Courtney Ball

Adventures on Old Gray

When my sister Jamie and I were young children visiting our grandparents in Davis County, Iowa, occasionally they would bring out Tony the Pony and let the two of us ride around the front yard. Tony was a fat, cranky pony who didn’t really like to have kids on his back. For some reason, he was also particularly fond of bucking Jamie off, which quickly curbed her enthusiasm for pony rides.

Had I suffered the same fate as my sister, maybe I too would have lost interest in all things equestrian. Instead, I had dreams of grandeur. I understood that the cantankerous pony was just a first step toward greater things. Some day, I knew I would graduate from yelling and urging that stupid, stubborn pony to plod forward another ten feet. Someday I would sit in the saddle of a real horse: a tall, strong, magnificent beast who would carry me over the hills of southern Iowa with the speed of a rushing wind.

Both my parents and my uncle Vern owned land near my grandparents. We called our fifty acres simply “the farm”. We traveled down to the farm from Des Moines every summer to camp and play outdoors. Uncle Vern, who lived and worked in Bloomfield (the Davis County seat) as an attorney, used his land to raise cattle and a few horses. You’d just as likely find him herding cattle in an old, beat-up Mercedes, but sometimes Vern would climb up on one of his horses and become (in my eyes) a real cowboy.

One time when I was probably seven or eight, my family and I were camping down in the bottoms of our land, in the woods near the creek. Night was falling, and as we sat in the glow of our campfire, a figure emerged from the darkened forest. A man approached, leading his tall, pale horse.

“Old Gray!” my sister and I whispered to one another as the two came into view. It was my Uncle Vern and our favorite of his horses, Old Gray. He had come to visit and, to our delight, offer horse rides to the kids.

Our older brothers, Chris and Clint, each got to take his turn before Jamie and me. When our turn came, the two of us, being smaller, were seated on the horse together behind our uncle. By the time we took off, it was completely dark. We were both thrilled and a little scared.

At his command, Old Gray bolted into the woods, following some trail that only he and my uncle could discern. Even if my sister and I could see in the dark, we were instructed not to sit up and look around. Uncle Vern told us to hold on tight, and keep our heads down.

What followed was a blur of pain and terror.

Anyone who has walked through pasture land in southern Iowa is bound to have encountered a plant called multiflora rose. Originally introduced to North America from Asia in order to help preserve soil erosion, multiflora rose is now considered an invasive pest. It covered many parts of our farm at the time. Another plant species common to north American wooded grazing land is the thorny locust. A thorn from one of these trees could tear flesh from an unprotected body.

Uncle Vern and Old Gray were apparently impervious to these threats as we blasted our way through the trees, but Jamie and I wore summer outfits of shorts and t-shirts. We quickly learned to heed our uncle’s instructions. We clung to him and Old Gray as tightly as we could, tucked our heads down and tried to make ourselves as small as possible. Still, never did I suffer more from thorns than that night on the back of Old Gray.

I tried to be a tough boy, but I know I whimpered a time or two, and I was relieved beyond measure when I finally saw—out of the corner of my eye—the approaching light of the campfire. This was not exactly the type of adventure I had in mind when I dreamed about sitting atop Old Gray.

*     *     *

A year or two later, I did finally get my chance to ride that magnificent horse. My friend from Des Moines named Josh had joined my family on one of our summer trips to the farm. We were wandering around my Grandparents’ place, which was adjacent to some of Uncle Vern’s land and outbuildings.

I’m a little fuzzy on the details of how this came to pass, but before long, Josh and I discovered Old Gray parked in the barn, all saddled up and ready to go. So, the two of us decided it was about time we took her for a ride. I had been waiting long enough, and as there was a long, straight, unobstructed lane outside, I was sure this would be a much more pleasant experience than the night of of whips and thorns my uncle had put me through.

We untied her, led her out of the barn, and climbed on. She was a tall horse, so it took some work, but we managed to get the two of us into the saddle and began to urge her down the lane. Being new to this, we started slow, went a short distance, then turned around.

As soon as Old Gray saw her barn again, she decided it was better to be inside her stall than outside with a couple kids on her back, so that’s where she took us straightway. It didn’t matter what we did with the reins; that was her chosen destination.

Not to be deterred from adventure, Josh and I climbed down and led her back outside. This time, we decided we had better go farther down the lane to put more distance between Old Gray and her barn.

The farther we went, the more confident we became in our riding ability, so we wiggled, kicked, and yelled for her to go faster. After some serious prodding, she finally picked up speed and trotted a bit before coming to a stop at the end of the lane.

Then we turned her around and she once again caught site of her barn. That was when it finally became a horse ride! More than anything, Old Gray wanted to get back to her stall. She began to trot, and before long broke into a smooth canter, which was plenty of speed for couple of nine-year-old city boys perched together atop her high back.

It was exhilarating! Never mind that we had no control whatsoever of where she was going, what could a boy want more than to ride high on a fast horse with the wind in his hair? The only problem was, I was beginning to tilt to my left a little bit, and try as I might, I couldn’t manage to get upright again.

About fifty yards out from the barn, Old Gray slowed to a trot, which meant a whole lot more vibration. Each little jolt shook me a bit farther down her left side. Then, inexplicably, she changed course and decided to head for my grandparents’ garage instead of the barn. This worried me some, because it was another fifty yards or so. I could have made it to the barn, but I wasn’t so sure about the garage.

Josh held the rains, and I held on to him. He began to sense that something was wrong as I tightened my grip on his shirt and nearly pulled him off the horse. He looked back and screamed.

“Ahhh! Hang on Courtney! We’re almost there! Don’t fall off!”

Soon enough, I had one leg on top of the horse, the other under her belly. If I looked up, I saw Josh’s panicked face, below was the certain death of churning hooves over gravel.

Just as I began to fear that I might actually die that day, the gravel turned to concrete, and Old Gray, having reached the driveway to my grandparents’ garage, finally stopped. I fell to the ground and rolled away. Josh climbed down and giggled with relief. Then we decided that it would probably be best to put the horse away and not tell the grownups what we had been up to that afternoon. Maybe we weren’t quite ready to be cowboys yet.

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Courtney Ball

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