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Nostalgia March 2016

As I Recall...

Adventure in a Small Town

By Jerry L. Ginther

There were rewards for doing a little work around the barn, which included cleaning stalls. In the late afternoon when it was time to bring in the brood mares from pasture, I would get to ride one of them to the barn. They were so big it was like riding on a barn.

For a young boy with a bicycle in a town the size of Sullivan, Illinois, not much was too far distant for a little adventure. One such place was the training track of Roxborough Farms located on the northwest side of town. Roxborough was a training track for Standardbred racehorses, or harness racehorses.

In this type of horse racing, the jockey sits in a little two‑wheeled buggy behind the horse. This little buggy, called a sulky, is very lightweight and runs on two bicycle wheels with the seat located equidistant between the two. The first time I visited there I thought they were just “pony carts” being pulled by big horses. I was in for an interesting education in harness racing.

The grooms who worked there were older men who appeared to be retirement age or older. I’m pretty sure that none were less than 60, but were very congenial and seemed to love answering a young boy’s questions about horses and their training. Well, I’m not so sure about the last part of that statement, so I’ll just say they tolerated me pretty well. As I became a regular visitor they became more friendly and talkative. I learned quite a bit by just being allowed to watch and listen.

However, I was told that if I wanted to continue my visits I was to come alone, as they would not abide a bunch of rowdy boys. Not a problem, because I received the same warning when I frequented the railroad depot where I learned telegraphy. So, if I were cycling with others I avoided visits to some of my favorite places. Going alone afforded a much better learning environment as well as one‑on‑one tutoring.

Many times during my visits, they would be shoeing some of the horses, replacing a horse’s lost shoe or getting a complete new set of four. Each shoe was heated in a forge of brightly burning coals until it was cherry red. Then, it was beaten with a hammer on an anvil to the desired shape. What was originally a straight piece of iron became a horseshoe that perfectly fit the hoof for which it was made.

That was awesome to me, but the next step was just as fascinating. They nailed those shoes to the horse’s feet. My question: “Does that hurt?” The answer was just a few chuckles from the farrier followed by, “No son, that doesn’t hurt at all.”

Under the watchful eyes of my instructors, it wasn’t long before I could harness and unharness a horse about as fast as the old‑timers, albeit, I needed an additional piece of equipment, something to stand on. The only part of working with harness that I didn’t particularly look forward to was washing them in a bucket of water with saddle soap, but I would gladly do it just to be there.

Thankfully, cleaning of the harness wasn’t required very often.

There were rewards for doing a little work around the barn, which included cleaning stalls. In the late afternoon when it was time to bring in the brood mares from pasture, I would get to ride one of them to the barn. They were so big it was like riding on a barn. At first the height was a little scary, but the mares were in foal and so wide one could hardly fall off. It was sort of like sitting on a bed and trying to drop your legs over the sides.

Another part of the education was learning that harness horses do not just run, or gallop, as thoroughbred horses do. Harness race horses must maintain one of two gaits throughout the race, pacing or trotting. If they break stride and begin to gallop they must be pulled up, reined in, and a trot or pace reestablished before they can continue racing. Usually they cannot catch the pack once they go off stride. If they are off stride when they cross the finish line they are disqualified.

Looking back over the years, I have concluded that those of us who grew up in the 1950s and `60s had a lot of fun without the electronic gadgets in vogue today. Of course television was catching on in those days, but outdoor activities were still the main attractions. Staying indoors for us was tantamount to imprisonment. My bicycle was the one mode of exercise and adventure that I relied heavily upon. As for electronic gadgets, electric trains were about as sophisticated as electronic toys had become.

 

Jerry Ginther grew up in Sullivan IL and now resides in Texas. He has a degree in Christian Ministry and is the author of "Acquiring the Benefits of Biblical Wisdom," available in e‑book format on Amazon.com.

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