These two cut out cards were given to my Aunt Sadie when she was a young girl. The little girl (5″ tall) in the bright yellow southern belle dress is comparatively tame when considering the other card is a horse (9″ tall) in a pink with red polka dotted dress! Or, if you interpret it differently, the creature could be a girl in a dress with the misfortune of having a horse face. It’s very Midsummer’s Night Dream-ish. Both cards were received by Sadie in 1942 for Valentine’s Day. The yellow dressed girl came from Patty Wilson (probably a class mate) and the horse came from Sadie’s Uncle Adam and Aunt Kitty.
As many little girls do when they’re young, I wanted a pony. I lived with my parents and two younger sisters in a handsome, yellow two-story Victorian in Newton, Sussex County, New Jersey. The bonus to this house was that there was an old red barn out back that had been converted into a four-car garage. The two outside bays still had the hay lofts and what looked to be the remains of old stalls. What a perfect place to keep a pony. Not quite understanding the concept of zoning laws, I was determined that a pony would be comfortable in the garage space to the far right. The pony campaign began.
“Can I have a pony?” I asked innocently enough.
“No,” was the response.
Three days (or less) later, “Can I have a pony? We have a spot for him.”
“No!” was the response again.
Two days (or less) later, “Can I have a pony? I’ll do everything to take care of him.”
“Oh for Pete’s sake, Jodi, no. You cannot have a pony!”
After many more back and forth exchanges, I decided the unreasonableness of my parents made the living situation unbearable. If I couldn’t have a pony, I would run away. I got a piece of lined paper, found a sharp pencil and sat down next to the ottoman in the living room. I was ready to write.
Dear Mom and Dad,
I am running away. You won’t let me have a pony even though we have a barn and space and you wouldn’t have to do anything to take care of him. I would do everything. I hope you re… rem… remem….
“Mom, how do you spell remember?”
“Because I’m writing my running away note.”
“Well,” said Mom, “It’s your note. You’re going to be on your own now. You need to figure out how to spell remember all by yourself.”
So much for running away! But the desire for a pony or a horse didn’t go away with that abrupt end to flight.
My best friend in high school was another girl also named Jodi. Her sister, Kelly, took horseback riding lessons at the Spring Valley Stables. Soon I was working out a way to take lessons too. I learned the correct way to mount (always on the left side of the horse), how to tighten a girth (tight enough to not end up with the saddle under the horse), how to put a bit into the horse’s mouth (not upside down; that’s a bad thing), and how to position your body once in the saddle (sit up straight, heels down, toes up, legs back). We walked, trotted and then finally worked our way up to loping the horses around an indoor arena, sometimes serpentining around cones placed from corner to corner. Pure bliss!
Then, when I was a junior in high school, the local paper ran a want ad for trail guides at the local trail riding establishment named Ry-Scott Stables. The job experience threshold was low and the pay was for tips only. I didn’t care. I jumped at the chance. I got hired. Really? I’m hired!? Woo-hoo!
The stable was located on Route 206 just south of Newton. It was named after the owner Gary’s two sons, Ryan and Scott. On the 250-acre farm stood a large, red and white barn with about fifteen stalls and a massive hay loft, a smaller barn with four stalls, a pump house, a corn crib, and an office with a cast-iron, wood-burning stove. The property had been part of the old Slater farmstead and the house still stood but had been abandoned for many years by 1983 when I applied for the job. The trails ran across land that had rolling fields, wooded hills, and some marshy spots. A full hour trail ride traversed the farm from one end to the other in a big loop.
My horse and farm education began in earnest. Over the next couple of years I worked my way up to lead trail guide and then, by virtue of eventually becoming the owner’s live-in girlfriend, the de-facto boss. I was scheduling veterinary services, deciding what horses needed to see the farrier and when, cutting and baling hay, cleaning and repairing the tack and saddles, buying and slinging around 100-pound bags of sweet feed and catching horses in the middle of the night when the state troopers called to say that our horses were out roaming on the roads.
I soon learned that each horse had its own personality and quirks. We had anywhere from 25 to 30 horses that were rented out for trail rides. Sweet-tempered Patrick didn’t like to have his ears touched so it was a project to put a bridle on him. Daisy, the sway-backed old mare, was the one who could show the herd where any hole in a fence existed. Four, a cute little red roan, didn’t like wet feet and would scrape his rider’s legs against any tree in the way in order to keep his hooves dry while on the marshy parts of the trail. Tall, white Spirit would let out a string of noisy farts going up the hills on the trail. That was always sure to make the trail guides chuckle. Scattop, the flea-bitten appaloosa, would stop in puddles, paw and then lay down in the water even with a rider and saddle. The trail guides would yell, “Get her head up and kick her!!” It was 50/50 whether the rider was going to get wet. Dark as midnight Blackjack always liked to be the last one in line and would do anything to be at the back including kicking and biting. The ½ pony Easter, if he didn’t have a competent rider, would wander out of the line to the middle of the field and eat grass while his rider helplessly looked around wondering what to do. Just before the line of horses hit the woody part of the trail, Easter would look up and then trot right back into line. No sense in getting left behind. Kimmy, Brian and Jimmy were the steady Freddies of the hack line. Bravo, an appaloosa with a beautiful white blanket, had the smoothest ride and was a trail guide favorite. Dusty had the surest footing on the rockiest parts of the trail but was an absolute pig when the farrier was trying to shoe her.
Occasionally, I would take a horse out to check on the trail ride or the guides’ performances. I distinctly remember on one occasion, in early spring, I decided to make a quick trip out to catch up to the string of riders that had just left. I was in a hurry; I didn’t want them to get too far ahead. Kenny, one of the farm hands, was sitting on the fence watching me get Scattop ready. I shoved the bit in her mouth, tightened the girth, threw the reins over her head where they landed on her naturally Mohawk-like mane, and scrambled into the saddle. “AH-YA!” I yelled as I gave her a mighty kick in the ribs to get her going. She was having none of it. At the touch of my boot heels, she launched herself straight up into the air about five feet. When she came down, she immediately started bucking and spinning like a world class Brahma bull. As I spun around, trying to hang on, I saw Kenny out of the corner of my eye. “Help me,” I managed to squeeze out. The next thing I knew I was on the ground, where I quite rightly deserved to be. Then Kenny fell off the fence, laughing so hard he couldn’t catch his breath for minutes afterward.
When we both could talk again, he asked, “What did you expect ME to do?”
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. What had I expected him to do? Jump in and act like a rodeo clown? Magically calm the horse like a wizard horse whisperer?
Another hilarious incident involved a trail guide named Michelle. She was a tall, lanky girl who was as horse crazy as the rest of the trail guides. We had a shaggy Shetland pony whose name now escapes me. Michelle was trying to get him into the pony stall inside the barn. We used buggy whips, not to hit the horses, but to make loud, popping sounds to get the horses to move in the direction we wanted them to go.
He looked at her.
She popped the whip again.
No response from the pony.
One more pop of the whip and then all heck broke loose. He charged Michelle head on. She turned tail and made off down the barn aisle as fast as she could with the pony snapping at her with his teeth. Screaming, she scrambled up onto the feed bin and was far enough out of reach that the pony lost interest and wandered away. After the dust had settled, Michelle was livid that all the rest of us were laughing our fool heads off. It was quite funny to see a pony chasing a girl down a barn aisle.
That is not to say that everything on the farm was all sweetness and light. We had some serious situations too. Unlike a canine or a feline, an equine has no ability to vomit or burp. So, on the rare occasion when their stomachs are upset (called colic), it was an emergency and the vet was called in. It was essential to keep the horse up and walking until the vet arrived. If they lay down to roll, there was a likelihood that an intestine would twist and that would mean almost sure death for the horse. The vet would arrive, he or she would listen to the stomach and one of two options would be decided upon. A tube could be placed down the throat to allow the gas to escape and to remove the contents of the stomach. Or, if the situation was dire, a large needle was inserted directly through the abdomen and into the stomach to relieve the pressure. We had a couple of close calls but fortunately never lost any horses to colic.
Unlike other stable owners who sold off their hack line in the fall and bought new in the spring, we kept our horses throughout the winter. Good trail ride horses are hard to find and we couldn’t see sending them to the knackers after they had done such a fine job over the summer. We had the acreage and the quality hay we put up over the summer was more than enough to feed them during the off season. Shaggy coats, layers of fat, and natural wind breaks all over the farm kept them protected from the snow and wind in the more inhospitable months. Throwing out hay bales to them from the tractor during a lightly falling snow was one of the best things I remember doing. The horses would gather round, their breath blowing little clouds of vapor as they nuzzled my hand looking for treats.
Gary and I ran Ry-Scott Stables at this location until around 1988 when the landlord decided that the land development money he could get from selling the land far out-weighed the rent we were supposed to be paying. The stable moved to a different location but at this time I decided it was time to part ways with Gary and finish my college education which had been put on hold while I managed the stables. Running the farm was hard, 365-days-a-year, back-breaking work. I would do it all over again but only if I was as young as I was then. I felt the pride of completing a solid day’s work, learned the benefits of treating animals with respect, and found fellowship with trail guides who I’m sure had begged their parents for ponies too.