Hometown Horse Race

I grew up in the small town of McKinleyville in Northern California. McKinleyville had a reputation of being kind of ‘backwards’. People used to tease and call it ‘Oklahoma by the Sea’, and that people from McKinleyville were all Okies and rabbit farmers…They said the town had more churches than houses. McKinleyville’s great claim to fame is a totem pole at the city shopping center, supposedly the tallest in the world!

I loved my town. And so did the droves of other kids that rode their horses and ponies up and down the streets. There were so many kids on horses that the town council voted to put in a horse trail just for us! And they did too. It paralleled the sidewalk and kept all us kids off the streets and out of traffic. But I digress….

The year was 1983 and the ‘Annual Pony Express Days’ had finally arrived! Every year, our little town hosted ‘Pony Express Days’, a grand two day event that filled the streets with celebration. The festivity started with a Saturday morning parade right down the center of main street, followed by a huge BBQ and live music and dancing that went on into the night. Sunday held a street fair and a Play Day Gymkhana with high point of the year trophies awarded.

For those who have never heard of a Gymkhana (pronounced Jim-can-a), it’s a series of speed events on horseback that take place in an arena. Just like the barrel racing you see in rodeos, only there are more racing patterns involved. Ours was put on by the local Pony & Pal’s Club.

But what most of the spectators had come to see, was the grand finale…the Pony Express Race. The race was held at the gymkhana grounds just after the last trophies were awarded. The race was always a real crowd pleaser and this year was no different. There were tons of people in town to watch the grand spectacle.

Participating in the race was pretty simple. All you had to do was get 5 team members with horses, pay an entry fee, sign a release of liability form and you were in! Horseback riders came in from everywhere to run in the race. All of us kids were excited to see the ropers and cattlemen come in with their big beefy ranch horses. The competition was starting to look pretty fierce.

There were two types of teams, adults and juniors. I never quite understood that. Did they think the adults were faster, or were the grown-ups afraid of racing a bunch of scrappy kids that weighed less than them?

Anyway, the pony express race was a relay race with two teams running against each other at the same time. Each team was given a pair of saddle bags. The first riders would take the bags, run around the race track, and then jump off their horse and pass the bags to the next rider and so on, until the last team member passed the finish line with saddle bags in hand. As easy as it sounds, there were two glitches involved.

The first challenge was the starting line, which consisted of two narrow 20 foot lanes. They were built side by side out of long white plastic poles that were just barely resting on turned up 5 gallon buckets. The teams had to pass their saddle bags from one rider to the next, within the narrow lanes, without knocking down a pole. For every pole knocked down 5 seconds were added to the teams racing time.

Once the race has begun, you can imagine how difficult it is for the riders in waiting to contain their over excited horses within the narrow confines of the passing lanes without knocking poles down. But that wasn't the worst of it. The biggest challenge by far, was the race track. One section of the race track was the arena itself. The remainder consisted of a narrow dirt road that encircled the gymkhana grounds and came back around into the arena. It was hemmed in on both sides by an 18 inch dirt bank and overgrown grass. What really made it difficult was that the track had two sweeping round corners and two really bad square corners.

No doubt, any rider who had never done any barrel racing or cattle work would be at a distinct disadvantage in the pony express race. Racing on a straightaway is one thing. Racing full speed into a 90º corner…. well that’s quite another.

Pony Express Race Winners 1983...That's me on the right.

My friends and I were anxious to see who we’d be running against. Last year we raced against a team of a stuck up girls from Eureka’s Redwood Acres Horse Club and we lost. They were so snotty about it too. Looking down their noses at us with their fancy trucks and silver lined show saddles. I hear one of them was riding a $4000 horse! The most expensive horse on our team cost a whopping $750 bucks. I’m pretty sure one of those silver lined saddles cost more than that. The loss had been a humiliating one for us. We felt like cheap dirt. And in our own home town too!

I heard a collective groan from my teammates when we saw the same team of girls gathering at the other end of the arena. They were looking over their shoulders laughing and talking. We were pretty sure they were laughing at us. They were probably already congratulating themselves on their next big win. I was silently wishing we’d be running against anybody but them. Another loss to them would be just too much too bear. As luck would have it, we were scheduled to run the second race with THEM…AGAIN!

Quickly my friends and I made a pact. We agreed not to let those fancy pants girls get under our skin. We had a plan. Stay focused, go fast and ride hard. May the best team win.

Finally it was our turn to race. The bleachers and fences were packed with cheerful noisy spectators. The two teams rode out into the arena while the loud speaker called our names. Our horses were dancing about in anticipation. Lord please don’t let us knock down any poles!

The first two riders took their saddlebags and rode into the starting lanes. When the start whistle blew, the horses bolted out and quickly hit the first round corner of the track. The Eureka girl finished her race well in the lead and made a perfect bag exchange with her partner. Our team was a good 10 seconds behind, but we also made a picture perfect saddle bag hand off.

The second set of relay riders were off and running. Too my amazement the Eureka girl fumbled the first square corner. Her horse didn't make it and ended up swinging out wide into the field. The crowd groaned. She lost valuable time getting her horse back on track and up to speed. Our girl stuck to the track like a champ and made yet another perfect hand-off. Look who’s ahead now! The Eureka rider came around and slid her horse to a dusty stop. As she passed the saddle bags, her horse knocked down a pole. Ha! That will cost you 5 seconds.

Our team was on a roll. The third riders pushed their horses hard. Eureka to catch up and ours to hold the lead. I was next in line. As I watched the racers run around the track, I took my place in the narrow lane. My horse danced sideways and lunged. It was all I could do to hold her back long enough to get a hold of those bags. Our team was well in the lead now. Just as I grabbed for the bags my mare spun on her back feet and shot out toward the track. We knocked a pole down. Damn! But I didn't have time to worry about that now. I was completely focused on the track.

I stood in my stirrups, knees bent, shoulders forward and low over my horses’ neck. Go fast and ride hard. The first round corner was a breeze. My mare was wound up and ready to go. As much as I wanted to let her out, I had to hold her back. We had to maneuver that first square corner before I could give her the rein. We made a beautiful controlled run ‘round that 90º bend and then I let her rip. She opened up those long legs and boy did we fly. The ground was disappearing fast behind us and the second square corner fast approaching. The Eureka girl was just passing the first turn, nearly ½ of a track behind us!

I slowed my mare and we took that second square corner with ease. Then I opened her up and let her race round that last sweeping turn toward the passing lanes. We had it made! With the saddle bags in my teeth we slid to a wild stop. I kicked both feet out of the stirrups, turned in the saddle and threw my feet to the ground while throwing the reins over my horse's head. My 5th and last team member was at the ready with arm outstretched to take the bags….. when the unthinkable happened.

I was out of the saddle but my feet weren't touching the ground. It took me a few moments to realize that my shirt was hung up on the saddle horn! I was wearing a western shirt, buttoned down halfway and the remainder tied in a knot at my waist. I was hanging from my shirt off the saddle horn of my 16 hand tall horse; my feet better than 12” off the ground.

In desperation I attempted to scramble back into the saddle, but I had no leverage to lift myself up. Meanwhile my confused mare started running back down the track in the wrong direction, with me dangling at her side and the dropped reins trailing in the wind! I could hear the din of the crowd and the loud speaker blaring something about the race. I grabbed the loose reins and managed to turn my running horse back towards the passing lanes, and then…….RIP!

My shirt gave way with a sickening rip and I fell spread eagle, face down in the dirt, not twenty feet from the roaring crowd. I didn't move a muscle. I was at the age where I was embarrassed to stand next to my Mother at the grocery store when she was buying toilet paper. There was no way in hell I was going to let half the population of McKinleyville see me in my bra!

The crowd gasped. “She’s not moving,” someone screamed. Is she OK? Get help! I wasn't hurt, but I wanted to die in the worst way. I could feel several hundred eyeballs staring at me and the noise of the crowd added to the spectacle. Finally one of the men directing the event ran over and picked me out of the dirt. I was clutching what remained of my shirt to my chest. He looked at me and then he looked over at my last team member. She was screaming at me to get up and ride!

He handed me his jacket and pulled me to my feet. It was only then that I realized the race was still on. We hadn't lost yet! The Eureka girl should have passed her bags to the last rider by now, but she hadn't. She had been far behind, and in her efforts to catch up, she took a square corner too fast and crashed her horse into the fence. Her horse was running loose in the field and mine was running loose in the arena and the crowd was going wild!

My horse was prancing around the arena in a great big showy display. I ran to catch her. Just as my butt hit the saddle, the Eureka girl came barreling around the last bend. She too had caught her horse and was heading straight towards the passing lanes to hand over her saddle bags. Nearly neck and neck we passed our bags to the last and final riders of the relay team.

By now the crowd was in frenzy. The last two riders hit the race track leaving a cloud of dust in their wake. They were racing side by side until they reached that first square corner. That’s where we had the advantage. Our 5th rider was our ‘Ace in the hole’. She was riding her 3 time, high point winner of the year, barrel racing champion. That little paint mare of hers was crazy fast around corners. She didn’t even bother to slow down. Our rider hugged those corners so tight and fast, that Eureka girl didn’t have a prayer. The remainder of the track was polished off in short order. Our girl blew through the finish line with saddles bags held high in the air for all to see with a full 38 second lead!

My prized belt buckle

The crowd was roaring with cheers and whoops while the announcer on the loud speaker clamored to be heard over the din. Unbelievably, we had won!

Our gang, a bunch of rag tag kids from McKinleyville beat the pants off of those rich girls from Eureka. Oh happy day! You never saw such a proud bunch of kids in your life. And what a motley looking crew we were. Grinning from ear to ear, we lined up at the front of the arena to accept our winnings. Each team rider received a brand spanking new shiny belt buckle that read “Pony Express Race 1983”. These weren't just belt buckles; they were badges of honor, living proof that we had won against all odds.

The Eureka girls were no where to be seen. It seems that they had skulked off back to their trucks. My friends and I were already planning next year’s race… being that we had put together such a winning team and all. There was just one thing we all agreed needed changing. Next year, everyone agreed to wear t-shirts tucked into our pants so we couldn't get hung up on our saddle horns.

We all wore those belt buckles with pride, and anytime someone asked, “Where are you from?” we proudly responded, “McKinleyville!”

Written by Cathy Cleveland © 2013

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