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I am the Ponyman's Daughter

Updated on July 13, 2010

The cowboys said I learned to walk when I fell off my pony. That may be true. I have photos of myself sitting in the saddle when I was barely old enough to sit up on my own. I've always felt more at home on horseback than on the ground. In fact, most of my serious injuries happened when I've tried navigating this world without their help.

My heritage with horses arrived via my paternal family. My grandfather, father and four uncles earned their living via horses. My dad's earliest memories included riding my grandpa's horses. The drifts were too deep and too numerous in Ogden, Utah, to shovel, so the kids mounted their horses and let them tramp paths through the snow down between house, barns and pastures.

Born in 1909, Dad went to school in the horse and buggy days. His dad's driving horse was well-trained, so he allowed his kids to drive the sorrel to school each day. The more daring of the siblings egged the other kids into betting on trotting races. Their eager horse never broke stride and rarely crossed the finish line second.

But his steadiness and consistency weren't always appreciated by Dad and his sibs. Once they arrived at school, that old horse would stop right in front of the schoolyard gate -- and wouldn't move even one step beyond it. Playing hooky just wasn't in the cards with that horse. He wouldn't turn off the road to the schoolhouse anymore than he'd let them drive him beyond that gate.Having o choice, they'd get out. That was his cure to turn around and go home on his own. Grandpa would send him back to fetch the kids when the school let out. The trip home was just as straight. He'd trot back home without fail. But when Grandpa was driving him, that horse would go anywhere.

One time, my uncle Reuben was driving a team to town when they ran away. Reuben couldn't stop them, so he just held on. They ran so blindly they couldn't make a sharp turn in the road. One jumped the fence. The other stopped just this side of it, leaving Reuben and the team stranded. First he checked his team for injuries. Fortunately, only the wagon was a casualty. He walked all the way home to get help and tools to cut the fence. The team was still standing calmly when their rescuers arrived to cut them out of their predicament and take them home.

Dad was fourteen when he got his first job in town: running the carousel. He loved it so much he started selling pony rides at fair and carnivals. At fifteen, he took two of his younger brothers and his ponies to the state fair, riding the whole distance. It took them three days. One night, he spotted an old barn. It was late. They couldn't see any lights nearby, so they snuck inside and took shelter. In the morning, a farmer shook them awake. "Your ponies been eating my hay. You might as well come in and eat my grub for breakfast." When they came into the kitchen, the farmer's wife had breakfast ready and had packed lunches for them too.

Not long after, the Kemsley family moved to Los Angeles. Grandpa took a job as night watchman at the Selig Zoo, famed for its movie star inhabitants. Leo, the MGM lion lived there. One night when Grandpa was reading in the office, Leo came in but Grandpa didn't hear him. First time he realized Leo was loose was when the big cat sat in his lap.

The Kemsley brothers set up their first pony track right across from the zoo. Later on, they branched out all over Los Angeles and eventually had eighteen in all. In my mid-teens, I worked horses at the Fat Jones Movie Stable in the San Fernando Valley. Fats was brother to Buck Jones, the cowboy hero of the silver screen. One day, Buck came up to me and asked if I was related to the Kemsleys who ran the pony tracks. I said yes. He shook his head and said, "I tried to open a pony track once. Couldn't make a go of it. The Kemsleys had the whole area locked up."

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1950s was magical. Our rural neighborhood was ringed by carnivals, circuses, movie stables and movie stars. I knew Trigger, Champion, Mr. Ed, National Velvet, Fury, Topper and so many more wonderful steeds. I met most of their owners and trainers too. I loved them all. I'll be sharing these memories as time permits. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

If you have a question about any of the movie horses, please leave me a question and I'll do my best to answer it.

© 2010 Loretta Kemsley


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