Possum – A Wise Old Horse for a Beginner
by Heather Smith Thomas of Salmon, ID
This article is an excerpt from Heather Smith Thomas’ book, Horse Tales. Each story in Horse Tales centers on the author’s experiences with a specific animal, and is infused with lessons on life, family and stockmanship. Together, the stories comprise a beautiful memoir about a remarkable life with horses, and offer a unique glimpse into ranch life in rural Idaho.
When I was a little girl, I wanted a horse. My parents lived in town, with no place to keep a horse; my dad was the preacher at the Methodist Church in Salmon, a small town in the mountains of central eastern Idaho. But I always dreamed about living on a ranch. When I was 9 (in 1953) my fondest wish came true, and I finally had a real horse—and this was the beginning of a long love affair with horses.
I can’t remember when I first fell in love with horses. My parents told me that before I could walk or talk, I looked at pictures of horses in storybooks. My favorite stuffed animal was a funny-looking, long-necked horse with a string mane. I called him “Shore-shay”, which was the closest I could come to saying “horsie”.
As a young kid I spent much of my time playing with small plastic horses, making my own farms with tinker-toy corrals in our living room, or galloping herds of “wild horses” over the front yard lawn and my mom’s flower beds. If my friends came to our house to play, we played with toy horses.
Sometimes we pretended to be wild horses, snorting and galloping around the back yard, or rode broom-handle stick horses, playing cowboy. I had a sleek black handle from an old janitor’s mop; in my imagination this was a fiery black steed with a long black mane and tail.
I wanted a real horse, but we didn’t have a place to keep one. My dream seemed impossible but I started saving all my pennies, nickels and dimes (allowance money) and birthday dollars from grandparents, in hopes that someday I could buy a horse.
My parents probably wished I was more interested in practical things like learning to cook or sew, or music lessons, but I preferred to spend as much time as possible outdoors. My father even bribed me—promising me a horse if I could learn to play the piano as well as mom did. For a while I resigned myself to lessons, but my heart wasn’t in it. I daydreamed about riding horses.
Finally my father must have realized that the piano would never be a serious interest. The spring I turned 9, he started looking for a horse. A rancher at the bottom of the mountain behind our town, Fred Kohl, agreed to pasture a horse for us. After looking at several horses, my father found one he felt was suitable for a child, and took my little brother and me to see it.
His name was Possum — perhaps he got that name because he was lazy and often pretended to be asleep. He was owned by a teenage girl who was buying a younger horse. Possum was a bay gelding with a white face and a blue eye where the white marking surrounded the eye. He was calm and gentle (some people would say lazy) and accustomed to being handled by children. He’d been retired from a riding stable in a larger town, purchased by a family with young children. He was resold when those children grew older, and resold again. It would be hard to guess how many children had learned to ride on him.
It was also hard to tell how old he was. The present owners didn’t know, and it was difficult to tell by looking at his teeth. He was past the point where a horse’s age can be accurately determined by the teeth. He was probably in his mid 20’s. But he was healthy and sound, and a safe mount for a small 9-year-old girl.
Linda Jo Herndon, the teenager selling him, put on his bridle, and my dad boosted me onto Possum’s broad back. He was mellow and wise, and just stood there — until Linda Jo told me I had to kick with my heels or slap him on the rump with the reins. I finally got him into a plodding walk, but I didn’t care if he was slow and lazy. I was just happy to have a horse. It was love at first ride. I rode him slowly around the pasture bareback after instructions about how to pull on the reins to stop him, and how to make him turn right or left. It was wonderful to be sitting on a real live horse!
My dad paid for the horse ($50), and I chipped in my life savings ($5.55) as part of the payment. Dad bought a bridle at the saddle shop, adjusted the headstall to fit old Possum, and I rode him out of the pasture and along the road— with my parents and brother following slowly in our car. I rode Possum 2 miles around the outskirts of town to Mr. Kohl’s pasture, which would be Possum’s new home.
Possum and I had an immediate understanding. I didn’t care if he went slowly, or if he stopped to eat grass. I was just happy to be up there on his back. The old horse took very good care of me. He didn’t pay any attention to cars and trucks going by. In his long life he had encountered many things and had been ridden by so many children that nothing bothered him. He was a perfect horse for a beginner like me.
Possum’s pasture above town was about a mile from our house, but I hiked up there every day after school. At first Mr. Kohl, helped me catch him. Possum didn’t want to be caught and he’d kick up his heels and head for the far corner when he saw someone coming with a bridle. Mr. Kohl and I would corner him by the barn fence.
After a few days I was able to catch him by myself. I was very patient and it didn’t matter to me if there were a few moments (or even half an hour) of catand- mouse games before he allowed himself to be caught. I was never in a hurry, never got angry. I was in love with that horse. Maybe my lack of frustration had an effect. He realized I would just keep following him around, so he no longer trotted off when I came to ride him. Maybe because he had such easy work, he didn’t mind the riding. I never rode him very fast, and our lazy sojourns around the edge of town and up the mountain were never strenuous, and I often let him stop to graze along the way. Possum began to look forward to our rides, coming to meet me at the gate.
The hardest part was putting his bridle on. I was short and he was tall. If he held his head up high, I couldn’t reach it. So I coaxed him to put his head down, giving him a handful of lush grass or alfalfa, which he loved. Then I could slip the bridle on. There were clumps of alfalfa growing along the lane; I picked some on my way to the pasture.
Getting on him was difficult, since I rode bareback. I was too short to reach up and grab his mane and swing on, like I’d seen bigger kids do, so I had to lead him to a gate, fence, stump or some other object I could climb on and then slip onto his back.
After school was out for summer I’d usually spend the whole day with Possum. I had to clean my room and wash dishes first, but then I could hurry to Mr. Kohl’s place. I’d ride all morning, end up at our house for lunch (and let him graze in the back yard) then have mom or dad boost me back on so I could ride all afternoon.
My twin cousin and best friend (Diane Moser, born the same day) sometimes rode with me. We rode double along the quiet back streets at the upper end of town or in the hills beyond. Occasionally we were adventuresome and took longer rides, like the time we rode past the other end of town to visit a friend who lived on a ranch. The biggest problem with extended excursions was finding a way to get back on Possum if we got off. One of us could boost the other one up, but then the second person had no way to get on, and had to walk until we found a fence or something to climb onto.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and I figured out a way to get on Possum without a fence. He and I worked out a system. I’d lead him to a grassy area, and while he had his head down grazing, I straddled his neck, facing his withers. Then he’d raise his head and I’d slide and wiggle to his back, turning around to mounted position.
Diane and I also worked out a way to take turns sitting in front. It was always more fun to be the “driver”. The person behind was merely a passenger. But to take turns, we had to switch places without getting off, since it wasn’t always easy to get back on. Diane wasn’t brave enough to try the get-on-the-neck trick. So the person in front would scrunch down and scoot backward while the person behind would carefully go over the top of her and end up in front. Possum patiently stood still, so we could do it safely.
He was accustomed to children’s antics and was a perfect babysitter. Sometimes I left him in the backyard at Moser’s house and neighborhood children came to pet him, walk under his belly, or run up behind him while he was tied or grazing, and he didn’t mind. He never spooked, kicked or bit. Even my mom finally quit worrying about the possibility of an accident.
The only “accident” that happened that summer occurred when there were no people around, and it taught me an important lesson. I occasionally rode with another young friend, Janet Meeks, who had a mare named Dolly. That hot afternoon, we had ridden for several hours and stopped at my house for some lemonade. We tied the horses by their bridle reins to an old power pole lying on the ground behind our garage, in the shade, next to the street.
The horses stood patiently for about an hour as we talked and rested in the house. Then we heard a loud bang and clatter. We rushed outside to check on the horses and found that the big pole had been pulled out into the street. The neighbor’s garbage can was rolling down the street. Possum and Dolly were galloping away, heading downtown. We ran after the horses and finally caught them. Dolly’s bridle was broken and Possum’s headstall was completely off. I found it lying in the road with the metal bit bent and smashed, where the power pole had rolled over it. I tied the broken reins around his neck to lead him home.
Something must have startled the horses, and they pulled backward. Since the pole was merely lying on the ground, it probably moved, rolling toward them and frightening them even more. So of course they tried to run away from it, and pulled it out into the road, knocking over the garbage can. The clatter probably made them pull even harder! They broke their bridles and ran off. My dad took Possum’s bridle to the saddle shop to have Mr. Stone straighten the bit and mend the reins and headstall.
I learned a lesson that day. Never tie a horse by the bridle reins, and never tie to anything that might move. Possum got over his scare and was still well-mannered about being tied, but if this had happened to a younger, more nervous horse, this bad experience might have made the horse untrustworthy for tying in the future. I tried to never do anything that foolish again.
Having a horse in the family changed our lives. My dad had grown up on a farm near Rupert, Idaho, and enjoyed rural life; my parents wanted to find a place out of town, and now they had more incentive because we needed a place to keep our horse. That fall (1953) they found a little log cabin on 7 acres, for sale. It was 16 miles from town, up Withington Creek, in the bottom of a canyon. The next spring we borrowed a horse trailer and took Possum up there, and lived in the cabin the next two summers when my little brother Rocky and I weren’t in school.
There was no traffic on the little dirt road; the cabin was in the forest, above all the ranches. The little creek was cool and my brother and I spent happy hours playing in the water on hot afternoons. There was no electricity; our food was kept cool in waterproof containers in the creek, or in the old cellar dug into the mountain. We used candles and kerosene lanterns in the cabin at night, and a flashlight to go to the outhouse in the dark—hoping we wouldn’t meet a skunk or a bear.
When it rained a lot, the road was impassible. Several times that summer our car couldn’t make it through the mud. We spent a day or 2 each weekend at our house (the church parsonage) in town, to go to church and do our shopping and laundry.
Mom took our weeks’ worth of clothes to town, to wash in our electric washing machine. But when the road was too muddy to get clear up to the cabin, we had to park the car a couple miles below it, and hike up the road. When we came down later in the week we carried our laundry in a big duffel bag. But it was fun being isolated in our little cabin, in our own little world, up the creek.
The most fun was having new places to ride. Possum and I explored the jeep road up the canyon and into the mountains, but one time we went exploring too far. At the head of the canyon up the left fork of the creek was an old copper mine. I’d heard many tales about the Harmony mine but had never seen it. The mine was active during the 1920’s and at one time the Chicago gangster, Al Capone, owned a major interest in it. The copper ore was hauled out in wagons pulled by horses.
One morning Possum and I found ourselves at the fork of the creek and I decided to go up the left fork — which I’d never seen. The farther I went, the more I wondered about the abandoned mine, and thought we must be getting close. We kept climbing up the steep, rutted jeep tracks, though it was nearly lunchtime by then and mom would be expecting me back at the cabin. But I’d gone so far, I surely must be almost there.
The Harmony mine was much farther up the canyon than I expected, and it was afternoon by the time I reached the old mill building on the steep mountain. Farther up were old cabins, the cookhouse, and a steep road winding up through the timber to one of the mine tunnels. The mine hadn’t been worked for years, but there were so many things left in and around the buildings that it looked like people lived there a short time ago.
After a quick look around, I rode back down the jeep road, hurrying because we were so late. Indeed, mom was very worried when I didn’t show up for lunch. She imagined all kinds of accidents, and since Dad was in town for the day doing his work at the church office, mom and my little brother started up the road on foot to look for me.
I met them at one of the creek crossings where the old log bridge had washed out; they were trying to get across the creek on logs and rocks without getting their feet wet. They were very glad to see me, and after that, I tried not to worry my mother so much.
I got a dose of worry myself one day when we came back to the cabin after being in town for the weekend. Possum was gone. Fear clutched at my heart as I searched for him. There was a bad place in the fence by the creek in the bushes, and horse tracks on the other side of the fence in the soft dirt. Possum had stepped over the fence — into a 320-acre mountain pasture belonging to the rancher who lived farther down the creek. I hiked and hiked, and finally found Possum grazing in a grassy meadow along the brushy creek bottom, about a quarter mile from our place. I put his halter on and rode him home.
It was a wonderful summer, living at the cabin. One highlight was a family reunion when several aunts, uncles and cousins came to visit, and my grandma Lila Moser. She was past 70 and hadn’t ridden a horse since she was a young girl, but the family talked her into getting on old Possum. Dad put his old saddle on Possum, and he and Mom and an uncle helped grandmother onto the horse, first helping her up onto our picnic table, and from there she could step into the stirrup.
Once mounted, grandmother proudly rode Possum up and down the jeep track in front of the cabin. Possum walked slowly and carefully, and didn’t even try to stop and eat grass along the way. It was as though he knew he had a fragile, precious passenger.
He was such a wise old horse. He would trot or gallop for an experienced rider (as I became a better rider I loved to gallop him up a special place in the road that I called Possum’s Hill). But if a small child or inexperienced person was on his back, he’d never go faster than a walk, and was careful to not get close to thorny rosebriars or walk under a low-hanging tree branch. He took very good care of his inexperienced passengers.
The only time I ever saw him grumpy was when our cat, Thomas, kept rubbing on his nose while he was trying to graze as I was brushing him. Finally Possum had enough of the tickly cat hair, and took the cat’s tail in his teeth and picked him up by the tail. He didn’t bite hard enough to injure the cat; he just held him up in the air for a moment — yowling and clawing. The cat was unable to reach the horse with his claws, and eventually Possum set him down again. From then on, Thomas left Possum alone.
That summer we often ate meals outdoors, and my brother and I discovered that Possum loved watermelon rinds. After awhile, however, he got fussier, and would only eat them if there was still a little bit of juicy red stuff left on the rind!
Possum was probably the wisest horse I ever had. Though I’ve owned and raised dozens of horses, none of them were quite the same as old Possum. He lived with us for the rest of his life. He became slower and stiffer in old age, but was still the perfect horse for any young or inexperienced visitors.
He was well past middle age when he became part of our family in 1953, but the 6 years we had him were wonderful. As my first horse, he gave me confidence and a lot of experience — lessons that would stay with me through the rest of my career with horses. By the time he died, we had several other horses, a ranch, and I was living my dream — riding horses nearly every day and helping take care of cattle — and raising my first foal.
After spending 2 summers at the cabin up Withington Creek, my father went into partnership with his brother and borrowed money to buy the neighboring ranch when it was for sale in 1955. He bought a small herd of Hereford cattle, and several more horses. Possum was one of our “work string” when we rode range to check cattle or move them. He wasn’t the fastest horse when we had to chase a cow, but he did his job. He went on hunting trips every fall; Dad used him to pack out a deer or elk for our winter’s meat.
Old Possum was still healthy and strong through his final summer. We used him as a spare horse when we needed more riders to gather cattle, or when friends and relatives came to visit and wanted to ride. My mom, who had no horse experience and no desire to ride horses, overcame her timidity enough to ride Possum a few times; he was the only horse she felt was completely trustworthy. After my baby sister was born (12 years younger than I), mom let me take her with me on Possum for short rides. By the time she was 2 we let her sit in the saddle by herself as he grazed in the orchard. We knew he’d take good care of her and walk out around the low-hanging branches.
By contrast, he didn’t have as much patience with riders who made him work hard. He did his job when he had to chase cattle or travel all day in the mountains, but he preferred to be ridden by children. On occasion when we’d start out in the morning and Possum suspected it was going to be a long range ride or cattle roundup, he’d limp. Fearing he had a problem, his rider might take him back home. But miraculously, when heading home, the limp disappeared! We realized this must have been an old trick he’d used in the past, to get out of a hard day’s work. If we didn’t head back home, he’d give up the lame act and do his job.
His age caught up with him during the fall of 1959. His old joints became stiff and sore during cold weather and he had trouble getting up and down. We put him in the corral, where he could eat hay and not have to travel to feed and water or compete with younger horses for food. Dad broke ice for him at the creek. Standing around, with little exercise, his hind legs began to swell. Our vet thought he was suffering from kidney failure and prescribed medication to put in his grain. One morning (November 12, 1959) when Dad checked on him — after I had gone to school — he found the old horse lying down, unable to get up. The kindest thing to do was let him go.
I felt badly that I didn’t have a chance to say good-by, but I also knew it would have been cruel to let the old horse suffer any longer on the cold, frozen ground. I knew in my heart that my dad did the only humane thing. As a young horse owner, I learned that love is a two-way street. We love the creatures put into our care, but we also have a great responsibility to do what’s best for them—in life– and also when it comes time to end that life. I no longer had Possum, but I had all the good memories he left with me.
By then, I was in 4-H. In my 4-H scrapbook I drew sketches of my special old horse, and bade farewell to Possum who started me along the road to good horsemanship. I found a poem that expressed my emotions, and copied it into my scrapbook:
I love the earth your hoofs have pressed, the far skyline your eyes caressed;
The sunny days, the hills, the glades, the wind-stirred trees, the rugged trails
Are all more beautiful to me because you lived life joyfully.
And as you go, as all must do, I’ll keep the truths I learned from you.
My dad wrote a poem about the hard task of love, releasing a beloved horse from the bonds of pain, and it was among a group of poems he later printed in a small pamphlet (Ranchland Poems, by Don Ian Smith).
Old faithful horse, I find you by the creek.
You try to stand but you are much too weak.
I know the end has come for you at last;
Too many times has winter come, and passed.
Too many times we’ve heard the blackbirds call
In spring; watched summer turn to fall.
And I have tried before with pills and grain
To get you on those ancient feet again.
But I can tell this time it cannot be.
It’s in the way you moan and look at me.
You’ve been a great old horse, all I could ask.
You’ve never backed away from any task.
So many years have come to take their toll
Since first you were a bright-eyed little foal.
When you were young and strong you knew no fears
But now it’s been so many, many years.
O God, I wonder why it has to be
This hard and lonely act is left to me?
Love leaves no choice as far as I can see
But quick and kindly death to set you free.
I’ll get my gun down from the rifle rack.
Old friend, how many times you’ve had to pack
Some big old buck down off the steepest hill
When this same rifle made its smashing kill.
I’ll blink away the salty, futile tears,
Forget a moment, all the pleasant years.
I could not stand the sense of foolish shame
I’d feel if blurring vision spoiled my aim.
It’s hard for me to do this final task
And yet somehow I know it’s all you ask.
I cannot leave you lying here to die
By inches, while impatient magpies fly
Around your drooping head. They will not wait
The dignity of death to seal your fate.
There’s only one thing left for me to do,
And that’s to send this bullet straight and true
To smash your aching, aged, weary brain
And cut the snubbing rope of age and pain
That keeps your poor old body firmly bound
To this one little spot of frozen ground.
O God, it’s done… it’s all that I could do!
I think I feel, God, how it must hurt you
When your love takes a mortal life away
To set a spirit free, to let it play
Once more out in the pasture of the sky
Where grass is always green and bluebirds fly.