As I see it: Riding with my cowboy heroes in my heart

Photo by Mike Licht used under Creative Commons license.

By Patty Juliuson, Columnist

Considering the variety of majors offered at SNU, it has always impressed me that our university has an equestrian program. If you’re looking for a career in the equine world, SNU can help you prepare. For those who don’t know a halter from a hock, there’s another aspect of this program that applies to you: horsemanship classes.

I enrolled in Elementary Horsemanship as a way to reconnect with a passion that almost consumed my childhood. I was HORSE CRAZY. I loved the beautiful animals and adored the people who rode them. I didn’t have teen idol photos on my bedroom wall; I had pictures of horses. When my family moved from California to Idaho, my dad bought two horses and I was in heaven. However, life is full of sharp curves, and when my parents split, the horses were among the first things to go. I couldn’t watch as the new owners pulled up with their horse trailer; I cried myself sick.

It’s been 40 years since I was in the saddle, and I have forgotten a lot of what used to be second nature. What I have not lost is the sheer love of horses. When we stepped into the barn for the first time, the familiar smell triggered a response so strong, my eyes filled with tears. The same thing happened last week on a trail ride; sun, horses, fresh air… the memories almost overwhelmed me. Now that I’ve gotten comfortable with horses again, I find that I smile as I ride. I think I’ll revert to my kindergarten career choice. When I grow up, I want to be a cowboy. My heroes have always been cowboys.

In my day, Saturday-morning movie cowboys were great role models. Gene Autry, World War II veteran and country music star, created the “Cowboy Code” in 1947:
• The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
• He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
• He must always tell the truth.
• He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
• He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
• He must help people in distress.
• He must be a good worker
• He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
• He must respect women, parents, and his nation’s laws.
• The Cowboy is a patriot.
In case you didn’t know, Autry also wrote “Here Comes Santa Claus” and had chart-topping hits with “Frosty the Snowman,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” He was the original owner of the baseball team that eventually became known as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and was vice president of the American League for over 15 years. A small town north of Ardmore, Oklahoma, is named in his honor. The next time you drive to Dallas, look for the exit for Gene Autry, OK. You’re somebody when they name the whole town after you.

Audie Murphy was another favorite. A fifth-grade dropout who hunted game to help feed his nine brothers and sisters, Murphy enlisted in the Army at the age of 17 and became one of the most famous and highly-decorated soldiers in America. His wartime achievements led to a celebrated Hollywood career with more than forty-four movies to his credit. Not bad for a Texas boy with no discernible job skills.

Murphy was also the first celebrity to share his struggles with what is now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a devastating result of battle which cost him his first marriage. Murphy’s candor regarding his problems brought PTSD into the public eye and opened a national dialogue that encouraged other veterans and their families to seek treatment. Tragically, Audie Murphy died in a plane crash at the age of 46. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery where the numbers of visitors to his grave are second only to President John Kennedy.

However, the cowboy of all cowboys for me was Roy Rogers. After achieving success in the early 1930s singing with his group “The Sons of the Pioneers,” Roy was tapped to act in Western films. Starring in more than one hundred movies, his success in the genre turned him into a matinee idol and earned him the title “King of the Cowboys.” Rogers’ career spanned decades and included live radio, records, movies, and TV.

In addition to entertaining, he and wife/TV sidekick Dale Evans, the “Queen of the West,” used their celebrity to promote adoption (they had adopted several children themselves) and funded programs to help homeless and handicapped youngsters. Though he was too old for the draft during World War II, Roy worked tirelessly to promote War Bonds and toured many military bases with USO shows. For his contributions to the entertainment industry, Rogers’ name is on three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (radio, TV, and movies); he was inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum twice, and was twice elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

But it’s not the achievements that make him my hero. A man of character and strong Christian convictions, he was someone worth admiring. There was never any cause for concern when Roy was in the saddle. He always got the bad guy and managed a song and a smile along the way. He was a white-hat hero for sure: no shades of gray, no ambivalence. Right was right and that was that.

Oh, that man.  He rode a magnificent golden Palomino named Trigger. Oh, that horse. In my girlish heart, the combination was deadly. He had me for a lifetime. I cried when he passed away. It’s hard to see your champions go.

So I ride these days with my cowboy heroes alive in my heart. I’m glad I rekindled my love affair with horses; it’s been a great experience.  If you’re interested, ask your advisor about horsemanship classes for the Spring semester. You might end up loving these delightful creatures too.

Happy trails. See you in class.

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