History Behind the Experiment

Dreams (continued – The Rescue Gets Busy)

After Soldier was gone, things picked up both with work and the rescue. In May of 2006 my son Matt, who was visiting, and I, went to the Marysville auction. I was not definitely planning on buying a horse, but I did bring my trailer – just in case. I was only tempted once – an absolutely gorgeous, grey, 2-year old Quarter Horse filly who ended up going for only $250. I was hard pressed to keep my hands down! But it’s a good thing I did. A while afterwards an older grey QH mare was ridden in bareback with a halter. It was very sad. She just looked so beaten down by life. When there were no bids forthcoming, the auctioneer kept going lower. I raised my hand at $100. No one bid against me.

Willow the day we rescued her

Willow the day we rescued her (Matt is over 6 foot three and makes her look short)

Matt went back to check her out and I stayed and watched more of the auction. When he came back he told me he’d run into the owner and she had told him the mare had been a show horse and had taken many children to championships. She was 21 or 22, I never got that right. And that 2 year old filly was hers!

As soon as we got her home, I took pictures. Looking at her more closely, I noticed her right eye was tearing quite a bit. A closer exam revealed an actual divet on the surface of the eye. I immediately went to the feed store and bought a tube of antibiotic eye gel. In a week, remarkably, the eye was healed. Matt called her Whitie all the time, and I developed the habit for a while, but we named her Willow.

Willow is the only horse I have seen who was instantly accepted into the herd with no “waiting period”. Most horses were kept on the fringe of the herd until they had proven themselves, but Willow clearly was herd-wise, willing to obey the rules, and to be low man. Five minutes after her introduction, she was part of the herd. Willow gained weight very fast. She had old knee injuries, but was not lame. In fact, she had a spectacular extended trot, worthy of any dressage horse.

Willow 2 months later (July 2006)

Willow 2 months later (July 2006) easy to see where that filly got her good looks! Libby can be seen in the background.

Not long after we got Willow we also got a volunteer. Tracy lived only a couple miles away and offered her services. I immediately thought of Libby. The mare needed someone to really give her time and attention, which was something I didn’t have. When I did, my own horses expected it to go to them, and Huey, Lucy, and Bettina would crowd in and crowd everyone else out. Guess I should say here that there was only one pasture and no way to separate horses.

As it turned out, Tracy liked Libby on sight. So it was a win/win. In fact, it was Tracy’s hope to be able to adopt or foster Libby. I was all for that, since Libby had revealed her agenda. She wanted to be number two to Huey’s number one. She wasn’t mean or a bully or troublemaker, and most of the time she seemed okay with being number five in a herd of seven. But every once in a while, usually when the horses got their supper hay, she would try to push Bettina and Lucy away from Huey. Of course, that was never going to work. As I’d learned from watching the herd for the past three years, it’s not all about who wants to be in charge, or who is willing to bully their way. Huey, Lucy, and Bettina are a unit. That is the way it was then and it’s the way it is now. I call it being family. When Libby became annoying enough, Huey would chase her away – and I’m sure he told her to stop wasting her time. But it was what she wanted and she wasn’t letting go of it.

Libby looking good - she was telling the truth to Danielle there!

Libby looking good - she was telling the truth to Danielle there!

I was very grateful for Tracy. She had a full time job of course, but she did come regularly, and more importantly, she spent lots of time with Libby. She bought her own brushes – for Libby. She bought a beautiful halter and lead – for Libby. She brought horse cookies – for Libby. She had endless patience – for Libby. And she was not a quitter. She worked with Libby, often for hours, for a long time. Libby would let her brush her, touch her, feed her. But the halter never went on.

Rose's blistered nose

Rose's blistered nose - it was actually much worse by the time we got her.

In June we took in another grey QH mare. This one was only 8, but had had a bad reaction to the pasture she was on and couldn’t stay there. Her face and her four white stockings were blistered and she had become dead lame. She had been bred to an Appaloosa, but had slipped the foal. Her name was Zephyr Rose.

In July, we took in Summer Miracle, a gorgeous registered American Saddlebred. He went almost immediately to a wonderful home, but for the month or so he was with us, he took us up to nine! While he was there, the girls (Roxie, Rose, and Bettina) really enjoyed him. Roxie and Bettina were still loyal to Huey, but when it came to getting attention, Miracle was always ready to groom and scratch them.

In early August, Rose was starting to look awfully big to me – and to Tracy. We both felt she was pregnant. I tried listening to her belly to see if I could hear anything, but didn’t. Tracy offered to bring a stethoscope from home and we tried that. We still didn’t hear anything, but while we were listening the foal kicked! Clearly she was not just getting a hay belly!

The story of Rose and her baby deserves its own post, so I’ll skip it here.

 

Belle

Belle

Later that fall, I found a home for Willow and took in the horse she was replacing, a 12 year old QH mare. Huge girl at 17 hands, and a buckskin. Her name was Belle. We still had Libby, and Tracy, bless her heart, still worked with her in hopes that she could win her over.

I have to say, that Libby’s communication with Danielle never rang true to me. Not that I didn’t believe Danielle communicated with her. She was certainly right on about most things. What I do believe is that Libby conned her. She had no intention of letting anyone ride her. If she only wanted to be treated like a young, unbroken horse – she had that. Tracy could have won over a completely wild mustang in less time that she spent with Libby!! Libby had her own agenda and that was that. Below is a photo of Libby with Tracy. Looks like a lovely photo. But Libby still would not let either Tracy or myself put a halter on her.

 

 

 

Libby with Tracy

Libby with Tracy

Summer Miracle

Summer Miracle

I knew at this point that Tracy could not adopt Libby. It wouldn’t be fair to her (Tracy). Belle was a very nice horse, easy, kind, well broken, safe. She was a good choice for Tracy and I could tell that she was considering it. Still it wasn’t until the next fall that Tracy took Belle home – she was so in love with Libby she couldn’t give up.

Luckily – perhaps I should say miraculously! – I got an email inquiry in April of 2007. A couple from eastern WA wanted to adopt a horse. When I told them who was available – and referred them to our website – they chose Libby! I was so relieved – it was an answer to my prayers. It had become clear that not only would Libby not accept a halter – and all that it meant – neither would she ever give up her agenda in the herd. She was still trying to push her way close to Huey. She needed a new home.

I believe completely that she agreed. Knowing that people were coming to get her, I redoubled my efforts to get her haltered. I wanted her to go on their trailer! I could not do it. However, on the day that her adopters came to get her, I did get a lead rope around her neck. She led like an angel out of the pasture, through the yard, right into the trailer. I honestly believe she was ready to go try her luck at running things somewhere else.  And I must have been right, because I got a photo not long after, of Libby wearing a halter!

Libby wearing a halter at her new home

Libby wearing a halter at her new home

As for me – in my wildest dreams I never saw myself running a horse rescue. But here I was.

 

Dreams (continued – the rescue grows and one more lesson from Soldier)

In October of 2005 I decided to rescue another horse.  There is a now infamous “rescue group” in eastern Washington that used the threat of horses going to slaughter to get people to adopt them.  I knew they were crooks, but they were heartless crooks, and so the horses really were at risk.  Most of their horses were too expensive for us to afford, but I found one for only $400 (very cheap for them).  They had given her the name Maddox.

My friend, Ally, and I went over to eastern WA, to the “feedlot”, to pick her up.  We were there at the appointed time but ended up having to wait almost 3 hours for someone to take care of paperwork and help us get her loaded.  In those 3 hours it became apparent that we would never catch Maddox by ourselves.  I would try to get close to her – but she was having none of it.  She was very clever and managed also to get other horses to do her bidding.  It was quite something to see.  She “talked” the other horses into offering her cover, and they would move, turn, and put themselves where she told them.  She had a group of geldings that were doing her bidding.  It’s a shame we didn’t bring a video camera.

The closest I managed to get to Maddox was 10 feet.  However, as I stood with Ally, other horses approached me.  There was one older gelding in particular who I could actually hear.  He didn’t understand why he was there and why he wasn’t at home.  It broke my heart to listen to him.  He had been a good horse (his thoughts) and done everything his people wanted.  He had been a ranch horse and worked hard and done a good job.  Now he was here.  He didn’t belong here. (Again, his thoughts).  It was hard enough to know what he was thinking, it was unbearable when he came over and tried to put his head in the halter I was holding.  If I’d had the money I would have taken him on the spot.  It was clear he was a gentleman, and highly trained, but he had hit his 20’s and had to be discarded while he could still bring those extra few dollars.  It was excruciatingly painful not to be able to help him.  It was unforgivable, to me, that his people would discard him like that, after years of service.

He was not the only horse to try to put his head in the halter.  There was another older gelding who did the same thing, and a very handsome gelding in his prime.  Oh to be rich!  I would have taken all three.  It was incredibly hard to hear their pleas and not to be able to help them.  I apologized but that was cold comfort.  I did learn later that those three horses did get homes.  Thank goodness!

Someone finally came and corralled Maddox in a pen.  At which point it became apparent that she was a trained horse.  Faced with a losing proposition, she allowed herself to be haltered.  She then led perfectly, and loaded perfectly.  She traveled perfectly on the 3 hour ride home, and unloaded perfectly.

Maddox on her arrival October 30, 2005

Maddox on her arrival October 30, 2005

Released into the herd she caused the expected uproar as everyone wanted to meet the new horse.  Huey quickly told everyone whatever it is that makes them all line up and let him talk to the horse alone.  He talked to her for a couple minutes, then everyone returned to semi-normal and more calmly went to meet her.

Maddox only 27 days later

Maddox only 27 days later

Maddox began to gain weight almost immediately.  But that was the only progress made.  I tried to show her people could be trusted and that I didn’t want anything from her, other than that she let me approach her, touch her, and halter her.  But I made virtually no progress.  I could get within 3 feet of her, but that was it.  I had Danielle do a reading on her. (Click here to read it.)  As a result we changed her name to Libby.  But I still could make no progress.  Libby would let me get close enough to give her horse cookies, but it was clear it was just for the cookies.

And she had an agenda.  In the herd.  She started out by pushing Soldier off of every pile of hay.  He would take a pile and she would take it from him. He would move to a further pile and she would take that one.  No matter what pile he went to, she would push him off of it.  For no reason other than to bully him.  I am all about horses being horses and understand the pecking order rules.  But this was more than that, and therefore unacceptable to me.  The next time she pushed him off a pile of hay I immediately pushed her off it.  When she went to the next pile I repeated it.  In short, I did to her, what she did to Soldier.  I made it clear that if she didn’t leave Soldier alone, I wouldn’t leave her alone.  Being the smart girl she was – she gave up bullying Soldier.  But still, I could see she had an agenda.

. . . . .

Every morning when I woke up, the first thing I’d do would be to look out the window by my bed to see the horses.  One morning in late April, as I looked out, I was surprised to see the horses standing by the hay room.  You don’t realize what your horses don’t do, until you see them doing it.  They never stood there.  Immediately I wondered why they were.  Then I noticed there was something on the ground behind Huey and Lucy.  As I realized what it was I flew out of bed, threw clothes on, ran downstairs, put boots on and ran out the door.  Total elapsed time was under 30 seconds I’m sure.  I ran full speed over to Soldier, lying on the ground.  Huey and Lucy knew why I was running and never moved a muscle.

Was he dead?  No.  But neither did he have any desire to live.  It was clear that he had made the decision to leave his tired, stiff, crippled body and move on.  I had sensed his desire over the past week, but had been laid off in January, and though I had recently found a job, I had yet to receive a check.  I had told him I needed a week.  Clearly he couldn’t wait.

I ran into the house and called the vet.  I don’t remember how long it took.  Not too long, but it sure seemed long.  The private road I lived on didn’t have good cell phone coverage and people often missed the house at first, so I waited by the house phone in case the vet called for more directions – I didn’t trust my cell phone.

When the vet arrived I took him out to where Soldier was lying.  Let me make it clear that he was not ill, or colicky, or struggling.  He was just lying there peacefully.  Huey stood at his back, Lucy on the other side.  Family.  The other horses stood a ways off.  All of them clearly knew what was going on.  The vet tried to get Huey to move, but Huey wasn’t moving, and I certainly wasn’t going to ask him to move.  He wasn’t in the way and he wasn’t going to do anything.  The vet went to Soldier’s neck, at his back to avoid his legs.  I knelt on the other side not even thinking about that.  Lucy stood behind me to my left, just over my shoulder, unmoving, as the vet administered first a sedative and then the lethal injection.  Soldier never moved.  I have always felt that he died when he got the sedative.  I think that was all the help he needed to let go.

That quick it was done.  Less than 10 minutes.  The vet was kind enough to take a post-dated check, and then he was gone.  I was still kind of in shock.  It had all happened so fast.  Huey and Lucy left Soldier’s side shortly after I did.  The other horses then came and inspected his body, in a very quiet and respectful way.  And that was it.  They all knew what had happened, and that Soldier was gone.  There was no visible drama, but they were all subdued.

The vet had given me the number of a company who would pick up Soldier’s body.  When I called a while later, I was told they wouldn’t be able to pick him up until Monday.  It was Friday.  Then the woman warned me that they wouldn’t pick him up if they had to drive through mud.   The day was clear and dry and there was very little mud.  But it was April in Washington and that situation was unlikely to last long.  I couldn’t take the chance that it would.  I couldn’t believe I would have to do it, but I would have to move Soldier.

I still can’t believe I found the strength to do it. (Not physical strength – I used my truck for muscle)  The mental and emotional strength.  Luckily, as I realized, his feet were facing away from the building.  I tied them together with the rope I kept on hand (thank goodness!) for “fence” repair, and then I connected the length of chain from my hammock, to the rope and then to the brush guard on my truck.  I very slowly backed up and as gently as possible dragged Soldier to the side yard.  I didn’t plan where to stop, but as it turned out, he ended up right outside the window next to my recliner.

I wouldn’t appreciate it for a day or so, but this was a very good thing.  Soldier had just shown me that horses understand death, and support each other in their time of need.  Now he had one final lesson to teach.

It may sound weird, but it was actually comforting to be able to look out and see him.  He had chosen to die.  He hadn’t experienced the agony of colic, or been injured, or suffered.  He had just been tired.  So there was no horrible trauma about his death.  Just loss on my part.  He had gotten what he clearly wanted.  He was at peace.  He was free. I don’t believe that death is the end, so I knew he was in a better place and certainly happier.  With his back to me, he didn’t look dead.  He just appeared to be sleeping.  And in truth, he looked better dead than he had alive. I had to laugh –and cry – all the time I had him I had wanted him to look better.  In death I had gotten my wish.

Even in the dark of night I knew he was out there.  And that kept him in my thoughts, but not in a grieving way.  I thought of all the things he had taught me.  Of the journey he had taken me on.  Of how he had raised Lucy – and of how much she loved me.  Soldier’s doing I am sure, as I had spent very little time with her in the 3 years I’d had her.  I had bought her for Soldier.  He in turn appeared to have charged her with loving me.

As the weekend passed, I came to realize that having Soldier there, outside my window, had helped me immensely.  It allowed me the time needed to process everything before he was physically gone.   From that experience I have come to believe that our desire, as a culture, to avoid death – even the sight of death – is a mistake.  We wisk dead things away to save us pain.  But really it causes more pain than it prevents.  It’s impossible to process death in minutes or a couple hours. I was given the gift – I have to wonder if Soldier did it purposely – of letting go of Soldier over time.  He wasn’t yanked away.  He truly passed away.  I could see him, I knew he was there, and little by little I could let go.  By seeing his body I was able to go from the intellectualization that it was just his body, to the total understanding that it was just an empty shell.  The force that had animated it was no longer in it.  It was easy to see that even if a machine could keep his heart beating and his blood flowing, there was no LIFE in that body.  I had always believed that – but to see it was to truly understand it.

I am convinced that Soldier came into my life for a reason.  I know for a fact that he changed my life forever.  He taught me many lessons, even in death.  I took his death as a sign that he felt he’d done his job.  That he had taught me all he could.  The rest was up to me.

Soldier in the fog in Colorado

Soldier in the fog in Colorado

Dreams (continued – My Dream)

A few days ago I took a drive just for the sake of it and, on a back road, saw an Amish man with a team of horses.  I wasn’t sure what he was doing – maybe grading a dirt road.  I could only see one of the horses, but that was bad enough.  He was a little too thin – I could see ribs.  His mouth was gaping open as the man pulled on the reins.  I couldn’t tell if he was asking the horses to go forward or back up.  Perhaps they couldn’t tell either.  But the worst thing was the expression on his face.  Desperation, sadness, confusion. And the beginnings of resignation.

I had seen the horror of resignation this past summer when I passed an Amish carriage on the road. (Thankfully it’s the only one I’ve seen.)  As I passed the horse and buggy, I looked over at the horse.  I was horrified by what I saw.  My heart still hurts when I see it in my memory. He was nearly black, not too thin. And like a zombie.  It’s impossible for me to put into words what I saw in that brief moment.  As a hoofcare professional I’ve seen a lot of unhappy horses.  This was way beyond that.  Miserable doesn’t even begin to describe it.  That horse was way beyond misery.  He was a broken slave forced to work as a mere machine. He was resigned to the fact that his life would be hell.  Watching him trot along, shod in steel shoes, on hard pavement, with his lifeless, hopeless eyes, was torture for ME.  I can’t even imagine what it’s like him for him.  Every day.  Every day, until there’s nothing left and he either dies or goes to slaughter.  He will haunt me the rest of my life.

No one should be allowed – ever – to do that to any creature.  It should be a crime. Not the work itself, but the killing of all spirit.  The torturing of mind and heart.  It’s possible to have happy working horses. I’ve seen them. It’s said that the Amish treat their horses like machines.  Certainly I’ve seen machines that were happier than that horse.

In contrast, last night I watched Secretariat.  I have to say it was better than I thought.  If you haven’t seen it, you need to rent it – not necessarily for the movie, but for the Bonus Features.  There is some film footage of Secretariat that is just amazing.  The expression on his face was remarkable.   His spirit, his intelligence, his life force – all were perfectly clear on screen, I can’t even imagine how it would have been to see him in person.   Here was a horse who was loved before he was born.  He was treated like a champion from his first breath. In the most important way – in people’s hearts.  He was truly loved and respected.  He was allowed to become a champion.  People cared what he thought.  Cared how he felt.  Let him be himself.  And what is apparent looking at him on screen is that he was a horse who was encouraged, allowed, and did, become all that he could be.

Those who believe strongly in science and only what can be seen and measured, attribute his accomplishments to his overly large heart.  But I don’t believe that was the reason for his greatness.  The will and desire to USE that ability is just as important as having the ability.  Don’t we all know people who are brilliantly gifted but don’t become successes – far from it in many cases.  Talent and ability alone do not make a champion.  If it did, sport would be dull and boring.   I learned things about Secretariat in that movie that I didn’t know.  For instance, if he lost a race he became angry with himself, and would stay in the back of his stall.  In his next race he would not only win, but set a new record.  That is fact as his record is there for everyone to verify.  That has nothing to do with his physical structure – that was his real heart.

Before I met Soldier I would have seen that.  But Soldier opened my eyes in new ways and changed my life forever.  Now I see more than I did before.  I  believe that Secretariat knew all his people wanted him to win the Belmont.  That it was crucial that he do so.  I think he knew Penny Chenery Tweedy not only wanted that, but wanted everyone to see what he really was.  And he showed them.

I think Zenyatta is an example of the same thing.  Yes, she had the physique.  But she also had a trainer who cared about HER.  Not just what she could do for him.  He cared that she was kept happy during her days.  Zenyatta was allowed to become all that she could be.

It’s my hope that those of us who are trying to make a better life for racehorses (and there are others out there besides me) will have at least some measure of success in getting people to see that the mind and the heart are just as important – or even more so – than the physical.

That is my dream.

Dreams (continued – animal communication and old friends)

Yesterday I was lying in bed reluctant to get up.  I was tired, having been working intensely on developing a website for a client.  I was nearly back to sleep when I felt someone staring at me.  I opened my eyes to see my cat, Sissy, sitting about 6 inches away, gaze fixed on me with intent.  Now, I am a light sleeper and had already been up at 5 to give Sissy fresh food and water per her request- so she had no reason to be staring at me.  (Let me say that it was 7:45, later than I usually get up.)  As I look at Sissy, she stands up and moves to the window at the head of my bed, reaches a paw up to the curtains, and pulls one side open to let the bright winter sun shine on my face.

Sissy (the cat) with Cynthiana

Sissy (the cat) with Cynthiana

An accident?  I doubt it.  I have a strong feeling that the horses have communicated to Sissy their desire that she get my butt out of bed so that I can feed them.  (There is again snow on the ground!!!!).  I comply with their wishes  of course.

Chickens in Colorado - 2003

Chickens in Colorado -2003

This is not the first time animals have used other animals to get me out of bed when I have slept in.  In Colorado, I had chickens.  (They came with the property I was renting.)  There was a Guinea hen who had decided to live there as well, but at this point she wasn’t living in the hen house.  One morning I was enjoying sleeping in.  (The horses had a 900 pound bale of hay to keep them busy.)  Suddenly I hear Mimi, the Guinea hen, screaming from the side yard.  Then it’s from right outside my window.  She never did that, so I got up to see what was wrong.  As soon as I got up, the screaming stopped, and I could see her on her way back toward the chicken coop.  A coincidence?  I don’t think so.  I believe that the chickens sent her – as the only unconfined member of the flock – to get my butt out of bed!

My animals are, in fact, quite able to get their way.  At times I call them slave drivers, as it is clear I work for them.   Not that I resent it, I don’t, but how did people come to think animals are stupid?    My mother and I argued this point a lot when I was growing up.  I always believed animals were smarter than people thought.  Now, I believe it even more strongly.

Mimi and the peepers (hens she had raised from chicks) in WA

Mimi and the Peepers (hens she had raised from chicks) in WA

I think, first of all, that people want to believe animals are stupid, as that justifies – to them – treating them badly. Also, humans want to believe we are the supreme species, so whenever animals do something  that we think we would never do – such as a horse spooking from a piece of paper blowing down the trail – we are happy to use that as an indicator that they are less intelligent than us.  It’s only a piece of paper!   We would never be so silly as to be so scared of something so harmless.  Right?  Not really.  I myself, before I studied about animal communication was terrified of spiders.  Screaming, jumping around while screaming, yelling at one of my sons to “Kill it! Kill it!”  That was me.  If I was alone I would vacuum them up.  Screaming the whole time.  Rational.  Superior.  That was me.

I do feel bad about that.  I don’t kill spiders anymore.  Unless they break the one unbreakable rule of being on the same piece of furniture as me – or are actually ON me.  Then I say I’m sorry, but I just can’t bear it.  And, honestly, it very rarely happens.  I have taken the advice of the many AC books I’ve read and broadcast my feelings on the issue to all the bugs in my living quarters.  It seems to have worked.

Okay, so  with me, it’s bugs.  For some people it’s mice, or snakes, or who knows.  For some poor people it’s the trash, germs, etc.  We are not without our irrational behaviors.  Truth be told, I believe we have far more of them than animals do.  Does that make us less intelligent?  No, it makes us human, just like spooking at blowing paper makes a horse a horse and not a lion.  We all have our own natures.

The other thing that always bugged me was that anything brilliant that animals do, people credit to “instinct”.  Birds can build magnificent nests – even on the sides of buildings – using only their beaks.  What an engineering feat!  But man says it has nothing to do with intelligence – it’s all instinct.  Animals can find their way home across thousands of miles of terrain, without being able to read signs, have a gps, or even a compass and a map.  But that’s not a highly defined skill – it’s just instinct.  My question is, where are our wonderful instincts?  We have none.  We have very basic instincts – the desire to satisfy our hunger, thirst, and need to sleep, and procreate.  Are they even instincts?  Or is just our bodies telling us what to do – as science has now proven that intelligence is not located just in our brains.

Why do we feel the need to take away the intelligence that animals clearly have?  While migrating birds – and even fish – can find the exact spot where they were born, we have to be sure to mark the spot where we park our car at the mall so we can find it later.

My big question?  How did the first bird build a nest?  Seriously.  Some bird had to figure it out at some point.  To me that was clearly an exercise in intelligence and problem solving.

And the people who pooh pooh animal communication?  Anyone who has a pet knows that animals are smart, know things we haven’t told them, and manipulate us pretty easily.  They have feelings, they feel sad, happy, angry, joyful, and loving.  People who’ve never had pets say that we are “anthropomorphizing”, but are we? (Yes, I grant that some people try to turn their pets into children, but the average pet owner reads their pet pretty well.) One of the things I hear from people who do have animals but don’t believe in animal communication, is that their animals don’t do what they tell them. Well, that doesn’t prove they don’t understand you – only that they have their own ideas about things.  Anyone with children want to comment?  I know mine spoke English, but frequently didn’t do what I told them.

The situation will have a lot to do with whether an animal does what you say.   One day, when I was living in Colorado, I got up from my desk to go the kitchen.  On my way back there was a 6 foot long bull snake between me and my desk!  I couldn’t believe it.  Where had it come from?  How long had it been there?  Now, I am not afraid of snakes, but I am afraid of being bitten, as it would be painful, even if the snake is not poisonous.  So I’m standing there at the top of the steps that lead down into the sunken family room wondering what to do, when the snake heads my way.  My heart is pounding, but I’m not afraid and I just watch as the snake comes to the brick planters that flank the steps.  (There’s nothing in them, as there is no light in that area – I don’t know what the people were thinking when they put planters there.)  I watched as the snake stood up (so to speak) and then crawled into the planter on my right. Well, I might have tried to pick up a snake lying flat out on the carpet, but I have no intention of sticking my hand into what was basically an 18’ deep hole, to try and get it.  What was I going to do?

I thought a minute. Really, the snake and I both wanted the same thing.  Him (or her) out of the house without anyone getting hurt.  This seemed to be a great time to put all my reading to the test.  Luckily, I happened to have a large cardboard box handy.  I got it, and laid it on the floor at the top of the planter, with the open side pointing at the planter and the flap down, so the box would be easy to get into.  I then suspended my doubt about the snake hearing and understanding me and said, “I’m not going to hurt you.  I know you don’t want to be here.  If you come out and get in the box, I’ll let you go outside.”  Those were just about my exact words.  To my utter surprise, the snake IMMEDIATELY rose up, came out of  the planter and crawled into the box.  Whereupon I took the box to the sliding glass door, opened the door, put the box down and left him (or her) to find their way out.  Which he/she did very quickly.

Though some of you may doubt it, that is a true story.  Even though I did believe in animal communication, I was amazed.  It was so quick!  I do believe it was because the situation was so desperate for the snake.  I’m sure it was way more afraid than I was.  I actually like snakes.  In this case, the snake had real motivation to do as I suggested.  But it still amazes me – even today.

A similar situation happened a couple years ago in Washington.  I was at a client’s and had just finished trimming her horses.  As we stood there talking, we heard an incredible sound of beating wings.  We looked up to see two crows chasing a pigeon.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  Or heard anything like it – the sound from their wings was incredible.  My client and I stared in amazement as the poor pigeon flew for his life – or at least that was how it appeared. It was such a bizarre thing that it became almost other-worldly.  The pigeon kept racing in this huge circle and the crows were hot on his tail.  Around and around and around.  I don’t know how long it went on, but it was as if we were part of it.  I felt the desperation of the pigeon and wanted him (or her) to escape – I didn’t think it was going to end well.  I felt so helpless and then suddenly I thought of what I hoped would be a solution – as the pigeon was so much smaller than the crows (or perhaps ravens).  Without even thinking what I was doing, I yelled out, “head for the woods!”. My idea being the pigeon could use the trees to its advantage over the bigger birds.  And he did!!!  He flew right into the woods.

So clearly, my experiences have made me a believer in animal communication.    But I am still amazed whenever it occurs.

When I moved to Washington, one of the first things I did was go down to meet an online friend who lived there.  Let’s call her Deb.  One weekend in the late summer I drove down to her place.  She was also a barefoot trimmer, and had horses she had rescued.  While I was there I met her horses, including one I’ll call Sammy, a big, wide, chunky, palomino, quarter horse, up there in age.  It didn’t happen right away, but at one point, Sammy came over to me, stood in front of me, facing me head on, and clearly was trying to tell me something.  It was really apparent that he was intent on getting through to me.  I felt bad because I wasn’t hearing anything at all.  I just kept thinking about Soldier and how Sammy reminded me of him.  I apologized to Sammy as I got ready to leave – I felt bad I hadn’t heard what he was trying to tell me.  It seemed so important to him.  As I went to go through the gate he tried to squeeze through with me.  I had the distinct impression that he expected to go home with me.  Which would have been impossible as my horse trailer was at home.  Sammy’s attempt to leave with me really upset Deb – her feelings were clearly hurt.  I felt bad, because the only thing I picked up was that he clearly had thought he was leaving with me and wanted to go.

I lived about 3 hours away from Deb, and as I drove home, I kept thinking about Sammy’s behavior and how I had failed to hear him, even though he had tried so hard to get through to me.  I’m a somewhat obsessive person, and this bothered me a lot.  I also tend to talk to myself – which actually does help me a lot of times.  As I was replaying the scene in my mind for probably the 100th time (and we humans think we are the smart ones!) and talking out loud, I heard myself say “He just kept reminding me of Soldier.”  It was then that light dawned at Marblehead!  That’s what he’d been doing – showing me pictures of Soldier!  I had been so dense.  I kept thinking how much he reminded me of Soldier.  And that was the message.  There was no logical reason he would remind me of Soldier.  Soldier was nearly black, Sammy was a very light palomino.  Soldier was built like a Thoroughbred, Sammy was bulky and wide.  Sammy had been trying to tell me he knew Soldier and he wanted to go with me and see him!  Then I realized – have I said I’m dense? – that Sammy was a palomino!  Could he be the palomino friend that Soldier was always looking for?  He had to be.  I was sure of it.  It’s the only thing that made sense.  I was so excited!

I made arrangements with Deb to bring Soldier down to meet Sammy to see if they actually knew each other.  How amazing would it be if two old friends from Colorado were to be reunited in WA?  I knew that Soldier had been bred and born in Colorado, as he was branded and research had lead me to the ranch where he was born.  No one remembered him of course, one dark bay colt among how many over the years, but I did know he hadn’t come from somewhere else.

When the day came to go to Deb’s, Soldier zoomed right onto the trailer.  That in itself was a giveaway, as he always loaded, but also always delayed as long as possible.  When we got to Deb’s he zoomed off the trailer and actually almost dragged me over to the gate to Sammy’s paddock.  A breach of his otherwise impeccable manners – and how did he know to go to THAT gate and not another one?  But what happened next surprised me.  He made no sign of recognizing Sammy at all.  And Sammy gave no sign of recognizing him.  They didn’t even appear to see each other.  We agreed to put them together, and we did.  Sammy kept his head down and  ignored Soldier.  Soldier walked in, seemed not to notice Sammy, and began to eat hay -  out of the same pile.  I had been so sure that Sammy was Soldier’s long lost friend.  I had expected to see excited greetings.  But nothing.

Then it dawned on me – by which, of course, I mean that the horses made me aware of it – they deliberately didn’t greet each other so that Deb’s feelings wouldn’t be hurt.  They pretended not to be long lost friends.  But what they forgot to do, since horses are basically honest, was to pretend to be strangers!   Soldier knew he was going to meet Sammy.  He had been excited to do it.  He had loaded up like lightning, he had dragged me over to the gate.  He had NOT been surprised or excited to see a palomino (a first!).  Sammy had completely ignored a “strange” horse entering his paddock.  So unhorsey!  And in fact, had shared hay without once even raising his head to look at Soldier.  Definitely not normal for horses who are “strangers”.  In short, though they didn’t act like this was the first time they’d seen each other in who knows how many years, they did act like horses who knew each other and lived together.

I had also brought Huey so Deb and I could go riding together.  We loaded her mare on the trailer with Huey and drove to a great area not far away.  On our ride, Deb made it clear that if the horses knew each other she was not prepared to take in Soldier, nor was she willing to let Sammy come and live with me.   Which meant of course, that the two old friends would not be able to spend their last years together.  And explained why they had been so low key.  I felt bad.  Horses give so much and get so little from us that it felt wrong not to let them be together.  I didn’t need another horse, but I would have gladly taken Sammy, and though I would have missed him deeply, I would have let Soldier go live with Pam.  But neither would happen.  This would be Soldier’s and Sammy’s final reunion and final goodbye.

When we got back from our ride, Soldier walked to the gate.  I knew he and Sammy had said their goodbyes. He was ready to go home.

I still cry when I think about it.  Horses are so unselfish.  Sammy and Soldier did their best to protect Deb’s feelings, all the while knowing that she wouldn’t let them be together.  Oh yes, we humans are definitely the superior ones.  Aren’t we?

To be continued . . . the rescue grows, and one more lesson from Soldier

Dreams (continued – big changes)

By the spring of 2005 I was wondering why I had five horses. So much more work. So much more expense! I decided five was a good number though. Big enough to be a real herd, but not too big. Five was just perfect.

No sooner did I have those thoughts than a post, on one of the Yahoo groups I belonged to at the time, told of three mustangs who needed homes desperately. I contacted the poster offline and asked for more info. Apparently a woman who worked at Canỹon City Prison (in Colorado) had 3 mares that she no longer felt up to taking care of. They were for sale for $200 apiece. Apparently she had seen all the babies (the BLM keeps a large number of mustangs at the prison) and thought they were cute (which of course they all are) and decided to adopt not one – but three weanlings! Worse, she had no horse experience. Now the girls were all five year olds. I decided I would go take a look.

There was a good looking paint mare, who for some reason I just felt was rather belligerent. There was also a pretty bay mare, who struck me as bitchy. Immediately I’m beginning to feel it was a wasted drive. The third mare was standing on the other side of the round pen in which they lived. (There was a field, but they had learned how to escape.) The third horse, Pixie, look small and dirty. She was supposed to be a red (bay) roan, but I couldn’t see it. As I looked at her, I decided it was a wasted trip and I wasn’t going to take any of them. At that exact instant Pixie’s ears went all the way up and I could hear her say she wanted to go with us. She wanted a home.

Just at that moment the woman’s husband came out of the barn with a scoop of grain. She tells us that the horses will not take food out of anyone’s hand, but we can feed them out of the scoop if we want. Wanting to see if I had heard correctly, and how badly Pixie wanted a good home, I took a handful of feed out of the scoop, and in my mind I told Pixie that if she wanted to come with me she needed to come and take the food from my hand. Well, instantly she was right there and ate the grain. And so I bought her. It’s now apparent how I ended up with five horses.

I hadn’t brought my horse trailer, so arranged with the woman who had posted about the horses, Tanya, for Pixie to stay at her place for a month. Pixie had a mule baby from Tanya’s Mammoth Jack. The baby, Molly, was now 18 months old and though we tried, the owner would not let her come with Pixie. My son, who was with me, had been wanting a mule, so we were hoping Pixie would get in foal while she waited for us to pick her up.

Pixie and Molly

Pixie and Molly

When I told my friend at work that I had just bought horse number six, she said I should start a horse rescue. My initial response was that I could never do that. She responded with, “Maureen, you already are a horse rescue.” I had never thought of it that way. I was a horse rescue. I took in the horses, I bought the food, and I took care of the horses. That was the hard – and costly – part, the rest was just paperwork. My friend was brilliant! I subsequently incorporated as a non-profit in the state of Colorado, and began working on our 501(c)3 application.

When we went down to Tanya’s to pick up Pixie, I barely recognized her. She seemed so much larger, and now that she wasn’t muddy her color was very apparent. What a beautiful girl. I sometimes wonder if, as with Soldier, I had seen how she felt about herself there, as opposed to seeing her actual physical self. In the round pen she had seemed small, dirty, narrow, and I can’t really think of the words that would describe it, but like a waif. When the owner had told us that Pixie was the dominant mare I didn’t believe her – at all. The mare I saw that first day was not the horse in charge. She was kind of pathetic. The horse I saw at Tanya’s was very different. Certainly not a Pixie. I immediately changed her name to Roxie. She was not narrow or in any way waiflike. She was – and is – quite an intelligent horse with a great deal of personal power and presence. I think she was just very unhappy where she was and that was what I saw.  She clearly had not lied when she said she wanted a home. From day one, though she was untrusting of us, she wanted affection and she would let us rub and scratch her.

Pixie and baby mini-donkey

Pixie and baby mini-donkey

Roxie didn’t get in foal – and it turned out to be a good thing.  She clearly loves babies, as the photo on the right shows her at Tanya’s laying as close as possible to two baby mini donkeys. (Only one shows in the photo.)

So, now the herd was up to six!  I’d like to say at this point that the herd is exceptional – I think. I believe that they reflect my desire to help horses. Purposely. I think they know what I think and feel, and act accordingly. Each new horse that was introduced into the herd caused a lot of excitement and all the horses tried to run up to it at once. Huey would then tell the other horses to wait – they would, they would kind of line up – then he would introduce himself to the new horse. Then everyone would calm down. The new horse would be on the outskirts of the herd until he or she had accepted the rules of the herd. There was NEVER any viciousness or meanness. No kicking or biting. Just face making and some charging threats. For those who watch The Dog Whisperer, the herd is like Cesar’s pack. Stable. Mentally healthy. They offer this to each new horse.

Not long after we picked up Roxie, my job became unbearable and finally I couldn’t take it anymore and arranged to get laid off. My goal was to take my 401K and go live somewhere cheap. I had an offer of a place in Texas from a friend and that was my plan. However, I was only unemployed for a matter of hours before I got a job offer to go to Washington state. Afraid to actually go without the “security” of a job, and also because I felt a debt to the person making the offer, I eventually agreed. Though I did protest that I didn’t want to go, and in fact, didn’t want to even work anymore. When asked what the biggest reason was why I didn’t want to go, I said I had six horses that I’d have to move. Okay – they’d pay to move the horses – next reason? The weather, I have a not so mild case of SAD (seasonal affective disorder) and knew that the Seattle area is gloomy and rainy in the extreme. Okay – after 6 months we could reevaluate and maybe I could work at home (live anywhere) – or go part time. To make a long story short – the offer was too good to refuse and so I didn’t.

They wanted me up there quickly so I told the horses right away that we would be moving. I assured them that they would all travel together, and that I would be there when they arrived. I told them there would be more grass and they would like it. I repeated this weekly so they would be sure to understand what was going on.

I found a 5 acre place to rent in Stanwood, WA. The house was great. It had just been remodeled. The property was located on a private road and was very nice. It was partially fenced and had a large run-in shed, along with a storage room for hay, and even a little feed/tack room. It was not attractive in any way – but it was adequate. Because it wasn’t fully fenced I arranged to board the horses while I arranged to get fencing put up. The shipper was to deliver the horses to the boarding stable.

The horses were on the road for 2 days and arrived at the stable in the afternoon of the second day. The driver had called me and I met him there. As we unloaded the horses we put them in the covered arena at first. After I had paid the driver I went to see them. Soldier immediately cantered up to me (unheard of) and I could hear him clearly, “You’re really here! You’re really here!!” He was so happy and surprised. I realized he had wanted to believe me, but hadn’t really. And it showed in his appearance. Everyone else looked exactly like they always did. No one had lost even an ounce. Soldier looked like he’d lost 200 pounds. Soldier moved away to check out the arena but cantered up to me a second time and was still so excited, “You’re really here! You’re really here!” As if he had seen it but still couldn’t believe it. No one else did more than a casual greeting – there had been no doubt at all in their minds that I would be there.

I explained that they would have to stay at this place for a little while. I had arranged for them to live out in a field
together (it was early July and the weather was good) so they didn’t have to be in stalls. Still, by the time the fence was done I was getting looks when I came to feed. I could hear them reminding me I had promised we would be together. They were only there two weeks, but it was two weeks too long as far as they were concerned. We were all happy on the day I brought them home.

Did I mention there was a pond, along with all the grass?

Lucy, Huey, and Roxie in the pond in Stanwood

Lucy, Huey, and Roxie in the pond in Stanwood

More on Ugly

It was while I had Ugly at Marshfield that Red finally offered to teach me how to shoe.  I had bugged him years before to teach me, as I wanted to know everything, but he always pooh poohed the idea – I’m sure because I was a girl.

Red shod his horses himself – with racing plates – but left them barefoot when they weren’t running.  At the time, I didn’t think to ask his opinion on feet.  Certainly a wasted opportunity.  Even in hindsight, with my experience as a natural barefoot trimmer, I can say that Red’s horses’ feet were in good shape.  They didn’t have the long toes I see everywhere today.  They had nice concave soles and healthy frogs.  And from riding Summer Bee, I know that at least his feet were healthy, as I rode him over rocky dirt roads and harsh areas, as well as galloping him full tilt on flat, hard-packed ground, and he never took an ouchy step.

One day, after the horses had gone to the track for their exercise, Red was in someone’s stall (I forget whose) and as I walked up to ask him a question, he asked if I still wanted to learn how to shoe.  Of course I said YES!  I was not so naïve as to think he offered out of the goodness of his heart – he was getting older, and I think he was grateful to have free help.

Surprisingly, looking back from today, he was firm that I not touch the heels very much at all, just a tiny bit.  Ditto the bars and sole.  And most surprisingly of all – the area that received the most trimming was the toe!  Shocking.  And I must say, that since he did such a good trim and the horses were so often barefoot, there was very little to take off.    I honestly believe that the reason his horses stayed so sound was due in great part to his hoof care. I was lucky to meet Red, as he was a good horseman.

After the Fairs, by an unexpected turn of fate, I ended up having an entire farm to myself.  Not the house, which was empty in preparation for being sold, but the barns and training track. And free too! What luck!

Now that racing was done and we found ourselves in the country, Ugly and I hit the trails.  He was a great trail horse, always ready to go, and equally ready to see what was over the next hill, or around the next bend. Always a little disappointed to turn around and head home.

One day, as I walked into the barn to feed supper, I yelled out “Hey, ugly!”  I can’t remember why I did it, but Ugly answered immediately with a big whinny, and that became his name.

I would often turn him out inside the quarter mile training track, so that he could run around, as well as graze.  One day I decided to chase him around to see him run.  Well, that was evidently what he had been waiting for!  He took off and raced to the fence on one end then turned around and raced straight down the center (the long way) with a nice turn of speed.  He turned around and headed back the same way.  At the time I thought it was my idea to run straight at him as he passed and as I did he turned on the afterburners so that I couldn’t get within even a few feet.  When he turned around and headed back again I was ready and ran faster toward him.   He flattened out and made sure I didn’t come close.  We played for a few more runs, then he came over to me, ready to go in.

This was clearly a game, and we would play it whenever he was in the mood. It was only years later that I realized he’d somehow made it clear what my role was in the game.  To run at him.  It was his game, not mine.

One day, as we were playing, my son Derek, who was now three, came into the field.   I saw him and had a brief moment of horror.  He was quite a bit away from me, and heading straight into Ugly’s path, as the horse came running.  I needn’t have worried.  Ugly saw him and immediately veered off course and slowed down, eventually coming to a walk and coming over to join us.

Today one hears so much talk of stallions being dangerous and unpredictable. It always irritates me.  I never worried about Derek being bitten by Ugly, and after seeing that Ugly was well aware of him even while playing a game and galloping at speed, I never worried about him at all.  To me, stallions are very intelligent.  Not only are they intelligent – a great majority of horses are intelligent – but they use that intelligence for their people’s benefit. Notice I didn’t say owner, trainer, rider, or caretaker.   I can’t really explain how stallions are different, but they are.  And in a good way.  I agree that they are not for everyone, any more than a Thoroughbred is for everyone, or a Rottweiler is for everyone, or cats are for everyone.   But they do not need to be dangerous.  People can make them be dangerous much more easily than either mares or geldings – and that is the real problem.  People.

I became interested in dressage that winter, and bought Henry Wynmalen’s book, “Dressage: A Study of the Fine Points of Riding”.  As I mentioned, I had virtually no formal riding lessons, so I took baby steps in learning to understand what Mr. Wynmalen was saying.  The first thing that made sense to me was how to correctly halt a horse.  I had walked a number of racehorses and had noticed that they almost never put any pressure on the lead shank, even while cutting capers and bucking, prancing, kicking, etc.  This made a lot of sense when I read about how to halt by thinking of your hand being like a post.  As you ride forward, to halt you stop your hand and let the horse carry your body forward, while not letting your hand move forward.  Think of the hand as a fixed post.  Horses do not pull on posts.  Well, it worked the first time I tried it!!

The next thing I tried was backing.  Mr. Wynmalen explained that we shouldn’t pull back on the horse to make him back up.  We should instead tell him to go, hold our hand in place (like the post) and let him figure out we do want him to move, but not forward.  The horse will then attempt to figure out what we want and back up.  And voila!  It worked. I was hooked.

One day I was working with Ugly on the lunge on something I had read in the book.  I did know what I was trying to accomplish, though I forget now.  I would ask Ugly to do it, he would almost do it right, then I would ask him again, and again, and again, and again.  Well you get the idea.  I was determined to do this.  Thank goodness one of us had sense.  Ugly had enough and left.  He didn’t do anything bad, just left on a straight line and there was absolutely nothing I could do.    As soon as he did that, I felt bad, because I had been wrong.  I was too caught up in my agenda, and hadn’t given Ugly the respect he deserved, or the acknowledgement that he had been trying to do what I asked.

I left him alone for a few minutes – he had gone about 400 feet away and was grazing – and considered the whole experience.  That was when I realized that you reward the try and build on that, don’t try to get the whole thing at once.  When I felt Ugly had would forgive me, I went over and apologized.  He never had to correct me again.

From reading Black Beauty, and other horse books of course, I had learned that horses could tell when it was safe to go somewhere.  Be careful what you believe!!  One day Ugly and I ran into a railroad bridge.  There was a wooden plank area to the side of the tracks which was large enough for us to cross.  The wood looked solid, not rotten or old.  Being young and stupid I got off and started to lead Ugly across the bridge.  I thought if it wasn’t safe he’d refuse to go, or at the very least balk and argue.  No such thing.  He followed me right along. When we were halfway across I heard a huge CRRRRAACK!  I turned to look and the board under one of Ugly’s feet had broken right across!!  “Oh my God!”, I thought, “What should I do?

We were exactly half way across.  There was no room to turn around. And I was afraid to try backing Ugly up all that way.  I made the decision that we had to go forward.  Meanwhile, Ugly had stood perfectly still waiting.  He wasn’t flustered at all. I more than made up for it, I was shaking, sweating, and terrified.  I cautiously continued on.  Ugly broke 3 more boards but never batted an eye.  When we got to the other side I yelled at him that he should have known it wasn’t safe!!!  Surely he had been able to feel that those boards wouldn’t hold his weight!  Why hadn’t he told me!  That is another of the great things about stallions – they don’t take it personally when you get upset at yourself and freak out and scream at them – and yes, they do know the difference.  I am convinced that they’re thinking, “Mares.  She’ll get over it in a minute.”

I was so grateful nothing had happened to Ugly.  But I was really shocked that he had followed me, and that he had been calm about the whole thing and never hesitated.  It was driven home to me that having a horse who trusted you was a huge responsibility.  It was my job to be sure never to put him at risk and betray that trust.  I am convinced I could have led Ugly into Hell and he would have followed.

My experiences with Come Afternoon, Summer Bee, Dixie, and Ugly, not to mention the horses I’ve had and worked with since, have shown me how amazing they are.  How intelligent, kind, and generous.  That is why I have a problem with Parelli, and “natural” horsemanship in general.  None of the top clinicians seem to give the horse any credit for thinking.  And horses do think.  They not only think, if we pay attention they teach us exactly what we need to do.  Clinton Anderson, Parelli, and others do suggest that horses think about “out-gaming” us.  But do they give credit to horses for thinking in any kind of positive way?  No.  If a horse does something positive the trainer takes the credit!

Ugly did many amazing and wonderful things during the time I had him.  I learned a lot about horses from him.  Ugly showed me that he could breed a mare and then calmly pony a mare at the track.  He showed me that if I was genuinely hurt and upset he would comfort me with horse hugs and hair nuzzles, but if I was only feeling sorry for myself he would ignore me.  Once when I was depressed and about to commit the incredibly unacceptable act of not bringing him to post – he bit me to snap me out of it.  Thank goodness!  As incredible as Summer Bee had been, Ugly was even more incredible.  I always feel as if he was not a horse, but an angel disguised as a horse.

How I got my start in racing (Part 6)

Red had stalls at Marshfield, and he let me have one for Ugly.   Being the timid rider I am, I had no desire to get out there on the track and gallop Ugly in traffic – nor was I really qualified to do so.  It’s one thing to gallop on the farm all by yourself, and another to gallop at the track.  The jockey who would ride him in his races, Jimmy Konan, exercised him

The days went by fast and it was time to race before I knew it.  All along I had been paying close attention to Ugly, but he remained fine.  His leg stayed tight and had no heat.  The jockey didn’t mention any issues.  More important to me than winning, was Ugly not getting hurt.  Racing is dangerous by nature – horses going as fast as they can in a group – but I wasn’t going to take any extra chances.   His first race would be a test to see if he would even race a second time.

I didn’t have a trainer’s license then, so Red was the trainer of record, but we agreed we would try him at 6 furlongs the first time out.   We entered more than once before we drew in, the Fairs have lots of horses with the same conditions Ugly had – non-winners of a race in that year).  His first race at Marshfield was on August 21, 1976 and I only know this because I found part of his race record on Equibase (the free part).  I was a nervous wreck.  The horse was calm.  At the time, the Ford Pinto was still on the road, and I kiddingly told Ugly that I didn’t care if he won or not, I just asked him to please not embarrass me by coming in last.  “If you come in last I’m going to trade you in for a Pinto.”

I have never been calm when my horses race, but I was really, really nervous when Ugly hit the track on his way to the starting gate.  Please don’t let anything bad happen. Please. Please. Please. I couldn’t have stood it if he got hurt – or worse.

After what seemed like an eternity they broke out of the gate.  Marshfield is what’s called a “bull ring”, meaning it’s a 5/8 mile track.    For a six and a half furlong race (which was the 6 furlong racing distance there) they start in the chute at the head of the stretch, go past the grandstand once, then around the clubhouse turn, down the backstretch, around the far turn, and down the stretch a second time.    Horses who can’t handle the sharp turns do not do well there.

Ugly broke okay and was kind of in the middle, things were fine until they were going into the far turn.  I had my eyes glued on Ugly and I saw him come almost to a stop (of course that’s relative to the other horses, as there’s no way a horse can physically stop right from 35-40 mph).  My first thought was, “Oh my God, he’s broken down!” I had barely finished that thought when he started running again.  He was okay!  The horse in front of him had quit running and he’d had nowhere to go.   At that point, I wouldn’t have cared if he’d come in last, as long as he was okay, but as they hit the stretch I could see he was passing horses.

Well, there is no feeling on earth like seeing your horse run past other horses up the stretch – there is nothing like it.  Grown millionaires start screaming like idiots when it’s their horses.  I was speechless and watched in a state I can’t even put into words as Ugly valiantly finished fourth.  Fourth!!!  I was literally in tears by the time I got out to the track to catch him as he came back.  Fourth.  It might as well have been first in the Kentucky Derby the way I felt.  Wow.

Needless to say I was ecstatic.  Intensely relieved that Ugly hadn’t been hurt, and just blown away that he finished so well after having to pull up right before the head of the stretch, which, of course, is much shorter than that of a mile track.  Watching him make up ground and start passing horses – talk about exciting!  After the race I told him what a good boy he was!  And how proud I was of him for doing so well.  My first race with my first horse, and it had been fantastic.  Of course, the next day was the important one – would he still be okay, or would the race have been too much for him?  Would he be sound and happy, or lame?

He was sound and happy!  Since Red recommended racing him right back, we didn’t gallop him, just walked him every day.  Our next race was August 25th and he finished third.  We ran him again on the 28th, and to be honest I’m not sure where he finished.  (I know he had a second, I’m just not sure if it was his last start at Marshfield or his first start at North Hampton.)

Ugly left Marshfield with Red and headed to North Hampton for the Tri-County Fair.  I couldn’t stay that far away from home, but I drove up as often as I could.   I honestly can’t remember every race, I only remember the good ones. At some point we moved him up to a mile and 1/16, but I couldn’t say when that was, although I think it was after his first few races. The free race info at Equibase has Ugly racing on Sept. 2nd, 6th, and the 11th.  Since I have a scanned copy of my win photo I know his one win for me that year was on September 11th , at a mile and a 1/16th .  I’m pretty sure he came in third one of those times, and am not sure about the other time.  Here he is below winning by several lengths.

Ugly's win September 11, 1976

Ugly's win September 11, 1976

Ugly went up to Great Barrington Fair with Red, and I only made it up there on race days.  I think he got one more third, but no other wins.  He never did poorly. He raced on Sept 17th and on the 21st.  Then he was done for the year.  He had raced 8 times in one month, had 1 win, 1 second, and 2 thirds, and he had earned money!  What an adventure!   He came home sound and we continued to develop what was one of the best relationships I’ve ever had with a horse.  Like Summer Bee, Ugly was a horse of a lifetime.

(To be continued . . . )

How I got my start in racing (Part 5)

In late 1975, or early 1976, I stopped by Red’s place for the first time in quite a while.  It was late afternoon and dark enough that when I went into the barn the lights in the stalls were on.  The first thing I saw was the horse in the third stall – the one that had been Come Afternoon’s.  It’s strange how some moments you never forget, and I’ve never forgotten that one.  There was a deep red chestnut standing in the middle of the stall, directly under the light, facing toward the back wall.  With what I many years later would recognize as the Universe telling me to do something, I felt a “punch in the stomach” when I saw that horse, and I said something I’d never thought or said before.  I turned to Red and said, “When that horse breaks down, call me.”  And I was totally serious.

It was a weird thing to say in light of the fact that Red’s horses seldom broke down.  With the exception of Come Afternoon, I can’t name any that broke down when I was going to his place regularly.  Yet I was sure the horse would break down.  And sure that I had to have it, though I only had the one glimpse and didn’t even know what sex it was.

Sure enough, I got a call from Red one day (I have no idea how much later, but I think it was months), asking me, “do you still want that horse?”  It took me a minute to even remember, as I hadn’t seen Red since then.  As soon I did remember though, I said, “yes!”

The horse, a 6 year-old stallion, was named Calculated Gambler, and he had pulled his suspensory, severely enough that I was able to buy him for $300 – in monthly payments.  I wasn’t planning on racing him.  In fact, I don’t know why I had to have him – but I did.  I scrambled around and found a place to board him, and Red hauled him over there for me.  Red didn’t think the horse would race again (obviously) but thought he’d heal enough to be a riding horse.  I agreed.

Red had put a blister on him a while back, after the injury was past the acute phase, and now he just needed time off, and daily leg rubbing, which I was happy to do.  I would rub his legs, and sit and read a book in his stall, as I had done with Come Afternoon.  He was a good natured horse, not very big, and not stud-like.  I tried to think of barn names for him, as Calculated Gambler is quite a mouthful, but nothing ever seemed right, so he had no nickname, and I really didn’t use his name either.  In 1977 I finally came up with his nickname and I’ll use it here, as that’s how I always think of him.  I called him Ugly (not because he was ugly).

The pulled suspensory wasn’t his only issue, just the current one.  He had relatively small osselets in  both front legs, as well as ringbone on his right front pastern. But he seemed pretty sound and never indicated he was in pain.  After a week or so, I would take him out to hand graze.  I always felt, and still do, that it’s a great way to bond with your horse, and that it’s also nice to get them outside so they’re not bored all the time.

I’m not sure how long that went on, but eventually I saddled him up and just walked him around the property.  (For anyone who might be familiar with Massachusetts in the 70’s, he was at Clock Farm in Easton.)  Eventually I started trotting and finally galloping him.  He seemed to be fine.  No problems with his leg, his suspensory was tight and carried no heat.  The leg was enlarged with calcification or scar tissue (or both) from the mid-cannon region through the ankle, but he didn’t seem to favor it.

During this time of course, I got to know him.  And what a good horse he was.  Very smart. Very level headed.  Kind.   Below is a photo of him as I cooled him out after a ride.  Sitting in the saddle is my oldest son, Derek, who was not quite 3 at the time.  I can’t remember who took the photo, but that’s me leading Ugly.

Derek on Ugly - Summer 1976

Derek on Ugly - Summer 1976

Just as an example of how calm and sensible he was, one day, as I was bathing him after a ride, some kids were playing nearby and one ran right under his stomach!  It was over before I could even open my mouth.  I nearly had a heart attack, but Ugly never moved a muscle.  I was very impressed. What a smart boy! He got quite a bit of praise over the rest of the afternoon.

On another occasion there were some horses who’d come in for a clinic and one of them managed to get loose.  A huge black horse, who had to be well over 17 hands tall – he was massive.  The part of the barn where I had Ugly was like a shedrow, the stall doors opened to the outside, and an overhang ran along the barn.  The loose horse was running right along in front of the stalls, and since I had Ugly on the lead and was right there, I thought I’d try and stop him.  I ducked into the shedrow, leaving Ugly facing me, at the end of the lead shank, so together we blocked a good 15 feet or so.  As the horse came charging toward us I had a moment of serious doubt about the wisdom of my move!   But Ugly was totally calm and just stood there as that big horse ran up on him . . . and stopped.  He showed no sign of concern.  I was really pretty amazed and praised him repeatedly for being such a brave horse.

One day, probably in early July, Red stopped by to see how Ugly was doing.  When he saw him, he was amazed at how good his leg looked.  He examined it closely and then stood up and suggested I run him at the Fairs.  Well I was stunned.  I hadn’t even considered racing him, but it was true that he seemed perfectly sound.

So I decided we would go to Marshfield Fair and see how he did.  Marshfield ran the last part of August, so we had time to train.

I exercised Ugly at the farm until the track at Marshfield Fair was open – around the beginning of August – then Red trailered him over there for me and race training began in earnest.

(To be continued . . .)

How I got my start in racing (Part 4)

After Summer Bee, I thought I’d never find a horse as special.  He was the horse of a lifetime.  It’s hard to beat perfection.

Or so I felt at the time.

When I was 19 and had my first real job I bought my first horse – for $200.  I was so excited I cried.  She was a 4 year old filly, a Thoroughbred of course. Her name was Small Strike.  She was a beautiful grey, and she had been bred by C.V. Whitney.  We had no close relationship, but she was a good horse.  She was not a horse who spoke to me, and she is only mentioned here for continuity, and because she was my very first horse.  I bred her to Summer Bee, but it didn’t take.

The lessons that came with Strike were about humans, not horses.

Small Strike and me, fall of 1970

Small Strike and me, fall of 1970

My next horse was a little 10 year-old chestnut gelding with lots of chrome, and big, locked ankles.  Red took me up to Maine, to Scarboro Downs, to look at horses and I found him there.  He was actually entered to race the following day, but I bought him for $100 and ended his racing career. His name was Dixieland King.

This was the very first time I was aware of “feeling” if it was the right horse.  In other words, I put all other things aside and looked at the horse to see what my gut said.  I looked at two horses that day.  The first one drew no response from my “gut”.  The second one, Dixie, my gut said, “yes, this is the one.” Now, of course, I think the horses are talking, not my gut.  I don’t know exactly what they’re saying.  Maybe it’s, “Yes!  Me.  I want a home.”  Maybe it’s something completely different.  Whatever it is, it’s very reliable.  I have never had a problem horse.

The next day, being young and relatively fearless, I took my new horse on a trail ride around Ponkapoag Pond in Canton, MA.  It was fall and cold, but Dixie was good.  We crossed a narrow bridge with no railings, he waded right into the pond (which is large, like a lake), never spooked or shied, or tried to run off.

That day, our very first together, he taught me how closely horses pay attention to everything.  We walked, trotted, and cantered.  The fourth time I was ready to canter Dixie cantered all on his own, without waiting for my signal.  (Let me explain that I didn’t use any show ring signal, just the one I found worked with him.)  He caught me by surprise and I was slightly off balance.  Dixie immediately changed leads.  Unfortunately, with his locked ankles, it was a little bit more than I was ready for, and I became slightly more off balance – the other way.  He immediately changed leads again.  To make a long story short, every time he changed leads I was a little more off balance and finally fell off.  I felt like an idiot.  Dixie stopped and stood there, both perplexed and kind of upset. I got up and reassured him that he hadn’t done anything wrong.  Then I remounted and we continued our ride.

The next time I asked for a canter Dixie was not the only one paying attention!  And what I discovered has stayed with me for life.  Because it was cold, my nose was running.  When I would get ready to canter, I would balance myself (no laughing please), shorten my reins slightly, sniff, then ask for the canter.  It was only after my fall that I became consciously aware that I was sniffing.   But Dixie knew that the next thing I did would be to ask him to canter – so he cantered when I sniffed!

This taught me two things.  First that horses pay attention to everything we do, whether we even know we’re doing it or not. Or whether we think it means anything or not.  Second, I was very consistent in what I did.  I didn’t realize at the time what a natural horseman that made me.

If that was all I learned from Dixie, it would be quite a lot.  But he had a few more lessons to teach.  He taught me how important fairness is to horses.  And he confirmed that horses are very intelligent.  And that they can hold grudges, and demand apologies.  Oh yes, apologies.

How did I learn this?  One day Dixie did something that caused me to slap him (not hard, but a slight slap on the neck). I knew immediately that he hadn’t deserved a slap and I was sorry.  I looked at Dixie and he deliberately turned his head away from me, and gave me the pulled back, wrinkled nostril.  He was clearly pissed.  He refused to look at me – turning his head away wherever I went.  So I apologized.  I held out my hand to him and said, “I’m sorry.  That was wrong.”  Whereupon he relaxed his nostril and looked at me and we were friends again.

I confess I slapped him lightly once, days later, just to see what would happen.  The exact same thing.  I apologized again, very sorry indeed, and that was the last time I was ever unfair to Dixie – and the last time he wouldn’t speak to me.

I trusted Dixie completely.  He remains the only horse I’ve ever allowed to take food from between my teeth.  I used to like Necco wafers.  For those who don’t know, they are little candy discs almost exactly like a quarter.  Well, Dixie also liked Necco wafers it turned out.  So one day instead of just handing one to him, I held it in my teeth and offered it to him.  He very delicately took it.  And that became our regular routine.

I boarded Dixie and he had to live in a stall.  Every time I rode him, before the ride I would tack him up and put him on the lunge line.  This wasn’t so I could lunge him, it was so he could have what I thought of as his bucking time.  Once on the lunge he’d buck and sunfish and kick, and gallop around.  When he was done, I’d take off the lunge line and off we’d go.  I thought it only fair that since he was confined he should not be asked to settle down to work right away.

I don’t mean for everyone to think I was a brilliant rider or a superior trainer of horses.  I wasn’t, and I’m not.  I was (and am even more so now) a timid rider.  If I felt uncomfortable on a horse – I’d hop right off.  I have no pride and am the first to cluck like the chicken I am.  What I was, was a young girl who loved horses and was receptive to them.  I firmly believe, now, that the horses told me what to do.  Ideas that I thought were mine I cannot swear were not theirs.

Because I was young and financially stupid, I had to sell Dixie.  I ended up selling him to a friend of Mary Ann’s.  I don’t know all the details, as Mary Ann and I were no longer friends, but a while later she told me that he had run away with his new owner and she had ended up with a broken leg.  I didn’t want to hear anything bad, so I didn’t ask what happened to him.  I could imagine, and that was bad enough.

So Dixie had one more lesson for me.  Just because a horse is perfect for one person doesn’t mean he’s perfect for anyone else, or even safe.

So, as I do when I think about my horses, I cry when I think about Dixie.  He was such a good horse and I feel that I let him down by being young and stupid.  But I’m sure, being the fair horse he was, he’s forgiven me.

Coming in Part 5 – my first racehorse

How I got my start in racing (Part 3)

While “working” for Red, I learned to groom the horses, walk them, and even lunge them.  I put working in quotes because I didn’t really work for him, and I certainly didn’t get paid, but I did more than just hang around.  Of course I was dying to ride, but the horses were Red’s livelihood and were too valuable to risk to a completely novice rider.

Sometime before my senior year in high school Red bought a horse named Summer Bee.  Summer Bee was to stand at stud, and did service several mares, but he was not a real income producer, as the breeding industry in Massachusetts in the 60′s was fairly non-existent.  Summer Bee was well bred – he was by Summer Tan – and had sold for $50,000 as a yearling.  However, by the time Red bought him, he was in the low claiming ranks.

Since Summer Bee wasn’t generating revenue, I knew he was my one chance to ride.  He was a big horse  – a solid 16:2 hands, thick and muscular, with heavy bone, big feet, and a double mane that was nearly impossible to pull.  Clearly he had a high testosterone level. He always exploded out of his stall like it was the starting gate and was a very scary horse in his stall – never standing still, biting the air when I brushed his hindquarters, and cow kicking when I was brushing his neck – but the desire to ride was strong enough that I asked Red if I could ride him.  Begged might be a better term.   Wily Red, sure I could never do it – he knew how rough the horse was at the track – gave the okay – providing a test ride went well.  I was ecstatic!  With the naiveté of youth, I was all confidence. Red, not completely willing that I be killed, had me lunge Summer Bee for a few days.  On the last day we saddled him up and I rode him while Red kept the lunge line on him.  Then came the moment when we were turned loose.

I was a 100 lb. teenage girl with almost no riding experience.  Summer Bee was not only a racehorse, but a breeding stallion as well.  But we had a partnership made in Heaven.  To this day, I have never met a horse as calm and solid as he was or who stands still the way he did.  I parked him at the fence to get on. I parked him under the monkey bars at the school then climbed up the bars, traversed them, and landed on his back.  I would “park” him, go back 30 feet, then run at him and try to vault on.  I never made it – he never moved. And when I say never moved, I mean never moved.  Not a muscle, not a foot, nothing.  He was like a rock.

I rode him all over the small town of Avon – through the huge industrial park with 18-wheelers going by, through the woods, up the steps at the high school.  I often rode double with my friend Carol.  I took him to the ‘old railroad tracks’, a flat dirt track where the rails had long ago been removed.  When we’d turn for home I’d urge him into a gallop and he’d go so fast my eyes watered. He never ran away with me and I never used the reins to stop him. I learned the first time I ran him, never to say “whoa” unless we were going slow.  I said it that first time and almost fell off as he pogo-sticked to a stop!  After that I used “easy” to indicate we should slow down, then another “easy” to go a notch slower, and maybe one more.  Then finally, whoa, at which time he would jam his feet into the ground and stop dead.  I have never ridden another racehorse, or ex-racehorse, who would stop like that.

It might seem as though Red was irresponsible.  Who would let a young, completely green rider take a 6 year-old racehorse/stud outside of a controlled environment?   But Red was an experienced trainer who’d ridden most of his life, and he knew what he saw.   Looking back, I’m amazed myself – but the truth was I could not have been safer on an old schoolmaster.

Summer Bee was an amazing horse. Red was always telling me not to let a horse step on the reins.  One day as I was holding him, Summer Bee put his head down. I wasn’t paying attention and the next thing I knew his foot was on the rein – only 10 inches from the bit.   As he went to move his head I closed my eyes, expecting him to hit resistance, pull back, and snap the reins.  Nothing happened.  I opened my eyes and there he was,  calmly standing with his foot in the air, the rein caught in a chip in his hoof (he was barefoot), waiting for me to free him. I was saved!  I couldn’t praise him enough.  How smart he was!  What a good boy!

Red’s other warning was to always run the stirrups up the leathers, so they wouldn’t get caught on the screw-eyes which held the stall guard.  One day I forgot. In slow motion I saw the left stirrup catch on a screw-eye as Summer Bee bolted out of his stall. To my complete and utter amazement when the stirrup leather drew tight Summer Bee threw himself into reverse. Saved again!  There was not enough praise in the world for him.

One time Carol and I were riding double. As we cut through the woods to the industrial park, Summer Bee stopped dead, refusing to move.  Carol got off and  I urged him on. He wouldn’t budge. Feeling he was afraid of something, I got off and lead him past the ‘bad spot’.  When I tried to remount, he refused to stand still.  He would lead perfectly.  He would stand perfectly still . . .  until I lifted my foot to put it in the stirrup.  Then he would move 2 steps.  Well, he was too big for me to get on if he didn’t stand still  – plus for him to deliberately not allow me to get on was really scary!  Carol kept saying “let’s go back, let’s go back.” Nothing like this had happened in all the months I’d been riding him.  His behavior was so out of character that to us it was the equivalent of a horse completely flipping out.   We had no choice but to go back – what if he really flipped out?  It doesn’t sound scary, but it was really frightening.  He ALWAYS stood like a statue.  I used to joke we could put a ladder up against his side and climb up – and we probably could have.

On our way back to Red’s I was devastated.  I was hurt that Summer Bee had behaved that way.  I thought we loved each other.  We had had such good times.  It was also very upsetting to think I might never ride him again.  I mean, if he was going to be crazy!

When we got back to the barn, Carol and I were both just wrecks.  I put Summer Bee in his stall and started to untack him, sure we had just had our last ride.  However, as I lifted the skirt to undo the girth I saw immediately why Summer Bee had stopped and refused to move, and why he wouldn’t let me get back on.  One elastic strap of the girth had come completely off, and the other was held by only a few elastic strands.  He’d known something was wrong!  He’d known it wasn’t safe!  I don’t think any horse ever got more praise than he got that day.  There is not a single doubt in my mind that he knew exactly what he was doing.  He had felt that elastic pop and he knew the saddle was not secure.  Needless to say, we had many more rides.

At the time I just thought he was brilliant.  After all, I had watched all those episodes of Fury, so it wasn’t a big stretch for me.  It’s only in hindsight that I realized how clearly he read my mind, and how smart he really was.  Not trick smart, sentient smart.  Only years later, after learning about animal communication, could I look back and see that Summer Bee had taken his only opportunity to get out of his small, dark, windowless stall.  He knew that if he allowed me to ride him, he would have some freedom and get out in the fresh air.   The time he stepped on the reins, my only thought was that if that bridle broke I wouldn’t get to ride anymore.  He didn’t want that any more than I did.  Ditto the stirrup catching on the screw eye.  He never spooked or shied, he never did a thing wrong.  He always did whatever I asked, no matter how weird it must have seemed to him.    He taught me how smart horses really were.  How much they could be trusted.   How stallions don’t need to be treated roughly and how well they respond to kindness and love.  He taught me also that horses can go sound barefoot, as he was always barefoot when I rode him and he never batted an eye.

Summer Bee returned to the races in 1971 and was later sold by Red.  Over the next 13 years Red would occasionally say, “I could never get over how you could ride that horse Summer Bee.  He was rough and gave the guys at the track a hard time.”  Many people learn about horses and riding from accomplished instructors, I was lucky enough to learn from the best.  I still cry when I think about Summer Bee and I will never forget him.  This experiment is dedicated to his memory, in the hope that other horses’ lives will be improved.

Summer Bee 1971

Summer Bee 1971

April 2014
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