Enjoy the Ride…A Barn Rat’s Tale
By Brooke Waldron
It doesn’t happen often anymore, but if you play the first five chords of Hal Ketchum’s, “Small Town Saturday Night” he’ll appear through the fog of my memories. Gregarious, strong, and coated in dust and sweat. The self-proclaimed “first black cowboy in Fairfax County.”
An eclectic mix of horseman, wild-man, father and friend. He took kids under his wing and made all the upper-class yuppies in McLean and Great Falls uncomfortable.
His name was Jim Moss.
Horses would run down a hill from being turned out over-night and he’d throw a scoop of feed in every bucket as they waited impatiently along the fence line. As a kid, I lived to watch the magic happen – he’d swing open the gate, let out a rebel yell and all 30 horses would simultaneously run into their stalls. To this day, I’m mystified by the organized chaos of it all – a feat that only Jim could have (or would have) pulled off!
Back in the hay day of my youth, summers weren’t scheduled. There weren’t waivers or emergency preparedness plans. We didn’t have a laundry list of activities to check off, or Pinterest crafts to create, or Tik Tok videos to film. We had our horses and our friends, and Shadybook Stables… our playground.
“Hey Brookie baby!”…”Half Pint!”…”Blondie!”…”Muscles!”…”Shorty!”
…and others that I’ve now replaced with proper names of adulthood.
Since Jim was a one-man-band, horse care was pretty much up to whoever would pitch-in and everyone felt an obligation to help – cleaning stalls, watering, grooming, you name it. There was an equal amount of expectation from him and respect from us – a badge of honor we wore with pride.
If you weren’t there to help… you weren’t invited to be there.
After chores were done it was free rein…literally. Double bareback in halters and lead ropes, we were off to the water hole. Kids and ponies – free from authority, we galloped the trails that I’m sure have been overtaken with homes or abandoned because of liability. We’d ride down rocky paths, through pine forests, swim with our horses, and take off up “dead-man’s hill”, allowing our wet-noodle bodies to slide down our pony’s rumps like wild Indians.
We’d hoot and holler, sing and joke – having a grand ol’ time and mostly staying out of trouble. Surprisingly enough, I can’t remember falling off except for the one time I was launched into barbed wire when my horse stopped at a log (I still have the scar on my hand to prove it). One day, someone had the bright idea that we should disguise ourselves as we rode through the woods. We pulled leaves and vines and stuffed them in our shirts, shorts and helmets thinking we were the queens of the forest…only to show up the next day covered in poison ivy!
Sometime in the afternoon, Jim would pile us up in the back of his truck like sardines (seat belts weren’t a consideration) and we’d ride with our hair blowing in the breeze to the 7-11, where we’d stock up on Funions and Slurpees (or any other junk our parents wouldn’t usually allow us to have). With that, we’d have the energy we needed for the circus-like antics of the afternoon – leapfrog mounting, barrel racing, jump-off’s. We rarely had formal lessons and spent most of our time learning from each other – holding mane and our breaths, believing in our ponies and vowing to show others their prowess.
The dares would escalate through the day and as the summer progressed. Late night trail rides, riding backwards bareback from the creek and jumping over people…things that we’d never allow now because it’s hard to believe we lived through them.
By the time our parents picked us up, we were stinky and smiling – barn rats personified.
Year-after-year through the fall, winter and spring we’d meet up and ride everyday, but we all lived for the carefree abandon of summer.
I ventured onto college horseless and heartbroken. I remember sitting in the dining hall, in tears over missing my horses and my life in the barn. I joined the equestrian team at the University of Delaware and moved to an apartment by the college farm as soon as I could – taking any opportunity to be around horses because I never knew life without them.
I rode english, western, foaled out University mares (Haflingers I might add – I think that might be why they are my favorite breed). I halter broke Oldenburg weanlings (I have a couple funny stories from that) and worked for a breeding and training farm as a peon on the weekends.
From the time I was 8, I committed myself to pursuing a life with horses and had my sights set – tunnel vision style – on becoming an equine vet because it was the only option that I thought existed. I landed the opportunity to work for Virginia Equine Imaging in the summers and winters and learned so much as an apprentice at Dr. Allen’s amazing practice. One important lesson being…I wasn’t cut out to be a vet.
First of all, I got woozy at some of the gnarly injuries that horses managed to collect and secondly, I had a hard time building relationships with horses that I only saw for a few moments. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until my senior year that this realization hit me and it wasn’t easy to stomach.
I clutched at straws, trying to come up with a viable “plan B” which didn’t seem to exist for a scrappy rider who didn’t have a major show record or solid connections in the horse world. I decided horses would have to take a back-seat so I could land a “real job.”
I tried on a few options.
Nothing seemed to fit.
A floundering young adult now, the classic country music, the dust of the arena and the mixed smell of manure and hay reminded me of who I was – a barn rat.
Jim (I suspect he saw my desperation) threw me into teaching an impromptu lesson to his next generation and I left with an idea.
I was going to become a teacher!
(If you are involved with Sprout, you probably know my journey from teacher to possabilitarian…and if not, that’s another story for another day.)
The year I graduated from my masters program was the year Jim passed away. I had a chance to visit him before he died and I told him some of the things we did with our horses when he wasn’t looking.
We chuckled and sighed…and not too long after, he galloped off to heaven with his wife and son by his side.
Jim was a legend. A misfit, unencumbered character in an uptight town – and he gave so many a chance to be the same… to be themselves – unbridled and free.
His family hosted a memorial and people came from far and wide to give a testimony on his impact on their lives. One-by-one, hundreds of his “kids” shared the tales of adventure and abandon – opportunities Jim provided by letting us take the reins on our lives (whether we were ready or not).
It took two full days for the memories to pour out – a mark that few rarely make on this world. The people who loved him and learned from him have horses forever imprinted on their hearts – and many are still in the barn every day, with horses personally or professionally (a feat not many trainers can claim)…and to me, that’s more important than any award on a wall. A living legacy that continues to unfold to this day.
Jim wasn’t a world-class rider or trainer – he had no ribbons, prizes or traditional accolades to his name. He didn’t run a disciplined program full of standards and processes. He didn’t buy the most expensive horses, heck, I don’t think I ever saw him clean a saddle! But the guy knew how to believe in a person enough to turn them loose – to let them take chances, make mistakes and enjoy the ride.
As I muddle through my professional career, I’ve found that it’s easy to get caught up in keeping up. And I think Jim would remind me to let that go and embrace who I am – a barn rat who loves people and horses
… and the idea of people loving horses.
So, Jim, I’m going to enjoy the ride.