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‘Then something spooked the horse and all hell broke loose…’

In 1986, Jeff Pappas and his best friend Chet spent four-and-a-half months as “modern-day cowboys”, riding across America from the East Coast to the West.

In doing so, they raised $100,000 for a homeless charity, the Connecticut’s Governor’s State Shelter Program, and overcame challenges from riding on main road bridges over major rivers to sleeping outdoors in all weathers and feeding four people on a food budget of $40 a week. They also encountered many interesting characters along the way.

Here are three short extracts from Ponies West, Jeff’s recently published book about the trip.

In this first extract, Jeff introduces the four horses who carried them across the continent. Jeff and Chet would ride the first pair of horses for half the day and then swap, with the other two horses travelling in the “rig” driven by their supportive “hand”, Dave. 

Our four-legged brothers took to the training like Olympic athletes. Rebel was the smartest of the group. He was a classy “sorrel” quarter horse from a strong quarter horse bloodline. He had four white stockings and a white blaze on his face. Rebel was extremely fast and had a very soft mouth, which meant he would stop or turn on a dime with only a slight pull of the bridle. Rebel and Chet were best friends. He followed Chet around all the time. They were both great athletes with an easygoing nature about them.

Big Red, on the other hand, was a big ol’ stubborn hard-head. He was chestnut color with a white blaze on his face. He had a massive chest and stocky legs. Big Red didn’t have a lot of personality, but I bought him because of his great strength and durability. Outside of Thunder, Big Red was the strongest of the bunch, but (being stubborn) he was prone to doing things his way. Sonny (aka Wizard or Whizzer) was a short Palomino mixed breed with a long white mane. He was small and quick but didn’t bond with Chet and me as much as we’d hoped. He also tended to fight with the other three horses and liked to be left alone. Sonny was our lone wolf.

Thunder — Oh boy, was he special. He was our alpha male and leader of the pack. He was the first horse I ever purchased. A two-year-old Belgian-cross with a Palomino’s color, he had a long blond tail and mane. He wasn’t just a pretty boy though; he was a big and powerful horse who was over “17 hands” tall, with the thickness of a draft horse and the agility of a thoroughbred. He had a huge heart to match. There was no question he would be the lead horse on the trip, so I trained with him most of the time. I was counting on him to carry most of the load for us. I’d bought Thunder from a friend of mine who was a local horse trader. He came from a farm in Pennsylvania where he’d been abused. He was barely “rough broke” much less “green broke,” so I had to finish the task. Poor fella was damn near afraid of everything when I got him. You could tell why. He had a big scar around his neck from being forced to obey simple commands and tasks. You sure can’t outmuscle a horse as large as Thunder, so you better learn to connect with his mind, so I did; I knew with patience and a kind hand, you can gain a horse’s trust.

I began spending a few hours with him every day for the first two months until he trusted me enough not to throw his ears back at me. Still, it took a month before I could get in the stall with him. He tried to kick me every time. But once Thunder saw I wasn’t going to hurt him, he finally let me in. But he still wouldn’t let anyone else into his stall, not the vet or even the blacksmith.

In this second extract, Jeff and Chet encounter drama early on the trip when they stop for lunch at a cafe run by Pa and Ma Kettle…

On our way out, Chet made small talk with Pa, “Jeff and I are riding our horses across the country. For charity.”

“The county, huh. Well, ain’t that-a something,” Pa said.

“Actually, we’re crossin’ the entirety of the United States, sir, if you can believe that,” Chet said. Pa Kettle just looked at him with a blank face.

“Coast to coast,” Chet said.

“On a horse?” Pa asked.

“Yep,” Chet said with a smile.

“You don’t say,” Pa said.

“Well, isn’t that nice,” Ma interjected.

Chet tried to explain, but Ma and Pa thought we were full of it; we could see it written all over their faces. We didn’t bother trying to convince them; Chet and I thought it was funny. Ol’ Ma and Pa were no doubt breathing a collective sigh of relief to see us “banditos” leaving their General Store. But as we swung open the screen door, something compelled me to invite them out to meet Thunder and Rebel.

The old man’s eyes suddenly lit up with excitement while Ma Kettle wore a look of sheer terror on her face. She said, “Oh no, I don’t like horses.” I thought there was no way she’d come outside, but Pa somehow coaxed her onto the porch where Thunder and Rebel were. The Boys were hanging out and relaxing with back foot bent, so we brought Pa over to meet them. Ma kept her distance.

As Pa rubbed Rebel’s noggin and stroked Thunder’s white blaze just below his eyes, the Boys were doing their usual ‘rubbing up against a new friend rou-tine,’ which many people think is their way of saying “Hi,” but really, it’s what horses do when they’re sweaty and want to rub out an itch.

When the conversation died down, I started looking for Dave and the rig. They were supposed to find us around these parts, but we hadn’t seen them yet. Chet and I checked the horses’ cinches and were about to swing up into our saddles when, lo-and-behold, here comes old Ma Kettle puttering off the porch to meet the horses. She walked out into the sunshine like a timid little church mouse.

I held out my hand and helped her off the porch, “Must be losin’ my cotton-pickin’ mind, lettin’ you talk me into this,” she said to Pa.

“C’mon Ma,” Pa said (he called her Ma), “Time you got over your fear of these animals.”

“They won’t hurt you, ma’am,” I said as I slowly led her hand up to gently stroke Thunder on his nose and white blaze, “Is this the first time you ever petted one?” I asked.

“I’m not partial to pets,” she said, which made Chet chuckle.

Ma looked happy, petting Thunder. She even got brave enough to inch a little closer to him.

“He’s a big boy, isn’t he?” She said.

“Sure is, ma’am. Seventeen hands tall. Name’s Thunder.”

“Well, hello. Mr. Thunder,” she said with a slight smile. “Can you do a rain dance for us? We need rain.”

Once it seemed like Ma was okay standing beside the horses, I slowly swung up on Thunder and was waiting for Chet to climb onto Rebel.

Then all hell broke loose.

To this day, I don’t know what happened, but while Chet was tightening Rebel’s cinch, something must’ve spooked him. Maybe Ma Kettle raised her hand, or a bird suddenly flew into his eyesight, or Rebel could’ve just seen a ghost (as is often the case with these four-legged critters). But before Chet could untie Rebel’s reins and lead rope from the wooden post, Rebel went crazy and tried to break free.

“Whoa, Rebel! You cut that out!” Chet yelled to no avail.

Rebel snapped his leather reins and took off like a buckin’ bronco.

“Arrggh!” Ma Kettle shrieked in terror and ran for the hills. Chet bolted after Rebel. D-rings and screws were flying everywhere. Since Chet didn’t have a chance to fully tighten Rebel’s cinch strap, his saddle had gotten so loose, and he was trying to buck it off. It didn’t take long for the saddle horn to slip underneath his belly, which only made Rebel more frantic.

Watching the whole drama unfold, I was concerned at first, but the road we were on probably averaged a few cars per day, so I knew he wasn’t going to run into traffic. Rebel was also usually so calm, I didn’t worry about him getting too far. I must admit the sight of Chet trying to catch a full-blooded quarter horse in a full bucking sprint was funny. “You’re only makin’ him run faster!” I shouted, chuckling at the craziness of the scene. Ol’ Chet finally gave up when he realized he’d never catch him.

As soon as he stopped running, Rebel did too, regaining his composure about 200 yards down the road. By this time, I couldn’t contain myself; I sat on Thunder laughing uncontrollably at Rebel, who just stood there with his saddle hanging upside down, waiting for Chet to catch up as if nothing happened. Chet was so good with horses, especially Rebel — he slowly approached him from behind, softly stroking his rear flanks. Then he moved his hand towards his chest and gently put his arm around Rebel’s chest to assure him everything was going to be ok. Chet slowly unfastened his loose cinch strap, so the saddle gently rested on the ground. Then he grabbed the lead rope and led Rebel back to us — a masterful job.

With Rebel under control, my attention shifted to Ma Kettle. Of course, her worst nightmare came true, and Rebel went crazy on her. I asked Pa if she was okay; he just smiled, so I knew she hadn’t keeled over from fright. By now, Dave and Andrew had pulled up in the rig. Dave went and grabbed Rebel’s saddle and hauled it back to the truck. “Guess I missed the show?” Dave asked.

“You guess right,” Pa Kettle said from the porch.

“Rebel just saw a ghost is all,” I said, “tore up the saddle and nearly gave a little ol’ lady a heart attack. All’s well.” Dave cracked a smile.

“You dang fool,” Chet said as he patted Rebel, who gave off a snort like he was laughing too.

Article continues below…


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In this final extract, Jeff cements his bond with Thunder in Yellowstone National Park…

We didn’t make very good time on our ride across Yellowstone with all of the stops for ranger questioning. But we did get a brief glimpse of what it must have been like to be running from the law a century ago. Chet and I zigzagged Thunder and Rebel all over the park, darting up and down ridge after ridge, sidestepping pitfalls, and jumping across downed timber. The heavily wooded forest was lined with lodgepole pines that looked like oversized toothpicks. Navigating the many trails and turns of the forest at top speed had a hypnotic effect. It was as if the spirits of all the “old boys” were inside us, making their way to Robber’s Roost where they knew it would be safe.

“Just like The Wild Bunch!” I shouted as Thunder jumped a downed tree. Chet hollered back, “Yeeehaw!” as he went soaring over with Rebel. We were having the time of our lives. For a few days, we were two modern-day outlaws on the run. And we liked it. Not bad for two frustrated cowboys who hung their hats in the East but whose hearts forever lie in Montana. The pounding of hooves and the fresh smell of horse sweat and leather filled the air around us. The trees whipped and scratched us all to hell as we galloped our way across the rough terrain known as the Continental Divide, but we didn’t care. Our job was easy, but the real heroes of this story (the horses) were tested to the limit. Reflecting on it all thirty years later, I realize this moment in time was the essence of the trip. It was what all the years of preparation were for.

All to get right here.

I’m no “horse whisperer,” but I felt Thunder, my faithful four-legged companion, was also gripped with the “specialness” of the moment. He used every ounce of his strength and agility to navigate me through the park. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes; they were filled with pride, strength, and determination. This was the moment Thunder and I truly became one, bonded together with love and trust. It took nearly 2,200 miles to build, but only a moment to realize. I had two best friends with me on the trip, and one of them was this big boy, a horse with heart.

Buy: Ponies West can be purchased from Amazon as a paperback for £15.46 or for £7.79 as a kindle edition.

Published by: Sunbury Press, 2020

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