When I was eighteen, I used to visit my younger sister and her husband out in the “bottoms,” on breaks from the nearby college where I was attending on a full art scholarship. “Bottoms,” as in river bottoms, was the term used to describe the lowlands near the Ohio River, outside the small Indiana town, where I had moved during my senior year of high school.
My sister’s in-laws included several adult brothers, and an uncle, who liked to fish and hunt the plentiful game in the area. Being eighteen, and mostly a city (or town) girl, I liked the rustic, rural atmosphere, and the attention of the whole gang. We’d all go out squirrel hunting, or duck hunting, then come in and have a few drinks, and play cards. It was all good fun.
One of my other favorite activities, out in the bottoms, was horseback riding. I was a novice rider, and had only ridden a neighbor’s pony, when I was younger. That pony was so well-trained, that each time I and the girl who owned him, started to slide sideways off his bare back, like a couple of giggling Don Quixotes, that little Shetland pony would just come to a stop, and wait for us to get re-seated.
Here at this bottom-land farm, they owned a young gelding quarter-horse, named Thunder. As I watched him intently grazing in his pasture, I couldn’t imagine why the docile-looking horse had such a menacing name. I thought to myself that it would be nice to go for a leisurely ride through the summer countryside, along the various gravel farm roads nearby. So, one of the boys was happy to oblige me, by offering to saddle up Thunder for me.
The first thing I noticed, and liked, was that the bay horse made a game of being caught, tossing his head around when you tried to bridle him, and puffing up his belly, whenever you tried to cinch up his saddle. I was told that all his antics were because he hadn’t been ridden in awhile. “Good,” I thought. That means he’s got some spirit, and he isn’t just going to plod along, uneventfully, like some rocking horse on a store-front merry-go-round.
Being warned of his temperament, I started him out at a leisurely walk, through a tractor path that wound between Thunder’s familiar pasture and a cornfield, to the main gravel road, keeping a fairly tight rein. Right away, Thunder started trying to toss his head and sidestep, adding a snort or two for good measure. My first time out, and inexperienced, I decided I would let him canter, as a compromise. Big mistake!
The first thing the smart-aleck horse did was break into a gallop, and race around a fence corner so tightly, that my knee hit the fence post. Ouch! I pulled my feet out of the stirrups, and tucked them up and back, on Thunder’s haunches, and tried pulling back on the reins. Thunder just threw his head up and kept going. I could see the end of the tractor path coming up fast, where it met the main gravel road. I knew that, if a car or pickup truck were to be careening down the road (like everyone did, out there in the sticks), we’d be killed for sure. I closed my eyes and awaited the worst, feeling Thunder’s hooves beating the dirt, and my long hair blowing wildly in the wind behind me.
Well, the intersection came and went, but instead of being bashed into oblivion, Thunder and I dashed, unscathed, right across the empty road, and into a neighbor’s yard. When I had recovered from my shock at not dying in the road, I opened my eyes in time to see a clothesline coming up fast. It was the T-pole style, with multiple, plastic-covered wires, strung across at varying heights, between the two poles. “Oh, no! I’m coming off for sure this time! ” I remember thinking. But, I also remember making the instant internal decision that this terrible fate was not going to befall me. I would absolutely not fall off this horse!
The only thing I could think of to do was lean down beside Thunder’s neck, shoulders and all, so that only my one leg and one arm hung across his back. If he was going to make it, so was I—that is, unless the horn of the saddle caught. I grabbed the saddle horn and quickly dismissed that possible catastrophe as far too inconceivable, and horrible, even to imagine.
I felt the rough scrape of the lines as they scraped across my arm and shoulder, but then we were clear. So, what did that fiery-natured quarter-horse do next? He had the audacity to begin strutting back and forth, with his head tilted up at the pine branches above, looking for a branch low enough to use to scrape me off! Thunder had a one-track mind: Get this rider off, and escape to run free.
I pulled Thunder’s head down, and urged him out onto the open gravel road. There was about a quarter mile of straight road in front of us, and I held a tight rein, ignoring Thunder’s snorting and head bobbing, talking soothingly, trying to calm him. But, there was no calming this noble, spirited steed.
We finally reached the end of the gravel road, where it intersected with another, more-travelled road, also gravel. But, I was not going to take any chances, with increasing the distance between Thunder and the saddling barn. So, I turned him around, and made my second mistake: I decided to let him gallop back.
Thunder, on the other hand, had other ideas. He wanted to run back. And, run he did! We flew! It was thrilling and scary, at the same time, but I was loving every second of it. Only I suddenly realized that there was one problem with the thrilling pace I had allowed. There was a 90-degree turn between us and the barn!
Surely, Thunder will slow down to make the turn, wouldn’t he? But, no. Here came the turn, and we took it, with a pivot, at full speed. Thunder’s hooves slipped out from under him, as we flew around that corner like a couple of barrel-racers, but he never slowed. My head had dropped to his neck, and my feet had come up, instinctively, and I had stayed with him!
I barely remember flying through the driveway, racing past my sister’s clan’s house, and up to the barn. I guess my life was flashing before me. When we stopped, I slid down to the ground, and my legs were weak. I was trembling all over—and so was Thunder. We had both just had a great ride! I could see, by the brightness in his eyes, that he had loved the ride just as much as I had, maybe more.
From that time on, Thunder and I would go on to have dozens of similar rides—me, holding him back, snorting and side-stepping, on the way out, and Thunder racing full out for home, all the way back. Looking back, I’m sure glad he never once thought of stopping short. Thunder only knew one speed: fast! And, I LOVED riding such a fiery and noble steed. No horse I’ve ever ridden since, has given me such a thrilling ride.
(P.S. Thunder was so full of vim and vinegar, that he lived to be over 30 years old!)