Things I Learned Thanks To My Thumbs

Opposable thumbs rock! They allow us to pick up things other animals cannot - including rides in other people's vehicles and knowledge. I am certainly not a farrier, but I would wager my grasp of the art of shoeing horses far exceeds that of the average person. I owe that knowledge to my thumb. My thumb brought me insight into the workings of a cult.  My thumb introduced me to lots of very interesting humans - and a couple of scary ones.

When my parents split up my mom re-located the two of us a couple thousand miles from our extended family. We went from Grand Rapids, MI to live in Tucson, AZ. For better or worse, as a latch key child of a working mom, I learned how to amuse myself. In hippy-drenched 70‘s era Tucson a young man with an opposible thumb could make his way around simply by sticking out said thumb and relying on the kindness of strangers.

I cannot recall the first time I put my thumb to work in such a manner, but I do remember that I got pretty good at hitching a ride. I was ambidextrous - I would face traffic with my right thumb extended. Other times I would walk in the direction I was headed and stick out my left appendage. If there wasn’t much happening on nice afternoon I might decide on a route that would form a big square to return me to home base and just hit the road. On the week-ends these routes might extend to several miles in every direction. I just told my mom I was going out to play and would be back by X o’clock. Thanks to an Army surplus, I had a web belt with a little hip pack and a canteen hanging off it. The pack was perfect for a lunch and could even hold a sweatshirt or jacket if need be.

Maybe it was the time period, maybe it was my baby face, maybe it was just luck - but my efforts almost always paid off. Sure, I might end up walking a good deal once in a while, but more often than not the majority of the distance was covered in someone’s car or the occasional truck.

One Saturday I thought I might hitch out toward Fort Lowell - a cool historic site with a nice park that was about 15 miles from our house. My second ride was a farrier - he pulled his pick-up over and we started talking. He told me he was on his way to do some work on a few horses up on Mt Lemon. My mom and I had actually rented horses from the stable up there. Mr. Farrier and I talked about how cool it was to ride around the forest in and around Summerhaven - the little village near the ski resort.
With nothing specific on my plate, I asked him if it would be okay if I rode up the mountain with him to watch him work. He was an amiable bloke and did not seem to mind the company of a 13 year old - even one who peppered him with questions about his specific craft and horses in general.

The 30 mile ride up the Santa Catalina Mountains is just lovely. The road twists and turns and the temperature cools off considerably as one goes from 2,000 feet in the valley to 8-9,000 feet up on the top.

This was one of my All Time Best Hitches. By the time we arrived at the stables my farrier friend decided that he was going to let me assist him in his work. There was one rock steady horse he had in mind for me to work with. He was not taking a huge risk because he found out that I had owned a donkey and a horse. In addition to that, a couple of my friends at school had horses and we would ride down Mountain Avenue to the riverbed and out into the foothills. FYI - these were horses that could be had for a couple hundred dollars, nothing fancy.

I watched my man remove old shoes, trim hooves, and put on new horsey kicks for 45 minutes or so. There is nothing like watching someone skilled at their craft, is there? He had a smooth rhythm and a brisk, but unhurried pace as he went from hoof to hoof, horse to horse. He kept up a relaxing patter to the horses and an instructional one to me. I would hand him tools and tried to help as I could. He showed me how to clip the excess hoof quickly and to use long, smooth strokes with the file to smooth out their giant toe nails. Most of his customers were cool as cucumbers, but one of them was a handful. It danced around a bit, refused to offer up its hooves and generally made him earn his pay. The skittery horse was no match for his combination of strength, confidence and experience - it soon had four new tires.

Then we got to my horse. He was an old sweetheart who pretty much picked up each foot before even being asked. I was a bit nervous and had to be reminded to calm down and file in long, gentle strokes. The real test for me was when the new shoe had been fitted for the first hoof and I actually had to drive a nail directly through the foot of this kind and gentle beast. Watching someone else do it was easy peasy, but when my turn came it took quite a bit of reassuring patter to talk me though the process of tapping the nail completely through the shoe and hoof with the hammer.

Whew! That first nail went okay, no blood and no wheelies from the horse. Encouraged, I tapped the rest of the nails into place and we clipped and filed the top of the hoof where the nails came out. Boy did I feel pretty dang special at that point. In recollection, I think I took an inordinate amount of time with my horse, because Mr. Professional kicked his game into high gear for the rest of our time at the stable.

For the life of me, I cannot remember this wonderful man’s name. I can still see his white pick-up with the signs advertising his business on the doors. I still remember the horsey smell in the cab and the ship shape way he had his tools and supplies laid out in the back of his truck.

He had to go on to take care of one more horse even further up the mountain and I knew I had to get my butt in gear and get home, so we parted ways in Summerhaven. I started walking downhill with my thumb out and got a ride in no time. That poor lady had to listen to my excited recitation of how I had just learned how to shoe a horse as we wound our way back to the desert.

Yup - my thumbs helped me learn a lot of things and meet some great people. Maybe next time I will tell you about the cult, or about the kind people in Texas who picked up a hippy biker and the rear tire from his Honda 750.

Opposable thumbs are the bomb. Can I get a thumbs up for thumbs?

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