The Childhood My Mother Gave Me

“My childhood wasn’t always easy. We didn’t have lots of ‘things.’ We didn’t have fashionable clothing or the leading brand names. We always had horses though. We always had a full life of adventure.”

By AnnMarie Johns

“Can Lynmarie Johns please come to the office? Telephone.” As the announcement once more blared across the cacophony of the lumber mill the single mom worked at, one can only imagine the internal sigh of frustration as she imagined what would be steaming on the other end of the line.

“MOM! Anna said she’s gonna run away on Smokey!” Huh?

“She what?”

“She’s going to get on Smokey and run away!”

“Can I talk to her?”

“Yeah…” Tasha, the eight-year-old tattletale, hands her older sister the phone.



“You’re going to run away?”

Crying, life apparently was really hard for her 10-year old daughter today. Bullies at school again. An inward sigh, work and life in general has been so tough recently…running away sounds really good right now….

And with typical outward aplomb, she answers:

“Can I go with you?”

That weekend, the whole family ran away. The single mom and her two daughters. No strangers to camping, but having never packed out on horseback, they threw everything they would need for a couple nights in the logging country of Washington state onto the horses and rode two miles down the road to the logging roads. No paneers, no pack train, no special knots. The tent and sleeping mats were all bundled up with bailer twine and hay nets. And tied to fronts and backs of saddles. All three riders had backpacks. Two lugs of water secured to each side of the mother’s horse, Buster. The pony, Rocket, learned to rub the packs of hay on the trees to grab a snack on the way.

One of our camping trips. Tasha and Misty, a TWH mare, on the left. Anna and Flo, another TWH mare. Photo courtesy of AnnMarie Johns.

Always up for an adventure, their dogs Becky and Orion came along too, jogging beside the horses, fending off imaginary enemies and chasing rabbits. And the days were rounded out falling asleep to the dusk song of crickets echoed by the crackling of the foil-emergency-blankets. Sleeping bags are too bulky to pack on three horses. On the way home, with a mile left, Rocket was done and just laid right down beside the country road with Tasha aboard. Girls and mother laughing, Tasha tumbled down and Rocket finally got up allowing Tasha to mount and continue on.

When the going gets tough, sometimes you need to run away – if it doesn’t adversely affect anyone truly close to you. And sometimes you just need to get up and try again.

I am Anna. My closest enemy, co-conspirator and deepest childhood friend is my sister Tasha. And although we may both have differing perspectives on our childhood, all of my childhood memories include her and horses. The memories march by…mom filling my “hug-meter” when I was sad. The first time I fell off, “You have to get back on, you know. That’s the first rule about falling off”. Sneaking out to the field as soon as we caught Buster lying down to pick out his conveniently upturned feet. Mom’s holler when she caught us at it. Enticing Buster and Smokey to the sides of the stall with hay only to hop on sans saddle and bridle. Mom’s near-heart-attack when she found out. Pretending to get our horses ready for a show giving them baths and braiding them up on the hottest days. Hours of endless brushing and hand-grazing. Watching mom practice on the anvil for hours at a time, hypnotized by the ringing cadence of the steel.

Anna on Smokey on the left; Tasha on Rocket on the right. Photo courtesy of AnnMarie Johns.

I remember the times Mom would want some peace and quiet and would allow us to “ride down the road” on our horses — me on Smokey, my 15.3hh dead-broke Heinz57 grey, and Tasha on Rocket the little POA pony. With a screech of delight, “Okay! We’re going to go to Dog Hill” or whichever nicknamed trail we picked. Mom would always respond: “Okay but take the dogs in case there’s a cougar. He’ll go after the dogs first.” And although there actually was a neighborhood cougar, we never saw him. Feeding Rocket PB&J, bubblegum (she blew a bubble!), chocolate chip cookies…whatever we happened to pack for our picnic trail ride. And if we were out too long? I can still hear the distinctive sound of Mom’s Ford Ranger pickup as she came down our road checking up on her girls.

I remember riding Smokey and Ace at daycare (Mom had actually helped our daycare owners buy the two horses) and when Mom bought Smokey for me. To be my very own horse. I can remember taking him to various 4-H shows, in my well-broken-in used English saddle in a world of Western riders. I did everything with that horse. Stand on his back and pick plums, gallop bareback with halter and lead rope down the pasture, jump a 2×4 over 5-gallon buckets. Everything. And he put up with my shenanigans.

AnnMarie in front, Tasha in back, on Buster. Photo courtesy of AnnMarie Johns.

County Fair 4-H warm up ring. Photo courtesy of AnnMarie Johns.

Opening parade of the Grays Harbor County Rodeo. Photo courtesy of AnnMarie Johns.

One day we went riding down the road and it was like you just knew his heart wasn’t in it anymore. Then, near Spring Break, one year his front leg swelled up and he was lame. At the shoulder. The vet came out and determined he had a tumor growing in his shoulder joint. Smokey needed to be put down. One funny thing about that was the guy who excavated Smokey’s grave dug it about 12 feet deep — he thought the horse would be standing up. As much as my heart broke over that time, mom didn’t let horses go out of our lives soon getting more for us to ride. And she made sure to keep my “hug-meter” filled up.

The last picture of Smokey before he had to be put down. You can make out his swollen front left leg. Photo courtesy of AnnMarie Johns.

My childhood wasn’t always easy. We didn’t have lots of “things.” We didn’t have fashionable clothing or the leading brand names. We always had horses though. We always had a full life of adventure. And this is the rich childhood my mother gave me.

I do not remember the phone conversation that started our horseback camping trips, but I remember the camping and I’ve never been allowed to live it down. I still love to camp – and sometimes I still want to run away from life on my horse, and every once in a while, I do.

My mom’s birthday is April 28 – so I would also like to say Happy Birthday to the woman who gave me the childhood I have never regretted.

I Love You. The memories make my hug-meter full.