The Five Marys Horses
When we moved to the ranch, Brian affirmatively said, ‘No horses!’ It was enough to manage starting an operation from scratch, learning to care for three species of livestock, and four little girls under the age of 6!
I grew up doing what some might consider the most unusual of horse sports…
My grandmother was a true equestrian and although my mom never had any interest, I had the bug. My grandmother, Mary Virginia (a.k.a Mar Mar) sent my cousin Molly and I to a horse camp in Yosemite when I was 12 year old. I was assigned a horse named ‘Spooky,’ who thank goodness turned out to be anything but Spooky (a term for a horse who gets nervous and ‘spooks’ or bolts easily).
At this horse camp, they taught us to care for a horse, mount up, trail ride, canter, and vault. Horse vaulting is one of the oldest equestrian sports, dating back to Roman times. It involves getting on and off a horse while it’s running at speed (trotting to start) on a lunge line and performing acrobatic tricks choreographed to music. For the team events, 8 members of a vaulting team rotate on and off the horse with 1-3 people on the horse at any given time to perform a 5 minute routine. It’s quite a sight!
My vaulting team was the first to perform a ‘stand on stand’ in the US while I competed. I was neck base, facing backwards, supporting a standing base while a ‘flyer’ climbed on their back and stood on their shoulders – all while the horse was cantering in a circle for the audience! After I went to college I stopped vaulting… full unitard competition ware wasn’t en vogue in the college years 🙂 I started hanging around the polo fields nearby to watch the high speed matches. I made some friends and offered to help groom their horses and exercise them during the week. Soon the cowboys were teaching me the basics of the sport!
I started playing in casual games and loved it. Polo is one of the only sports that is co-ed all the way through – the horse provides the power and the rider controls the finesse of getting in and getting the ball between the goal posts. They say knowing how to ‘stick-and-ball’ or play polo is a passport to the world and boy was that true. Once I was competitive, I traveled to Indio, CA for winter polo, to Buenos Aires, Argentina for international women’s tournaments and Palm Beach, FL to play to watch the pros play.
I loved playing polo and the friends I met and the travels it took me on – but once I met Brian and got married, the riskiness of the sport overtook my desire to compete and I retired to watching! Since we had babies in quick succession shortly after, I was sidelined from horses for awhile. I knew my girls would carry on their great-grandmother’s love of horses, but wasn’t quite sure how we’d work them into our life on the ranch, especially since Brian had an aversion to the notoriously high maintenance and expensive four-legged beasts! As he says, ‘my four wheeler has never bucked me off.’
You see, lots of cattle ranches – and ranchers – consider four wheelers taboo and horseback the only way to cowboy. But where we live and the way our land allows, our cows move easily from pasture to pasture and to the mountainside in the winter. While a horse can sometimes make it easier to doctor an animal or move cattle, we’d gotten used to the ease of managing on foot or on four wheels. We use a hand-me-down ‘calf table’ for our brandings that make quick and calm work of branding our cattle and don’t have many times that we NEED a horse… but alas, four little girls can be relentless asking their dad for a pony 🙂
Finally, one Christmas two years after we moved to the ranch, a mother of a cousin of Brian’s said that she had two old Appaloosa mares retired out to pasture that would make perfect kid horses. It only took a drive to Walla Walla, Washington (18 hours round trip) with two eager girls and a horse trailer for him to make it happen.
Those old Appy girls turned out to have been retired a little too long. They were cranky and when the Ferrier came to shoe them he said, ‘you got sold these horses as KID’S horses?!’ I said, ‘Well, they were free…’ and he responded, ‘Yeah, Appaloosa’s are ALWAYS free.’
They became pasture pals to care for, but it wasn’t until we were given a beautiful old pony named April that things started to click.
April was 30 years old when we got her – a retired jumper from the Bay Area who needed a good home to retire and doting hands to care for her. She was given to JJ on her 4th birthday and the rest is history.
She was and is the perfect pony… teaching the girls the ropes of riding and horsemanship like a patient old gal. We found out later that April was actually from our little valley originally! The original owner sold her to someone who sold her to someone else and ended up in the Bay Area, but April found her way back to Scott Valley and still lives on our ranch growing a wooly coat every winter and enjoying her alfalfa at 38 years old.
After April, we had a series of horses come and go that were stepping stones for the girls or didn’t work out for them and moved on. Finding GOOD horses for kids is not easy and takes some trial and error (expensive trial and error!) It was only thanks to our friends and M5 Entrepreneurs, Amber and Abby at Riding Free Tack, that the girls had the autonomy to learn to ride and could saddle up themselves when Brian and I were too busy to tack up for them! Where there is a will, there is a way… and these girls had the will!
Once the girls were competitive riders, our neighbors and good friends, the Johnsons, decided our girls needed to learn to rodeo. Rodeo is a sport – one I never considered I’d be a part of! But the history of rodeo is centered around cowboys and cowgirls competing in events that mimic ranching skills to see who is the best at each skill.
Today, the girls compete in Team Roping, Breakaway Roping, Barrel Racing, Pole Bending, Steer Daubing, Goat Tying, and sometimes the nail-biting Calf Riding (that one is less about the cowboy skill, and more about the cowboy showing off their bravery). They have awesome horses, mostly hand-me-downs from junior rodeo kids who have gone off to college.
Francie rides Petey, Coach, and her new love, Red. Most riders prefer different horses for different events, as some horses excel at some or are more suited for things like speed and agility (barrels and poles) or tracking calves and holding a rope (team and breakaway roping). It isn’t always realistic to bring multiple horses to a rodeo – but when we have an extra stall in the trailer, big sister finds a way to bring her horses to the rodeo.
Maisie does all of her events on Rooster – an old rope horse who she has taught to run barrels and poles like a boss. She is going to be working on training her young horse, Bourbon (my favorite name) too – his mom was a fast barrel racing horse and I think Bourbon (a.k.a BOB) has it in him too!
JJ rides her favorite horse, Stretch. We bought him as a ranch horse for me to ride, but JJ took to him and worked with him everyday to make him a rodeo horse. He is very loyal and even lets her get on him by putting his head down to let her hang on his neck while he tosses her on his back. You’ve never seen a horse love anyone the way Stretch loves JJ!
And Tess, the tiniest in the family, is mounted on the tallest horse in the string, and usually the tallest horse at any rodeo we go to! Cruiser is a Cremello- a beautiful, white, young horse who was also gifted to us to be a horse for me to ride… until Tess figured out how to get a saddle all the way up on his back (climb a fence post and jump on!) Now Cruiser belongs to Tess.