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Copyright 2011 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor;


Old Possum

My First Horse

Part 3

A Place in the Country

By Heather Smith Thomas, Salmon, Idaho


November 2011 issue


      Having a horse in the family changed our lives dramatically. My parents had always wanted to find a place out of town, and this gave them incentive to do it because we needed a permanent place to keep our horse. In the fall of 1953, they found a little log cabin on seven acres for sale. It was sixteen miles from town, up Withington Creek, in the bottom of a canyon.

      The next spring we borrowed a horse trailer and took Possum up there, and we lived in the cabin during the summers when my brother and I weren’t in school.

      There was no traffic on the little dirt road; the cabin was at the edge of the forest, above all the ranches. The little creek was cool in the hot summer and my brother and I spent happy hours playing in the water on hot afternoons. There was no electricity, so food had to be kept cool in waterproof containers in the creek, or in the old cellar dug into the mountain. We used candles and kerosene lanterns in the cabin at night, and a flashlight to go to the outhouse in the dark — hoping we wouldn’t meet a skunk or a bear.

      We spent a day or two each week at our house in town, to go to church and to do our shopping and laundry. Mom took our week’s worth of clothes to wash in our electric washing machine.

      When it rained, the road was impassible. Several times that summer, our car couldn’t make it clear up to the cabin, so we had to park the car a couple miles farther down, and hike. When we returned to the car later in the week, we carried our laundry in a big duffel bag. But it was fun being isolated in our little cabin, in our own little world, up the creek.



      The most fun for me was having new places to ride. Possum and I explored the little jeep road up the canyon and into the mountains beyond. We saw deer, foxes, coyotes and other wild animals and enjoyed the beauty of the forest. However, one time we went exploring too far.

      At the head of the canyon up the left fork of the creek was an old copper mine. I’d heard many tales about the Harmony Mine, but had never seen it. The mine was active during the 1920’s and at one time the Chicago gangster, Al Capone, owned a major interest in it. The copper ore had been hauled out in horse-drawn wagons.

      One morning Possum and I found ourselves at the fork of the creek and I decided to go up the left fork — which I’d never seen. The farther I went, the more I wondered about the abandoned mine, and thought we must be getting close to it.

      Possum and I kept climbing up the steep, rutted jeep tracks, even though it was close to lunchtime and Mom would be expecting me back at the cabin. But I’d gone so far, I surely must be almost there. Possum and I kept climbing.

      The Harmony Mine was much farther up the canyon than I expected, and it was afternoon by the time I reached the old mill building, set back against the steep mountain. Farther on were a group of old cabins, the old cookhouse, and a steep little road winding up through the timber to one of the mine tunnels. I was fascinated by some of the old things scattered around the area. The mine hadn’t been worked for many years, but there were so many things left in the buildings that it looked like people had been there only a short time ago.





      After a quick look around, I rode Possum back down the jeep road, hurrying because we were so late. Indeed, Mom had been very worried when I didn’t show up for lunch. She imagined all kinds of accidents, and since Dad was in town for the day with the car, she, my little brother, and a cousin who was staying with us for a visit, started up the jeep road on foot to look for me.

      I met them at one of the creek crossings, where the old log bridge had washed out; Mom and my cousin were trying to get across on some logs and rocks without getting their feet wet. They were very glad to see me! After that adventure, I tried not to worry my mother so much.

      I got a dose of worry myself, one day when we came back up to the cabin after being in town for the weekend. Possum was gone. Fear clutched at my heart as I searched for him.

      There was a bad place in the fence by the creek, in the bushes, and sure enough there were horse tracks on the other side of the fence, in the soft dirt. Possum had stepped over the fence — into a 160-acre mountain pasture belonging to the rancher who lived farther down the creek.

      I hiked and hiked, and finally found Possum grazing in a grassy meadow along the brushy creek bottom, about a quarter-mile from our place. I put on his halter, straddled his neck, and he lifted his head to enable me to slide onto his back, so I could ride him home.

      It was a wonderful summer, living at the cabin. One of the highlights that year was a family reunion when several aunts, uncles and cousins came to visit, and my grandma Lila Moser. She was past 70 years old and hadn’t ridden a horse since she was a young girl, but the family talked her into getting on old Possum. Dad put his old saddle on Possum, and he and Mom and an uncle helped Grandmother onto the horse, first assisting her up onto our picnic table where she could easily step into the stirrup.

      Once mounted, Grandmother proudly rode Possum up and down the jeep track in front of the cabin. Possum walked slowly and carefully, and didn’t even try to stop and eat grass along the way. It was as though he knew he had a fragile, precious passenger.

      He was such a wise old horse. He would trot or gallop when asked by an experienced rider — as I became a better rider I loved to gallop him up a special place in the road that I called Possum’s Hill — but if a small child or inexperienced person was on his back, he’d never go faster than a walk. He was always careful to not get close to the thorny rosebriars or walk under low-hanging tree branches. He took very good care of his inexperienced passengers.



      The only time I ever saw him grumpy was when our old cat, Thomas, kept rubbing on his nose while he was trying to graze as I was brushing him. Finally Possum had enough of the tickly cat hair, and took the cat’s tail in his teeth and picked the cat up by the tail. He didn’t bite hard enough to injure the cat; he just held old Thomas up in the air for a moment — while Thomas yowled and clawed. The cat was unable to reach the horse with his claws, and eventually Possum set him down on the ground again. From then on, Thomas left Possum alone and didn’t try to rub on his head.

            Possum was probably the wisest horse I ever had. Even though I’ve owned and raised dozens of horses in later years, none of them were quite the same as dear old Possum. He lived with us for the rest of his life. Even though he became slower and stiffer in old age, he was still the perfect horse for any young or inexperienced visitors.


Readers: Can you relate to this story? Go to “Forum For Horse People” at

Tell us about your childhood experiences with your first horse.


Click here to read Part One  

Click here to read Part Two


Heather Smith Thomas is the author of numerous articles and 20 books. She and her husband ranch near Salmon, Idaho . For more information about her books, visit

     Heather’s blog online is:

Copyright 2011 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor;


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