I think most of my readers know about my love for horses. Here is a short story as to why I grew up loving them so much. I owe a huge credit to my Dad. Hope you enjoy!
The Billy Dal Gang
We called ourselves “The Billy Dal Gang.” Four ten-year-old girls, their horses and my dad.
My dad Dal was, of course, Billy Dal. There was Billy Stace, Billy Renee, Billy Laura, and me Billy Shell. While grooming and saddling up our horses, we’d get into character. Billy Dal would set up the scenario. “Okay, girls, we got three bad guys, and I mean bad guys on the run. They stole a lot of money from that there bank.” He’d point to our house. “Now we gotta go find them and arrest them, and bring ‘em back.”
“Yes we do, Billy Dal!”
“We gotta be real careful and sneak up on ‘em. They’re armed and dangerous.”
We would giggle at my dad’s silly antics, but once we were up on our horses it was a different deal. We were playing the roles. Dad had a sure-footed Quarter horse named Smokey that led the gang. He was a horse with sharp instincts. Several times as we would wind down single file from the mountain, the thick chaparral smelling sweet and earthy, surrounding us on the rocky trail, and occasionally, Smokey would stop on a dime. Billy Dal would turn around bringing a finger to his lips, his blue eyes tinged with a stern warning for us to not move. Our adrenaline pumping as we’d come to know before we ever heard the zing and rattle of the snake that Smokey had spotted a rattler.
We would wait for the snake to back away before clucking the horses forward, as Billy Dal’s constant rule was to leave nature alone. He didn’t believe in killing the snakes out on the trail as many others did. “They were here first,” he’d say.
Making it down off the mountain we would ride through what we learned was former Indian grounds in San Diego county. As we descended into the foothills, we passed a crumbling stone wall built hundreds of years ago, ancient remains at the bottom of the mountain. Danger lurking around every corner, on every trail. It always seemed as if a slight breeze was blowing through that passage, even on days when there was no wind. It was the kind of breeze that carried a whistle on it, and would make the hair on the back of the neck stand on end. It was easy to let our young imaginations get the best of us, wondering if someone was watching us as that feeling of an other worldly presence remained strong until we got down onto the flats. We would all grow quiet passing through the open crevice in the stone wall. In a word, it was spooky. And Billy Dal loved to add to the mystery of it all.
Once we past the cobblestone wall and entered the flats, Billy Dal would again bring a finger to his lips and shake his head. We all understood that this time it wasn’t a snake. He’d point straight ahead and mouth, “Bad guys.” In retrospect I think my dad was just trying to get all of us little girls to stop yapping our mouths because we could make a lot of noise, particularly my friend Billy Stace and me.
Billy Stace and I had a kind of competition between us. It was called, “My horse is faster than your horse.” This debate could take up the entire three hour trail ride if we didn’t have the distraction of The Billy Dal Gang. Stace had a petite grey Arabian mare named Zelle. Zelle was a little loose in the brain. Okay, she was nuts much of the time, but, yeah, she could run. My horse was definitely faster, though--definitely. I’d had the good fortune to raise this mare from a yearling when my dad had her delivered for my sixth birthday. He bought her for a hundred dollars without ever seeing her. He coined her ugly duckling when she stepped off the trailer. But to me she was the most beautiful horse in the world, and she was by far one of the most patient animals I’ve ever had. This mare as a two-year-old would let me lay on her back while in her corral. I’d climb all over her. I have no clue what my parents were thinking, but thank goodness the horse was as sweet natured as she was.
Full grown Dandy stood over sixteen hands. She had only two spots on her rear, but apparently that was enough to be a registered Appaloosa, and this horse could haul butt! Stace and I liked to get down to the flats and race each other. I can still hear the argument now. “I won, Shelly. I did. You started before me, so technically I won and you cheated.”
“No way. I started when you started and I won fair and square. My horse is faster than yours,” I’d say.
“No she isn’t.”
“Wanna make a bet?” And this was how it went. We started bringing stopwatches with us, but the argument to this day (thirty years later) still has not been decided. Both Stace and I (we are still great friends) have agreed to disagree on this count. Dad wouldn’t let us race each other when he was with us, but on those days when he couldn’t go, we were all about getting down onto the flats and moving out.
Dad also liked speed and, as Billy Dal, he added a bit more tension to our game besides only seeking out the bad guys. My father, as you’ve guessed by now, is quite a storyteller. We’d be riding along down on the flats with cottonwood trees on either side of us. Many times cotton would blow in the wind and we might suggest it was snow falling, even in eighty degree weather. Each of us with long hair hanging down our backs, our faces turned up to soak in the sun, and all of a sudden Billy Dal would say, “Oh no. Oh no. We gotta get outta here!”
“What? Why?” the Billy Dal Gang would squeal.
“It’s the hoop snake!”
“The hoop snake?”
“Oh yes. The hoop snake. You don’t know about the hoop snake?”
Billy Dal would point up. “Look up there at the top of the ridge. Don’t you see it? He’s the color of coral with black rings every few inches on his diamond back skin. He’s related to the Diamond Back Rattler, but he’s much deadlier. And he’s after us.”
“What do you mean?” one of us would ask.
“I mean he’s spotted us and in a minute if we don’t get out of here, he’ll be down off that mountain so fast and bite your horses and have us all for dinner.”
“He’s a snake, Billy Dal. He can’t eat us all for dinner.”
“He’s not just a snake. He’s the hoop snake. He rounds himself up like a circle, takes his tail in his mouth, and rolls down the hill. His prey are horses and their riders, and believe me he could eat us all up. We gotta go. Now!”
Billy Dal would put Smokey into a gallop and we’d all follow suit, laughing and squealing and carrying on about how we’d better hurry so we didn’t become snake food. I don’t know how many times we played out this scenario. It could have been a hundred or more. It didn’t matter. It was so much fun and we’d add to it, change it up a bit, but it always came down to pure ecstasy and freedom on the backs of our horses.
After a good gallop and getting away from the hoop snake, there were all sorts of other “enemies” we had to keep an eye out for. There was a pack of hostile Indians we had to watch out for who, if we weren’t careful, could track us and we’d wind up scalped. We had to watch out for all sorts of wild animals and of course, those bad guys. Any chance we had to “getaway” from anything considered an enemy, we did, and we did quickly.
Our trail rides typically wound up at “the saloon.” We’d ride along a trail that would take us through a golf course. We’d only go onto the course if it was later in the day and Billy Dal scoped it out to make sure there weren’t too many golfers on the course. I still have no clue how we never got kicked off that golf course. We’d ride through on the cart trails and on up to the bar, where Billy Dal would order us all Shirley Temples and he’d have a beer. I think part of the reason we didn’t get kicked off is we were sort of entertainment. I’d learned how to stand up on Dandy in the saddle and I was even able to do a headstand on her. We were like a regular circus show. Looking back, I have to wonder how I made it out of childhood.
“Okay, gang, we’ve had our refreshments and now we gotta get back out there and track those bad guys.”
“Yes, sir, Billy Dal!” And we’d be off again and back out onto the trail. If the day was a hot one and the river bottom had water in it, we’d many times head over to the river, we’d untack the horses, slide off the their backs as they went into the water and hang on to their tails and swim with them. Of course there were always “dangers” in the river bottom, too.
“Watch out for that crocodile, Billy Shell,” one of the other gang members would yell.
“Yeah he’s gonna eat you.”
Fits of laughter would break out amongst us as we truly were having the best times of our lives.
We also had names for our trails. Our favorite was the jumping trail. My mother would never allow me to jump as a kid (guess what I do now?), so I’m pretty sure if she knew about this trail she’d have come totally unglued.
The jumping trail was covered with brush and cottonwoods. Talk about a cross-country course! Jumping the trail was always precluded with another story, like almost everything we did as the gang. The best part is that with all of the trees and brush there were shadows that filled the area. Imaginations ran wild, and even on days my friends couldn’t join us, I could come up with all sorts of fantastical story ideas. As far as I was concerned, fairies hid underneath the rocks that lined the trail, elves played in the shadows, and trolls hid underneath the logs we jumped, waiting to surprise us with their snaggly teeth and green, grotesque faces. They never did, but it was great to imagine that they might.
And of course, there were the horses who were characters in their own right. They tolerated our fantasies. Dandy was never one to spook or do anything flighty. She was calm, strong, and patient for a young horse. Smokey was the leader, like Dad—both wise. Billy Stace had Zelle who ironically enough was a lot like my friend—both a bit hyper and strong willed. Billy Renee had an older Thoroughbred who tolerated whatever was tossed his way without much ado, and Billy Laura had a Buckskin gelding who wasn’t the best mannered animal of the group (loved to nip others’ rear ends), but all the same he followed the pack and no matter what, we knew when we set out on those horses with my dad that we weren’t going to be disappointed.
The only disappointment came when we heard those words, “Well, Gang, we better head home. The mother folk will have dinner ready and it’s getting dark.”
A collective sigh would ring out and we would head back up the hill and into our neighborhood.
There are days now, as I learn more about the horse than I ever learned as a kid, that I wished I’d participated in Pony Club or horse shows, other than the little backyard shows I’d occasionally do. At times I feel ignorant about these amazing animals. But as I reflect back on my childhood and how horses were such a huge part of it, I realize I wouldn’t change it for the world. I may not have understood the mechanics of the animal, the right feed to give them (we were known for feeding them coffee cans filled with grain daily with their hay—the horses loved it), what the right lead was, or the right diagonal, or any of that. That all came as I grew into an adult. But what I did learn, what I do understand, is that to me the horse represents far more than being an animal who tolerates me up on his/her back. To me, the horse represents family, friendship, imagination, and total fantasy. The soul of the horse has driven me to explore who I am as a creative person and that comes from the animals I enjoyed as a kid and the father who was never too old to be a kid himself, but always wise enough to be safe, loving, nurturing, and fun.