By Laura Crum
First off, I have to say how thrilled I am that Janet Huntington is posting here on Equestrian Ink. She is a wonderful writer, as well as a talented horse trainer, and I have so enjoyed reading her blog, “Mugwump Chronicles”. Her stories will often bring me back to the days when I trained horses, rather than writing equine mysteries. This was awhile ago; the last colt I broke and trained is thirteen years old now. But the memories are still vivid and my mind goes back easily to the many young horses I rode and the particular problems they presented. Not so long ago, reading one of mugwump’s great “Sonita posts”, I was reminded of a horse I trained for my team roping partner, a mostly Thoroughbred gelding named Rebby.
Rebby comes into my mind easily enough, because I am still taking care of him, now that he is a twenty something year old horse and retired. My old team roping partner and I keep our retired pastured horses together and share the chore of feeding them, and several mornings a week Rebby comes charging in to see me, ready for his flake of hay. I can’t forget him.
I had never really trained a Thoroughbred horse before Rebby; all the horses I rode when I was working for reining and cutting trainers were cowhorse bred Quarter Horses. All the colts I trained and rode for my uncle, who raised Quarter Horses, were foundation bred QHs. All the horses I’d ever bought for myself were QHs with cowhorse breeding. Rebby was a 16 hand appendix registered QH, which means for all practical purposes that he was a TB. His mother was a TB and his sire was a running bred QH, which means mostly TB. So there you go.
Initially I saw this as no big deal. Rebby was four years old and had had ninety or so days put on him by a not-all-that-handy cowboy. He was gentle enough to ride, if ignorant, and with a tendency to stick his nose out and prop when you stopped him. My friend and roping partner had got him cheap and wanted me to turn him into a rope horse. I said sure.
My first impression of Reb was positive. I had never in my life ridden a colt who could pick you up and carry you at the lope the way this one could. I felt like I was floating when I rode him. Collection came naturally to him. Maybe all TB horses are like this, I wouldn’t know. Rebby was naturally cowy; I had no problems getting him to hook onto a cow. He was also naturally bold; I had no problem getting him used to the rope, either. He had no tendency to spook sideways; he had no inclination to buck. None at all. There ends the list of things I had no problem with.
My first indication that Rebby was a little odd came when I first caught him and led him in to be saddled. Rebby walked right on my heels….I mean right on my heels, breathing down my neck. There was no malice in it; he just wanted to be right on top of me. I backed him off. I did this again, and again, and again. I backed Rebby off the top of me endlessly. I wasn’t gentle and kind about it either. I really seriously did not want Rebby on top of me, stepping on my toes. Rebby never seemed to truly get this. I had to correct him at least once or twice a day. I was puzzled. I didn’t get it why he couldn’t get it.
Then one day I ran into his former owner. She mentioned that she’d rescued the horse from a woman who had run out of money and couldn’t pay the board bill. This woman had raised Rebby herself. His mother had died at birth. You guessed it. My project was a bottle colt. No wonder he wanted to be right on top of me.
This information explained a lot of Rebby’s behaviors to me. He was gentle but pushy; he required to be set down several times a day. But he never had any ill intentions at all. Okey-dokey. Bottle colt.
The next problem I ran into was also a new one for me. Did I mention that Reb was a TB and I had never trained a TB? Reb liked to run. He liked to run hard. Where a cowhorse bred horse is likely to spook sideways when startled, Reb never did this. He bolted forward--his version of a spook. Charge was Rebby’s first response to everything. I could never really get used to this; Reb’s saving grace was that he was both gentle and bold and didn’t “spook” that often. But once we got to chasing steers, the “run factor” assumed a whole different dimension.
Rebby would chase a steer all right. He would charge after a steer with great enthusiasm, and he could really run. But Rebby had no intention of slowing down when he got to the steer. Reb wanted to beat that steer to the finish line. He had every intention of sailing on past and winning the race. I briefly considered telling my team roping partner to sell him as a bulldogging horse.
Instead I worked on teaching Rebby to answer when I checked him, which turned into a very long project. For details on how I did this, and other insights on stopping, see Janet’s post today on her Mugwump Chronicles blog. I’ll cut this short by saying that, eventually, I taught Reb to back off when I pulled on the reins and his career as a team roping horse took off. My partner loved Rebby, once I got him trained: everybody admired him. I was proud of what I’d accomplished with my little TB bottle colt.
The end of the story? Unfortunately Rebby broke down at ten years of age. My partner hauled him to a major equine hospital where they diagnosed him as having a strained sacroiliac joint. Reb didn’t seem to be in pain, but walked, trotted and loped with an odd waddle in his gait. He had always been such a kind and well-intentioned horse that my partner decided to retire him to the pasture to live out his life as long as he was comfortable. I agreed to help take care of him. And Reb has remained stable for well over ten years now; he still has that odd waddle, but can gallop up for his hay with enthusiasm. It makes me happy to see him, knowing he’s had a good life; at the same time it makes me sad that he broke down so young. Its one of the reasons I eventually turned away from team roping, as I once turned away from cutting and reining. I don’t like to see the number of horses that break down in the course of competing (not that these events are any worse for horses in the long run than jumping, western pleasure, or any other competitive event).
These days I don’t train horses, I write books about horses. (Now there’s two lucrative pursuits for you—maybe I’m not too smart.) I still enjoy riding my broke horses in the arena and down the trail, and I am happy to report that I’ve had no breakdowns lately—knock on wood. But every time my partner and I look at Rebby we shake our heads ruefully, and one of us has to say, “Wasn’t he a great horse?” I’m sure all you fellow horse people will understand.