Shortly after I bought Cortez, Mom started taking Kim and me to compete in gymkhanas. And now I’m guessing that you’re wondering what in the heck a gymkhana is. Well, it’s like a rodeo for kids. However, instead of roping or bull riding or any of that dangerous stuff, you have events like barrel racing, pole bending and the keyhole race. They’re all timed races with some pattern you have to get your horse through as quickly as possible.
Surprisingly, I actually did pretty good. Scratch that. We did pretty good. I wouldn’t have done so well without a horse. Cortez wasn’t fast, but she was very responsive to the bit and, not being a big horse, she was quite agile, which really came in handy, especially in pole bending and the keyhole. (Contrary to what you’re thinking, no poles are actually bent or harmed in any way in this event. A half dozen long poles set in buckets are laid out in a line about 8 or 10 feet apart. The idea is to weave through the poles as fast as you can until you make it around the last one in the line, then you run straight back across the finish line. Knocking over a pole gets you penalized. Missing one gets you disqualified.)
Cortez was also good at pivoting. She could stop on a dime, pivot on her hind legs 180 degrees and then run in the opposite direction. Which made her perfect for the keyhole race. In the keyhole race there’s a big keyhole drawn on the ground in chalk—a lane about 6 or 8 feet wide leading up to a circular area. You race up the lane, turn around in the circular area, and run back out. Step on a line and you’re disqualified.
Cortez and I nearly always got a ribbon in that event. Lots of the other riders had big, unruly horses that were faster but more out of control and when it came time to turn around, instead of pivoting they’d just trample all over everything.
In addition to the main events, there was always a novelty race of some kind, something like an egg race, where the idea was to carry an egg in a spoon around some obstacle and back to the finish line as fast as possible without dropping it. Because Cortez had such soft gaits I could usually do well in those races also.
We weren’t flashy. We didn’t win first place very often, but we won second or third a lot, often enough that at one point we were tied for first place in the overall standings until I had to miss a couple of events for ranch work.
I really enjoyed the gymkhanas. For one thing—and this was no small thing—a gymkhana meant I got out of working for an afternoon. Getting out of work was a real rarity on Date Creek. A person had to pretty much be in a coma to get out of work. Or if it was dark. Most of the time we didn’t have work if it was dark.
Most of the time.
The gymkhanas were also fun because I got to hang out with other kids who also lived on ranches. Most of the kids at school in Wickenburg were town kids with no concept of the world I lived in. But the gymkhanas were held in either Bagdad or Kirkland Junction, tiny places that were not only in different school districts but in different counties, rural areas dominated by farms and ranches. It was nice not to feel odd. At school I was careful not to wear anything that could be construed as cowboy in any way, no cowboy hats, no boots, no Western shirts. I never talked about it. I just wanted to fit in. Most kids had no idea that I lived on a ranch.
Another benefit of the gymkhanas is that most of them were held in the summertime. Summertime was a special kind of fun when I was a kid. (And by fun I mean definitely not fun.) The end of the school year would roll around and everyone would be going berserk. They’d be talking about going swimming and watching TV and playing baseball and I’d be sitting there thinking, Great, I get to go to work. Don’t get me wrong. I was happy to get out of class, but at least school disrupted the routine. During the school year I only had to work in the afternoons and on weekends. During the summer I got to work all day every day. Knowing that was coming kind of put a damper on the whole end-of-the-year excitement.
Not only did we kids get to work all summer long, but we were also stuck at the ranch for almost the whole time. We often went weeks at a time without setting foot off the place. When we did get to leave it was usually to accompany Mom when she went to town to go grocery shopping, which was definitely awesome because she was a soft touch and could be counted on to buy us a 7-Up at the store and she’d take us to that magical place known as the library where the wonderful librarians, knowing we lived forever away in the middle of nowhere, would let us totally break the rule about only checking out two books at a time. Kim and I would stagger out with a dozen books each.
So the gymkhanas, even though they were pretty much in the middle of nowhere, were at least somewhere else. And there were other kids there who weren’t my little brother. I’m telling you Scott and I got mortally sick of each other during the summer. (Kim, being four years older and a girl, wasn’t much for playing so it was generally just the two of us.) Hey, Scott, you want to play the same game we’ve played a million times before because there’s nothing else to do? I wonder if it will lead to us fighting again? What could be more fun than that?
So kudos to Mom for taking time out of her super busy schedule to take us to those kid rodeos. Although I suspect she might have done it as much for her sanity as anything. She and Dad fought a lot in those days and I think the isolation out there, thirty miles from town, probably got to her a lot too. Mom was a very social person. Doing errands with her around Wickenburg took forever because she seemed to know everybody and they all wanted to stop and talk. Look, it took half an hour to buy a loaf of bread because Mom talked to four people in the store and two more in the parking lot!
It was no different at the gymkhanas. She could often be found up in the little booth where the announcer and the timekeeper sat, helping out and chatting with everyone.
Yessir, gymkhanas were pretty much the bees’ knees in those days.
Until the time I had to ride Dinah, the Wonder Horse…