The Riding Lessons
He was about six foot three, and a cachectic, one hundred twenty pounds, so it was almost comical to watch him tighten a cinch strap. Blackie had the same wispy appearance, and she stood for the procedure with all fours splayed slightly outward so he didn't tip her over with the sudden upward tugs on the cinch. "Hi, girls. Rosie's all ready to go, and I'll have Blackie set in just a minute." Mr. Kleinschmidt said to us between grunts. The rumpled cigarette that always dangled from his lips bobbed up and down as he spoke.
"There ya go, gal," he wheezed breathlessly to no one in particular. He stepped back to admire his handiwork. Blackie swung her head around to look at him and the saddle, now firmly attached to her middle.
Mr. Kleinschmidt's stable of riding horses at The Fond du Lac County Fairgrounds was a magnet to me. I loved them and stole away on Saturday mornings to visit the barn there. I was happy just to pet a velvet muzzle protruding inquisitively from a box-stall. My sister, Jeanne, on the other hand, was somewhat less than fully invested in the horse idea, and therein lies a story.
One summer in the early fifties, Mom signed us up for weekly, one-hour "riding lessons" at the stables. I had already resigned myself to the fact that I would never have my own horse, so I relished these encounters. Jeanne came along in the name of equal opportunity.
I was twelve or thirteen but Jeanne was only eight or nine. She was tall for her age and very slender. Mr. Kleinschmidt considered her tender age and under-developed musculature, and routinely had two appropriate horses saddled and ready for us to ride. Jeanne's was particularly docile and mine was never much peppier, but I was just happy for the chance to ride anything. The "lesson" consisted of the unsupervised use of a horse on the open and unfenced, 120 acre Fairgrounds on the southeast edge of town.
On that fateful afternoon, we observed the usual pleasantries before we boarded our respective mounts--me on Rosie, and Jeanne on little Blackie. They, like all of Mr. Kleinschmidt's horses, seemed to be in a state of perennial relaxation. We were "old hands" at this riding thing by that time. We had been going there for many weeks and the most we could ever manage out of our carriers was a reluctant and uninspired trot. That impression made the circumstances that followed shocking and entirely unexpected.
We moved away from the stable at a lazy walk and suspended our disbelief. We were headed into the old west under an azure blue sky. Jeanne and I were in the maze of closed fair buildings when it happened. For reasons still unknown to all involved, Jeanne's horse suddenly saw an opportunity to make a break for it.
With a degree of vigor that one would never have thought to exist by looking at the animal, her horse took off at full throttle gallop and headed for northern climes. A startled Jeanne clung to the saddle horn for dear life and screamed at a decibel level seldom appreciated in those parts, even during fair time. The latter did nothing to settle her pony, but only encouraged a renewed resolve on its part. She bounced wildly and struggled to maintain her seat aboard the horse. Blackie looked like she was in a race to perdition with legs in full stretch, her mane and tail streaming like banners in a whole force gale.
I can laugh about it now, but at the time, I envisioned my little Jeanne wandering, a stranger in Saskatoon, equipped only with a tired horse. Fortunately, the animal ran out of gas before things got that far out of hand. After it had eaten up a mile or so, it gradually slowed and, at last, came to a complete stop in a small grove of trees.
When I caught up to them, both the horse and Jeanne looked shell-shocked. The horse was sucking air through nostrils that looked big enough to pull in a tennis ball. Jeanne's fingers were frozen around the saddle horn and her hair had that "just blow-dried" look. This was probably the most excitement that horse had known for years. I know it held true for Jeanne and the rest of us.
Mom and Mr. Kleinschmidt breathlessly trotted up behind the parade and assisted Jeanne to unhorse. Both of them were beet red by the time they caught up to us, and I wondered if one or both might just have apoplexy right then and there. I wasn't sure what that was, but I had heard grandma use the term under similar circumstances.
Mr. K was muttering something to himself as he led the sweaty animal back to the barn to cool off. Mom and Jeanne headed, wobbly-legged, for the car and a secure place to sit and collect themselves. Although nobody said as much, I resigned myself to the fact that the riding lesson was over for that day. I slowly walked back to the barn and turned my "Buttermilk" over to the stable attendant. We rode home in silence and, just as I feared, we never saw Mr. Kleinschmidt, Blackie, or Rosie for riding lessons again in my hometown--Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.