Shortly after I bought Cortez, Mom started taking Kim and me to compete in gymkhanas. And now I’m guessing that you’re wondering what in the heck a gymkhana is. Well, it’s like a rodeo for kids. However, instead of roping or bull riding or any of that dangerous stuff, you have events like barrel racing, pole bending and the keyhole race. They’re all timed races with some pattern you have to get your horse through as quickly as possible.
Surprisingly, I actually did pretty good. Scratch that. We did pretty good. I wouldn’t have done so well without a horse. Cortez wasn’t fast, but she was very responsive to the bit and, not being a big horse, she was quite agile, which really came in handy, especially in pole bending and the keyhole. (Contrary to what you’re thinking, no poles are actually bent or harmed in any way in this event. A half dozen long poles set in buckets are laid out in a line about 8 or 10 feet apart. The idea is to weave through the poles as fast as you can until you make it around the last one in the line, then you run straight back across the finish line. Knocking over a pole gets you penalized. Missing one gets you disqualified.)
Cortez was also good at pivoting. She could stop on a dime, pivot on her hind legs 180 degrees and then run in the opposite direction. Which made her perfect for the keyhole race. In the keyhole race there’s a big keyhole drawn on the ground in chalk—a lane about 6 or 8 feet wide leading up to a circular area. You race up the lane, turn around in the circular area, and run back out. Step on a line and you’re disqualified.
Cortez and I nearly always got a ribbon in that event. Lots of the other riders had big, unruly horses that were faster but more out of control and when it came time to turn around, instead of pivoting they’d just trample all over everything.
In addition to the main events, there was always a novelty race of some kind, something like an egg race, where the idea was to carry an egg in a spoon around some obstacle and back to the finish line as fast as possible without dropping it. Because Cortez had such soft gaits I could usually do well in those races also.
The gymkhanas were also fun because I got to hang out with other kids who also lived on ranches. Most of the kids at school in Wickenburg were town kids with no concept of the world I lived in. But the gymkhanas were held in either Bagdad or Kirkland Junction, tiny places that were not only in different school districts but in different counties, rural areas dominated by farms and ranches. It was nice not to feel odd. At school I was careful not to wear anything that could be construed as cowboy in any way, no cowboy hats, no boots, no Western shirts. I never talked about it. I just wanted to fit in. Most kids had no idea that I lived on a ranch.
Another benefit of the gymkhanas is that most of them were held in the summertime. Summertime was a special kind of fun when I was a kid. (And by fun I mean definitely not fun.) The end of the school year would roll around and everyone would be going berserk. They’d be talking about going swimming and watching TV and playing baseball and I’d be sitting there thinking, Great, I get to go to work. Don’t get me wrong. I was happy to get out of class, but at least school disrupted the routine. During the school year I only had to work in the afternoons and on weekends. During the summer I got to work all day every day. Knowing that was coming kind of put a damper on the whole end-of-the-year excitement.
Not only did we kids get to work all summer long, but we were also stuck at the ranch for almost the whole time. We often went weeks at a time without setting foot off the place. When we did get to leave it was usually to accompany Mom when she went to town to go grocery shopping, which was definitely awesome because she was a soft touch and could be counted on to buy us a 7-Up at the store and she’d take us to that magical place known as the library where the wonderful librarians, knowing we lived forever away in the middle of nowhere, would let us totally break the rule about only checking out two books at a time. Kim and I would stagger out with a dozen books each.
So the gymkhanas, even though they were pretty much in the middle of nowhere, were at least somewhere else. And there were other kids there who weren’t my little brother. I’m telling you Scott and I got mortally sick of each other during the summer. (Kim, being four years older and a girl, wasn’t much for playing so it was generally just the two of us.) Hey, Scott, you want to play the same game we’ve played a million times before because there’s nothing else to do? I wonder if it will lead to us fighting again? What could be more fun than that?
Yessir, gymkhanas were pretty much the bees’ knees in those days. Until the time I had to ride Dinah, the Wonder Horse.
I’m not quite sure why I wasn’t riding Cortez, my horse, on that fateful day. I have some vague recollection that she had a limp. I’m not even sure how the decision was made that Dinah should be her replacement either. Maybe it was just the universe having a little fun at my expense.
However it happened, one fine day we loaded Dinah and Kim’s horse, Suzy, into the Big Truck, piled into the cab and headed for the tiny town of Bagdad and my date with infamy.
I’m going to go off on a side rant here, triggered by my traumatic memories of the Big Truck. One of the things that I really hated when I was a kid was how we were always different. All I wanted to do was fit in and just be like everyone else. But it was not to be. Even around other people who were different, we were still more different than them.
Case in point: the Big Truck. When we went to gymkhanas or any sort of gathering where people brought horses or livestock, everyone else had horse trailers. Why? Because they’re low to the ground and it’s easy to load and unload your livestock from them.
But not us. No, that would make us too ordinary. We had to show up in the Big Truck, this horrible, old, turquoise-colored, Dodge truck with eight-foot wooden racks on the back. There was no stealth mode in the Big Truck. It was a massive beast and when we pulled onto the rodeo grounds I just know that every conversation stopped and every head turned to look at this ugly, smoke-belching, roaring monster.
“Look, Edna, it’s that weird family from Date Creek. Don’t do anything to startle them. They might be dangerous.”
And it wasn’t like we could park in the back of the parking lot and just slink over to the arena either. The bed on that thing was about five feet off the ground. That meant we couldn’t unload the Big Truck unless we used the loading chute at the end of the arena. So, while everyone watched, we’d have to pull right up front and center. Then one of us kids had to jump out and guide Mom as she backed the beast up to the loading chute. Then it was time to wrestle the big, heavy gate off the back, because naturally it wasn’t hinged or anything as that would have been too easy.
Yessir, we made a grand old entrance everywhere we went. You can’t even imagine how much fun it was to be picked up from school by that thing, taking up half the school parking lot, cow shit crusted on every inch of it, your friends gaping at it, whispering to each other. What is that thing? Is that Eric getting in with his jacket pulled over his head?
Okay, end of rant. Another childhood trauma partially purged through the cathartic power of writing.
Back to the gymkhanas. As I mentioned before, I was doing well in those things, which helped alleviate the mortification that my ride caused. I was actually pretty proud of how well I was doing.
If only I’d known how that day was going to go. I would’ve crawled back into the cab of the Big Truck and hidden under the seat.
The first event was the barrel race. Mom had told me how she used to ride Dinah in barrel races back before us kids came along and so I was thinking that I might do pretty well in the event.
In the barrel race, three barrels are laid out in a triangle. It’s pretty simple. You run around the first barrel on the right, cut across the arena and circle the barrel on the left, then circle around the last barrel up at the far point of the triangle and race like hell for the finish line. It wasn’t a race that Cortez and I had a lot of success in since it favored speed over agility, but Dinah was faster than Cortez so maybe I could pick up a ribbon.
It went wrong from the beginning.
As I mentioned before, Dinah had an eating disorder—in that she ate everything she could get in her mouth—and that tended to make her gassy.
You see where this is going, don’t you?
We lined up. I crouched over the saddle horn, waiting for the signal. It came, I spurred her—
And she farted.
It was loud. Everyone laughed.
But there was no time for that now. We had a race to run. We headed for that first barrel and I’m laying on with the spurs and the riding crop as hard as I can and it’s just doing no darned good at all. Dinah was just barely loping, taking her own sweet time. She was fat and she was lazy and she wasn’t bothered at all by my feeble attempts to make her go faster. A horsefly would have caused her more consternation than all my flailing around.
Around the first barrel and headed for the second. Still plodding. Crap. I’m going to be lucky to finish before the sun goes down.
Now we’ve circled the second barrel and we’re heading for the third. I’m giving her everything I got, begging her to just try a little bit, please.
We’re rounding that last barrel and Dinah suddenly goes, Wait a minute. I’ve done this before. I remember now. She puts on a burst of speed and rounds the barrel like a champion…
And Eric, who’s totally unprepared, who’s swinging his arms and legs madly and not hanging onto anything, goes sailing off into the dirt.
All of a sudden I’m lying face down eating horse crap and Dinah is galloping hard for the finish line, probably not even aware that she lost her rider since I only weighed about fifty pounds.
People are jumping over the fence and running toward me. Oh, you poor thing, are you all right?
Hell, yeah, I’m all right. I’m horribly embarrassed and I want to kill that horse, but I’m not hurt.
I get up, brush myself off, and take that long, long walk to the finish line while everyone watches breathlessly. They’re thinking, Why, this dull kids’ event just got a whole lot more interesting. Now we have something to talk about tonight at dinner, by gosh.
But I’m not done providing the day’s entertainment yet. Nossir. I’ve got an encore.
I make it through the next couple events without a mishap. Sure, Dinah still farts loudly at the beginning of every race and we come in pretty much dead last, but at least I keep my seat.
Then it’s time for pole bending. We weave through the poles and I’m spurring and whacking her with the crop trying to get her to just move a little faster and I forget my earlier lesson and she gets to that last pole and goes, Wait a minute. Am I barrel racing? and cuts it hard and…
I go sailing off into the dirt once again.
Yeah, I fell off my horse. Twice. In the same day.
I don’t wait for anyone to get out there and check to see if I’m okay. I get to my feet and I’m about two inches tall but somehow everyone can still see me. They’re pointing and whispering to each other, their eyes all big and I hear one kid say to his mother in a loud stage whisper, “Hey, isn’t that the kid who fell off his horse earlier?”
Let’s just say I never rode Dinah in a gymkhana again.