I have written something like 1,600 columns for the Northside Sun, but I have yet to write about horses.
This is somewhat surprising since I have probably spent more time in a saddle than 99 percent of Americans.
My grandfather, who started my family in the publishing business, borrowed money for a press and fathered two children just a year before the Great Depression hit. For 15 years he struggled weekly to pay his bills. He swore he would never borrow a dollar again.
This was unfortunate for my father. Fresh out of Ole Miss, where he was editor of the Mississippian and elected to the Hall of Fame, my father wanted to expand the company. But his father refused to borrow.
As a result, we missed out on one of the greatest investment opportunities in history. My father decided to leave Mississippi and be a big city editor. He ended up an editor of the Houston Chronicle, which at the time had the largest circulation in the south. And that is how I spent my childhood in the saddle of a horse.
Once in Texas, my father got bit by the horse bug bad. Every weekend, our family was going to a horse show. My sister became one of the best teenage western riders in the state. You couldn’t fit all the trophies in her room. She barrel raced in the Astrodome.
Every year in March, my parents would take us out of school for a week and we would trail ride 20 or 30 miles a day culminating in the huge downtown Houston livestock parade.
You should have seen the battle royales between by father and school administrators who refused to allow excused absences for my sister and I. For a week, we got zeroes and had to simply work that much harder at our schoolwork the rest of the year.
The trail rides were something. About two hundred horses. We would camp at night in VFW campgrounds and have big barbecues and dances every night. That’s where I got up enough courage to ask the first girl to dance. I could do a mean two-step by age 12.
Summer camp was horse camp. We rode from sun up to sun down in the Texas hill country near Wimberly. I could ride bareback as naturally as walk down the street.
My father founded a local stable a mile from our neighborhood. I spent countless hours scooping up horse manure and building stalls. We boarded 30 or so horses and even had endless neighborhood horse shows.
If my father hitched up the trailer and headed to a horse auction, you could be sure he was going to come back with the horse trailer full. It was his only weakness. He would then find a buyer in our neighborhood and sign them up to board at our stable.
He bought me a horse named Bullet, half Quarter Horse, half Thoroughbred. Bullet was trained as a polo pony and he was high strung as hell.
I’ve been kicked in the head, bitten in the neck, bucked off, broken ribs. It’s a miracle I survived. And I’m allergic to grass pollen which a horse’s coat is full of.
Apparently, my father never noticed my severe allergic reaction around horses, or my many injuries, or my indentured servitude as a horse manure shoveller. I never thought to object. It’s what our family did, so I just went along for the ride. What I really loved was motorcycles. And my father. He was simply an amazing man. You couldn’t help but follow wherever he led.
I grew up and moved away. My father died. And at age 62, one day I realized I hadn’t ridden a horse in 40 years.
That was about the time Doug Garland was standing near the entrance to Saltine’s while Bob Crisler, my son John and I were slurping down oysters.
I remembered Doug from one afternoon at the veranda of River Hills when he told me this amazing story about being injured while riding a runaway mule. As Doug would later advise me, “You can intimidate a horse but a mule insists on seeing your resume.”
Doug joined us at Saltine’s. I told him about my riding past and my bucket list. Next thing I know, I’m at his ranch a few miles east of Crystal Springs.
Doug had a couple of mules and a horse already saddled and ready to go when Ginny and I arrived. Ginny hadn’t ridden since childhood but her mule was old, wise and docile. It was fun to watch the interaction.
Doug was on a young headstrong mule and it wasn’t going well. “I think I have post traumatic disorder,” he admitted, referring back to the mule that took off running and tried to kill him by running him into low branches on trees. Broke his arm in multiple places.
I had a pretty Palomino horse named Haley. I could instantly get a sense of her obedience level and she could instantly sense my riding experience. She was a piece of cake compared to Bullet. I went galloping off, much to Doug’s alarm.
The riding came back to me instantly, like riding a bicycle. However, my perfection of loose fitting, heat adaptive summer clothing was a huge mental error. Boxers and horseback riding do not mix. I instantly missed the tighty whities and tight blue jeans of my youth. I won’t make that mistake again.
After a while, we hitched up a one-horse buggy. Immediately the horse got startled and ran into a fence and got stuck. Doug was apologizing, but the scene so much reminded me of hanging out with my Dad. Horses are always getting into messes.
After a lot of pushing and heaving, the horse was unstuck and we had a delightful hour-long buggy ride through some of the prettiest countryside I have ever seen in Mississippi.
We stopped at an old abandoned wooden school house, surrounded by cedar weeds (dogfennel). I realized just how diverse Missisisppi’s ecosystem is. I had never noticed the weed, yet Doug had grown up with it all around all his life.
As Ginny and I wandered around the empty rooms of the wooden schoolhouse, I could almost feel the echos of the students and ghostly wisps of youthful intensity.
We stopped at a small cemetery, where Doug showed me five tombstones, all one family, who died one afternoon in a tornado a hundred years ago. A neighbor in an antique pickup truck and overalls saw us and pulled over, proceeding to tell us the whole story and more. He knew Doug since childhood.
When we returned an elderly couple, more of Doug’s neighbors, greeted us at the gate. They had been fishing in Doug’s pond. Doug jovially demanded to see their catch. Not much they laughed, just one Warmouth sunfish. “Are they just old or have they been drinking?” I asked after they left. They seemed as silly and giddy as a young couple in love. He had no idea.
Doug asked me to help give a penicillin shot to a beautiful young filly who had a nasty cut just above her front right hoof. It was a battle but we got the shot delivered. This so reminded me of the old days at Tulley Stables and my Dad.
“You know humans spent most of their history depending on horses for their transportation,” Doug said. “It was an intimate, interdependent relationship. And now what do we have? Cars. A machine. It’s changed who we are as human beings and not for the better.”
We drove down to see the crystal springs on a four wheeler so smooth I was astonished. I pointed out the huge beech trees along the creek bed, trees Doug had never identified. “Yeah, I’m a tree guy,” I told him.
We ate charcoal-grilled sausage and watched a beautiful sunset. As we talked, we made connection after connection. “It’s like they say, Mississippi’s not a state, it’s a club,” Doug said. A beautiful Mississippi Sunday and a bucket list check.