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By Jay Thorwaldson

On Deadline: Summer camp can be unforgettable, even if you want to

Uploaded: Jul 26, 2011

The Weekly's cover story on summer camps last Friday (July 22) evoked some powerful camp memories of my own, dating back to the mid-1950s -- a measure of the power of the experience. (An invitation: Share your camp experiences under comments below.)

I was never a camper, but I was a junior counselor for two summers. The camp was on the border of Los Altos just across Adobe Creek from Palo Alto's Alta Mesa Cemetery.

I was initially assigned to the tent for 6-to-8 year olds, which meant airing out sleeping bags on the ropes of the large Army-surplus tent in the mornings. In my second year there I inherited the 10-12 year olds, smart urban kids who knew every make and year of car on the roads. Former U.S. Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth (raised in Palo Alto) was the senior swim coach. I doubt he would remember a junior counselor, three or four years younger, though.

And I was assigned to the camp horses, for good reason

My older sisters had horses on our Los Gatos property. I had both a wonderful big bay retired cowhorse, named Sam, that a retired Arizona cowboy, Jeff England, gave me at age 3. At 8, Jeff gave me a really mean pinto pony. She was named "Lady Bird" (long before Lady Bird Johnson made the name famous) but nicknamed "Baby." Lady Bird was way too refined a name for her.

The first time I got on her she bucked and I sailed through the air onto my back. My mother dashed down the back steps of our house, stood over me as I lay gasping vainly for breath, and said, "When you get bucked off get right back on." She was raised on a cattle ranch east of Clovis and Fresno. Thus began an eight-year love/hate relationship between me and the Indian pony, but I learned about horses, good and bad. Where was the "Horse Whisperer" when I needed him?

In hindsight I have concluded that one way to sharpen the survival instinct in a kid is to buy them a pony that is out to get or kill them, one way or another: biting (not nipping but full open-mouth biting) and cow kicking when being saddled, heading for low branches on purpose, even rolling over backwards a few times, bucking in public and private.

Baby learned the trick of bloating herself up and holding her breath when being cinched up then letting the air out when I started to climb on, causing the saddle to slip sideways. So I learned the trick of bringing up my right knee smartly into her belly to evoke an "OOF," then finishing the cinching.

But on the trail she became my confidant. I would talk or sing to her cowboy style about a young teen's doubts, sorrows and worries -- and good things. My grades would have been better had I spent more time on the books and less on the horse.

Thus each summer and most of the winter in the hills west of Los Gatos was like a summer-camp experience, sometimes shared with friends (a number of young girls had been given horses) or on long solo rides.

There was a large meadow atop the mountain west of Los Gatos that we called "Horse's Paradise." It was on the 2,000-acre Charles Moore estate, now part of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. The owners knew we used the property, but we were discreet about it. The meadow had an ancient, initial-scarred oak the branches of which reached the ground, and we'd let the horses graze while we kicked back in its sheltering shade.

So when an opportunity arose through a church-sponsored camp at age 14 I became a junior counselor teaching horseback riding to kids aged 6 to 12, many of whom had never been near a real horse before. Many were from big cities and a number were from what was euphemistically called "broken homes" a half century back. Who uses that old term today?

Because the senior counselor was a bit on the lazy side I wound up keeping the corrals clean, repairing broken fences, building non-sagging gates and spending many hours with kids terrified of these huge alien beasts.

I discovered that the best way to overcome the fear barrier when introducing a child to a horse is to get them to touch the horse just above the upper lip. There is an incredibly soft spot and the horses seem to like being rubbed softly there. Then the child is soon petting the face, then the neck and soon is helping brush and curry-comb the sides and flanks.

The riding part is easy from that point on. Fear is the barrier, as in so many things in life.

I also learned that horses have a sense of mischief and humor, or what passes for such. One horse of the half dozen at the camp was a mustang, the proud wild breed of the West. We kept him in a separate corral so he wouldn't bully the other horses. He even had Baby cowed. He was a strawberry roan (small pinkish or reddish speckles all over), and his head was a bit large for his lean, rangy body.

Every two weekends at the camp was "parents day" when families would visit. I soon discovered that a wooden corral fence is an irresistible magnet for men's elbows. It seemed that every father would rest his arms on the top board and stand there looking in, even if I warned them not to.

The mustang would be muzzling the dust about 15 or 20 feet away, pretending to be seeking food. But his ears were focused, and he would watch out of the corner of one eye. When elbows showed up on the fence, he suddenly would wheel around, let out a loud snort and charge across the circular corral full speed with mouth wide open. He would bring his upper teeth down on the board (with a bang!) about 3 or 4 inches from the startled man's left elbow. A horse's wide-open mouth in full-charge mode is a scary sight. He never connected, but the man would stagger back. One or two even fell over backwards.

The horse then returned to his muzzling the dust, awaiting his next victim. He seemed smug and pleased with himself, but perhaps that's an anthropomorphism on my part.

At some point I decided the horse was just having fun, bluffing. I thought long on how to break him of the nasty trick.

One evening after dinner during the last-of-the-sunset dusk above the camp I mosied out to the corral and rested my elbows on his fence. (Ex-cowboys are allowed to use "mosey" once in awhile.) The mustang seemed puzzled, and started his routine of muzzling. Then he wheeled and charged. Bang on the fence. I didn't move. He shook his head, then tried again. I gently scolded him: "Bad horse," "Now be a good horse" type stuff.

Next I opened the gate and went inside, pretty sure of myself but not positive about his response to the new level of intrusion into his turf.

I leaned back against the fence and rested my elbows on the top board. He charged. Bang, inches from my left elbow. He did it again, once or twice, then shook his head and gave up. I went over and patted his neck, scratched behind his ears, rubbed his side, made peace.

I don't know why to this day, but somehow this broke him of that game. I hope I didn't destroy his spirit. Yet I think the "Horse Whisperer" would have approved of my method, even if Baby never did.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at [email protected] In addition to his online blogs, his print columns run twice monthly in the Palo Alto Weekly.