NOTE: This is a guest post by long time WFPS member, Jerry Sprague
Someone once asked me how the B-Westerns affected my love for horses. Thinking back, my earliest introduction to horses was probably through Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Red Ryder and Wild Bill Hickok. I was born in 1948 so I missed the big screen productions of the silver screen cowboys but during the MY formative years that followed in the 50s, Gene, Roy and Hoppy started their TV shows and I indulged them as a young child.
Ironically, my real intrigue with cowboys did not occur until I was about 12 when other boys my age were getting interested in girls. I developed an intense interest in the old west and loved watching Gene Autry movies on TV. I used to play with my collie dog and imaginary horse, Champion, and wished I could sing like Gene Autry. A few years later I took a real liking to Roy Rogers and Dale Evans because of their faith in God and their love for children.
The influences of these heroes played out in two ways in my early life. First, I wanted a horse but the closest I came was my neighbor who had 25 ponies and a barn. . . good enough for a start. So, every evening, I would help feed these ponies. Often, I, along with other friends, would lead a few ponies by their halters about 200 yards into the pasture around dinner time, hop on bareback and gallop to the barn. What a real thrill! My first cowboy experience!
The second way these heroes influenced me was for me to start taking guitar lessons so I could be a singing cowboy. I collected Sons of the Pioneers albums. . . some 20 plus albums and I memorized many of the old cowboy songs. So went my childhood and love for horses. My dream was to become a veterinarian and live out west on a ranch. But reality set in during my college years and I ended up being a forester. Then a job and a family and the old cowboy spirit went into remission. However, when my horse loving girls (where in the world did that come from?) were about 5-6 years old, they started occasional trail riding and riding lessons at a local stables. Somehow, riding in circles in a ring did not appeal to me so I just watched from the sidelines. Soon my girls were working for the owner at J&H Stables on Saturdays helping with trail rides. My philosophy about child-rearing was to be involved WITH what my kids were doing. So, soon I was grooming, tacking, helping customers onto their horses and scooping poop; and, lo and behold, that cowboy spirit was reborn! Finally I could work with horses while I was with my kids. I asked a lot of questions and learned all I could. I was nearing 30 years with NC State University so I figured I’d better retire and start working on my original goal of being a singing cowboy. Over the next several years, I led a lot of trails at J&H, worked summer camps with the kids, doctored horses, rode many green-broke horses and essentially was living out my dream. During that period, I spent about 1500 hours in the saddle and rode well over 100 different horses. And I formed a friendship with my favorite lead horse, One Fifty, so named because of a “150” brand under his mane. I eventually bought him and took him home with me. I finally had my horse when I was 58 years of age!
Along with my interest in horses being reborn, so was my interest in the silver screen cowboys. The greatest compliment I received was from an elderly lady I was helping get on her horse. She looked at me and said, “You look like Roy Rogers” to which I replied, “I take that as a real compliment, mam, because he was my hero!” Since then, many people have made that same comment to me either in context of me being horseback or singing with the Trailblazers. It must be the cowboy hat and the squinty eyes. Oh, yes, the singing part of a singing cowboy. . . when I started riding horses again, I also broke out my guitar and started learning the old cowboy songs of the Sons of the Pioneers. And then I met Billy Johnson at the WFPS while he was singing for the Riders of the Carolina Sage. He and I became close friends since we both loved music and horses and from that relationship the Trailblazers were born. We have a great time singing the old cowboy songs and usually do from 15-20 performances a year.
So, I feel I am living out a dream that was first born in front of our old black and white TV watching the B-Western cowboys conquer evil, dazzle the ladies, and just being all around respectable American citizens. Alas, no such characters can be found on TV today! If there are any good role models on screen, usually they aren’t so in real life. But Roy, Gene and the others were pretty much the same on screen as off and though they were fallible humans like us all, their lives were an inspiration to a whole generation of kids.
So, here I am today living out my childhood dream of being a Singing Cowboy; some of my friends doubt the Singing part and others doubt the Cowboy part. But in my own mind, I feel blessed by the Lord to be living out that dream!