As I was walking between the Quonset hut and the old chicken coop, I heard my cousin scream.
I peered around the door of the old coop where my cousin Linda cowered on the roost. Two Shetland ponies had chased her there and were not about to let her down. Linda and I were ten years old.
“Merry, go get Gran! Hurry! Betty won’t let me down.”
I’d ridden Betty often, but she bared her teeth and turned her back toward me, so I sprinted to the house and returned with my grandmother who, with a few threats and shoves, routed the determined little horses.
Like many young girls, I had an obsession with horses and read all the novels I could find about them like Black Beauty, The Black Stallion, and Misty of Chincoteague.
I wanted my own horse so badly I could taste the bitterness on my tongue, but at that time we lived in a community of split-level houses with neighbors who had no tolerance for corrals or the rich smell of manure.
Fortunately, my brothers, my two cousins, and I spent two weeks every summer on the farm with our grandparents who owned horses and loved to ride, but they didn’t want rowdy kids scaring their high-strung, pure-bred animals.
Although we petted Lady and Major and occasionally fed them carrots, that’s as close as we came.
My grandparents were busy, so I was surprised one morning when Granddad took my little brother and me for a ride in his old turquoise Chevy pickup.
Since Granddad was a man of few words, we had no idea where we were going or why, and we didn’t dare ask.
He finally turned up a long lane with a herd of tiny horses wandering in a nearby field.
Granddad, in his cambric shirt and jeans and his silver hair swirled back like a movie star’s, climbed out of the pickup to talk to a man in bib overalls.
With my nose pressed against the Chevy’s window, I fell in love with the adorable ponies which were just my size.
Finally, Granddad took out his wallet, peeled off some bills, and handed them to the man. He climbed back in the old Chevy, and we were on our way home.
We didn’t know then that Granddad had just purchased five Shetlands for his grandkids.
This summer, as Ted and I wended our way back from Newport Beach, CA, the wild burros near Oatman, AZ, reminded me of those tough little Shetlands.
Oatman, located on Historic Route 66, population 128, was a boom-and-bust mining town, but before the boom was over, the three richest mines in Arizona produced over $2.5 billion worth of gold in today’s tender.
The government closed the mines during World War II because it wanted miners to excavate minerals needed for war. The donkeys, so essential in the mining process, were turned loose in the desert.
Since the mining days, these hardy beasts have thrived, some sources estimating their numbers growing to around 20,000 throughout the West.
According to Desert USA, one reason for their resilience is they can handle a water loss of up to thirty percent of their body weight in contrast to humans who can’t tolerate even a ten percent loss without hospitalization.
Certainly, the desert around Oatman requires tremendous resilience with temperatures topping at 120 in the summers and dropping to 25 in the winters.
Some of the burros regularly visit Oatman, the old mining town now converted to a tourist’s attraction with a variety of shops, a few restaurants, and some unique events, including the annual burro biscuit throw.
I thought “wild” was a serious misnomer because when we stopped to photograph some on the road, several stuck their noses in my window, looking for food.
But they were long-eared and adorable, and my childhood love of equines came flooding back.
The Oatman burros are usually gray or brown with short black manes and distinctive dark markings down their spines and shoulders.
The townsfolk give the Main Street burros names like Oliver and Annabelle, know their personalities, and keep track of their babies.
They worry about them on the roads where, despite warning signs, they are sometimes hit, shoo them out of their shops, and warn tourists that the burros may grab their ice cream cones or newly purchased souvenirs and run off with them.
Apparently, getting the stolen items back requires quite a wrestle, reminding me once again of my grandparents’ stubborn Shetlands.
After we left Oatman and drove toward Kingman, I thought about my granddad’s sacrifice, not only in money but in time.
These were things I didn’t consider when I heard him telling Gran the miniature horses were coming to the Bradbury farm to stay.
He taught us how to bridle, saddle, and ride the horses in the paddock without getting scraped off, bucked off, or rolled off even though they occasionally still got the upper hand like they did that day with Linda cornered in the chicken coop.
Later, when I owned a full-sized mare and her foal, Granddad took time out from his still busy schedule to trailer up his horse and mine and go to rodeos where we rode in the parades and opening exercises.
My immediate family suffered its fair share of trauma, but through my granddad, as Sarah Long said, “I got to know the gentle side of men.”