Being a guest ranch pony is a lot like being a host in a very popular family restaurant. If you want everyone to have a great time and a delicious meal, you have to be gracious, tolerant, decisive, willing, adaptive, forgiving, and patient. You need to be a problem solver and anticipate issues before they arise. Cool Dude was the PERFECT guest ranch pony. He had a sixth sense about his rider and always took special care for those who showed any fear or hesitancy. Countless kids had their first encounter with horses by riding Cool Dude. His low energy and easygoing personality were perfect for easing the fears of the many adults and university students from foreign countries where horses are rare. He would patiently stand for hours while hands both small and large brushed and combed and painted his white furry coat with numerous dark spots. He happily went around and around the corral with little feet on short legs stretching for the stirrups of his saddle.
Cool Dude leaves a big hole at Dunrovin, and many, many wonderful memories. Below is a story written by a former equestrian club member and professional writer about a very special guest who experienced riding for the first time in her eighth decade.
Surviving: by Danielle Lettuga
March 25, 2011
The simple act of running one’s fingers through one’s hair rarely prompts a person to reflect on their purpose in life. It’s not about being an insensitive person but more about the relatively unconscious acts that accompany us as we tackle seemingly “larger” and more-challenging tasks. Even if we are new to horseback riding, we are less likely to think about how a rein feels in our fingers and more about how we are going to stay on the horse. But we notice the blue sky, and that beauty is reflected in the expression on our faces when we comment on it to our friends, coworkers, or even strangers.
Shigeko Sasamori was 13 years old when she went to work as a student cleaning and “fire-scaping” the streets in Hiroshima City, Japan. She remembers the beautiful blue sky on her first morning, and the shiny silver plane flying overhead. Then there were “white things coming down” and a tremendous pressure that knocked her to the ground. She came to in pitch black and silence. “It was just like a dead city,” she has said.
She’d survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima by the sheer luck of the draw. Her mother had given her a new pair of pants to wear for work, and she was wearing them under her old pair to protect them. The pants ended up protecting her by providing enough layers to prevent her legs from being severely burned by the heat rays of the bomb. All around her there were people with no clothing, just skin hanging off, and their hair had been burned to ash.
“I’ve never been to hell, but if there is a hell, (it is) probably like that.”
Slowly her senses returned to her, and she heard a baby crying and felt pain and euphoria, intermittently, as her body went through the shock. For five days in the searing-hot summer of Japan, she survived with no food or water, speaking her name and address over and over and asking for water whenever someone was near. Finally someone heard her, went to the vicinity of her home, and helped to reunite her with her parents. They repeatedly rubbed her burned body with cooking oil, and she survived.
Ten years later she was chosen as one of 25 “Hiroshima Maidens” who were brought to the United States for reconstructive surgery. Because her legs had not been burned, she had healthy skin to use for skin grafts on her upper body and face.
Shigeko does not show expression on her face the way most people do, and her hands were damaged enough that she has limited mobility in her fingers. Yet she is able to convey the power of singular moments with great emotion and clarity. She describes the world on very sensual terms and in a vivacious manner, even when she is narrating the tragedy that defined so much of her life and that of others around her.
Shigeko Sasamori visited Montana in August of 2008. She was part of a group of atomic-bomb survivors touring the United States with Steven Leeper, the first non-Japanese head of the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation. The foundation administrates a museum that explains the consequences and horrors of atomic and nuclear weapons. Leeper also lobbies for an international ban on all nukes, called the Hiroshima- Nagasaki Protocol. Sasamori serves as the CEO of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Peace Projects, LLC. She gave a talk to a capacity crowd at the University of Montana Student Center.
Then she went for a horseback ride. Leeper and his wife, Elizabeth, were staying with his brother and sister-in-law, Sterling and SuzAnne Miller, during the group’s visit to Missoula. When Shigeko got wind of the fact that they were staying at Dunrovin Equestrian Ranch, she told Steve that she had always wanted to ride a horse. She was 78 at the time.
Miller willingly saddled up her pony, Cool Dude, because his size and demeanor would best suit an elderly petite woman who wouldn’t be able to grasp the reins very well. Then she gently walked the pony around the ring. Shigeko’s eyes smiled with a brilliance that Miller remembers vividly.
After several trips around the arena, Sasamori exclaimed, “Faster, I want to go faster!”
Miller began to run, with Cool Dude and Shigeko in tow, but still it wasn’t fast enough. Sasamori repeated herself, “Faster, I want to go faster!”
Miller told her, “My legs can’t keep up. You will have to ride on your own. After a few short instructions, I twined the reins through her deformed hands and told her to give him a gentle kick. Off she went at a trot, then a soft canter. She was in heaven. We had to pry her off the horse because we were going to be late for a dinner engagement with city dignitaries.
She dismounted, and when I showed her our garden, she said to me, “I love to cook vegetables. I am a good Japanese cook. I come cook for you and ride horses.”
Miller was moved by Sasamori’s spiritedness. “I could not help but think about what those eyes had seen in her remarkable life and how she chose to find joy and happiness in life, in spite of all that she had been through. Her experiences did not harden her to the world but seemed to make everything sweeter for her.”
Sasamori continues to work toward a world free of atomic threats. SuzAnne Miller continues to bring horses into the lives of those who need it most. And perhaps there is one more person in the world, one who savors the feeling of soft hair between their fingers and blue sky overhead, with grander passion and greater intent.