My third horse was known to Mr. Billingsley as "that old lame gray." As a 17-year-old cowboy, I couldn't bear this unromantic designation for my steed, so to me he was secretly known as Gray Eagle. A more appropriate name would have been Lame Gray Eagle because he did have a crippled left hind ankle that produced a most unusual gait. Trotting him was like flying an airplane through high turbulence. Galloping him was like being inside a milkshake mixer.
Of all my string, Gray Eagle was least given to misbehavior, even under my inspired leadership. Favoring his bad leg, he would put up with almost anything. I finally drove him out of his lethargy one day when we were mending fences. Riding through cactus, I had picked up a sharp-pronged bulb on the stirrup leather. I didn't notice it, but I never noticed anything until too late. After dismounting to staple a strand of barbed wire to a fence post, I returned to my horse. Turning the stirrup inward as I had been taught, I jammed my foot in and rose smoothly toward the saddle. I was in midair when the inch-long cactus spikes sank into Gray Eagle's flank. The sharp message reached his dozing brain; he forgot who he was and actually bucked, hurling me clear over the saddle and into the barbed wire. A few minor scratches for me, but Gray Eagle went right on bucking, carried away by the excitement of his lost youth. For the months that he and I remained together—off and on—he was never the same. None of my horses was ever the same, once I had shown them the way.
Whole days passed, 12- and 14-hour days, when I didn't fall off, but these were infrequent. There were so many opportunities to get in touch with the land. A jackrabbit suddenly darting in front of my horse, a quick shy and a quick aerial dismount. A rattlesnake whirring unexpectedly from beneath a mesquite bush, a snort and jump, and a fall. My horse approaching a narrow two-foot ravine and, instead of taking it, an abrupt stop, then a plunge forward as I plunged backward. Urging my horse at a gallop into unnoticed muddy ground into which his legs sank, bringing him to a halt—but not me. Falling asleep in the saddle at the end of a long day, just when my horse scented home and broke into a canter. Once I hit the ground still fast asleep.
I don't know what any of this was doing for my baseball game, but I was never seriously hurt, not even on the day when I fell off Prince three times in three different ways. That horse actually whinnied with pride when turned loose in the corral that evening, but I had only half a dozen bruises. Tough hombre.
Mr. Billingsley, who was responsible for getting me off the ranch alive, was hard-pressed at roundup time. Now, instead of a couple of us mending fences or bringing sick cattle back to the corral for doctoring, he had to hire a dozen extra hands to bring in 5,000 steers for shipment north. I had been looking forward to this seminal event: the end of the year, roundup time in Texas, just a-sweatin', swayin', swearin' with a posse of real cowboys, of whom I could count myself one. But to Mr. Billingsley the vision of my riding and falling for four days among 5,000 ornery, hysterical steers was more than he could tolerate. The morning that roundup began, while all my new colleagues were saddling up, he told me I was to be cook's helper. I spent the culmination of my career collecting mesquite root for the cook's fire and washing the cook's pots and pans, which were many and dirty. The working cowboys insulted the cook before, during and after every meal for his perpetrations, but I didn't even get a dishonorable mention.
When I left the 0-2, I didn't go on to become President. I never even won a primary. If there was any improvement in my baseball, basketball or tennis prowess, it was indiscernible. But having been in touch with the land more often and in more ways than my father had ever imagined, I did promise myself that I would never again ride a horse. Never. It was a promise I kept for 40 years.
Last year I broke it. Trapped in a business meeting at a dude ranch in Wyoming and with a certain amount of professional honor at stake, I was persuaded to join the gang on an afternoon ride. I asked for and secured a horse that was "not too spirited," claiming a bad back I didn't possess. Checking to make sure there was no cactus embedded in the stirrup, I climbed aboard, and there I was—back in the saddle again, out where a friend is a friend. I waited while the rest of the group mounted.
The best rider among us, a business friend who keeps his own horses, looked me over appraisingly. Finally he said, "You have a very nice seat."
Was there a snort from Mr. Billingsley in Valhalla? A trio of snorts from my string in the Great Corral? No matter.
"Thanks," I said in the casual voice of an old cowhand. Some things are even better than being President.