Nylon, Pantyhose and Horses

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This day, October 27th, is big anniversary in the development of comfort and fashion. It was on this day in 1938 that the Dupont company announced the name for its new synthetic fibre yarn. They were going to call it   ‘ nylon ‘.

Nylon jumped out of the starting gate so quickly that by 1945 manufacturers could not supply stockings fast enough and women rioted when demand exceeded supply in several American cities.

By 1960..the world had pantyhose, which brings me to the subject of this post.

I cannot think about nylon without thinking about pantyhose. And I cannot think about pantyhose without thinking about horses. If that seems like a strange connection,  pardner,  you need to saddle up and follow the little orange arrow to the right.

cowboy silhouettes

The Wild, Wild West

In the summer of 1992 I signed up for a cattle drive from Ashcroft to Kamloops, British Columbia. I was to be accompanied by cameraman Grant Wyatt, and we would produce a one-hour television documentary. The hit movie, City Slickers, starring Billy Crystal, had been released the year before, and within a year there was no shortage of people all over the wild, wild west ready to start ridin’, ropin’ and wranglin’.

The cattle drive was basically a glorified trail ride, but it was well organized and if you were a horse lover, you were undoubtedly in seventh heaven. There were cattle there, to be sure, but if you wanted to hoot and yip and call them ‘dogies’ you had to crawl out of a warm sleeping bag to join the drovers well before dawn. Apparently, you can’t move cattle in the midday heat because they will turn into jerky before they reach market.

So, for one long week in July I found myself part of a meandering, clopping line of three hundred people stretched out on horseback over the high ranch land.

There were lots of bona fide suburbanites out there, people with little experience in the saddle. The real horse people called the newcomers, ‘ yollops ’. These are folks, in hindsight, who should have stayed securely fastened within the cosy confines of their Honda Civics.

But some of us were a tad naive. I had forgotten how flighty, temperamental and stubborn a horse could be. People always say that the big animal comes with feedbags worth of intuition. A horse can apparently sense if the person who climbs aboard lacks experience. And when the horse lacks respect for the rider, you’d better grab the saddle horn fast.

The Drive of ’92 would wind its way for 135 kilometres along ridges, over meadows, past alkaline lakes and through scrubby timber, and all of it in the kiln-like heat of a Cariboo summer.

I did not do my homework on this one. I even lacked the prerequisite cowboy gear.

A week earlier I had walked into in a Vancouver costume shop to rent a black Stetson and a pair of narrow-heeled boots that could have belonged to Jose Greco. By the time I got to that first hot night in Ashcroft, standing there in my denim shirt and spiffy red bandana, I looked like I was auditioning for a high school production of Oklahoma.

cowboy boots

Rent the right boots

There was a lot more to this than just sticking your feet in the stirrups and hanging on for the ride. Every cattle drive participant was required to sign a stack of waivers as thick as a phone book and within the pages of those documents was an acknowledgment that horses were rambunctious, emotional, often panic-stricken creatures fully capable of losing their minds—not to mention control of all four limbs simultaneously—at the sudden sound of a cricket. You should always read the fine print.

I may have been doomed from the first ‘ giddyup ’. There was no relaxing in the saddle because it became painfully obvious that the horse was trying to dispose of me. He’d wait until I was looking the wrong way and try to clothesline me with a chin level tree branch. Sometimes he’d suddenly stop on a dime in a deliberate effort to catapult me over a stream. Horses also have an irritating habit of turning away from you and going into some sort of ‘musical ride’ spiral at the very moment you are trying to mount up. You do a lot of hopping around and around in a seemingly endless circle with one foot on the ground, one stuck in the stirrup and your hands wrapped in the reins. Don’t tell me this isn’t a private joke that horses share with each other.

Some of it, though, is far from comedic. I watched in horror as one rider got dumped at full gallop on the crest of a ridge after a thunder-clap spooked his mount.

And horses would just wander off. The greenhorns wouldn’t tie them up properly, or they’d wrap the reins around a twig the size of a drinking straw. It began to realize that between the watering and the feeding, the saddling and unsaddling, the brushing and blanketing and picking sharp stones out of horseshoes, these big whinnying gasbags were awfully high maintenance.

cowboy and horses

Very likely a Real McCoy

The cowpokes that did the best were those who had brought their own steeds. These were what I called the Real McCoys. It wasn’t hard to spot the Real McCoys, just as it wasn’t hard to spot the yollops. For every yollop standing around in his Hawaiian shirt, shorts and ball cap, looking for all the world like a living Herman cartoon, there was a died-in-the-wool, bred-in-the-saddle Real McCoy.

I would have to describe them as ‘ craggy ’. They had been riding horses for so long that they now considered walking a secondary means of locomotion. In fact a lot of them were so bow-legged, they kind of stumbled from place to place. And, believe it or not, they used words like ‘ dang ’ and ‘ yer dern tootin ’. I don’t know if I’d ever actually heard anyone use the word ‘ dang ’ before I went on the Cattle Drive.   Comin’ from a Real McCoy it’s a dang good word.

The vast majority of riders did not have their own horses, and many of them managed to strike up a good relationship with their allocated animal from the very start. People I interviewed told me they had every intention of adopting a specific horse from the organizers once the drive was finished. Frankly, I felt a little left out because none of this was working for me.

I tried changing horses every day. There was Howdy and Skippy and Happy, a whole paddock of other cutesy-poo monikers that the wranglers kept creating, I’m sure, just to amuse themselves. A little truth in advertising would have helped. ‘ This here is Deathstar ! Whatever you do don’t look ‘ im directly in the eye.’

saddle

The most painful place on earth

Within the first twenty-four hours of the Drive, I had stretched every conceivable ligament in my lower forty. Not only that but several of my horses were inclined to take the entire day at a trot, a continuous, percussive Lipizzaner-like trot. My gonads were becoming guacamole.

On top of all of this, or rather beneath, was a terrible heat rash produced by wearing pantyhose under my jeans. Organizers had advised the greenhorns to wear this gossamer nylon barrier as a way of preventing chaffing. Many men—I’d say a good majority—had no idea of how to place themselves into a pair of pantyhose. I caught a couple of disturbing images out of the corner of my eye. There were large, hairy humanoids pulling, stretching, tearing and cursing their way through many a dew-laden dawn. I can testify that eight hours of wearing pantyhose, on a hard, leather saddle, in the glaring late-July sun is not conducive to fresh and breezy hygiene.

Between the resulting heat rash, the shredded ligaments and the guacamole, I was in agony. I squatted over a small mirror in my tent and attempted to distribute a creamy zinc concoction in ever widening circles.

I think I hit the wall when, while interviewing some cowboy, a huge dollop of slightly gelatinous mule-drool spilled down my arm. How does one react to this? At the very least I was sure that mule-drool would leave a nasty stain. I also suspected it might contain some sort of acid that could potentially dissolve my arm at the elbow.

Had it not been for the pleadings of my camera colleague, who said he would be too embarrassed to simply give up (What are we, eight years old?), I would have abandoned the Great Cattle Drive before the sun set on the second day.

It wasn’t all misery, though. There were some sweet moments out there on the range. And I did my best to stop and smell the sagebrush, which constantly wafted up in the heat from all those hoofs brushing through the scrub. It was spectacular territory with limitless burnt umber hillsides and brilliant blue skies. I stood slack-jawed under all the stars at night.

There were campfires each evening and a host of musicians for entertainment. This was surely the time to bust out that harmonica or pick up a guitar. Cowboy tunes seem to lose all of their corny sentimentality when you’re sitting on a log, under a blanket watching the sparks fly. You can even tolerate a fair amount of yodeling.

Not much, mind you, but outside of the Alps this is one of the few spots where a Slim Whitman can warble without risk of being skinned.

cowgirl

Women looked better

It seemed to me that the women on the cattle drive looked better with each passing day. Cameraman Wyatt spent a good deal of time capturing images of them brushing their flowing tresses, backlit in the gathering morning breeze. And hey—let’s be honest—there was more than a touch of eroticism at the sight of attractive women climbing into those nifty leather chaps.

The men, however, did not improve. We just became grizzled. Grizzled and wizened with the wild-eyed stare of someone in torn pantyhose looking for a cold beer.

One of the people who kept my spirits up was a Montana rancher named Jerry Thompson. Jerry Thompson had been invited on the Drive for no other reason than he was a dead ringer for John Wayne. Granted, he looked more like The Duke through the dusty haze than close up, but it didn’t matter. He was a big, barrel-chested man with squinty eyes and an easy smile.

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Jerry Thompson and me. Guess who's wearing the pantyhose?

Jerry was always impeccably dressed in a wrinkle free shirt and a flawless, white ten-gallon hat. Where he came up with all this clean laundry is still a mystery. And he sat absolutely ramrod straight in the saddle.

Just when you thought you couldn’t last another hour along would come Jerry Thompson, galloping from the back of the pack, to drop a line on you like, “Well, howzit goin?” You have to use the right John Wayne hand movement and a slight sway of the head with that line. And you could not help but grin, even laugh, because Jerry delivered it with the same lazy, good-natured drawl as his film star prototype.

I often saw him offering women riders a courteous swig from his canteen and giving some of the youngsters on the Drive some homespun advice on how to tend to a horse. We ended up dedicating an entire segment of the special to Jerry Thompson, because he cut such an iconic figure out there on the range.

Little by little, the week passed. As it wore on, what I earnestly yearned for was a really slow horse. I mean, a really slow horse. I would have been happy with a horse on Shepherd casters, a horse you could just pull up a hill, like a Trojan Horse.

I kept trading in the more energetic mounts until, I presume, they dragged Narcolepsy out of the back of the corral. This was the sleepiest steed on four knobby legs.

If the horse had been riding me we could have moved faster, which was pretty much the way I wanted it.

slow horse

Is this the slowest horse you've got ?

So, I managed to survive. I put a small pillow on my saddle, tossed out the pantyhose, and Narc eventually carried me into Kamloops, right down the main street where, it seemed, the entire population had gathered to hoot and holler at the final roundup. When the parade finally got to the marshalling grounds I fell out of that saddle like a pile of snow sliding off a tin roof.

It was the hardest thing I’d ever done. It was the hardest thing I would ever do.

I made up my mind right there that I wasn’t going to soft-soap the narrative, and so we produced a painfully honest account of the ordeal. Grant Wyatt’s footage, most of which was shot from the back of his own horse, was extraordinary. I didn’t have to be riding beside him to know that, day in and day out, he was getting the goods. Wyatt’s pictures always made me a better writer.

Years later I would run across people who told me that the documentary, which we titled The Cream Soda Kid, had inspired them to saddle up. And many of those folks said it was the time of their lives. It was gratifying, but make no mistake, you’ll never catch me back in the saddle again.

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4 Responses to “Nylon, Pantyhose and Horses”

  1. Wonderful story Dave.

  2. Grant Bowen Says:

    What are the chances of that piece being aired again?

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