For several Summers, during my teenage years, Barb Wire Johnny and I took off for adventure and money at the fairs and stampedes of Alberta. We would load up Johnny’s ’47 Studebaker that he couldn’t drive and I wasn’t licensed to drive and head for places like Calgary, High River, Ponoka, Grande Prairie, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, and Red Deer. Johnny rode saddle broncs and bareback horses and he also rode in the Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse races: while I would shoe and float race horses and chuck wagon horses and work the starting gate for the races. I had already been kicked in the head by a bull at the Hudson’s Hope Rodeo and had a persistent problem with time sequences, so I promised my dad I was done riding the rough stock. None the less, the two of us made good money and had a great time in the process.
We could count on Johnny winning either the saddle bronc or bareback riding almost every night. He also won his share of races and was in demand as a jockey. It was an exciting time and we would meet more people than we had known in our entire life. Our favorite Alberta fair people were the Oil Indians, the chuck wagon racers and the Alberta cowboys. The Oil Indians were rich because of the oil and gas deposits on their reservations, in my opinion, it couldn’t have happened to a better group of people. They were dignified, highly intelligent, generous and devoted horsemen. They seemed to be proud of the fact that I worked on their horses and mentioned me in conversations with a measure of pride.
I got some snide remarks about working for Indians and fought the urge to walk up and start swinging; my dad had been a boxer in the Navy and taught me how to box, I had never been in a fight and didn’t feel comfortable with the prospect at that time. That came later in my life. Since my mother had been an Indian beauty and I was an auburn haired lad that passed for White, I found the comments extremely distasteful, just as much as I find bigotry and racism to be ugly today.
Most of the people were wonderful to be around. The chuck wagon crews or “Chucks” were loads of fun, these guys were like ghosts from the past. They lived danger and death and took it all in stride. I think they were the closest to the true cowboy spirit of the 19th Century, that I have ever met.
The Alberta cowboys were a well dressed group that knew their business and came to ride and compete. They were nice to me and Johnny; although, they kind of treated us as if we were country cousins, but that was okay.
There were dances almost every night and Johnny and I would wear our boots and Western shirts. To ride or work, we wore our moose hide moccasins, boots were too expensive and we only wore them to church, dances, weddings, funerals and other special occasions. We would park the truck next to a river or creek and pitch our wall tent there. We had no idea about what was involved in staying at motels and were suspicious about the whole process. Our expenses were minimal, because I did all the cooking and we worked from early morning until 10 PM or so. At the dances, there was always the chance of romance, we were both good dancers; there is one thing that we do in the Peace Country on a regular basis and that is dance. You might be dancing with your 12 year old cousin or your 50 year old aunt, but you learned how to dance. We always had good Celtic musicians with songs that were hundreds of years old. Songs that I was surprised to hear twenty years later in the country pubs of Ireland.
Of course Johnny had the Indian women standing in line to get at him, I was usually looking for a ranch gal who was having trouble keeping her calves together. This is what men like Michener sailed to the South Pacific for and all we had to do was to drive to Grande Prairie and we were all ready there.
Johnny was known as a wizard for figuring out problems with horses and I watched him turn around hundreds of horses without hardly any effort. On this particular morning, he asked me to go to the starting gate with him in case he needed some help with a two year old chestnut filly that wouldn’t break from the gate.
There are many race horse men that wont even mess with a chestnut mare (Red Color) because they are almost always more difficult.
This one was no exception to the rule, she was small about 14.2 on a tall day with a tiny body. She was also a late foal and younger by six months or so than the other two year olds and to top it off, it didn’t look like the guy had done the preliminary work to get the filly trained to come out of the starting gate. We walked up and the owner already had himself worked into a lather trying to get the filly to come out of the starting gate, but the little filly just stood there like she was nailed to the ground.
I looked at the filly’s face and saw a kind intelligent eye, she had some class and could probably make a decent horse with some serious time spent riding her, but she was over faced and scared with this arrogant fool trying every stupid trick and measure of brutality he could think of to get the filly to come out of the gate.
He was mad and asked Johnny how much he wanted to train the filly to break from the gate, in the mean time, he was riding this big fat Appaloosa around in circles with a lariat in his hands. I knew Johnny could get the filly out of the gate by walking her out several times and building her cofidence until he could ask the starter to spring the latch and get her to come out at a run. Johnny told him $20 and the guy balked and became mad at us. I thought it was an excellent price for an hour or two worth of work that would have made it possible for the guy to race the horse.
He told us he was going to get the bitch to come out of the gate or her head was coming off. Right then, I figured the guy wasn’t worth three dead flies. He tied a bowline around the neck, just behind the head and then tied off to the saddle horn (a move he would regret). He backed the big Appaloosa into the chute, next to the filly, and told the starter to spring the latch whenever he was ready. Johnny had that peculiar and irritating habit some men have of elbowing you in the ribs just before something is going to happen and he was elbowing me now.
In my youth and with a degree of naivet’e, I thought the guy’s plan might work and was anxious to see how it would play out: Johnny knew exactly what was going to happen and figured it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
The starter rang the bell and the latch sprung open and the fool on the Appaloosa came out of the gate like a spotted version of Northern Dancer. On the third stride, the rope lost all slack and seemed to hum under tension for a split second before the appaloosa’s cinch flew apart with man and saddle looking like they were just ejected out of a jet fighter. The appaloosa kept running like a race horse without a rider or saddle; while the man seemed to remain suspended in mid air for a second before he dropped out of the air and hit the track like a load of bricks. We all ran over to see how bad the guy was hurt, just about the time the filly, whose neck looked four inches longer, decided it was time to leave the gate. We heard her coming like a cannon ball and stepped back a couple of steps, just before she ran over the rider and had him and the saddle churning around and around, in between her front legs and her hind legs, like a load of clothes in a washing machine for three strides and suddenly man and saddle come flying out the back in a heap. Again, we ran up to the guy to check on his injuries and just as we got there he was whisked away as if by magic as the slack was taken out of the rope and the filly was headed for the finish line skidding man and saddle along for the ride. ( Don’t tie off to the horn and don’t stick your feet too far in the stirrups to avoid accidents like this.)
The track was only a 5/8’s mile bull ring and they pulled the horse up after 3/8’s of a mile, none of us really wanted to see the results, so we watched from across the infield as the meat wagon picked him up to take him to the hospital.
The race horse trainer returned the next year as a much more humble man and I don’t know what happened to the filly, both she and the Appaloosa ran a blistering pace around the track that morning, I hope they each had a good life.
The arrogance of the man riding his Appaloosa around in circles, when he had one of the best horse handlers in the world there to help, reminded me of our President turning down the offers of experienced oil technicians from countries around the world to help with the Gulf Well. The arrogance and condescension towards people with experience and expertise or anyone for that matter, is hard to understand, but Liberals make it an art form within their culture.
Riding around and making false claims of bravado and giving the filly, who had no choice in the matter and was not prepped or allowed to read the bill (Sarcasm), is a scene from the days before passage of the nationalization of Health Care. Snatching the filly out of the starting gate by the neck and head is the same as forcing a health bill on a public that didn’t want the health bill in a manner similar to that of a Socialist dictator in a Third World Country who knows what is best for his people and his pocket. Eventually, the health bill unseats the rider or President and the population or filly runs over the president as if he is so much trash on a sidewalk. He is then dragged away into history in a fast and undignified manner to relative insignificance.
A professional horseman for over 50 years, Skook continues to work with horses. Skook has finished an historical novel, Fifty Thousand Years, that traces a mitochondrial line of DNA from 50,000 years ago to the present. The story follows a line of courageous women, from the Ice Ages to the present, as they meet the challenges of survival with grit and creativity. These are not women who whimper of being victims, they meet the challenges of survival as women who use their abilities without excuses or remorse, these women are winners, they are our ancestors.