As life away from the ranch beckons, a treasured horse becomes a cure for homesickness.

During the summer of 1963, when Khamette was a four-year-old, we traveled many miles together. She was my favorite horse for checking cows because she had such a fast walk and trot and was always eager to go. We could cover the whole range in a lot less time than I could have on a lazy horse that needed continual urging. The more we did together, the more we understood one another and we became a good team. My brother rode her a few times when we rode range.

My brother Rocky rode Khamette

My brother Rocky rode Khamette a few times when we rode range. Here he is getting off to open a gate.

That year was my last year of 4-H and I had several different projects: horseshoeing, 4-H judging, and a yearling project. Khamette was my four-year-old under saddle project and one of the new things we did together that summer was learn to ride sidesaddle. I used an old borrowed sidesaddle, and it was a lot different from riding a western saddle or the English flat saddle that I borrowed for jumping and dressage when I had Nell as my project.

When riding sidesaddle, the rider has all the weight on the right thigh with only one stirrup, and the right leg curled around over the upper horn. I had to learn to post by rising up on just one leg instead of two. Most difficult, however, was not having a leg down against the right side of the horse. Khamette was so well trained to respond to leg pressure that I felt handicapped not being able to give leg signals on that side. Ladies who rode sidesaddle in earlier days carried a crop or small whip to tap the horse on that side to give the signals you’d ordinarily give with that leg. I used a willow stick as my riding crop to give gentle taps where my leg would have been, and Khamette had to get used to that new signal!

After a bit of practice, however, we got good at it and I found that by gripping the two curving horns between my legs, I had a secure seat, even for jumping. I could post the trot and keep my body square and well balanced at all gaits, handling Khamette almost as well as when riding astride. We practiced all kinds of maneuvers at all gaits.

Riding Khamette sidesaddle, ready for the big parade

Riding Khamette sidesaddle, ready for the big parade.

Our big test was riding sidesaddle in the Salmon River Days’ Parade in early July. Our Salmon church was celebrating its 90th anniversary and members participated in various exhibits in the parade, portraying the early days of the church. The Ravndals wore old-style clothing from the 1800’s and rode in their old buggy, pulled by their two gray mares. My father rode Nell, and wore an old black suit and hat to dress like Brother Van, the famous circuit rider who started our church and others in western Montana, riding hundreds of miles between congregations to preach. I borrowed an old, long dress from one of the older ladies and wore my hair in a style from 90 years earlier. Dad helped me mount — it was hard to get on a horse with a long dress!

Posing with Jerry Ravndal by his buggy on parade day

Posing with Jerry Ravndal by his buggy on parade day.

Khamette was a bit nervous with all the people lining the streets and pranced a little during the parade, but did very well for a young green ranch horse that had never experienced anything like this.

The rest of the summer flew by as we did our ranch chores. We had a little wreck later that summer but it wasn’t Khamette’s fault. A few lazy range cows had come down out of the hills and found a bad patch of fence where the county road-grader had pushed over one of the posts. It was almost flat on the ground. I discovered the cows in the hayfield while riding Khamette and tried to chase them out. We were doing a good job, galloping after one ornery cow that tried to run the wrong direction. Then Khamette hit a slippery spot — a patch of mud from the irrigation water — just as she was making a tight turn after the cow. Her legs went out from under her and she fell down on her side. I was thrown clear, skidding along in the grass a few feet away from the fallen horse.

We both had scrapes and bruises; Khamette lost some hair off one knee and my arm was scraped, but it was nothing serious. I got up as she was scrambling to her feet so I grabbed the reins and got back on, and we took off after the cow again. This time we got her headed the right direction and brought her back to the rest of the group, and got them out the gate. We herded the cows back up the draw to the range, then came back and propped up the post where they got over the fence.

It wasn’t until we started home that I discovered I’d lost my watch. I glanced at my wrist to see how late it was getting, and realized I didn’t have it. I’d broken it when I landed on the ground. I rode back up to the field and found the skid marks in the grass. I dismounted and searched around, and found the watch — with a broken band.

The time came for me to head back to college again for my sophomore year at University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. The worst thing about going to college was missing my horses, and the ranch. The following summer, when I got home from college in 1964, I was eager to continue riding Khamette but my family moved to Laurel, Montana, in July, leasing our ranch and cows to another rancher. We sold all our horses except Nell, and my two (Khamette and Nikki). Jerry Ravndal hauled them to Laurel for us.

Khamette and me at Laurel, where our horses were on rented pasture

Khamette and me at Laurel, where our horses were on rented pasture.

That summer, Khamette was five and I rode her a lot, trotting on the back roads. I was really homesick, and riding was the best way to ease the ache of not being able to ride range in the mountains I loved. That summer I channeled my frustrated energy into writing my first book, A Horse in Your Life: A Guide for the New Owner. I illustrated it with sketches and photos. Khamette posed for most of the photos, and I hired my brother to take pictures, showing how to saddle and bridle a horse, mount and dismount, groom a horse, pick up and clean feet, trim feet, and lead a horse properly. She was my first foal, my first training project from start to finish, my guinea pig for all my new ideas.

My brother took photos of me and Khamette to illustrate my book. Here, I’m showing how to neck-rein.

My brother took photos of me and Khamette to illustrate my book. Here, I’m showing how to neck-rein.

Demonstrating picking up a foot

Demonstrating picking up a foot.

Saddling Khamette

Saddling Khamette

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas has written extensively on animal health care, authoring thousands of articles and 24 books on the subject. Her books include Storey’s Guide… See Bio

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