Learning To Ride With Roy and Gene
I guess it was shame that made me realize I needed some riding lessons from the best. Back in the early 1940’s I was a grade school kid growing up in the small town of Augusta, Kansas. The problem was that I should have been out in the country where a kid can have a horse like a cowboy ought to. Still, I was doing my best to be a cowboy. Every Saturday afternoon I went to the picture show to see Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, the Durango Kid, and all the rest of my heroes. Even though there was a war on, I spent more time playing “cowboy” than I did playing “army”.
Anyhow, I was always doing everything I could to get a ride on someone’s horse or pony by looking sad-eyed until they let me crawl up in the saddle for a while. I thought I was making real progress toward turning into a cowboy until I was rudely awakened one day. This is where the “shame” stuff comes in. A new kid moved in about a block from where we lived. That put him right on the edge of town and with a big enough place to bring his pinto pony with him. Naturally, I made friends with this kid real fast! It wasn’t long until I got offered a chance to get on that pony and try him out. The kid’s Dad must have sized me up pretty good because he kept asking if I could ride. Of course, I kept telling him that I was an old hand at this sort of stuff and there was nothing to worry about. Well, I climbed aboard and commenced to show everyone how a real cowboy did it. I was looking real good for about the first two steps that pony took but, by the third step, I was hanging on for dear life because he was already at a full gallop. He headed south for a block which got us to the highway and then turned east going flat out! It was only another block to State Street and the town’s only stoplight and it didn’t take us long to get there. I don’t know if the light was red or green, but I knew that if that pony tried to turn on to that brick paved street we could be in for a mighty big wreck. As we hit the intersection and those hooves started clicking on the bricks, I could see heads turn at the filling stations that occupied three of the four corners. The pony started turning north to go up the street and we rounded that corner with him slipping and sliding and me yelling “whoa” and trying to grab hold of anything I could find. He stayed on his feet and I stayed aboard and we finally lived through the turn and got lined out going straight up the hill. I’d already lost the stirrups and was grabbing leather and yelling at the top of my lungs. I looked up and saw my Great-aunt, Rachel Peebler, coming down the street in her big green Packard. I yelled something at her as she went past (probably “help”) and looking back saw her make a u-turn and start after us. We kept going up the street as fast as that pony would go. We passed friends, relatives, classmates, and everyone else I didn’t want to see.
Well, to get to the end of this, the street ran for a mile from the stoplight and ended at a pasture. When we got to the pasture, the pony stopped running blew a little, and went to grazing. I found out later that he had been pastured there for the last couple of years so he thought he was just heading for home.
I hadn’t got over the wild ride yet and things got even worse. Here comes my Aunt Rachel , followed by the Chief of Police, the parents of the kid that owned the pony, cars carrying friends of my folks, and other townspeople that knew me, and a few strangers that just wanted to help a kid in trouble. By the time they got done asking after me and petting me on the head, I decided that it would have been a blessing to have gotten racked up on one of those telephone poles that we had flown by so fast. You can imagine how my cowboy image suffered from all of this. And, a few weeks later I managed to do it again!
My great Uncle, Dave Peebler, had bought this retired polo pony to save it from the glue factory and he put it to pasture on his place just east of town on Custer Lane. Now, in case you don’t know, the first lesson about polo ponies is that they aren’t “ponies”! They are large, aggressive horses that love to run and mix it up. And, to make it even worse, this particular pony went by the name of “Let’s Go”! To anyone with any brains, that would have been the first clue. Anyhow, to get into this story, I begged until Uncle Dave took me out to his place, cinched up an English saddle, and tossed me aboard. I settled into a good seat and was looking real good for about as long as it takes to say “Let’s Go”. The next thing I know, we’re burning up that country road about ten times faster than that little paint pony had done. Fortunately, after a few miles, the horse got bored and stopped to eat some hedge apples. I slid off and just stood there holding the reins and waiting for Uncle Dave to show up. Naturally, he was laughing his head off when he got there and couldn’t even wait until he got out of the car before he started cracking jokes about how good I looked going down the road. For the second time in just a few weeks, I figured I would have been better off to die along the way. The only satisfaction I got was when my Aunt Rachel (who tried to save me the first time) raked Uncle Dave up and down for putting me aboard that “fool” horse.
You’re probably wondering what all this has to do with Roy and Gene and I’m coming to it. I still needed to be a cowboy and realized I wasn’t getting there very quick. I still didn’t have my own horse and at the rate I was going probably couldn’t have stood the humiliation anyhow, so I decided that the best thing to do was to keep going to those cowboy movies and keep studying everything that Roy and Gene and the rest of them did. From that time on, I paid attention to everything. I watched how they mounted, how they set the saddle at different gaits, what they did with their hands, and how they took their falls. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but I was also being taught by Canutt, Farnsworth, Mahoney, and all the other great stunt men.
Anyhow, time passed and I learned from my heroes. Riding my bicycle down a country road one day, I spotted some horses loafing in a pasture and knew that my time had come. I pulled some choice-looking grass out of the ditch, climbed up a fence post and got on the other side. Standing on the barbed wire, I held onto the fence post with one hand and offered the grass to the horses with the other. Sure enough, one of those horses came up to get a taste and when he took a bite, I grabbed a hold of his mane and swung aboard. The horse quickly headed for a grove of trees with low-hanging branches like he was probably going to try and scrape me off. I called on one of my new movie tricks to get me out of trouble. This is the one where the Indian slips over to the side with only a heel hooked over the horse’s back and can either shoot under the horse’s neck or just ride in the middle of a herd without being spotted. This proved to be a good way to duck under limbs. I survived this first attempt to brush me off and later used it to save my bacon a number of times.
My biggest problem was that I couldn’t always lure a horse to the fence or to a rock that I could mount from. I was still too short to just grab some mane and swing aboard. So, next came my real money trick which was the “Pony Express” mount. I believe I saw both Roy and Gene do this one. You grab the saddle horn (if you happen to have a saddle) with both hands and as the horse takes off you raise both of your feet up under you and just hang there. After the horse has run a few steps and has gotten some speed up, you hit the ground with both feet and pull hard with your arms and the bounce created by the horse’s momentum tosses you right into the saddle. This turned out to be the answer to my prayers. I’d just grab hold of the mane with both hands and as the horse took off I’d bang both feet on the ground and get bounced right onto his back. The first time I tried this though, I had to pay my dues by learning that a horse can “cow kick”. I was hanging onto this horse’s mane and as he gathered speed I was just about to make my move when he reached up and planted a rear hoof on my back pocket. I ended up sliding along nose down in the dirt. After that lesson, I stayed closer to the fore-leg when I was hanging there in mid-air and I didn’t get kicked again.
After I got a little bigger, I finally was able to handle a runaway using another movie trick I learned. It came in handy since I was riding these borrowed horses without saddle, bridle, or reins. If you can’t control a horse with your knees and he’s running away with you, just slip over his near shoulder with your right arm around his neck and reach up with your left hand and clamp his nostrils shut. Then, you can pull his nose down and stop him or pull to the side and start him in a circle. In desperation, I used this a couple of times and neither of us got hurt.
I got to feeling bad about riding people’s horses all the time without permission (but not bad enough to quit). So, I saved up and bought me a Scotch comb and took to cleaning the horses up whenever I rode. That relieved some of the guilt feelings. They were all worth it as there is nothing that can compare with being on a horse’s back.
Well, those are some of the things I learned from Roy and Gene and the other movie cowboys. It was fun growing up with them. Nearly fifty years later, it was a great treat to attend the Golden Boot Awards Banquet in Santa Monica with Roy and Gene, The Lone Ranger, Pat Buttram, and many others. It made me feel like a kid again.
All the cowboys…
And the wannabe cowboys…
Have turned into Senior Citizens!
May 27, 1992; revised November 6, 2013; added pictures February 15, 2015