OTTUMWA — After helping 92-year-old Mildred Burkhiser onto the horse, the Kaiser family stayed protectively close. They needn’t have bothered.
Mildred took the reins and with them, control of the horse. If you’re wondering how long you’ll remember how to ride a horse, the answer is, at least 50 years. That’s about how long it’s been since the former substitute school teacher had ridden.
“I learned to ride on (a) Shetland pony,” she said Monday while the Kaisers, family friends of Mildred’s daughter, prepped the horse for a special birthday ride.
Mildred, who turned 92 on Sunday, says that while Shetlands may look cute, the sweetness ended at their appearance: “They’re a hard horse to ride. They were ornery!”
But in 1929, around the age of 8, she learned to ride and then moved up to the big work horses around the farm. When she became a school teacher in various one-room school houses in Appanoose County, her riding skills came in handy.
She did have access to a car, a Ford Model A, she said, but she usually went to school on horseback.
“The roads were so muddy,” she said. “Sometimes, the only way to get [to the school] was by horse.”
She’d told her daughter, Brenda Jeffers, stories of her rides as a child and later as an adult. One steed, a former race horse, decided on the way home that he was going to show off a little. Nothing the teacher did would convince him to stop, so she just held on.
The idea occurred to Jeffers that it would be nice for her mom to get back on a horse. She contacted a friend she had known since they were in 4-H together, Karen Kaiser. Karen’s daughter Ashley had the perfect horse, they decided.
“He’s pretty much bomb-proof,” Karen said of the horse’s steady disposition.
The Kaisers helped Mildred into the saddle using portable wooden stairs. Karen, who coincidentally is a geriatric nurse at the Good Samaritan Center, had Mildred sit on the saddle with both legs on the left side of the horse, then got some help putting her right leg over the front of the saddle.
Ashley, her boyfriend, Karen and Brenda Jeffers started out close, guiding the horse like a pony at a birthday party.
Soon they could tell that even after decades, Mildred knew what she was doing. She got the horse moving when he stopped or stopped him if the people on foot fell too far behind, turned right or left as needed and generally made a complete circuit of the farmhouse yard.
“You’re back in the saddle,” Brenda Jeffers called out to her mom.
“I’m back in the saddle again,” replied Mildred with a big grin, “but I’m going to be sore tomorrow.”
To see reporter Mark Newman’s Twitter feed, go to @couriermark.