“My heroes have always been cowboys,” the Waylon Jennings
’ song goes. Same for me. Every since I can remember, I’ve liked cowboys—and their horses. Especially the horses.
The book review page in the “Horizon” section of Sunday’s Roanoke Times
caught my eye because it featured two books about Gene Autry, my favorite cowboy. Here's one:
Seeing those books brought back memories. I’ve been a Gene Autry fan since I was a little kid. His theme song, “Back in the Saddle Again
,” was—and probably still is—my favorite song.
When I was a kid in Roanoke, Virginia, my fondest childhood memories are of going to the pony rides on Williamson Road and going downtown to watch Gene Autry movies
. I must have been four or five. I know it was before I started school—and long before we got a TV set in 1952. Because of those early movies, I dreamed of owning a horse just like Champion.
The pony rides are long gone. Three times around the track cost a quarter—big money in 1950. Usually a boy led the pony while I clutched the saddle horn. The few times they let me ride by myself, I wanted to gallop—to fly like the wind—but the pony only plodded along. He knew the route and wasn’t going to work any harder than necessary. In the movies, Roy Rogers was always galloping Trigger and Gene Autry was always galloping Champion.
So, Mama and I would ride the bus downtown to see Gene Autry and Roy Rogers movies at the Roanoke or Rialto Theaters. Each movie had lots of singing and shooting. And horses! I only had eyes for the horses. Roy could sing and play his guitar while riding Trigger, and Gene could do the same on Champion. I liked Trigger, but I adored Champion—he had a wide white blaze, white stockings, and flowing mane. I remember Champion’s saddle pad had a striped edge, his saddle had lots of silver, and the sides of his bit were shaped like pistols. The first thing I ever remember coveting was that horse.
When I was seven, Gene Autry and his show came to Roanoke’s American Legion Hall for a night’s performance. A newspaper article in the Roanoke World-News
told how Champion rode in a special tractor-trailer with air-conditioning in the back. At that time, no human I knew had air-conditioning. I called up my daddy at his gas station and begged him to take me. He closed up early and did. I think he just wanted to hear the music, but I wanted to see Champion. We sat on hard backless benches and waited. After a lot of singing by Gene and some jokes by Gene’s sidekick Pat Butram, Champion walked onto the stage. He was everything I thought he’d be. Of course, he didn’t have room to gallop, but he was there. Really there
! And I saw him.
After that, I started drawing horses in earnest—on every scrap of paper I could find and down the margins of my schoolwork. I’d look out the window of Huff Lane School and imagine galloping my horse across Pete Huff’s wheat field. The horses in my mind and in my margins usually looked like Champion—a bright chestnut with a flowing mane, white stockings, and a wide white blaze.
Sometimes, for the sake of variety, I saw myself on a black horse. I still remember part of a poem I wrote about a horse “black as night, galloping, galloping over the plain—nothing stops him, not even rain.” The poem wasn’t very good.
There was no way I could have a horse when I was a kid. By the 1950s, the Williamson Road area of Roanoke was pretty citified, even though a few farms still clung to its edges. I rarely even saw a horse except in the movies. Every spring, of course, Mr. Taskey came with his horse and plowed our garden. The few times a year we went to see my grandparents at their Franklin County farm, I’d go see their work horse first thing. Kate was old and not much to look at, but still—she was a horse. I’d pull handfuls of grass to feed her. I never saw her gallop.
When we finally got a TV, my favorite shows all had horses—the Lone Ranger
, Hopalong Cassidy
, Roy Rogers
, Gene Autry
, The Cisco Kid
, My Friend Flicka
. Sometimes Sky King
had horses, and Gunsmoke
was sometimes good for a scene or two of horses. Later, Wagon Train
and Cimmaron City
had horses. But I didn't have a horse.
I pretended my bike was a horse.
In the 60s, I went to college in Richmond and discovered Up & Away Dude Ranch, way out Staples Mill Road, where they’d actually let you ride a horse on trails. Soon my spare money went for horse rentals. Then I graduated, got a job, moved, got married, moved, went to grad school, moved a couple more times—well, you’d think I would out-grow my dream of having a horse. But I never did.
In 1976, I finally took riding lessons. When I fell off a runaway lesson horse in March 1977 and compressed a couple of vertebrae, the orthopedist told me to stay off horses for six months. At the end of the six months, I bought a horse.
Reasoning that I already owned a rather pricey back brace and was thus prepared in case of another riding accident, I bought Blackie, a 9-year-old quarter horse gelding whose owner was getting divorced and needed the money to buy tires. I boarded Blackie at a stable near the Blue Ridge Parkway trails. He and I went on those trails everyday. Once, after we galloped up Chestnut Mountain, snow started to fall. Blackie and I stopped to watch the woods fill up with snow, and I remembered Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
”—a much better poem than the black horse poem I wrote when I was a kid.
As Blackie and I traveled the Parkway trails, I noticed other horses that moved so smoothly a person could probably play a guitar and sing while riding. I found out these were racking horses. Unlike Blackie’s bouncy 2-beat trot that kept me posting, these horses did a 4-beat lateral gait that a rider could sit to. These horses had a strangely familiar look—like I’d seen their kind in movies. And I had!
When I watched old movies of Trigger and Champion, my suspicions were confirmed: Trigger and Champion racked! That’s why they were so smooth.
I trotted along on Blackie for nine years before I gave him to a little girl who loved him as much as I did. By then, my second horse Cupcake—a registered racking horse—was old enough to ride. I’d seen Cupcake take her first steps, and I’d bought her when she was six months old. She was a red chestnut with a full white blaze and a couple of white stockings. Her daddy was a registered Tennessee Walker.
One of Gene Autry’s Champions
(I finally learned he had more than one
) had been a Tennessee Walker, too. His real name was Stonewall Allen
. Way, way back, he and Cupcake were kin.
G's Liberated Lady (Cupcake)
Cupcake was not a dream to ride. She was headstrong and stubborn—too much like me. Finally, we came to terms with each other and started winning at horse shows. We trail rode a lot, too—all through the mountains of Bedford, Botetourt, and Craig Counties and down the back roads of Franklin County. Once we camped for a week at Mount Rogers, and—for a couple of minutes—I galloped her on top of the highest mountain in Virginia.
One night about twenty years ago, I dreamed I lived on my Franklin County farm and I looked out a big window to see Cupcake and another horse grazing in the pasture. When I woke up, I was still in Roanoke. Cupcake, my only horse, was still in a boarding stable. So much for dreams.
Cupcake and I both developed health problems in the early 90s. She foundered; I had chronic Epstein-Barre for nearly two years. She got better but tore up her hoof in a fence. I was diagnosed with fibromylagia. Our riding came to a halt. I recovered before she did. In 1995, I bought Melody—a big, full-blooded, bright chestnut Tennessee Walker.
I now had my two dream horses, but the dream wasn't complete. I wanted to build a house on our Franklin County farm so I could look out and see my two horses grazing. My husband, however, didn’t want to ruin a perfectly good hayfield by putting a house in the middle of it. Thus, except for weekend camping trips at the farm, we stayed in the city and my horses stayed at a boarding stable.
In June 1999, a house I’d coveted for ten years came up for sale—a house only a mile from the farm where we camped. My husband and I went to look—in less than an hour, we made an offer. A month later we moved in. Soon we fenced the pasture and built a horse shed. My horses were in my back yard.
Now, I can stand at the sliding glass door and look a little sideways across the deck, through the pines, and into the pasture where Cupcake and Melody graze—both chestnuts with flowing manes.
Melody Sundance (Melody) and Cupcake
One has white stockings and a wide white blaze—just like Champion’s.