In the fall of 2008, we travelled to Clayton, OK for a trail ride in the Kiamichi Mountains around Sardis Lake. It was the second time we had been there for a trail ride which is put together twice each year by a group of old men from the Church of Christ. My cousin and his family travel down from near Bartlesville, OK for this event. My mother and stepdad invited us to join them as they had attended a few times too.
The ride occurs over a weekend, and Saturday night is always the big social evening. Several of the old men gather with guitars, fiddles, harmonicas and banjos to provide musical entertainment around the campfire. This had become my favorite part of the event. On this particular weekend, we had completed the Saturday ride and everyone was going through the motions to prepare for the evening’s entertainment. As I was looking forward to the night ahead, my mother approached me to ask if I would drive her around in search of a sign she had seen advertising ponies for sale. Reluctantly, I agreed and off we went to begin what would become a life-changing mission for me.
We left the lodge area and traveled up and over a mountain pass. I marveled at the similarity of the trees and views of the Kiamichi Mountains to the Colorado Rockies. It is an absolutely beautiful region. Over the mountain pass, and some twenty miles down the road we were still searching for that sign, “Ponies for Sale.” We entered a wide fertile valley and came upon the community of Finley, OK. Finley consisted mostly of a post office. The quest continued through Finley and we logged several more miles before Mom finally decided that she may have seen that “Ponies for Sale” sign in Colorado, or perhaps central Texas. I timidly suggested that we turn around and head back to the lodge, secretly hoping to arrive in time for the evening’s entertainment. We had hardly more than turned around before mom spied a man working in the front yard of a rather dilapidated mobile home. “STOP,” she cried. “I want to talk to that man.”
I was really hesitant, but I did stop for her to visit. She asked the man if he knew of anyone around who sells ponies. It went something like this. “My neighbor sells ponies. He lives right over there. No, he doesn’t live there. He lives in Antlers, or McAllister. His wife is a nurse. He lives right over there, but he’s never there because he lives in the city.” At this point, I thanked him for the information as I urged my mother back towards the vehicle. The man spoke again, “There is a guy named Russell Greg who lives on One Creek Road. He sells Ponies. One Creek Road is back that way about four miles. If you drive up in there a ways, you will probably find him.” Again, I thanked the man for the information as I pushed my mom back to the truck, determined to go hear the music play.
As I pulled onto the roadway, mom asked “Where are you going? You’re going the wrong way!” Being the dutiful son, I turned around to look for One Creek Road. I truly believed One Creek Road and Russell Greg would probably be as real as the “Ponies for Sale” sign had proven to be. Unbelievably, four miles up the road, we found One Creek Road, and the search continued.
As we traveled deep into the woods, I recalled a theory I had formulated a few years prior when I first ventured off of the Interstate highway system in Missouri. I believe most roadways in these heavily wooded and sparsely populated areas went through a series of changes over thousands of years to become paved thoroughfares. Back before recorded time, deer, bear, coyotes and other animals traversed the hillsides, creeks and valleys in their quest for food, water and cover. Following the lay of the land and always seeking the easy route, they laid a path as crooked as any snake that has ever been. Indians eventually came upon the scene and walked these paths both in search of game and also looking for the easy trail through the dense underbrush. The horse came to America and the paths were then beaten into the earth by the hoofs of the Indian Ponies. White men came. They walked, rode horseback and widened the paths for wagon travel. Eventually the Model T Ford wound through these hills, which ultimately led to the blacktop I was driving. Driving along the same snakey path, beaten into the earth eons ago, we were on a quest for Russell Greg and ponies for sale.
Continuing through the woods for several miles, the scene became reminiscent of depression-era America. We were clearly in a very rural piece of backwoods America. The sun was setting. It was an almost eerie surreal place, prompting me to convince mom that it was time to turn back for the final time.
Again, just a short distance from where I turned around, I looked up into the deepening shadows of the woods to see a man standing, almost 100 yards back in the trees, holding a handful of horse bridles and peering out towards us. I slowed and said, “Mom, look up there in the trees. Do you see that guy watching us?” You guessed it. Mom cried, “STOP! I want to talk to him.”
Mom approached the fence and the conversation began. They had exchanged a few words when I finished parking the truck and came within earshot in time to hear the man say, “well, I’m Russell Greg, who told you about me?”
By that time, I was beginning to believe that we had stepped out of the real world and into a movie script. We began a quest for a sign that never really existed, visited with a guy who had a neighbor who lived there, but didn’t, but did, and traveled eight miles back in time to find a man standing under one of a million trees on the side of a mountain in the Kiamichi Mountain wilderness.
Greg assured us that “yes, he has ponies” and he would be willing to sell. On the invite, we entered the property and began a slow climb up a mountain and into the forest. Without warning, Greg yelled with a catchy bellow, “come on.” He paused a few seconds and bellowed again. This continued for maybe five minutes until we were surrounded by almost a dozen horses, all displaying some version of a palomino paint color.
He began telling story upon story about these horses, mountains and history of the area. The horses are a Choctaw strain of original Spanish Horses brought to American by the Spanish Conquistadors. A man named Gilbert Jones raised the horses free range in the one and a half million acre wilderness of the Kiamichi mountains. There are still free range Spanish Mustangs throughout the mountains. The movie Hidalgo was about a horse that is in the lineage of these very horses. The Hidalgo DVD has a special feature on it about these horses. Greg’s son Dylan is featured on the DVD. Disney did a special on America’s first horse and visited the area for material. It was more than I could process, however every word of it was fascinating.
My mom purchased one of the palomino paint horses. Greg said his registered name is ‘Spooky Night Flight.’ Spook, as Greg called him, was ten years old, gelded as a nine year old because he was such a determined stallion. The next morning we watched as Greg literally manhandled the horse into our trailer before we set out for Texas.
Mom’s first task was to rename the little fellow. She chose the name “LoHa,” a name Greg had mentioned belonged to one of his other horses. Greg told us LoHa is a Choctaw Indian word for “runs far.” One of the many stories he told included these horses remarkable stamina in endurance racing.
Upon returning home, I began a series of internet searches. Little by little, I found truth in everything Greg had told us. I bought the movie Hidalgo. In the special features, I saw Greg’s son and one of the very horses we had seen the day we bought LoHa. I saw a man named Bryant Rickman speaking about the Spanish Mustangs. There was an individual named Dr. Sponenberg with the American Livestock Breed Conservancy. Emmett Brislawn was interviewed. Vicky Ives spoke of the horses. I searched the internet for Bryant Rickman and found that he carried forth the legend of Gilbert Jones, having been a personal friend of Gilbert's and embracing the plight of the horses.
I picked up the phone and called Bryant, and so began my adventure.