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In the 50s and 60s, the San Fernando Valley was mostly farms, ranches and bare acreage. Low desert, the untamed land was covered with sagebrush, tumbleweeds and a bit of cactus. Winter rains encouraged the growth of large fields full of wild barley and golden poppies. Summer brought the hot, dry Santa Ana devil winds. The tall grass, its seed heads chattering in the strong gusts, turned golden brown. The valley was the home of many western movies, movie stars and Mr. Ed--who lived right across the dirt street from me. Lassie resided just two blocks down.
We lived smack in the middle of the valley, surrounded by movie ranches, circuses, carnivals, horse trainers, and movie stables: Hudkin Brothers, George Spahn, Fat Jones, Ralph McCutcheon and Glenn Randall. All of these were my stomping grounds at various times, sometimes just hanging out, sometimes helping with the horses. My dad, John Kemsley, was known as the ponyman. He kept a herd of twenty ponies for his carnival and for movie work.
Dad introduced me to the world of horses as soon as I could sit up. At six months of age, he put me in the saddle for the first time. That was the beginning of a lifelong love affair. The cowboys said I learned to walk when I fell off. That may be true. My earliest memory is of walking home from a nearby ravine after being dumped, once again, by my black and white pinto pony, Prince. I hated that walk and vowed to never get tossed again. It was a vow I could never quite keep, but it sure did improve my seat. Prince and I worked things out and began returning home together. I still feel more at home astride a horse than I do on the ground.
Our ponies worked in many movies and T.V. series: Ginger was the mascot on The Mickey Mouse Club and the star of Robert Mitchum‘s The Red Pony. A group of our ponies raced in Ronald Reagan’s Stallion Road. Fay Wray fell in love with Beauty in The Wedding March. Tiny little Beauty was also the first USC Trojan mascot, appearing at half time during the games and prancing along with the USC band in the Rose Parade. Pixie galloped to glory in The Annie Oakley series as Todd Oakley’s pony.
And Gene Autry was my first boss, hiring me at eight-years-old to ride as Calamity in The Buffalo Bill Jr. series. I worked on other shoots in various capacities, but that first thrill of riding down the street of a western town right beside my hero, Dick Jones, is the most memorable.
As an adult, I trained show horses and their riders, developing many into champions. Horses still grace my life, calling to me every morning and softly saying good night as the sun sets.
Growing up amid the people, horses and places who created the outstanding westerns of the era left me with a lifelong fascination of the Old West, especially the women who trudged across the plains and tamed a wild land. These passions highlight my writing and bring a smile while remembering the great horses and people who have blessed my life.