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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Joker Was Wild--sort of.

I felt better about working for the Columbia Riding Academy the next day when I met Charlie Barnett, Farr’s partner.  He was pretty much the opposite of Art Farr.  Charlie was a big, pleasant-faced man with a mop of unruly black hair.  Where Farr fancied dude-ish western shirts and that silly string tie, Charlie always showed up in grey riding breeches, black boots not always too well polished, and a white shirt open at the neck.  The only time Charlie duded up was when we put on a horse show and then all he did was to wear an Ascot scarf and a jacket.  There were no pretenses with Charlie and I liked him immediately.
My summer at the Columbia Riding Academy was memorable in more ways than one.  I found out quickly that Art Farr was, indeed, an ornery s.o.b.  As for fat George, he was everything a barn boss should not be.  I do not know what previous experience he had with horses but he was no horseman.
George’s idea of quieting down an unruly horse on the loading platform—whether to saddle or curry it—was to grab a twitch and cinch it on the animal’s nose.  I did not like a twitch and can truthfully say that I seldom had to use one.  There are no mean horses that I ever met—only those who have been treated meanly by someone.  (Dogs are the same way.)
The horses, however, were a delight to this old country boy.  I got acquainted with all thirty-two of them in short order.  In a couple of days I knew all of them by name, and in a week I knew which saddle and bridle went on which horse.  I tried to be impartial, but I quickly had some favorites.  One was “Don Dee”, a big sleek black jumper that stood near seventeen hands high.  He was a gentle horse and could have modeled for Black Beauty.
Another of my favorites was “Joker”, a small (about fourteen hands) palomino stallion with a flowing long mane and tail.  Joker was as mischievous as a small child.  He was quartered in one of the standing stalls and he had a favorite trick when I came into his stall with a bucket of feed.  I would pat him on the rump and speak to let him know I was there and Joker would politely move over to let me by.  Then, when I was beside him half way to the manger box, he would lean—pushing me against the wall of the stall.  I would have to give him a good shove and a slap on the belly to make him move over.  He was not mean—he just like to devil me.
One evening Joker’s antics could have injured me but it was my fault, not Joker’s.  I was late getting the horses fed and had a party to go to that night.  Fat George, as usual, had already gone home to his plump wife, leaving me to do all the feeding.  I was hurrying with my bucket of oats when I got to Joker’s stall and failed to whack him on the rump and speak to him.  The little stallion was standing with one hind foot relaxed, half asleep.
When I rounded the end of the stall, the bucket bumped Joker in the rump and startled him.  Like greased lightning a back foot lashed out in a kick.  I was close enough to him that there was no bone-breaking impact but his flailing leg picked me up and threw me across the alleyway, slamming me into the wall.  Fat George would have gotten up and beaten the tar out of Joker but I knew it was my fault so I just calmed him down and gave him his oats.  Fortunately, I had ridden the bicycle that day as I developed a big purple bruise on my thigh and limped for a couple of days.
One of Joker’s best tricks was his uncanny ability to unseat even an experienced rider.  He especially picked on women.  The experienced lady riders who participated in the Columbia Lancers, our drill team, were allowed to ride the many bridle trails on the west end of Hayden Island alone.  Often they would ask for Joker because he was such a beautiful little horse.
On more than one occasion, after about half an hour, Joker would come moseying back up the trail to the stables all by himself, carefully holding his head to one side so as not to step on the trailing reins.  Unless someone took Joker back, a little while later a very sheepish lady rider would come walking up the trail.  I never saw him do it, but according to his victims, Joker had a cute way of shying sidewise when the rider was relaxed and right out from under them.
I recall one day when the lead lady rider on the drill team came for a canter and asked for Joker.  I reminded her that he could be skittish and offered another horse, but she was insistent.  She was a tall lady who looked a lot like Eve Arden and spoke with the authority of a school teacher.  I just shrugged and saddled Joker.
As soon as she was out of sight, and not being especially busy at the time, I put a wester saddle on Clown.  Sure enough, about twenty minutes later there came old Joker alone.  I swung onto Clown and took the little stallion back down the trail to find her.  She did not have much to say except to thank me and never asked for Joker again if she was going out alone.

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