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The first time I fell off, I didn't actually fall. I was dragged.
It was my first day on the ranch, and I had been on the horse for six hours. By that time my legs ached from ankle to hipbone, and my back and shoulders were no better. I was so miserable, waiting for it all to end, that I didn't see the low-slung, jury-rigged telephone wire that stretched seven or eight feet above the ground between slim, wide-spaced poles. The other two riders ducked under it. I rode into it. The wire hit me at chest level and slid to throat level before I was even aware of it. At a trot or a gallop I would have been garroted, possibly beheaded. At a slow walk I was simply dragged backward—out of the stirrups, out of the saddle. I slid slowly over my horse's rump and thudded to the ground.
In touch with the land! That was why I was here. My father had told me over many dinner tables that all the great Presidents had been in touch with the land. It was too early to say whether I was presidential timber, but in case I was, I'd better get in touch with the land. Look at Washington, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt. In his youth my father had spent a year on a ranch and had loved it. Riding was the greatest exercise in the world and would do wonders for me in the sports I really cared about: baseball, basketball, tennis. What better time for me than the year between high school and college? So here I was, age 17, 35 miles south of Alpine, Texas on some 275,000 acres of the 0-2 Ranch, running for President.
The foreman, Mr. Billingsley, who didn't realize he was my campaign manager, had been handed me by the ranch owner, a college friend of my father's. Mr. Billingsley didn't take kindly to this assignment, and I couldn't blame him. I had never been on even a dude ranch, much less a serious working ranch like the 0-2. I had spent scarcely any time on horseback, none of it in a Western saddle. I didn't know anything about cattle beyond the fact that they were supposed to provide meat and milk, and I had never mended a fence. But Mr. Billingsley was stuck with me and was responsible for my survival. He made the best of it.
Of the 25 horses on the ranch, three were so old, so lame or so decrepit that they should have been sold for dogmeat. They were no longer fit for hard ranch work, but my presence gave them one more year of life. Because they were deemed safe, they became my string, and they too made the best of it. None of them had thrown a rider in years, but now they had something to work with. I rejuvenated them.
The telephone-wire horse was a fat, placid black named Prince. When I was dragged off him, he simply stopped to rest. Mr. Billingsley rode over to check that I wasn't seriously injured and told me to climb back on. Even though Prince was standing stock-still, something he never did after our subsequent separations, I could barely haul myself onto his back to complete our painful return to the corral.
My second horse, Bootlegger, was a sorry sorrel who must have earned his sprightly name long ago. A small, thin, infinitely weary animal, he had one goal in his declining years: comfort. He knew only one way to get it: Whenever he was being saddled, he puffed himself up until the cinch had been drawn tight. Then he relaxed, letting out his breath. Bootlegger had a full chest expansion of only about two inches, but his trick meant that during a long working day the cinch would be loose instead of snug, like wearing a belt a notch or two less than firm. Unfortunately, that also meant that the whole saddle apparatus was a notch or two less than firm and subject to slippage during sharp turns. Bootlegger got me the first day I rode him.
During what struck me as a wild gallop, although it was only a puny effort to keep up with a running steer, we had to make a sudden change in direction. Bootlegger obediently made the turn, but the saddle didn't. It slid off his shoulder and I followed it—all the way to the ground. In touch with the land again.
Bootlegger was smarter than Prince. As soon as he had lost me, he took off for the corral. I would have had a five-mile walk home if the real cowboy working with me hadn't seen what happened. He rode after Bootlegger and brought him back to the presidential candidate.
Bootlegger pulled his trick, which I didn't even recognize as a trick, several times with the same result before Mr. Billingsley stepped in. While I was saddling Bootlegger the fourth time, Mr. Billingsley said, "That horse is foxing you." He couldn't believe that a horse one step from the boneyard was outwitting an 0-2 employee, but it wasn't going to outwit him. He kicked Bootlegger hard in the belly, and the horse let out a startled whoosh. Before Bootlegger could puff up once again, Mr. Billingsley took two more notches in the cinch. That day I didn't fall off. But having been brought up to be kind to animals, I couldn't give Bootlegger that fierce kick. Instead, I learned to wait him out. He could hold his breath only so long, especially at his age, and when he had to relax before taking another deep breath, I was ready for a quick pull on the cinch, gaining one or two notches and perhaps a full day in the saddle.