Banjo was a pony with a striking tricolor pattern of chestnut, bay, and white that boarded on our small Oregon farm when I was a kid. According to my older brother, he was descended from Indian ponies. I’m not sure how accurate that is, but at the age of 10, if Jimmy said so, it was good enough for me.
He was unruly, pig-headed, fat, and determined to get rid of anyone who had the temerity to get on his back. I loved him.
Banjo succeeded in sending every male in the family flying, including Uncle Eldon, cousin Merle, Dad, and both of my brothers. With me, however, he was not so lucky. I was just as determined to stay on him as he was to get rid of me. My success, I’m convinced, was in my well-thought-out technique, as well as understanding his take-no-prisoners psychology. Whenever I wanted to ride, I would lure him into the barn with a bit of grain, tie him to the railing, and, using the cross-pieces of the stanchion as a ladder, climb onto his wide bare back.
This technique was demonstrated to me by Barbara, my childhood friend and the real owner of Banjo. I think that my being another pre-adolescent girl made him only slightly less hostile toward me than he was to boys and men.
The amateurs all tried riding him with a western saddle, which he detested and which made it that much easier to unseat an unwanted rider: all slippery leather and no real contact with the horse. I, however, used a different technique. Grabbing a hank of his mane and holding tight, I’d reach down and untie him, and give him a nudge.
Pinto photo by Bonnie Gruenberg, via Wikipedia.org
We’d be out the barn door and across the field in an instant, with me squeezing his ribs and holding onto the reins and his mane as if my health depended on it, which it did. Banjo, without fail, would head for the trees along the fence at a full gallop in an attempt to knock me to the ground. As we approached the trees and the fence line, I flattened myself against his neck to avoid being slapped by the trees, and held on with every ounce of strength that I had. I’m happy to report that his hard left at the fence line in an attempt to unseat me never worked. He’d met his match. That or beginner’s luck.
We emerged from the trees with me triumphant and Banjo resigned to carrying me on his back until dinner time. What a thrill: pure speed, muscle, and horse-breath running with all his might. I’m proud to report that he never succeeded in tossing me and that, once he got it out of his system, he was a pure joy to ride and very cooperative. You just had to prove yourself first.
He would trot or gallop around the field until I was ready to head back. When Banjo was given the signal, it was almost as swift a trip back as it was when we headed out. His servitude was over and he was always rewarded with a scoop or two of grain. I would curry him for a while, which he seemed to enjoy, as he sighed and snorted and shifted from leg to leg. He would finally be released into the field to wander on his own until the next time a human decided to annoy him.
Because of this unexpected blessing, I believe that every girl should have access to a horse — even for a short time in her life. This, and other childhood experiences of pure physicality, gave my neurons and muscles a taste of power and freedom and fearlessness that have moved me through much of my life. I am grateful for it.
When I wasn’t riding Banjo, I would head for The Meadow, where the potential for fantasies was limitless. At times I was Robinson Crusoe on a deserted island, or a pioneer crossing the prairie in a wagon. I would imagine myself as a young native girl, living free and exploring nature. It was the perfect environment for a child with an active imagination, an appreciation for solitude, and the desire to escape.
It was the saving grace of my childhood.
For more stories from my childhood in Oregon, please see In My Book Of Life.