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.
November 22, 1982
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.
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.