Couch cowboys

By Bill Monson

I love cowboy movies. I grew up on matinee westerns at the late, lamented West and Colonial theaters. When television came along, I was a fan of GUNSMOKE, WYATT EARP and MAVERICK. Every Wednesday night at 6:30, our family ate supper on TV trays while we watched WAGON TRAIN.

Now, thanks mostly to Ted Turner, who acquired them for his various networks, I can watch all kinds of movie westerns in my living room as well as old TV western series on the TV Land Channel.

Part of my love was the thrill of the cowboy and his horse at full speed, usually shot from a moving camera car. I always wanted to climb into the saddle and gallop across the prairie.

Unfortunately, in my youth, the prairie around Galesburg was all full of cornfields. You could rent a horse at Har-Gol Stables on Whitesboro, but you just rode in circles in a pasture and the horses just dawdled along, half asleep. In search of stronger stuff, I once dropped onto a horse dozing under a tree. I got about four crow hops bareback before the bucking bronc unloaded me on my head.

That should have been a lesson to me that horses have a mind of their own and that riding one, especially full tilt, was not as easy as John Wayne, Roy Rogers or Randolph Scott made it look in movies. (Gene Autry used a double for his riding scenes early in his career!)

In my 20s, I dated a pretty girl from Texas who loved to ride. Since we were in Hollywood, the only place to ride was in Griffith Park. However, the rental stables were situated north of the Los Angeles River which runs along the northern border of the park. The river--which any cowboy worth his chaw could spit across 11 months of the year--ran in a concrete channel which could only be crossed on a narrow bridge that was not wide enough for two horses to cross side by side. (Do you suspect where this is going?)

The horses we rented were about two jumps ahead of dog food, but they knew when they headed south, they were bound for hilly trails. Headed north, hay and oats. We could barely get them to move, and the rental stables did not allow spurs or riding crops. The reins were too short for a whack on the rump. So – about one ride in four, a horse (usually mine) would balk at the bridge – or even worse, in the middle of the bridge. Yahoo! A four-legged L.A. traffic jam (or SigAlert as they called them in Smog City, U.S.A.)

Even when we did get the nags across, it was slow motion up the trails that wound into the hills of Griffith Park. Most of the time, we had to ride single-file. Being a gentleman, I let my date go first – which meant every hundred yards or so, I was subjected to what that gal got in the Super Bowl commercial (minus the pyrotechnics!)

The goal was to get to the top where, if the smog was light, we could see a great view of L.A. and the San Fernando Valley. We rarely made it, because on weekends, the horses rented only for an hour; and the 30-minute mark usually found us nowhere near the top. So, regretfully, we’d turn around to start down.

All of a sudden, the horses acted like they were rounding the final turn at Santa Anita. They grabbed the bits in their teeth and ran! My Texas cowgirl yipped and laughed as she thundered down the trail. I stood in the stirrups and leaned back on the reins as my horse sought to pass hers. We’d reach the flat along the river with both horses straining to be first to the bridge. And usually there were slow, outbound horses on it coming the other way!

Fortunately, there was a park ranger on horseback near the bridge to haul in runaways. The mere sight of him was enough to slow most of the rental nags. He carried a riding crop!

We never did the flying wedge at the bridge, though I heard tales of riders who’d suffered painful leg injuries before the park hired a ranger. Eventually, we’d get our turn and ride across to the stables where the wrangler might have some pungent remarks about greenhorns who brought back his horses all sweated up.

The end of the story was usually the same – soaking my nethers in a tub and wearing liniment and walking butt-sprung into work on Monday morning. The Texas gal and I eventually parted ways, and I haven’t been on a horse in over 40 years.