Get back on the horse, Tootsie

January 3, 2009

A few days ago my son fell off his toy tractor.  As he fell, he let out a little toddler toot. 

I scooped him up and sat him back on the tractor seat, saying “Get back on the horse, Tootsie!”  He scowled and said, “Not a horse, Mama.  Tractor!” 

My three brothers and I did not grow up on our grandparent’s ranch, but we spent a lot of time there.  Just enough to be dangerous, as they say.  When I was eight years old, my older brother and I dragged our aunt down to the barn to throw saddles on a few horses so we could go for a ride. 

My brother patiently allowed me to set the pace, knowing that for me the adventure was the act of getting on the horse, not the speed we traveled. 

My brother was riding my uncle’s jumpy black mare.  They were a perfect match – both went through life at the fastest speed possible.  I was riding Ace.  Ace could move cattle with the best work horses, then hit the road and run my aunt to a barrel racing title. 

He was gentle and friendly with children (which is why he was selected for me).  He was also a competitor, which I am unarguably not.

We made it to the county road before my brother could stand our snail’s pace no more.  He knew that if we turned the horses toward home and got them to trot a bit, they would start running.

And once they started running, neither horse would accept second place.  He suggested we head home.  The adventure was wearing off for me, so I enthusiastically agreed.

As we turned toward the barn, my brother begged me to let the horses go a little faster.  He’d been so nice, not complaining about our slow and easy pace the whole time.  I decided we could go a little faster, but not much! 

As soon as I consented, my brother was kicking his horse furiously.  I didn’t have to kick Ace.  Permission to run had been granted.  They were off.  Unfortunately, so was my saddle. 

As the horses picked up speed, which was bad enough as far as I was concerned, my saddle started to slip.  I found myself tipping toward my brother.  He laughed and cheered me on. 

“That’s so rad, Sara!  You look like a circus trick rider!”  I have never been the sort of person that aimed to be rad.

I remember seeing my aunt standing at the top of the hill, her face full of concern.  I remember the saddle horn jabbing into my ribs.  I remember the snorting horses glancing at each other competitively.  I remember my brother’s gleeful cheers. 

Not before or since has he ever been so impressed by me.  And, inevitably, I remember the thud, Ace’s hoof on my head, and the breath that would not come to my lungs.

I had a fine knot, but Ace’s hoof had actually just tapped me.  I was more scared than hurt.  My aunt walked me back to the house and Gram read me a story. 

I was a shook up town kid, and everybody felt badly (except my brother, who kept walking around the house smiling, muttering “that was so rad” under his breath). 

I didn’t ride for several years after that, and it was never the same.  It will never be the same. 

The other day when my son fell off his tractor, all this came flooding back so vividly, I could smell the horses’ sweat.  It wasn’t the last time life threw me to the ground.  But it was the last time I didn’t get back on and try again. 

Now, when I find it difficult to pull myself back to my feet, I catch my breath, dust myself off, and whisper, “Get back on the horse, Tootsie.”

This article first appeared in the Lewistown News-Argus January 3, 2009.