Horseback Riding on the Kern
I’ve always had a fascination with animals. Horses included but, not necessarily more than any other animal. Dogs, cats, birds, snail, frogs, butterflies – you name it, they all tickled my fancy growing up. There are home movies of me around age 5 getting rides on amusement park horses. I was strapped into the saddle. Until the age of twelve that was the extent of my horse experience. It was then I found myself in Bakersfield with some extra money from a paper route and not many friends. I had switched schools twice in fourth grade, twice in fifth grade because of redistricting, and then three times in sixth grade.
There were two stables about 3 miles from home renting horses by the hour. Six bucks, a king’s ransom in 1966, for a kid who made fifteen bucks in a good month delivering papers. We lived near what everyone called the bluffs. Not a cliff per se, but a 700 foot drop to the Kern River bed which held the rich, black crude and oilfields our city is known. I would ride my bike up to the top of my street where there was an entrance to the county landfill at the top of the bluffs. Then, it was down a switchback dirt road through the landfill. The exit dropped me off across the street from the stables. The easy part was getting there; the hard part was the uphill ride on the way home. I had a Stingray bike – cool to look at, but not exactly built for hills.
It was a different time. In the summer, Mom and Dad let us do and go pretty much anywhere we wanted as long as a) they knew where we were headed and, b) we were home by supper. It was not necessary to codify the second stipulation. With five kids in the family (four boys), it was understood that if you were late to any meal, you did so at your own gastronomic peril. We were good eaters and there was about as much of a chance of finding leftovers as sympathy for being late.
There were two stables as I said. One was named “Ace” and the other “Bar-O”. I opted to start with Bar-O because I liked the play on words. At age 12, I thought every adult knew everything there was to know about essentially everything. I asked the man in charge if I could rent a horse for an hour and we negotiated the price. Well, he told me it would be six bucks and the negotiations were over. He then asked if I knew how to ride. Thinking I might get a nag or worse, with all the swagger of a twelve year old I shrugged and said,”of course”. He didn’t ask anything else. Maybe it was my air of confidence or, more likely the six bucks meant a lot to him. Either way, he picked me out a horse. Yeah, it was a different time then.
I don’t remember much about the man in charge other than he reminded me of the cartoon character Yosemite Sam, big, round, with a mustache and beard. He barked out orders for me not to run the horse, especially on the way back. Then pointed me to a trail that looped around by the river, and told me if I was late it would cost extra. Oh, and he told me he would be able to tell if I ran the horse because of the sweat and I better not try and get away with anything. Did I mention it was Bakersfield – in summer – where it gets into the 100’s regularly?
So, we head off, me and, we’ll call the horse Whiskey. All good horse stories have a horse named Whiskey. My memory of the horse has long since faded, but the experience of riding him is still vivid. We tooled around the trails in an area near the Kern River that was rich with tall cottonwood trees and noisy oil wells. The horse, as I remember, was fairly well behaved. I used the “kick-to-go-pull-to-stop” method of riding and it was working. We were having a nice ride. But this hour was costing me a third of a month’s salary and I wanted adventure. (Yeah, looking back, I can’t believe it either. The owner let a twelve year old ride out there alone. I didn’t see another living soul the entire hour! Like I said, it was a different time.)
I moved Whiskey up to a trot that just about knocked out my teeth. Holy crap, I thought, this is horseback riding? Good thing he didn’t stay in the trot very long. We floated into a lope. A lope. A wonderful, smooth lope. Now, THIS was horseback riding! I imagined it much like the astronauts getting blasted off and the ship shaking, rattling, loud and noisy until they break the bonds of earth’s gravity and start floating in space. The lope was like I imagined gliding would be – wonderful.
Whiskey seemed to be enjoying the pace too! Yeah, boy, you are lucky I came along and got you out of that little stall and into the wild blue yonder. We were on a dirt road, but in some places this road had had layer of asphalt for the trucks that serviced the oil wells. We were going a little faster now and the road bent around a corner. We were headed back to the stables. Little did I know that horses love to run back to the barn. I never saw that in any Western. What did the owner say again? Uh, never mind, the horse was obviously having fun and I was enjoying the ride. If Whiskey wanted to run, my 12 year old logic said he should be allowed to run, dag-nab-it (I was never allowed to swear back then). So much for being stuck in that box stall all day, let’s stretch our legs and run boy. And that’s what we were doing now – a dead run.
There was a little sharper turn in the road to accommodate a few cottonwoods and at the crest of the curve there was a layer of asphalt. As Whiskey rounded the curve his hind feed slid out from under him on the slick asphalt. The side of his rump hit the ground, my stirrup hit the ground, and then once again, a most amazing feeling as he pulled himself up and was under me again. It seemed to all happen in the length of one stride.
I brought Whiskey to a stop to see if he was hurt. A quick walk around showed he had a bit of dust and gravel on his rump, but other than the sweat pouring down his sides, he was alright. Sweat?! Uh, oh. Sweat not good. I stood there for a moment thinking, “Oh this will dry off by the time I get him back”, as I looked at my watch. C’mon, that can’t be right. I had used up fifty of my sixty minutes and as near as I could tell I was still fifteen minutes from the stable. All I can think about is I gotta get Whiskey back before this cost me more money, which I don’t think I had the foresight to bring with me.
All the way back to the stables Whiskey was a bit chargey and by the time we got back he was frothing up. The owner gave me a good tongue lashing. I offered to cool the horse down, or give him a bath, or whatever one does to un-sweat a horse. I felt terrible. He told me to just leave.
“Come on, sir, let me make it right”, I pleaded.
“Get outta here kid. I told you not to bring this horse back hot. I thought you said you knew how to ride!”
He was frothing as much as the horse. I knew he was having more fun barking at me than he would have had he let me bathe the horse, so I left. Funny thing though, when I came back a couple of weeks later, he rented me another horse.
That summer I must have ridden the Bar-O horses half a dozen times. Each time I brought back the horse in a sweat, each time Yosemite Sam yelled at me, each time I offered to work it off, each time he chased me off the property. Why I didn’t just go across the street to Ace stables is beyond me. Getting yelled at just became part of the process. I’m sure there was some twelve year old logic in there somewhere, just not sure what it was.
It was rare for me to ride after that summer. Horseback riding was too rich for my blood and I certainly did not think it was my fault the horses sweated. I sweated, Yosemite Sam smelled like he sweated, why couldn’t his precious horse sweat a little. My sophomore year in high school I got a job working for a small animal veterinary hospital. Ah, the dream job – being surrounded by animals and cleaning kennels. I worked my way up to assistant and, even though I still had to clean kennels, I got to interact with a lot more animals. Lucky for me dogs and cats don’t sweat