One of the first things my dad had to do in preparation for the arrival of my first horse was to sell the 1967 Mustang he thought I would chose over a horse on my 16th birthday.
My dad was a mechanic by trade, as was his father. I learned from my aunt that he was in the garage cleaning tools for his father at an early age and naturally followed in my grandfather’s footsteps. She told me how one time my dad lit an oily rag, placed it inside a can and put it in his pedal car so it looked like exhaust fumes as he pedaled down the road. She couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t tinkering with something.
Not only was he creative, he was an exceptional mechanic as well as a perfectionist. He had gone through every inch of that Ford Mustang mechanically to make sure it was a sound vehicle for his daughter. That combined with some bodywork and a new paint job, and the Mustang was akin to any car in a dealership showroom. I have to admit, it was a little sad to see it sitting out by the road with “for sale” signs in its windows. This was 1971 and the Mustang hadn’t reached the classic status it has today, but still, it didn’t sit there long.
My horse-over-car decision meant more work for my father and the rest of my family. After our move from San Diego to Michigan, we ended up on a two-acre property with a house and three other buildings. There was a large shop where my father fixed up cars to resell and worked on vehicles belonging to our family and friends. There was always a crowd of men busy out there on weekends. Sometimes a dozen cars would be lined up from dad’s shop to the road.
The other two buildings were a small, one-car garage that wasn’t used for much of anything, and a long building that had been a greenhouse.
I had collected magazine articles on horse barns–everything from converted chicken coops to one made from stacked hay bales. In the end, my dad decided that the small garage could be moved back to the field and converted into a barn for my first horse. It was a big Saturday project and all of the usual weekend crew showed up to help. Dad had borrowed a flatbed truck from work to haul the building to the back. They braced and supported it with heavy timbers and used hydraulic jacks to raise it high enough to sit on the flatbed. With its many layers of siding, the garage was much heavier than anyone anticipated and the beams were starting to crack. A call to my uncle, who was the supervisor at a local steel mill, brought in metal I-beams to reinforce the timbers. As they inched in front of the house, a pine tree interrupted their progress. A second uncle left and returned with a chain saw; problem solved. By the time they had the makeshift barn in place, the bottom was barely clearing the ground and the steel I-beams were bent.
Dad went to work on the garage to change it into a one-horse barn complete with food and tack storage areas. He built a divider between the stall and storage area, added a manager to the horse’s side and built in a box for feeding grain. On the storage side he built a saddle holder that was parallel to wall with just enough room to hold a saddle. Above was a rack with four large wooden pegs for hanging tack and below sat two new garbage cans to use for grain storage. An old cupboard came in handy for storing brushes and other necessities. The next weekend dad and his weekend work crew dug a trench from Dad’s shop to my barn to run water and electricity out to the building.
The next major undertaking occurred during the following week. Someone knew of someone else that had a grove of locust trees at the back of their property. Neighbors, family and friends all converged in the woods to cut fence posts. They loaded them up on my dad’s new truck and made multiple trips through muddy fields to bring them home. Men and women joined the work crew and even my younger cousins got involved, stripping the smaller branches from the freshly cut trees. Then came digging post holes. The facility for my new horse was starting to emerge from a vacant field. Dad used three of the freshly cut rails and made a hitching post in front of the barn. He was smart enough not to hold the cross beam in place with merely nails. He had two long bolts with lock washers and nuts to make sure it held up. An old, claw-foot bathtub that had come from our home during one of the first remodeling efforts was dragged out to the field to serve as a water trough.
Finally, we were ready to put up electric fence.
Next, we made a trip to the local farm bureau. I loved that place! It was an immense building in the middle of town, with a loading dock you could back your truck up to and a trap door in the ground for the farmers to dump their grain into. The building had wood plank floors that creaked and echoed when you walked on them, and there was always the sound of machinery running in the background. Old farmers wearing bib overalls worked there and they could toss around 100-pound bags of grain like they weighed nothing at all. The place smelled of earthy things: grain, hay and sweet-feed.
Upstairs was an office where feed orders were placed and paid for. It doubled as a small livestock supply store, so it was there we picked out rolls of wire, ceramic insulators, special nails and the pre-bent wires used to hold the fence onto the insulators. The corner insulators looked like donuts and where held in place by wire. A couple years later, someone invented plastic insulators that didn’t need the holding wires, and the ceramic variety became as obsolete as eight-track tapes.
In the years that followed, I became an electric fence wizard. I could test it with a blade of grass to see if it was working, I could stretch it tight using only a claw hammer, and I could immediately recognize the “zit-zit-zit” sound it made when something had it grounded out.
In the co-op I splurged on a couple of brushes to go with an old, rusty currycomb that had belonged to my grandfather. I looked at a metal hoof-pick, but put it back. A few months earlier I had received a letter with “Congratulations! You’re a winner in our Name the Quarter Horse contest.” I was so excited when I saw the envelope that I was shaking and choking back tears of joy. It was a major disappointment when I opened it and discovered my prize was a plastic hoof-pick. Being both an optimist and a cheapskate, I recovered from my initial disillusionment in not winning the horse, and tucked the hoof pick away, knowing I would put it to good use at a later date. It turned out to be the only contest I ever won in my life.
Now that we had everything ready and in place, it was time to find the horse. Surprisingly, we were sensible enough not to purchase the first horse we saw. We didn’t even purchase the second one. We took our time, called some classified ads and followed up on word-of-mouth recommendations. It was after we looked at some ponies near Kalamazoo that their owner told us about a place with horses for sale.
That was where we found Cherokee.
The owners saddled him up and I took a ride around the arena. Things were looking good. They opened the gate and I rode down the street apiece and then back. I could make him go where I wanted to go and stop when I wanted to stop without any difficulty. The price was right and it included all of the tack needed for a new horse owner. Sold!
Never mind the old adage about not buying a young horse for an inexperienced rider. We either didn’t know or had forgotten that primal rule. As it turned out, it wasn’t a problem. Cherokee was only three, but he was good-natured and eager to please. My mother still remarks how lucky we were to end up with such a nice horse when we didn’t know what we were doing.
The second issue we should have taken into consideration was his size. The chestnut gelding was at least 16 hands tall. I, like everyone else in my family, was incredibly short. All through my school years I was almost always the shortest kid in class. My uncle later commented that I looked like a peanut on an apple when I was riding my new horse. But thanks to my youth and flexibility, I didn’t have a problem mounting him when he was saddled, but when I rode bareback I had to find a makeshift-mounting block. My television idol, Ranger Joe Riley on “Laredo,” mounted his buckskin without using stirrups. He simply threw his leg over the horse’s back and he was on. I discovered that this is more easily accomplished by a guy over six feet tall than a girl under five feet. But Cherokee was a willing and fast learner. It didn’t take much for me to train him to side-step up to whatever I was standing on–watering trough, roadside guard rails, tree stumps or big rocks. I just tapped him on his off side.
The Saturday he was delivered was like a circus at our house. The usual garage crew was there, along with most of my relatives and everyone that had helped prepare for the big event. Of the entire crowd that was there to witness my dream come true, only my aunt was smart enough to bring a camera. She took three pictures using good old black-and-white film. I’m fortunate that she held onto these and gave them to me many years later.
I hadn’t slept much the night before. Dreaming of a horse of my own had been such a major part of my adolescence, it was hard to comprehend that it was actually going to happen. The night after Cherokee’s arrival, I dragged a chaise lounge into his pasture and spent the night there in the summer heat, covered only with a sheet. I don’t know if I was afraid he would somehow escape during the night or if I would awake and discover everything had been an elaborate dream. When I awoke in the morning, I could hear the sounds of a horse stomping flies and munching grass. The big chestnut gelding was still in the field.
I was the proud owner of my first horse and my life was about to change forever.