by Laura Crum
Magic doesn’t always come in a sparkly package, complete with fairy wings and tinkly music. Sometimes it comes when you least expect it. And sometimes it comes when a door closes. I still remember how I found the most magical horse I ever rode. And it was not a love at first sight story.
The horse I fell in love with was the horse that got away. This was a very pretty bright bay gelding. I had been shopping for a team roping horse, as my good horse, Gunner, was suffering from a few arthritic issues and I didn’t know how long I would be able to go on using him. A competitive team roping horse cost more than I could afford at that time, but I had a friend who also wanted to buy such a horse and we agreed that we could go partners if we found the right horse.
And we found him. This bay horse was all we wanted. And he was my favorite color, a bright red bay with no white on him. I fell in love. The horse was for sale at a pretty high price, but, as partners, my friend and I could afford him. All was well. The owner, a well known horse trader, wanted to use this horse in one last contest in which he was already entered. We made a date to come try the horse the week after the contest.
Well, the day we were to try this horse we called, only to find that the horse trader had already sold him. Needless to say, I was upset. But my friend, ever realistic, suggested we go to the horse trader’s place anyway, and see what he had for sale.
I didn’t want to go. I was both sad and mad at losing out on what I thought was the horse of my dreams. But I allowed my friend to talk me into it.
When we got there, I hung back, not even looking at the horses that were tied to the rail, chatting with the horse trader’s wife, who was my buddy. I saw the horse trader pointing out a horse to my friend and partner, and the horse trader’s wife said, “That’s a real good horse. I like him better than the one you didn’t get.”
I looked at the horse in question, and I couldn’t have been less impressed. Common was the word that came to mind. Unlike the very pretty bright bay gelding I had wanted, this horse did not take your eye at all. He was medium sized, brownish bay with a white sock and some white on his face, plain headed, ordinary looking, and he stood in a relaxed slouch in the tie line, his only distinguishing characteristic his big belly. The horse trader said he was seven years old.
My friend climbed on this horse and rode him around, eventually roping a few steers on him. I was even less impressed. The horse did not have a pretty way of moving---at all. He carried his head very high, his back was hollow, and he did not stick his hind leg in the ground the way I thought he should. My friend asked if I wanted to ride him and I said no.
But my friend liked the horse. There was a team roping contest that evening and my friend rode the horse in this event. When the contest was done he brought him over to our horse trailer. “I bought him,” he said.
“You did what? That’s not the horse I want.” I said.
“You don’t have to go partners on him if you don’t want to. I like him.”
Time passed. My friend named the brownish bay gelding Flanigan. I did not ride Flanigan at first. To tell you the truth, I was a bit afraid of him. Flanigan was not a friendly horse. He pinned his ears when you looked at him, walked away when you came into the corral to catch him, scowled ferociously at you when you approached him in the horse trailer, and was cinchy to the point of being willing to buck you off if you weren’t careful with his warm up. I had learned from the horse trader’s wife that they got the horse because the previous owner had been afraid of him and had tried to starve the gelding into submission. When the horse trader had acquired Flanigan he had been so thin that it had taken six months to feed him up to a decent weight. None of this made me like the horse.
But Gunner really wasn’t sound any more, and, having acquired Flanigan, my friend was no longer interested in buying another horse. And I did not have the money to buy a competitive horse. If I wanted to rope it would have to be on Flanigan. So I began riding him.
What a surprise. Because Flanigan felt really good to ride. I could immediately see why my friend bought him. Despite the fact that he was not a pretty mover to watch, he would really pick you up and carry you. He felt very strong, with a smooth, powerful “uphill” lope, and he went anywhere you pointed him in a balanced frame. Despite his standoffish manners, he felt cooperative when you were on him.
That this sounds contradictory, I know. And I can’t explain it. I was not the only horseman who pooh poohed this horse after watching him and then became a big fan after riding him. The horse did not look nearly as good as he felt.
In any case I rapidly progressed to roping on Flanigan. He was by far the easiest horse to rope on that I had ever ridden. He practically did the whole job for you. All you had to do was throw the rope. And he was a babysitter. I could make mistakes (and I often did), and the horse would simply compensate for them. He always took care of me. I won a few ropings on him and I grew to love riding him. I bought a half share in him from my friend, and forever after that I was a half owner of this horse. The photo below shows me heading on Flanigan, with my friend, Sue Crocker, roping the heels on Pistol.
I began trail riding Flanigan and learned that this immensely strong, confident horse could handle anything. Steep hills, broken rock, slickrock, long days, you name it. He was the best trail horse a person could ever want. He enabled me to realize a lifelong goal of riding across the Sierra Nevada Mts. We did this many times, crossing numerous passes and camping by many lovely lakes. We took at least twenty major pack trips together and for me this was a truly magical experience. I will always be grateful to Flanigan and remember our many times in the mountains. That’s Kerrick Meadows in the photo below, on our way to Benson Lake.
Flanigan had many good traits, among them was the fact that he absolutely would not fall down. Whether we were working our way down a steep trail that had been covered by an avalanche of rockfall, or dealing with a steer that had turned sharply in front of us at the dead run, I could trust that Flanigan would stay up. Never once in all his life did he go down. Flanigan was a real cowhorse and every year we competed on him in the ranch cowhorse class at the county fair, where he always placed, frequently defeating well trained bridle horses. To top all this off, despite his grouchy ways the horse was actually very forgiving, and we could mount outright beginners on him and he would pack them around and take very good care of them.
Flanigan stayed sound all the years we owned him, but he was plagued by colic, and colicked maybe once a year throughout his life. We treated him and did what we could for him, as both my friend and I really valued him. When he was fifteen years old we began turning him out to pasture for several months a year during the grass season, as we felt he really needed and deserved this. We gave him at least three or four months of turnout a year for the rest of his life.
Flanigan was never an overtly friendly horse, but over the years we owned him he showed many subtle signs of affection. He would not approach me or ask to be petted, but if I caught him and began to stroke him, eventually his eyes would half close in pleasure, and he never moved away. When he colicked, he would put his head under my arm, asking for relief from the pain. He trusted us and we trusted him. When my baby was six months old, the horse I chose to take him on his first ride was Flanigan.
Flanigan died of a severe colic when he was twenty-one (seven years ago). He had been diagnosed with a diaphragmatic hernia a year previously, so was not a candidate for colic surgery, and when his painful colic symptoms could not be resolved in almost forty-eight hours, we chose to put him down rather than let him suffer. He is buried here on my property and I believe his spirit watches over me. I still miss him.
Flanigan was a truly a magical horse for me, carrying me to things I never thought I’d actually be able to do. I am so grateful for the fourteen years he was with us, thirteen of which he was my riding partner. There never was a better horse. He taught me that magic is sometimes found in unexpected ways, and it’s a lesson I won’t forget.
Laura and Flanigan