Looking Back: Horseback Riding with President Kimball

Contributed By Gerry Avant, senior contributing editor

  • 31 January 2018

Riding horses on the Church-owned Deseret Ranches at St. Cloud, Florida, are Harvey A. Dahl, ranch manager, at left, President Spencer W. Kimball, D. Arthur Haycock, Sister Camilla Kimball, and Margaret Dahl.  Photo by Gerry Avant.

Article Highlights

  • When Gerry visited Deseret Ranches in Florida, she rode horses alongside President Kimball.

I grew up loving to ride horses. My most memorable time on horseback was on July 1, 1980. My riding companion was President Spencer W. Kimball.

We were on one of the properties of Deseret Ranches, a subsidiary cattle and agricultural corporation owned by the Church at St. Cloud, Florida, located between Disney World at Orlando and central Florida’s Atlantic coast.

There we were, just the two of us, in a wide-open field. Instead of feeling immense pleasure in the opportunity to ride with President Kimball, I was nervous. I was afraid something would happen to him and I wouldn’t be able to help him or even call for help. This was before just about everyone had a cell phone.

Here’s how I came to be riding with the prophet: President Kimball had gone to the Lakeland Florida Area Conference. I covered the event for the Church News.

After the conference concluded Sunday, June 29, D. Arthur Haycock, President Kimball’s executive secretary, stopped me in a hotel hallway and conveyed an invitation from President and Sister Kimball to go with them to the ranches. President Kimball, trustee-in-trust of the properties, was going to see firsthand the operation of the ranches.

After they rode horses on the Church’s Deseret Ranches in Florida on July 1, 1980, President and Sister Kimball leaned on each other and shared laughs. Photo by Gerry Avant.

That evening we were hosted by the manager and his wife, Harvey and Margaret Dahl. We had a supper of bread and milk, one of President Kimball’s favorite meals. He sat at the head of the table. I sat immediately on his left. He asked me, “Are you going to go horseback riding with us tomorrow?”

While visiting the Church’s Deseret Ranches in Florida on July 1, 1980, President Spencer W. Kimball climbed a ladder to pick oranges, which he handed down to his wife, Sister Camilla Kimball. Photo by Gerry Avant.

I was stunned. About seven months earlier, President Kimball had undergone the second of two surgeries for subdural hematomas. A tumble from a horse would certainly cause harm to an 85-year-old man, especially one who’d had hematomas.

President Spencer W. Kimball and Sister Camilla Kimball spent some time with fishing rods at a stream on the Church-owned Deseret Ranches at St. Cloud, Florida, on July 1, 1980. Photo by Gerry Avant.

Answering his question, I asked, “Are you serious? You’re going to ride a horse?”

President Spencer W. Kimball played an organ while visiting the Deseret Ranches manager’s house on the evening of June 29, 1980. Photo by Gerry Avant.

“Yes,” he said, adding that Sister Kimball would be riding also.

Robert Justesen took President Spencer W. Kimball and Sister Camilla Kimball on an airboat ride on July 1, 1980, during their visit to Deseret Ranches in Florida. Photo by Gerry Avant.

I figured he was joking. I said, “Well, if you’re going to ride, I’ll go along.”

The next morning at breakfast, he asked if I was ready to go riding. I finally realized he was serious. I asked if he ought to be riding a horse. He fixed me with a steady gaze and asked, “Don’t you think I know how to ride a horse?”

I said I had no doubt that he knew how to ride but wondered if he should. He waved away my concerns.

After breakfast, we went out to the stables where six horses were saddled. I asked Brother Haycock if he was really going to let President Kimball climb onto a horse, considering the state of his health. Brother Haycock said he didn’t have any authority to stop him and told me to just enjoy the ride.

The horse Sister Kimball was on kept side-swiping other horses. Brother Dahl asked if I’d swap horses with her. After about 40 minutes, Sister Kimball said she’d like to go back to the house. Brother Haycock and Sister Dahl went with her. A little while later, President Kimball asked Brother Dahl to go to the stables to be sure everything was OK.

That’s how President Kimball and I came to be riding together, just the two of us. I hung back to keep my horse from bumping into him and his horse. I made several comments like, “I wonder how Sister Kimball is doing.” “Do you think we should go check on Sister Kimball?” “You know, there are snakes out here.” “There are alligators on the ranch; one could frighten our horses.” My last observation, “It’s getting really hot,” seemed to have gotten to President Kimball.

He reined his horse to a standstill, turned in his saddle, looked at me, and asked, “Do you want me to get off this horse?”

I admitted I did and said I was afraid something might happen to him. He smiled and said he was ready to go back, that he had ridden long enough.

When we got back to the stables, Brother Haycock asked him if he enjoyed his ride. President Kimball said he did. Then he added, “If Gerry had been put in charge of our activities, the most exciting thing would be a quilting bee—and then, she wouldn’t let me hold a needle.” Everyone laughed.

Sister Kimball joined us at the stables. As I walked ahead of her and President Kimball on the way to the house, I heard them laughing. I turned around and saw they were leaning into each other as they walked; his right arm was draped around her left shoulder, and her left arm reached around his waist. I lifted my camera, knowing I’d have only seconds to capture that moment. I focused as best I could and got a shot, which turned out a bit soft, but very charming.

While at the ranches, President and Sister Kimball went on an airboat ride on a canal, picked oranges, and, for a brief interlude, took fishing rods to one of the many streams on the properties. President Kimball spent the next couple of days looking over the properties.

The day I spent with them was filled with all sorts of photo ops. I’ve never climbed on another horse. I can honestly say that the last time I was on horseback, my riding partner was President Kimball.