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A No-Trump Column

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A No-Trump Column


What do Genghis Kahn, William the Conqueror, and Geronimo all have in common? Mighty warriors, they died not in battle, but by falling off horses. The list of historical notables who got killed on horseback includes kings, queens, prime ministers, Pope Urban VI and Emperor Theodosius of Rome.

I’ve long insisted that my plan was to die in a fall from a horse at age 88—suitably remote as to make it a joke. A smug, stupid joke. I’ve also argued—as friends’ broken shoulders and fractured pelvises accumulated—that riding bicycles in traffic is a damn fool thing for mature citizens to do.

Challenged, I’d say I never rode horses in traffic or on pavement. One virtue of our Arkansas farm is that it’s river bottom land. There’s not a rock on the place. Besides I hadn’t been dumped in fifteen years.

Ever the pedant, I’d say that two of my personal heroes, Thomas Jefferson and Jonathan Swift, rode horses into their seventies. Jefferson designed a portico at Monticello allowing him to step down onto a horse’s back after he could no longer mount from the ground. Swift kept fit on rainy Dublin days by running the bell tower steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He built a walled pasture nearby so he could visit his horses every day.

It’s not for nothing that the final voyage of Swift’s masterpiece Gulliver’s Travels was to the Houyhouyhnms, a kingdom of philosophical talking horses. Pronounced “win-ums” it’s the sound horses make deep in their throats when they’re glad to see you.

As my large friend Mount Nebo has always been happy to see me. He hustles into the barn, bobbing his head and nickering. “Houyhouyhnm,” he says. “Got any carrots?” In a joke photograph I made of me in a cowboy hat scowling squint-eyed like Clint Eastwood, Nebo spoils the effect by gazing at me like a lovelorn teenager.

(I’d taken the picture for a French friend who expressed mock disappointment when I showed up in Montpellier sans cowboy hat.)

Ah, but here’s the thing: I’m confident that all of the above—from Genghis Khan to Jefferson—were my superiors as horsemen. I took up riding at age 50, after giving up ball sports. Friends generously offered to stable Rusty, a quarter-horse gelding, in return for help around their barn.

The first time Rusty dumped me wasn’t on purpose. An experienced animal, he could tell I didn’t know what I was doing. Horses are very acute about that. Somebody’s got to be in charge, and if you’re not decisive, it’s every horse for himself.

I had no business riding outside a fenced enclosure. A deer hunter in a tree stand waved, and we were off to the races. I’d lost a stirrup at his first jump, and did an emergency dismount before he really got rolling. It’s one thing falling on your face from a horse’s back—quite another if he’s running 35 mph.

I was lying face down in the dirt taking an inventory of moving parts, when I felt Rusty’s breath on my neck. My instructor said she’d have made me sell him if he hadn’t come back. Rusty was too much horse for a novice, but I was stubborn. We aged into each other. There were fewer hairy moments, no serious injuries.

Besides a degree of athleticism my greatest equestrian skill is a low center of gravity. Unless the horse is trying to buck me, I tend to stay on.

Mount Nebo replaced Rusty five years ago, a well-trained Tennessee walking horse of appropriate maturity. Too well-trained, I fear. One way horses differ from, say, dogs, is that the less work they get, the less they want. As I began to ride less frequently—I blame cow work—Nebo developed avoidance techniques.

If he saw a lead rope, it was nothing doing. To catch him, I had to trick him with baling twine. Then he’d swell up like a toad to keep the cinch loose. Instead of moving forward when I’d try to mount, he’d back up, leaving me with one foot in the stirrup, hopping. He developed strong opinions about when it was time to head home. We bickered. No rough stuff, just stubbornness.

Then last weekend came the parting of the ways. I’m never saw what spooked him, but we were trotting through my neighbor’s pasture—headed toward home actually—when Nebo suddenly jumped sideways, bucked once, and galloped off at a right angle. Totally unprepared, I hit the ground hard.

The ground’s a lot harder twenty years on. Although I could hardly walk for two days, I have no serious injuries except maybe a broken rib or two—painful, but not life threatening.

Well-intentioned friends insist that I need to get back on the horse.

No, I don’t. I’ve had my last rodeo.

Nebo, see, didn’t come back.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Flickr user Aldaron.

Gene Lyons

Gene Lyons is a political columnist and author. Lyons writes a column for the Arkansas Times that is nationally syndicated by United Media. He was previously a general editor at Newsweek as wells an associate editor at Texas Monthly where he won a National Magazine Award in 1980. He contributes to Salon.com and has written for such magazines as Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, Entertainment Weekly, Washington Monthly, The Nation, Esquire, and Slate.

A graduate of Rutgers University with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia, Lyons taught at the Universities of Massachusetts, Arkansas and Texas before becoming a full-time writer in 1976. A native of New Jersey, Lyons has lived in Arkansas with his wife Diane since 1972. The Lyons live on a cattle farm near Houston, Ark., with a half-dozen dogs, several cats, three horses, and a growing herd of Fleckvieh Simmental cows.

Lyons has written several books including The Higher Illiteracy (University of Arkansas, 1988), Widow's Web (Simon & Schuster, 1993), Fools for Scandal (Franklin Square, 1996) as well as The Hunting Of The President: The 10 Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton, which he co-authored with National Memo Editor-in-Chief Joe Conason.

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  1. ralphkr May 19, 2016

    You reminded me of the smartest and most stubborn horse I ever knew. My father acquired a pinto when I was still a toddler. Yep, that infamous $23,000 Pinto & saddle (During the Hoover administration our state seized all state banks and my father had $46,000 on deposit in his. A short time later the state gave my father a deed for some water less, worthless land over 100 miles from our farm and told my father that they now only owed him $23K. My father gave that deed to an Indian for Pinto). Pinto would be at a dead run the second my dad’s foot hit the stirrup (dad was a fair horseman and had broken horses when he was a kid) but Pinto would only walk when mom was on board (evidently Indian woman aren’t suppose to know how to ride) and, when I was in the saddle, he would take one step, look back to see if I was OK, take another step, look, and repeat.

    He was a very stable horse and was not bothered by my father shooting varmints over his head with a .22 rifle (most horses don’t tolerate loud noises like that) but he also had his own idea of how much work he should do. If my dad was roping calves Pinto would allow him two misses and then would refuse to chase that calf anymore…would not even give dad a third strike. I always imagined Pinto saying, “Look, if that is the best you can do I’m not playing this game anymore”.

  2. Otto T. Goat May 19, 2016

    What do they have in common? All of them would support Trump if they were alive today.



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