by Jonnie Martin
In Texas in the 1970s, quarter horse racing was held on ranches and bush tracks like Columbus and Goliad. Originally bred to herd cattle, quarter horses were made short and strong, with a coiled muscular power that could outrun a thoroughbred over short distances. Or a contrary steer, dodging through cactus and tumbleweed. Competitions were a sprint over a quarter-mile track – and if you blinked, you missed it.
My uncle, R. J. McAmis, M.D. owned a cattle ranch in Hempstead, Texas, then caught racing fever. He could make a few dollars if he took his quarter horses to Delta Downs in Louisiana or to Ruidoso, New Mexico, but mostly he raced for bragging rights and breeding lines. For a time, my dad, D. W. McAmis ran the ranch, as did my cousin, Sharon McAmis, and I came to visit often. I am a Texan but an admitted city girl, so I was content to sit on the back porch and sip sangria while watching the horses -- poetry in motion.
In the 1980s Texas approved gambling at race tracks but the rules were not favorable to anyone – not the fans in the stands who were used to a variety of betting options at the track – nor the owners of the horses. Purse winnings in neighboring states were 3-4 times as large, so owners began once again to take their horses elsewhere. This change – and other economic factors – virtually ended quarter horse racing in Texas, and it has remained a faint memory to ranchers here.
As I said, I was a city girl, and mostly saw these changes from afar. I moved out of Texas for about 30 years, chasing career. Then a few years ago I decided to update my journalist training from the early years and to study fiction. Suddenly I found myself writing literary westerns, which should not have been a surprise to me. After all, fiction springs from emotion, says Robert Olen Butler in his great resource, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction -- and Texas always held a special place in my heart.
In fact, my first novel, Wrangle is set on a Hempstead, Texas quarter horse ranch. While it is not about my uncle, dad nor cousin, it certainly attempts to capture the world they loved so much. In fact I returned to that world in 2012, settling into Hempstead, and where I now write a ranching column for the local newspaper and a weekly blog about Texas and the West. Yes, you can take the girl out of Texas . . . but you cannot take Texas out of the girl.
Jonnie Martin is a native Texan who returned both physically and emotionally to her home state to write her first novel, Wrangle, set on a 1970s quarter horse ranch (available on Amazon). She also writes a bi-monthly column about ranchers and other “people of the land” for The Waller County News Citizen and a weekly blog, Jonnie’s Writerly Notes, about the West in general and Texas in particular. Martin’s first career was as a journalist before migrating into business, where she continued to write. In recent years she has completed a second Bachelor’s (in Literature and Creative Writing) and a Master’s (an MFA in Fiction).