County fairs and rodeos tell us that it's summer in Wyoming. Parades, flags, music, kids -- oh, what a season!
My favorite memory of summer is of a horse I "took to town” when I was 10 years old. Dad had given me a little brown mare named Trixie. She was green-broke, gentle and smart, and extremely frisky.
I had ridden her some during calving, but when spring came and she slicked off, she began to bog her head and crow-hop every time we'd break into a lope. Trixie wasn't an outlaw, but it took me by surprise and I got bucked off a few times. I was soon scared to death. One morning, just before a big riding job, I hid in my room while the men were saddling the horses, and I called out that I was sick and couldn't go that day.
Dad came to the house finally and made me tell him the truth. I cried and said I was afraid we would have to lope somewhere and I'd fall off.
Although my sisters and I were just little girls, riding wasn't for fun on our ranch. We went along because we were needed to fill a spot, hold herd, or do whatever we were told. Weather didn't matter much and neither did the size of the job or the length of the day.
So, instead of telling me not to worry, that I could just stay home, Dad said gruffly, "Now, Mary. You can ride that horse. All you have to do is make up your mind to stay on. I'll help you.”
I was more afraid of Dad than I was of getting bucked off, so there was no arguing. Dad kept me right by his side. He told me how to figure out when Trixie started shaking her head and acting silly, and told me to pull her up, correct her and keep on going. I spent most of the day just stealing a ride because Trixie never made a false move.
On the way home, though, the men put their horses into a fast trot, and Trixie began her antics. I howled and got ready to hit the dirt, but Dad and the men started yelling at me like I was Casey Tibbs competing at Cheyenne's Frontier Days: ”Hang on!” ”Pull ‘er up!” ”Ride ‘er, ride ‘er!” "Lean back!” Somehow I stayed on and it really wasn't very hard. The men all cheered and laughed, and I don't know who was prouder, Dad or me. I never had any trouble riding Trixie after that.
Ranch kids didn't get much of a chance to get to town during the summer, but one year Dad agreed to take me and my sisters to the July 4th Chuckwagon Days, to enter our horses in the rodeo and the parade. We practiced and practiced for the barrel races, and finally the big day arrived. When we got there, Trixie seemed plain and dull compared to the snorty, hot-blooded horses the town girls were riding. I felt the same way, plain and dull.
When the time came for the barrel races, those fancy horses were all but runaways, and the girls could barely control them. They shot out of the starting box at a dead run, and they took wide turns around the barrels and thundered for the finish line. One of the girls nearly fell off.
When it was my turn, I was scared to death. The announcer dropped the starting flag and Trixie flattened out, running at top speed. She rolled right back around the first barrel, hugging it tight, with me stuck tight on her back. On to the next barrel, and the next. I still remember the crowd whistling and cheering. Everyone could see Trixie for what she was, a tough, well-broke little ranch horse with lots of heart. I don't remember how my sisters Betty and Nancy did, but I won my race that day.
That was the start and finish of my rodeo career. In spite of our success, Dad announced that he wasn't going to spend the summer re-arranging ranch work to haul us around to rodeos. But I won't forget the fun of that day, and part of me still feels the thrill when a plain little horse in somebody else's rodeo heads for the finish line.
I wish for every kid at every county fair, that moment in the winner's circle.
Mary Flitner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes and ranches in Greybull, Wyoming.