Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Ode To An Old Horse

The neighbour’s called in the early afternoon.  Pony was down, and trying unsuccessfully to get up.

It was July 6th.

Here we go again, I thought.  A few months ago, the same thing had happened.  The OSU vets were on their way out. Dr. Meacham told us to roll him over on his other side, and see if that helped.  It didn’t appear to do anything, at least not right away. I went to the barn for his blanket, as it was getting cold, and when I stepped out of the barn, there he was, standing there yelling that his chow was late.

He turned 35 in May.  We got him when he was 13.  Most people thought he was about 15, more or less.  He was something of a butt. He was loud, always had to be in the middle of everything, and not usually in a good way.  If we tried to do something with his sheep, he did his best to thwart our plans by not only getting in the way, but running the sheep around, away from us and where we needed them to go.  If I was late with his chow, he’d follow me to the barn, grabbing at my hoodie in the winter, holding it just long enough to feel me pull against it, then let go, whinny and prance as I pinwheeled my arms, trying not to fall face first.  In the summer, it was my hat, or worse, the back of my upper arms that became targets of his pranks.

He was a jerk.

In 12 years, we never lost a lamb or sheep to a predator.  Even when everyone within 3 miles of us were losing stock to mountain lions, bears and coyotes, our stock was untouched.

He’d take his 900 pounds of skinny chested, long legged and teeth baring American Saddlebred gelding self and send 2200 pounds of bovine bullness fleeing in terror, yelling all the way.  Poor Roar was simply terrified of this gangly collection of bones. All Pony had to do was look in his direction and pin his ears, and Roar immediately started the other direction, bellowing in fear.

In his younger days, he was a 5 gaited champion show horse.  He also pulled a stagecoach in the Ramona Pageant, a 3 day live action, outdoor play held in Hemet I think it was.  Running in harness, bandits riding horses along side, shooting blanks, he never flinched. However, let a butterfly meander by his nose, and all bets were off as to whether I could keep my seat on his back.  I tried to do dressage with him, but not being much of a horsewoman, I did him no favors. However, my instructor could get on his back and have him doing all sorts of fancy dressage stuff at the Prix St. George level, whatever that is.

Damn, he looked good doing it, too.  If there was one shining good thing about him, it was his ability to do whatever you asked of him under saddle.

Or, even without a saddle.  One summer he spent a few weeks as a vaulting horse, with up to 5 little girls doing acrobatics on and off of him at once.  The best I could do, the only adult in the class, was run around the inside of the circle, trying desperately to haul my big butt up onto his back without a mounting block, helping hand or stirrup.

Mostly, I wasn’t successful, but occasionally, the magic happened.  Have I mentioned that I’m not much of a horsewoman?

In 2006, we moved him from his dusty, dry 20’X20’ pipe corral in Southern California to 50 acres of pasture in Western Oregon.  The first time he met our 3 VERY pregnant ewes, he pinned those long, elegant ears, arched that neck, and ran those ewes all over the place before we finally got him under control and out of their pasture.  I just knew they’d all abort or deliver stillborn lambs.

Eventually, they all lambed normally, and Pony found his calling as flock guardian, and chaser of cattle.  Something that Saddlebreds are NOT known for. But, something that he showed an inane talent for, much to everyone’s surprise.

We leased a pasture to a neighbor for his 50 momma cows and a bull that first summer we were here.  The pastures were way overgrown, some of the fencing was a bit on the iffy side, and we didn’t have the electric fencing up yet, so we tried to keep them corralled in one pasture at a time, to eat it down and to give us a chance to fix things up in the next pasture.  One day, I had left a gate open between the south pasture and the maternity pasture, and the next thing I knew, 50 momma cows and a bull were streaming into the already mowed down maternity pasture - the one without a main gate, which had been removed to replace a broken post.

I just knew this was going to end badly, and with no time to go get a dog, I ran down to the gate they were coming through, trying to stop and turn them around.

Imagine, an ant trying to prevent a steamroller from making ant pancakes out of her sisters.  That’s about how it was going, when out of nowhere, Pony charged through the stream of cows at the gate, whirled around, and took the side opposite me.

Holy crap, are you KIDDING me?  No. That horse read what I was doing, and between the two of us, we got those lead cows turned around and started back through the gate, doubletime.  And, the last last one through got a little love bite from Pony, as if he was driving home the point. He followed her through, and then looked back as if to say ‘hey, that was FUN!’.

We moved him out of the south pasture as soon as we got the gate rehung.  Not our cows, and didn’t feel like buying them. We did admire how that Angus bull always seemed to keep the mommas between him and Pony, however.

He hated his blanket.  Growing up in SoCal, he never needed one.  He tended to grow enough hair to look like a yak in the winter, no matter where he lived.  But when it was single digits and icy, he’d stand there and shiver, icicles hanging off his belly and chin, and dance away from any attempts to put a blanket on him.  When we’d finally get it on, his only goal was to remove it, any way possible. He’d shred them on the barb wire, the trees, the barn and people. He’d roll, and shake, trying to get the straps to pop off.  I’d tie wrap the straps to their keepers to prevent that, as he got good at it.

He never, EVER kicked.  He’d dance for the farrier, until he or she made it clear that his feet would be done, whether he liked it or not, then he was pretty much okay with them.  When we first got him, his first farrier worked for 2 years, with corrective shoeing, to get his feet out of Saddlebred show trim and into normal, and then finally barefoot trim.  For almost 20 years, he never wore shoes.

I think he liked that.  I also think part of his grief with farriers might have been the thought of wearing those awful show shoes again.

He was one of the prettiest pasture ornaments you could want.  When he got all het up and started first his prancing gait, and then galloping in that Cadillac smooth gallop that felt like you weren’t even moving, that the air was just rushing past your face as you watched the scenery fly by from your comfy seat in that Cadillac convertible, people would stop and watch his fluid beauty in awe.  Nothing rides like a Saddlebred, especially a finely bred, 5 gaited one, and nothing looks as effortlessly elegant in full stride. He was gorgeous, a deep, golden red chestnut, with a flaxen mane and long tail, and he LOVED to show off. Tail in the air, chin tucked, neck arched, I always wondered if he thought he was back in the show ring, the crowd cheering him on, front and back feet nearly reaching his chest and belly as he gaited around the ring.

We went out to the pasture, with a bucket of his grain and a halter, and rolled him over, just as before.  Put the bucket just out of his reach. Stood back, and waited, then rolled him back. Over and over, we did that.  Over and over, he tried to get his rear legs under him. He was a tad on the chunky side, and that probably wasn’t helping, but he tended towards rewarding that expensive, senior horse chow with plenty of padding.

I called Dr. Vanegas.  He’d just left the dairy down the road, and now he turned around and head out to the ranch.

Still, Pony tried to get up.  But, it just wasn’t happening.

22 years is a long time to own a horse, especially one already in his teens when you got him.  In that time, I learned a lot about horses. What colic was, how to identify choke. How NOT to tighten the cinch on a western saddle.  How to tranquilizer a horse and STILL not be able to get him into a trailer. I still wasn’t a horsewoman, but I had one, so I had to try to be the best non-horsewoman I could be.  There were times when I wanted to just shoot him, like the time the vet was coming out to do an exam, and he decided that was a fine to to rip the lead rope out of my hands and lead us all on a merry chase for 45 minutes all over the place, his sheep in tow.  And, when Cricket was dog breaking the lambs, and he was running around the outside of the round pen, screaming at us and scattering lambs all over the pen, in spite of Cricket’s best attempts to keep them together. Or when, in a fit of pique, and for absolutely no reason, he yanked the rope out of my husband’s hands so hard, it broke two of his fingers.

Then there were the days, when my old girl Jazzee, 14 at the time, Pony, and I would walk out to count noses in the frosty morning air, 3 old farts enjoying the solitude and quiet of a winter’s morn, none of us needing to make a sound other than 10 feet crunching through the frost or snow.  The dogs trying to work the goats, whom Pony loved with all fo his big heart, the goats who gathered under his belly, where they knew the dogs wouldn’t go, even though Pony never, ever kicked at dog in his life.

Dr. Vanegas and his 2 students arrived.  We rolled him again, and Jorge examined him carefully, testing his rear legs for feeling.

He didn’t flinch.

He listened to that heart, and shook his head slightly.  I think that’s when I knew it was over. No murmur was detected on the last exam just a few months before, but there was one now, and it was bad.  Coupled with the lack of reaction to his legs being pinched, what came next was not unexpected. He had likely ruptured a disc in his back when he went down, probably to roll, trying to get his fly mask off (he hated those too).  His heart was too damaged, too weak, to pump enough blood to his rear legs.

I asked Jorge and the students for a few minutes.  They graciously went back to the truck to prepare the necessary items.

Just two months ago, we lost Twyla, our beloved old ewe.  Old Pogo, the ancient Navajo-Churro and Twyla’s best pal, adopted Twy’s two little girls.  The last picture of Pony I have is of him hanging out with the trio, sensing that they might need him more than usual, at least for a while.


I sat by his head, and saw that he was tired.  He lay quietly, and that horse just didn’t do quietly.  We had taken the hated fly mask off, and for that, he was grateful, I’m sure.  I watched him, and talked to him a little. Just nonsense, for what I recall. What do you say to an animal you’ve had for so long, really?

I looked at Jorge, and nodded.  I moved to the other side of Pony, fitting into the curve of his back, nestled in comfortably, and just stroked his chest.  I watched the pulse by his elbow, until it faded away.

Don brought his backhoe over, and we buried him in the south pasture, down where his beloved goats rested.  This fall, I’ll toss some red clover seed on the bare dirt. He loved him some fresh red clover, he did.

Pony was a son of the Hulse’s great Champagne Fizz, and a great grandson of the immortal Wing Commander.  He did his pedigree proud, and for the last 12 years of his life, found his calling as a flock guardian, cattle wrangler and Prince of the Pastures.

He was, and now he’s gone.  It’s quiet now, no horse prancing and screaming at me in the morning, watching me feed the dogs and not being happy to be second in line.  That annoyed me to no end.

I’m being honest here.  I don’t miss that part of him.

But, I do miss him.

4 comments:

  1. Oh man, I didn't want to read this. But I HAD to, and now I'm crying and sad and dreading the next special creature in MY life that I'll have to say good-bye to. What a remarkable life he led; what a remarkable horse he was. I'm so glad you could be there for him through the end, no matter how hard it was for you.

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  2. Thanks, darlin’. Being so sudden might be a blessing. Even though I knew it had to be coming someday - at 35, you’re on borrowed time - I had no time to really get all worked up about it.

    Hoke, on the other hand, just turned 15, the day after we lost Pony. We decided not to bring him with us to Nationals this year in Colorado, because we just felt he’d be too anxious. So, we’re gonna stick Shelly with him. Yeah, she’s ranch sitting for us!

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