Barnie H. Lee, Jr.
October 6, 1929 – November 14, 2012
When I was a Cowgirl, My Uncle Shared His Boots
I was in my early teens when I convinced my father I needed a real horse. I’d had my fill of our ornery Shetland/Welch pony cross. I’d impressed upon him the seriousness of my desire through the hours I spent riding with a neighbor.
My Uncle Barnie was perhaps the only person on the farm whose appreciation for a new horse rivaled my own. Uncle Barnie was a real cowboy. He’d been a PRCA Bull rider when he was a kid. As constant a presence as he had been in my life, the husband of my mother’s sister, I likely would not have recognized him without his boots and cowboy hat.
Barnie watched with interest as I got to know my Palomino mare. Peggy was three years old and had not been broke to ride. I had not been trained to break. Equipped with the confidence only a 14-year-old who’d been riding ornery ponies for most of her life could muster, I spent every day of my summer teaching us both.
Inevitably, my Uncle Barnie would appear as I held daily morning and afternoon sessions with my horse. He’d lean against the garden fence, chuckle and shake his head. “I’m waiting for her to throw you,” he’d say. “There was never a broke horse that didn’t have a good buck along the way. You need to push her to it. You need to get it over with. Jump on her and make her buck until she learns she can’t unseat you.”
The problem was, of course, the lesson I knew I would teach her if I could not stay on her back.
Peggy and I made our way in our own time. I spent the summer on her bareback, believing the saddle too much of a barrier. I could read her mood more easily if there was nothing between us. I could feel her tense when she was uneasy. I could feel her relax which improved my confidence in my ability to take her up and down the driveway, then up and down the road.
Right or wrong in my approach, I introduced the saddle slowly. I led her round and rode with it not cinched. I tightened it in small increments until I finally felt it was snug enough I could climb on without it toppling. Uncle Barnie watched. He offered advice, all of it sound, though not all of it taken.
One day I came home to find a pair of snakeskin boots in the entryway of our house. I would not have chosen snake-skin on my own, but the beauty of them was undeniable. They were shiny and new. I couldn’t imagine where they had come from.
“Your Uncle Barnie says you need to be wearing boots when you ride that horse,” my mom said. He was right, of course. I had already discovered the danger of tennis shoes in the stirrup. Without a solid heel, it was easy to slide your foot too far into the stirrup. If your heel went through the stirrup, you forfeited a lot of control.
The boots had been a gift to my Uncle Barnie from his son Brent. They were custom made. He’d sent an outline of his feet when Brent was living in Guam. The problem, apparently, was that the boots had been made the exact same size as the outline he provided rather than large enough that he could slip his feet inside of them. Barnie had never been able to wear the boots, but they fit my feet perfectly.
On that day, I became a snake-skin boot wearing cowgirl. Uncle Barnie wasn’t the type to boast or make a big deal over gifts. Looking back, I can only hope that I at least acknowledged his gift with a thank you. He continued to watch my efforts, and when I was finally successfully riding Peggy for hours at a time, he continued to offer advice and commentary.
When Peggy did throw me, several years later, Uncle Barnie said, “I told you so. You never did work the buck out of that horse.”
Every time I was on horseback from that moment on, those boots were on my feet. I wore Uncle Barnie’s snake-skin boots until their sides began to droop and the scales lost their shine.
I can’t say that I’ve ever considered that I had much in common with my Uncle Barnie. We were neighbors when I was growing up and neighbors again when I was grown. We shared a yard. We shared a drive-way. We shared a party-line phone for years. But our lives connected in other ways, as well. We certainly shared a love for his grandkids, my first cousins one generation removed. My Aunt Gerry, his wife, remains one of the most important influences in my life, and his place is my life is cemented as her husband, as well.
Barnie is perhaps the one true cowboy I have ever really known. We shared a love for horses, and my Uncle Barnie, I now believe, shared with me in a way I am sure I never sufficiently acknowledged.
When I was a cowgirl, my Uncle Barnie shared his boots.