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Wrangler’s Wild Ride

That horse was like a runaway car with no brakes. How would she escape without being injured or worse?

Amber and Wrangler rehearse their moves.

It seemed that everyone in Texas who owned a horse competed in Play Days, but I had never tried. In our 22 years together, my horse, Wrangler, and I had participated in plenty of trail rides and parades. We’d even ridden in the Grand Entry at the Fort Worth Stock Show. 

But we’d never competed in skill and speed competitions, which was what Play Days were all about. 

“Have you ever considered joining the Wagon Wheel Saddle Club?” the veterinarian’s assistant asked one day after giving Wrangler a checkup.

“A club that competes,” I said, looking at the flyer up on her wall. “I don’t know about that.”

“It’s not too late to start,” she said. “Your horse would love it.”

I mentioned the idea to my husband, Lloyd, that night. Our son, Colton, was getting older and more independent, and I had more time on my hands. “The problem is, people in those clubs have been practicing for years,” I said. “I’d never be able to catch up.” 

“Why not give it a try?” said Lloyd. “I bet Wrangler would enjoy showing off.”

“That’s what the vet said, too.”

So there I was with Wrangler on the first day of Play Days season, watching a young girl weave her horse in and out of a line of barrels at top speed. A man plucked a flag out of a barrel full of sand, galloped to the other end of the ring and jammed the flag into another barrel. Talk about precision timing!

“What was I thinking?” I said, leaning on the fence with other folks who were watching. “I’m 42. How can I expect to compete with the likes of these people?”

“Don’t you worry,” the woman next to me said. She pointed to a white-haired man riding his horse through the iron posts in the L-shaped entry gate. “That fella’s a champion–in his seventies! This is one sport where age doesn’t matter.”

The man galloped out and expertly wove his horse through a cloverleaf pattern. I didn’t have youth or experience on my side. Lord, am I gonna just make a fool of myself? If so, I guessed I might as well get it over with. 

I saddled Wrangler up and mounted her. We headed into the entry gate and waited our turn. My legs bumped against the iron posts as she moved toward the circular arena. Each little jolt made me more nervous.

How can I maneuver around the ring, I thought, if I can’t even get through the gate without knocking into things? 

The judge gave us the go-ahead. I took a deep breath, leaned forward in the saddle and urged Wrangler into the ring. We trotted up to the first barrel and I pulled out the flag. So far so good. Now if I could just put the flag back into the second barrel without dropping it and getting disqualified.

I squeezed my legs against Wrangler’s sides, giving her the signal to speed up. Wrangler trotted faster. I leaned over and stuck the flag into the sand. I did it! I was nowhere near the pace of a champion at full gallop, but I thought I could hear Lloyd and Colton cheering in the stands.

Wrangler and I neared the exit gate. I tugged the reins gently. “Good girl,” I said, patting her neck. We turned the sharp corner of the gate, and my leg bumped against the iron posts.

I guessed there was just no way I was going to learn to clear those posts. At least we didn’t lose points for it, though. That wasn’t part of the competition.

Wrangler and I became regulars at the Saddle Club Play Days, and little by little our times improved. Still, I felt like we had catching up to do.

One day Wrangler seemed especially eager to get into the ring. I walked her through the L-gate to do a practice run on the barrels. As usual, my leg bumped against the iron posts. Still haven’t gotten around that! I thought. 

We galloped up to the barrels–our trotting days were behind us. I leaned forward as we reached the first one and kept my eyes on the second barrel I planned to lead Wrangler around.

But Wrangler had other ideas. She headed into a cloverleaf pattern, curving around the first barrel. She zigged, I zagged–and slid halfway off the right side of the saddle. My feet popped clean out of the stirrups!

Instinctively I gripped the saddle horn until my knuckles were white and held on with my legs. C’mon, Amber. Get yourself upright

Wrangler spooked. She ran at full gallop around the north side of the arena. I squeezed my legs around her sides to hang on. Wrangler felt the familiar signal to go faster. “No, Wrangler!”

She rounded the east side of the arena at top speed. Lord, how do I stop her? I gripped the saddle horn with all my might. Suddenly I was sitting square in the seat again. How on earth?

I tugged the reins to slow Wrangler down. Nothing happened. The curb chain that attached to Wrangler’s bridle had broken. She couldn’t feel my signal to ease up. My feet pressed against her sides. I couldn’t find the stirrups at this speed, much less slip my feet into them.

Like a runaway car with no brakes, Wrangler ran around the south side. I reached blindly with my feet and they slipped snugly into the stirrups as if someone had guided them in.

The gate was coming up fast with its iron posts that I never failed to knock into no matter how slowly Wrangler and I walked through. At this speed the posts could break my legs! I could get knocked off the horse from the blow.

I braced for the impact. Wrangler rushed into the gate, past every post, turned a sharp right at the L and continued on to a clearing. Once she was out of the ring she slowed to a stop. Not one post so much as brushed my legs!

A man from the club hurried up to me. “Are you all right?” he asked.

I slid off the saddle, nodding slowly. “Just a little dazed,” I told him. 

The man whistled. “Guess you found out what a good rider you were today!”

I didn’t know about that. I still didn’t have youth or much experience on my side. What I did have were angels, guiding me through one hairy adventure. Lloyd and Colton thought that was better than any catching up I could do.

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