost any points. The Tevis Cup vet had given us a perfect score, and he commented, “Folks, this is one great horse!”
On our first competitive trail ride, we had taken 1 st Place and had somehow beaten the No. 1 ranked horse in the country. Shenanigans went on to be victorious in his next three competitive rides. We needed to win one more ride and he would earn the distinction of being a National Champion in Competitive Trail Riding.
The rules stated that one of the wins must be out of state. All of his winnings, so far, had been in Missouri. I worked full time and trained every other day. I didn’t have the luxury, time or money to travel great distances to compete.
A ride was scheduled in the state of Kansas, and we entered. Several friends and I got together and rented a four horse stock trailer. We decided to all go together, chip in on the gas, and have fun.
The Kansas ride was extraordinary. The ride started in a small stream and went up the middle of the stream for about a quarter mile before turning into the woods. Shenanigans handled water just fine as long as we didn’t stop and stand still. If we stopped for any period of time, he would begin pawing the water with a front foot. I had learned from experience that this was his clue to me that he was about to lie down, saddle, rider and all. Since we kept moving up the middle of the river there wasn’t a problem. Many of the other horses didn’t want to enter the water, and Shenanigans led the way.
We took 1 st Place at the Kansas ride, so Shenanigans completed his National Championship ride. Five rides and five 1 st Places. Not bad. I bought Shenanigans in August of one year with no experience riding or caring for horses, and by August of the following year, he was a National Champion. It doesn’t get any better.
We dropped the rental trailer off and I was excitedly telling the owner about what we had done in Kansas. As I described the behavior and training that went into my horse he said, “I know that horse. His name was Rex.” Small world.
I asked how he knew Rex. He said, Rex had come into the “Horse Palace” (a local stable) as a 2-year-old, and the owner wanted to use him as a gaited show horse. However, whenever he would try to gait the horse around the indoor facility, Rex wanted to spend most of his time rearing up, trying to dump the rider.
He went on to say that he eventually bought the horse. His wife trained Rex as a trail horse, and he put Rex on his rent line. The problem was that Rex frequently ran away with his customers. He said, “I eventually sold the horse to an attorney who stabled him at Greensfelder Park. Last I heard some idiot came along and bought him for $650.”