#MyRootsRunDeep: A Hoosier, a Town House and a Cow Horse

My roots don’t run deep because of where I live or my background. My roots run deep because of the people who have taught me and the horses that I love.

American Quarter Horse Youth Association

Leah Sawyer and "Cindy".

I was born in Indianapolis to a city girl who lived to sing and a Texan who lived to pick guitars and write songs. I suspect that when I was born, 15 years ago, no one would have guessed that I would grow up to ride reined cow horses. The odds were one in a million. Neither one of my parents had ever heard of any performance horse events and had no intention of encouraging their daughter to ride horses seriously. I've been told that my grandpa on my dad's side rode broncs for a while in high school, but that's about as far as my bloodlines run in the cowboy world.

 When I was 18 months old, my dad told my mom that he was through with Indiana, and that it was time to move back to Texas. They looked for houses in Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth but to no avail. At their wits-end, they took a break and came to Weatherford, Texas, to spend an afternoon and not even think about houses, but God had different ideas. As they drove through, they began seeing house after house that they thought might be a good fit. After a few phone calls, they found several that were within their price range. We were moving to Weatherford, which just so happens to be the cutting horse capital of the world.

 Fast forward about seven years. I had done my fair share of pony rides. I drew horses. I read about horses. I dreamt about horses. But in reality, I knew nothing about them. My parents supported my love but had never encouraged anything more than an admiration for them. They cared about me and didn't think that putting their 8-year-old on a 1,000-pound animal week after week sounded like a very good idea. I dabbled in soccer, ballet, even some gymnastics and discovered in an appallingly short amount of time that I was no dancer and had no gifts whatsoever in the sports area. I was destined to a life of singing and playing fiddle. Please don't get me wrong. Music is wonderful. I still wouldn't give it up for almost anything, but at that stage in in my life, there didn't seem to be many outdoor activities in my future.

 I can still remember the car ride home from my last soccer game. I was worn out and had made up my mind: I was never playing soccer again. But my parents, being the great parents that they are, and despite my clumsy athletic abilities, knew that I deserved the right to try something new if I wanted. That was when the non-horsey parents of a horse-loving daughter made their biggest mistake.

 "You can pick any sport you want for the next year," they told me. They probably thought I would say volleyball, or baseball perhaps, even dancing. But nope, not me. I bet it won't take you to long to guess what I said.

 "Great! I'm riding horses!" I exclaimed. I'm sure they tried to talk me out of it, especially when they saw the price of horseback-riding lessons, but they had made a commitment. They had to put me in lessons for at least a year.

 Soon my parents began splitting the cost of weekly, hour-long lessons with a good friend of mine. I spent $10 to ride for 30 minutes with a 17-year-old, May-Michael Meintjes. I rode English-style and was proud to have loped twice the whole year. (I didn't get much farther than the walk-trot stage that first year.) Nevertheless, it was wonderful. Horseback riding was the highlight of the week. I would always look forward to going to see “Clue” and “Cody,” the Quarter Horses who were quickly stealing my heart. I had been riding with May-Michael for about a year when she decided it was time to stop teaching and go off to college. I haven't seen May-Michael much since then. I can't tell you the name of the lady I met at the store yesterday, but I can tell you all about May-Michael and her sisters, Roni and Sophie, whom I have not seen for almost seven years. Those memories are ones I will never lose; they planted the first seed, and it began to take root. In just a matter of years, those roots would run deep.

 I had perhaps three lessons from various teachers that next year. I didn't ride much at all, and by the time my 10th birthday rolled around, I was having an emotional breakdown. I was positive that if I didn't get on a horse soon, I would roll up and die, or suffocate or do the worst thing that my 10-year-old brain could come up with. My parents didn't get it or understand it, but that didn't matter to them. All they knew was that I had found a passion that I was determined to pursue. They couldn't afford lessons, but they agreed to drive me to as many as I could pay for. God has blessed me with the best parents I could ever hope to have.

 Soon, I began taking lessons from a barrel racer who lived about 30 minutes away from my house. I would fold laundry, do yard work, play music for the public, anything I could think of to earn money, then spend it all on a 45-minute lesson. I didn't use my money on anything else; I did nothing but ride horses. Even at the rate I was saving, it only allowed me to ride about once or twice a month. I didn't improve much that year but I learned one of the best lessons I will ever learn, one that will serve me the rest of my life. I learned determination and perseverance. It was a tough year for me with the horses, but I never considered giving up. I knew there was daylight at the end of the tunnel, and come to find out, I was right.

 By the time I was 11, my family band had begun to play at different churches almost every Sunday. A future cowboy church pastor, Sonny Miller, asked us if we would be willing to play music at his up-and-coming church. His wife, Darlene, had ridden with legendary horseman Greg Ward back in the day and she happens to be a champion cow-horse trainer. It still amazes me how I practically fell into their laps. I knew nothing about cow horses, but after seeing Ms. Darlene ride, I knew that's what I wanted to do.

 Since that day four years ago, I have spent hours and hours in the saddle, working to further hone the skill of riding performance horses. I've had just as many bad days as I have good days, but I know that's what it takes to be a great horseman. I wake up every morning and step outside to see the fence bordering our property about an acre away. I often get discouraged until I hop in the car and make the drive to the barn where I saddle a gorgeous Playgun daughter, Heckofagun (name pending). Or as we like to call her, “Cindy.” She is beautiful, lazy and talented and she knows it. When people see me ride, they would probably never guess I was born in Indianapolis to a non-horsey family. Against all odds, I am now riding performance horses. They would probably never know that I live in town and often make the trek daily to the barn to work hard at this sport that I love, that I could not live without.

 Sometimes I get discouraged, I see my one-acre yard and remember my non-horsey family. My bloodline roots don't run deep in AQHA. Then I remember Darlene and Sonny Miller. I think of May-Michael. I think of reining judge Kristyn Lilly, another one of my mentors. I think of Juni Fisher, fellow western music musician and cow-horse competitor. And I remember my roots really do run deep. They don't run through tangible things like bloodlines but through an unbreakable bond that ties me to fellow AQHA members across the country. They tie me to the horses and the western way of life. I might be a first-generation rider, and it might take me a little longer to master this sport than others because of where I live, but my roots run deep. Quarter Horses are something that I was destined to do and I will never turn my back on riding. When I wake up in the morning and see my fence an acre away, I don't care because minutes away is an American Quarter Horse mare waiting to teach me something new about myself and continue taking me on the ride of my life.

 Call it what you will, but I believe that it wasn't by chance that I ended up in Weatherford, Texas, and began the AQHA journey that I am on today. I also don't believe that it is by chance that I live on a one-acre lot. My journey has just begun, and when I get older and meet young girls who are convinced that they have no chance at horses because of their situation, I can tell them my roots don't run deep because of where I live or my background. My roots run deep because of the people who have taught me and the horses that I love. My roots run deep, and yours can, too.