This past weekend was Big Gymkhana at The Thacher School, the boarding school my father and I attended (he was C’DeP 1965, I was C’DeP 2004). For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of a gymkhana, it is a competition with a bunch of difficult challenges and acrobatic games between riders on horseback. Typically this means quickly weaving your horse between poles and barrels, picking up another rider, you know, cool horse stuff. The riders (this time, Thacher students) are divided into three teams and compete against each other: Green, Orange and Blue (our team!). My dad was the Blue Team Captain his senior year; I was only a high ranking member.
My favorite race in the gymkhana is the sack race. Basically, the rider races 100 yards and makes a turn around a “canvas sack” placed on the ground, picking it up off the ground and racing 50 yards back toward the starting line. Before starting the race, you lower the inside stirrup (typically left) and you tie your reins together. These are essential steps because as you round the sack, you’ll lean into the inside stirrup while hooking your outside heel under the cantle for stability. Meanwhile, at the front of the horse, you’ll drop the reins (but they’ll hang over the horse’s neck because you tied them together!) and grab hold of the horn with your outside hand while reaching for the sack with your inside (left) hand. Once you finish the turn, successful or not, you pull yourself back into the saddle and race home.
The adrenaline rush you get while leaning out of the saddle, your horse’s legs powerfully digging into the ground at an unsettling angle just inches from your face. And that feeling when your hand grasps the canvas bag and you pull yourself back into the saddle, you know you did it! You’re safe, and now it’s time to turn on the “giddy up!” To “help” the horses make the turn back toward the starting line (and build drama for the audience), the sack race is run along the white wooden fences in front of the Grand Stands. It’s a show-stopping event for sure.
If this race sounds overly dangerous, that’s because it is. My junior year, I was working on the sack race with a “green horse” named Spider. We’d come a long way, but she was far from ready to push it as far as I wanted her to go. During the weekly gymkhana, while we were attempting the sack race, I was thrown from the saddle into the white wooden fence, cracking open the back of my head. This required six stitches.
“Don’t push it for a week. You’ll get your stitches out on Monday,” the ER doctor told me.
I did as I was told. The following Monday I got my stitches out. On Tuesday, I got back on Spider and walked around for a little bit. On Wednesday, a week later, we tried the sack race again, because… if you get bucked off, right? Our warm up round wasn’t bad, she made the turn, but she was still a little hesitant to lean into the turn. I did my best to comfort her, but soon it was time for us to make our official run. And we were off…
Last time, a week earlier, halfway through the turn, Spider darted the other direction (away from the starting line) spinning me around into the white fence. This time, instead of making the turn, or darting, she did worse… she straight up stopped and bucked me off. I went flying, face first, through the exact same six feet of white fence, knocking it off the rail and landing in the dead tree behind it. Luckily I was shielding my eyes with my arm, but I walked away with puncture wounds on my arms, chest and the inside my mouth (I was screaming!). A few days after my second trip through the white fence, there was a small wooden plaque nailed up next to a large spot of my blood: Eaton’s Rail.
It all started Freshmen year. If you can pick up the sack, you can “qualify” for the Silver Dollar Club. To join the exclusive Silver Dollar Club, you had to pick up a silver dollar off the ground… at a cantor. That’s right. You had to race 50 yards toward a chalk-circle drawn on the ground, make the turn (without dropping to a trot), lean off your horse and reach out attempting to grab a shiny piece of silver out of the sand, and keep it in your hand. If you can do that, you get to keep your silver dollar and your name is forever added to the list of Silver Dollar Club Members, posted proudly on the wall of the English building (I think they’ve moved it since). My dad picked up the silver dollar his sophomore year, so I was determined to pick it up my freshmen year on the back of my trusty Arab named Topeka. Take that, pops!
I trained in the sack race everyday. It was my race. In the weekly gymkhanas, I was often scoring top times in the “A” division. But before I was allowed to attempt the elusive silver dollar, I had to pick up an orange. Yep, an orange. (How Ojai, right?) That was Uncle Jack Huyler for you. And once you’ve passed this “Citrus Challenge,” you are finally eligible to try for the silver dollar… but not before Parents Weekend. Everyone’s first attempts on the silver dollar will be in front of their parents at the conclusion of the Big Gymkhana. Just to tack a little on top, Uncle Jack gave me the distinct honor and privilege of going first. No pressure or anything.
The main events of the Big Gymkhana came and went. A few records were broken, but I had nothing to do with those. At the end of the day, I was there for one solitary purpose: picking up that silver dollar and getting my name on that beautiful, handwritten list. The crowd began to gather in the grandstands as the circle was chalked out, bright and white on the dark brown dirt. Uncle Jack Huyler pulled a silver dollar from his jacket pocket and announced the last event of the day… the silver dollar pickup. As the tradition goes, the very first silver dollar tossed out every year is always an 1889 Silver Dollar, a token of the year the school was founded.
“Mr. Eaton!” Uncle Jack yelled, singling me out. “You’re up first.” He smiled and dropped the large, nearly ancient, silver coin in the middle of the circle.
It’s go time.
I took a deep breathe and asked Topeka to run with me, then I squeezed my legs and we were off. If you’re going to lean off the left side of the horse, it’s important that you’re in the left “lead,” or which leg lands in front while your horse is cantering. If the right leg is in front, your horse can’t lean to the left without falling over and sending you rolling. Topeka was in the right lead (as opposed to the “correct lead), so I guided her head around to the left and we took a small circle, asking for a lead change. Once she was in the left lead, we started barreling down on the field, looking to be a silver dollar richer.
The strategy on picking up the silver dollar varies depending on who you ask. Some people recommend you try to run the race like a “single stake,” going in tight right around the chalk circle, giving yourself the most time to pick it up. I was more of a fan of the wide approach, which allows the horse to keep speed and lean into the turn, getting me closer to the ground. So I pushed Topeka wide and then pulled her into the turn. We approached on the first pass and I leaned in, dropping the reins and grabbing hold of the horn. Leaning off and reaching out, I raked my hand through the dirt in the chalk circle, and when I came up, I opened my hand in dramatic demonstration for the crowd… lots of dirt, no silver dollar.
Topeka and I went back to the starting line and collected ourselves for our second run. Again, we started down the field toward the chalk circle. I made the wide turn, leaned off the inside and again, swiped my hand through the dirt. This time I picked up a chunk of dirt, so I quickly opened my hand to allow the dirt and the chunk to fall out. The cloud of falling dirt couldn’t dull the shine of that dollar as it spun through the air, falling back to the ground. That’s right. I picked it up and dropped it because I thought it was a dirt clump. Heartbreak.
Third time’s a charm, I thought. I looked out at the chalk circle then up to the crowd in the grandstands. Amongst the cheering faces, I saw my parents and brother, smiling and cheering proudly. (This was back in 2001, so I could actually see people’s faces, not their outlines around their cell phones. Sorry, I’ve digressed.) So I went for it a second time. Correct lead. Correct turn. Correct reach. Everything felt right, and sure enough, I missed it. Better luck next time.
There was a collective sigh from the crowd and the other riders but I’m sure I was too overwhelmed to hear it. I didn’t stop at the end of the race, I rode off to the far side of the gymkhana field and I’m sure I cried a little bit, having felt embarrassed and defeated in front of my family. That horrible teenage feeling that I let everybody down. My mom and dad. Uncle Jack. Myself. A small roar from the crowd only added insult to injury, as my best friend Ward successfully picked up that coveted 1889 silver dollar. My 1889 silver dollar.
Once you’ve attempted the silver dollar pick up (and been unsuccessful), you can try for it anytime you’d like, as long as Uncle Jack is there watching you. The Monday following Big Gymkhana, filled with optimism and a little vengeance, I warmed up Topeka and rode straight over to Uncle Jack. He saw me coming and smiled. Before I could say anything, he pulled a silver dollar from his pocket and said, “Go grab the chalk.”
That Monday, two days after Big Gymkhana, in front of Uncle Jack Huyler and a few other zealous freshmen, I picked up that silver dollar on the first try. “There ya go, Eaton!” I smiled as I held that silver dollar in my hand. I did it. My name is going on the list after all! I’m not a failure. I put the silver dollar in my pocket then rode straight back to the barns and called my dad.
“I did it, Dad.” I could him smiling on the other end of the line. Proud.
That summer my Dad gave us something special. He found some silver belt buckles with an opening to insert a silver dollar. He got us both one, to proudly display our silver dollars. That belt buckle became my most prized possession. I wore it all through high school, college tripping (great tip: I wore it in my college interviews as an “ice breaker.”) and I brought it with me back to college at St. Lawrence. Sadly, it was all the chaotic living during my time at St. Lawrence that I “lost” my most prized possession, either through theft, loss, or abandon (though I highly doubt the latter two). It was gone forever. I was absolutely crushed. How could I tell my dad that I lost this highly sentimental gift he gave me? He was so proud…
So, for the last eight years or so, I continued a small string of “lies” to account for the fact I didn’t have my silver dollar belt buckle when we went up to Thacher. It was breaking my heart every time he’d ask, the weight on my shoulders building with his desire to connect again in our matching belt buckles.
I vowed to save up enough money to buy myself another belt buckle, just like the one we had, before my dad could even recognize it was missing. After college, when I was living with Ward, I broke down and told him my version of the story, all the way back to Big Gymkhana when he picked up my silver dollar. We laughed. Of course it wasn’t really my silver dollar, but my heartache could have etched my name in that silver.
That year, for my birthday, Ward gave me another 1889 silver dollar. “I know it isn’t the one you picked up, but hopefully, when you get that belt, you can put this in it.” Yeah, I may have cried that time, too.
So, last Friday night, the day before the Big Gymkhana, my dad asked me, “Do you have your silver dollar belt buckle here?”
I said “no,” but realized there’s nowhere else it possibly could be. All my personal things are in Ojai. If not here, then where would it be? I was caught! So I bit down hard and told him the truth. How much I loved it, where I think it went missing, and how I’ve feared telling him for all these years because I was afraid to disappoint him. I hung my head in shame, ready for my verbal lashing about responsibility and not losing my shit.
Instead, he smiled and shook it off. “Why didn’t you say anything? That buckle is cheap and all you need is another leather belt to put it on.” He said. I quickly followed up with the fact that I already had an 1889 silver dollar to put in it.
“Perfect,” he said. “I’ll just get you another one.”
P.S. This year’s Big Gymkhana was great. And of the 10 students that attempted the Silver Dollar Pickup, only one girl successfully picked it up. (That’s her in the second picture!)