Growing UP with HorseSkills4LIFE

From The Rider’s Art/The LIFEHORSE Research Project/HorseSkills4LIFE ©
Silver Johnson © 2018 all rights reserved

Silver Johnson and Spinner
Silver Johnson and Spinner

Not many equestrians I know were blessed to have grown up in as safe and loving barn environment like the one I experienced. Somerset Stables was our barn home and Joe Mackey and his large family were our extended ‘barn parents.’ My family started riding at Somerset when I was 6 and remained at Joe’s barn until I was in my mid 20’s.

My own parents were always at the barn with us and loved horses as much as my brother and I. When I speak of Somerset, of Joe Mackey and his wife Gladys, his daughter Patsy and niece Bev Chester, their spouses, uncles, brothers, cousins and kids being our ‘barn parents and family,’ indeed they were! Make no mistake about it though, by no means were they our babysitters.

The large and extended Mackey/Chester/Hahn family raised us all UP…parents included. Daily inspirations, their presence made our horse lives fun as well as educational. Their invaluable horse skills transformed into our invaluable life skills.

I think everyone held them all in high esteem, aspired to be as knowledgeable and gifted around a horse as they were. Joe, Bev and Patsy had a grounded sensibility about them. Not to mention a sixth sense when it came to reading horses. If we paid attention, very close attention, we could tune into their frequencies, observe, absorb and aspire to tap into this divine energy of horse/human communication. For them, it was about listening, observing, reading the situation and that is where their ‘magic’ took place. We were all so very fortunate to be part of this way of learning about horses.

Moving UP…

Silver Johnson and Little Squire in the indoor arena
Silver Johnson and Little Squire in the indoor arena

When Somerset moved from a small 30 stall/30 acre converted dairy farm to the brand new location and our 50 stall Quonset type barn (with subsequent 30 and 40 stall additions) we were thrilled to have our first indoor arena. Four and a half strides long and two and maybe a half strides wide, we did everything in there! We learned dressage, played arena polo, jumped courses, jumped 5-foot fences, had horse shows…yes…and just enjoyed the opportunity to ride inside! Soon after we moved, we built a Combined Training Cross Country course. Somerset Stables in Olathe, Kansas, became our mecca and sanctuary.

From parents to kids, everyone left their ‘traumas’ at home because no one wanted any of that to interfere with the peace and joy of the exquisitely long car ride, the deep breaths on the way and the elation we all felt turning down the final 1⁄4 mile stretch of 119th Street to our own personal happy place!
Barn Rats and Parent Hacks…

I think there were about 80 or 100 people that boarded at Somerset. And maybe 45 were Pony Clubbers. Yet, there was a core group of about 12 of us rain-or-shine-tornado warning- blizzard or blazing sun-barn worshipers who showed up in the best of times and the worst. Somehow, we became known as ‘the barn rats.’ Most likely because we were always there. The ‘originals’ Pie, Niecy, Ann and Margaret, were my ‘initiators.’ Our crew grew when we moved to the new barn. Yet, we all stayed tight and loyal.

Somerset Stables c.1958 – The Originals
Somerset Stables c.1958 – The Originals

Lucky for us, my brother and I had parents who felt horses were just as much a part of our lives as church, school and eating well! They drove us to the barn every afternoon after school and every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, an hour each way. No matter the weather we made it there, even if it was just to clean stalls or groom or hop on for a quick bareback hack. It was the experience in nature with horses that fed us, body, mind and soul.

Mission Valley Pony Club had its headquarters at Somerset and was one of the first Pony Club’s established in the US. We all felt honored to be members and took Pony Club very seriously. Being in Pony Club was a great place to learn all about horses. And being at the barn was a safe place, a happy place, where horses welcomed us no matter what, where open fields beckoned us to gallop our ponies wide open, and dressage arenas were there to fine tune our flat skills. Cross country jumps were solid, formidable large-trunked trees 3 feet in diameter, telephone poles, brushes, Irish banks, tables and coupes. We learned ‘how’ to jump them and without fear at very young ages.

Silver Johnson's brother on Little Squire c. 1959
Silver Johnson’s brother on Little Squire c. 1959

Joe,Bev and Patsy were just as formidable…just as happy as we were to be there, and just as disciplined as our pony club handbooks. Joe wobbled around waving his cane, chewing his cigar, and giving instructions. He was the kindest and most protective father figure we all loved, admired and respected beyond anyone else. His eye for a great show horse, pony club mount or Polo pony was remarkable. And so was his heart, for that horseman’s heart was as big as he was.

His niece Bev knew so much about horses in a spiritual way it was divine to watch her. Bev rode like she knew exactly what her horses were thinking. Which she did. Her laugh was infectious…a full body experience which often brought her to tears. Sometimes she cracked us all up to the point of rolling in the dirt. One thing you didn’t want to do…you didn’t want to make Bev mad. On the rare occasion one of us accidentally did something unsafe or uncalled for, she called our attention to it yet, never called us stupid or raised her voice. We all felt so ashamed that we had let her down. She never let us down which made it all the worse.

No cuss words ever came out of Bev or Patsy’s mouths. Patsy was quieter, had a giant grin, was very focused and would show you her mom-self right away if you needed it. We thought both these women had great parenting skills!

As for Joe, he spit tobacco and chewed GD cuss words around his cigar when he got exasperated. A ‘DADDY! Shame on you.’ reminder would come from Patsy. Bev offered up a ‘JOE MACKE Y’ and he’d say something like ‘Oh, Hell’ and then he apologized for cussing.
It was all divine. Everything they ever did was for our own good.
R.E.S.P.E.C.T….

The best word I can think to describe how everyone and the horses were treated is RESPECT. We were all expected to respect the property and the land, each other, the horse’s health and safety , honor the hours of operation, and Joe and his family. The barn was also their place of residence, so we didn’t take advantage of that. When Joe made his famous Mulligan Stew was the exception to the rule. He gave us a couple of days heads up and then, on a cold afternoon, after bone chilling rides, Joe and Gladys’ living room warmed our bones and his famous Mulligan Stew filled our bellies with love and his Native American Irish Pride. It was like God gave us all these great ‘barn’ parents, a beautiful place to learn to ride and horses to be our empirical teachers. And we respected that.
Seven days a week, 360 some odd days a year, we went to the barn which made respect an all-day almost every day practice. Between our horses and the Mackey family, our self-esteem was always lifted UP and our egos were kept in tow. Growing up this way empowered us to be open to learning because that’s what we were all there for… to learn about horses, how to ride, be good at it and enjoy the rhythm of horses and nature. This rhythm was always with us as we carried it everywhere we went and into our everyday lives.

Horse-skills-life-skills…

Author Somerset Stables presenting Arena Polo award
Author Somerset Stables presenting Arena Polo award

Most of the barn kids went to very large schools with high attendance. And most of us couldn’t wait till the final bell rang! We’d rush to the car and change into our ‘barn’ clothes, even if it was at 70 mph… in 110 degrees… in a car with no air conditioning. We made it happen!

You see, we thought growing up at Somerset was a great and fun learning experience. Way better we thought than being inside a classroom. Yet, even more so, it was a horse-skill-life-skills experience. Our social skills were honed as were our communication and listening skills. Riding as many horses a day as we were allowed, and sometimes, twice on the same horse, meant our mental and physical athleticism made us strong and healthy. It was also fun! This was an ‘education’ we were all happy to absorb!

We had to be safe while we were learning and having fun. In between serious lessons about healthy horse keeping, veterinary medicine, anatomy, riding skills, tack, etc… in between schooling practices and Olympic scale clinics, we played games on horseback, pulled sleds behind our horses in the winter, or swam in the slimy pond when it was too hot to ride. We went Fox Hunting with the Mission Valley Hunt, which of course, made our manners mind us to the max or else MFH Mrs. Bunting would give us her look! That only happened to me once…when my hot horse didn’t understand passing the Master was a no-no no matter how hard I pulled. Of course, it was the day she invited me to wear my colors, so all was not lost.

Manners were instilled in us at home however, stable manners gave us even more practice and horse skills to carry home with us. Many of our parents, clinicians and riding instructors came from a military background. And many were former Olympians and Cavalry officers. We often competed at Ft.Riley and Ft. Leavenworth and some of us attended military and prep schools like Culver and Pembroke Day. Having good manners and respect weren’t an option for us. They were part of everyone’s lives. Growing up with good manners was a natural part of our communication and social skills. Somerset Stables barn manners continued the process and then some.

We religiously watched and tried our hand at Polo with the Mission Valley Polo Club. We participated in regular clinics from Gordon Wright and the Woffords, Hugh Wiley, Robbie Robertson, Lowell Boomer, and other Olympic equestrians. Somerset Stables wasn’t fancy or a highbrow facility. Kansas dirt was hard and dusty in the summer and greasy-muddy-stinky when it rained. Winters were icy cold and sometimes it dipped well below 0. We had the world’s smallest indoor arena inside the metal Quonset building which is where we all learned to be excellent at maneuvering, even on 18’2 hand horses. It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t spotless; horses were healthy, stalls were clean, we were all happy and if needed we all pitched in to help.

To us, this was nirvana.

Lucky for us…

Lucky for us, it’s where we grew up, grew into ourselves, defined our identities, learned how to ride, knew what friendship meant, stuck together, practiced team-work, and found ourselves growing UP in the midst of our youth, adolescence, puberty, and young adulthood. Even though there might be problems at home, at work or in school, we all called ourselves very lucky to have none of those at the barn. Horses made sure of that.
Lucky for us we had so many barn parents to steer us in the right direction, keep us focused on what mattered most, and keep us on our mental toes. Lucky for us, we had all those barn parents and horses to teach us to reach for our personal bests no matter what challenges we faced. And if our ego showed up, it was shown the barn door!

Lucky for us we had school horses like Linda Lou to teach us about personal space, even if it was a horse’s! Linda Lou was a little bay mare with a sour expression and an ears-back-at-all-times ‘tude. Her personal lesson plan was always about respecting personal space. Come too close and she’d bite the top right off your knee cap! Seriously, we all experienced her bloody wrath at least once! Even if you didn’t think you were close to invading her space, she reached out, bared her teeth, chased you down and gave you a warning never missing a beat. Her communication skills were very clear and we learned about respecting personal space straight from Linda Lou’s mouth! LOLS…not.
Then there was the golden palomino, Shamrock. Moving slower than a slug was equal to beginner safety. His opposite was the long-strided Apache. A tall lanky buckskin, black and white paint who loved to trot, Apache was the learn-to-sit-trot master.

And then there was my very first lesson horse, White Cloud. Bless his heart. A big white sleepy steed who on my very first lesson, laid right down in the middle of the arena with me sitting tall in the saddle. He made it easy for me to dismount the one inch he left me to the ground, leave him eyes closed in the sun, snoring, and go get Joe’s attention. That day, White Cloud and Joe taught me horses expect us to be clear about our intentions. I’d need to be a clear communicator or White Cloud would take advantage of my ambiguous requests to stay on the rail and jolly well lie down and take a nap! Lesson learned and diligently practiced.

Author's first lesson at Somerset Stables on White Cloud
Author’s first lesson at Somerset Stables on White Cloud

God Broke the Mold…

More blessed than lucky we were for all those lesson horses and the instruction Bev and Patsy and Joe gave us. Good weather, sweltering heat or freezing cold, pouring rain, or big black Kansas Dorothy- lands- in- Oz clouds looming overhead, they always showed up. And they never ever complained. EVER! They were always there for us, showed up for us and expected us to do the same for them and our horses.

And, Joe, Joe Mackey. Well, God broke the mold with you. A father figure to us all, even our parents.

Joe Mackey Master Mission Valley Hunt courtesy MVH Website
Joe Mackey Master Mission Valley Hunt. Photo courtesy: MVH Website

Joe was our father, our protector, our teacher, our mentor, our leader. Somerset Stables, Mission Valley Pony Club, Hunt Club, Polo Club, ALL OUR HORSES and all the activities that went with it, grew me, and all the rest of us, UP.

I want to honor Joe, and Bev, and Patsy. They showed us magic on horseback and gave us an exemplary education we couldn’t have received anywhere else. Rest assured, Hogwarts doesn’t even come close. And words can’t describe our gratitude.

We didn’t want to leave that nest, that safe and nurturing horse environment. Yet, we did.
So here’s to Bev, Joe and Patsy…thank you for raising a group of grateful humans, providing us with great horse skills for life! We are all better for your leadership.
Bless you all for every experience at Somerset Stables. Thank you for all your years of dedication, for being such great riding instructors, inspiring teachers and equestrians, not to mention, the best barn parents ever!

With love and admiration,
Silver Johnson © July 2018 all rights reserved

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