Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The New Horse

By Laura Crum

You might ask why a woman with ten horses would need a new horse. (My husband certainly did.) The long answer is a bit convoluted, but the short one is simple enough. I needed a new horse for those trails on the ridge across the road. Specifically, I needed a horse to ride those trails with my little boy. (Below you can see my husband's idea of horsepower next to mine.)

Now Plumber, the horse I have used as my main mount for many years, used to be a pretty good trail horse in his youth. And Gail McCarthy, my equine veterinarian protagonist, rides her “Plumber” (who, of course, is very much based on my Plumber) on many trail adventures, particularly in my novels Breakaway and Forged, and these tales were based on rides that Plumber and I did together. However, these rides took place ten years ago, and in the ensuing time Plumber has been used mostly for arena work, primarily team roping, which he enjoys and is very good at. Somehow Plumber has become convinced that trail horse is not his job description, and when I attempted to reintroduce him to this pleasure, he responded with clear dismay.

As a well-broke horse (I broke him myself, so of course I’m going to say this), Plumber knows better than to buck or balk or offer any obvious resistance, and it isn’t that I’m unable to take him on trail rides. It’s just that at nineteen years of age he doesn’t seem to enjoy steep hills any more and prances anxiously if he feels he’s falling behind. Not to mention he’s decided the woods are very scary, why I don’t know (Gail’s fictional Plumber meets a cougar on the trail in Breakaway, but this has never happened to the real Plumber), and he jigs and spooks constantly at his own shadow as we troop through the trees and brush. Oh, and did I mention he hates the beach? From his earliest years he’s detested crossing water, from muddy ditches on up, and the surf is not his favorite thing. Ride after ride, meant to be a pleasant horseback stroll, was rendered a dismal trial by his anxious behavior. Most of all, he was making it difficult for me to concentrate on my son, who was having his first experience of trail riding on his new horse, Henry, a gentle, solid, bomb-proof mount.

“I need another Henry,” I told my husband. “A horse that will just cruise along the trails and let me keep my focus on my kid.”

And why, I told myself, torture Plumber, who is nineteen years old this spring and has been a great horse, packing me and my child for many years and winning numerous awards. Why not let him do what he’s good at and enjoys?

And this is why, several months ago, I purchased Sunny, my little palomino plug, to ride the trails.

As all you horse folks out there know, a new horse is both a pleasure and a challenge. New talents to enjoy, new quirks to get used to, and always a few suprises. I don’t call Sunny my palomino plug for nothing. He’s more or less a flunked out team roping horse, not athletic enough to be very successful. He was sold to his previous owner to be a trail horse for her teenage daughter and for the last three years he’d been reliably packing this girl down the trails. Now she’d moved on to other things and the horse was for sale once again. While Sunny wasn’t a particularly well-broke horse (which I knew, having ridden him when a friend was using him, or trying to use him, for team roping) he was said by one and all to be an excellent, bomb-proof, anybody-can-ride-him trail horse.

Sounds perfect, right? It did to me, too. It doesn’t hurt that Sunny is cute, a 14.3 hand bright gold palomino with dapples; he looks a bit like an overgrown pony, not fancy, not refined; short, sturdy and somewhat out-of-place among my well-bred Quarter Horses, but definitely cute. He’s very personable, too, happy to meet you at the gate or stand socializing with you over the rail. And he is a good trail horse, solid, steady and reliable. My son and I have been on many rides together since I bought little old Sunshine, cruising the trails on the ridge and down on the beach, and my new horse has been great, vastly improving our enjoyment of these expeditions. The price was right, too.

I know what you’re thinking. And you’re right. There is a catch. I discovered it on day two. Sunny kicks.

This came as a complete surprise to me. I thought I was buying a family horse, something my husband and son could also handle and ride. I thought I was buying a nice, gentle, doggy, dude horse, in effect. A little palomino plug.

When, on the second day I had him, I went out to catch the horse and Sunny turned his butt to me and fired a hind foot in my general direction, I was shocked and dismayed, to put it mildly. The former owner had known I wanted Sunny for a family horse, she had told me he was a bomb-proof trail horse that she used for beginners, and he kicks???

Well, come to find out, he’d kicked her daughter and he’d kicked at several of the beginning trail riders she’d put on him. Yes, he was bomb-proof when you were riding him down the trail. You had to watch him on the ground, though.

Great, just great. I was moments away from hauling the horse right straight back where he came from, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. I’d had a couple of great rides with my son already, and, as it turned out, Sunny had never hurt anyone. He’d connected with the woman’s daughter more or less by accident and didn’t even leave a mark. His habit was to kick at people in a defiant gesture, a show of resistance rather than a genuine attempt at injuring anyone.

In any case, I gave Sunny a couple of lessons with the end of the lead rope and he never again kicked at me. Indeed, he was a perfect, well-behaved mount at all times and I grew very fond of him. I soon discovered that his kicking was a form of testing behavior, a way to determine dominance. Though he would no longer kick at me, who he’d accepted as his boss, he would offer to kick anyone else who walked out to catch him. (Needless to say I don’t let my husband or son handle Sunny and I have strict rules concerning the horse.)

Sunny has become my horse and he has many traits I treasure. He has enabled me to take my son on so many wonderful rides on routes I never would have attempted with a little boy were it not for the fact that both Sunny and Henry are such solid, reliable trail horses. Never a spook, a crowhop or a balk is seen, rarely a stumble. Neither horse has any tendency to jig; both walk calmly under all circumstances (both out and back). Neither lunges or scrambles when climbing or descending steep routes full of step ups and step downs. Both wait with endless patience and without so much as batting an ear, on the shoulder of our busy country road (complete with motorcycles, trucks, buses and bicycles) while we wait to cross. Its been a real gift.

And Sunny goes just as quietly and reliably alone, something I’ve also valued, as I do occasionally get out for a solo spin. On the beach my little palomino plug will trudge willingly through the waves, Henry following gamely behind to my son’s delight. In short, so far my sunshine yellow horse has been worth the extra precautions I take in handling him. And he looks so cheerful out there in the corral.

So, at least for the present, my new horse is a keeper. I’ll let you know what the future brings.
Laura Crum


Kit Ehrman said...

Oh, Laura, Sunny sounds so dear. How I wish I'd begun riding on such a horse. Though I loved my first horse immensely, he did not instill confidence in me, especially on the trail. Your son is getting a great foundation!

Laura Crum said...

Thanks for the nice comment, Kit. Sunny is lots of fun. My son and I just got back from a two hour trail ride down a new trail, which featured a steep climb with lots of switchbacks, and we all did great. I wish I'd bought myself a trail horse like this years ago, too!

Mary Paine said...

Hi Laura,

Ten horses would be my dream come true and your Sunny sounds like a perfect addition to your family. Sounds like you've got the kicking well in hand. Having owned only Thoroughbreds whom I loved dearly, I have to admit I would love a bomb-proof horse to relax and enjoy on a trail ride. You've inspired me!

Here's hoping for many wonderful rides for you and your little boy!


A.K. Alexander said...

Bomb Proof! Now there is a horse I want for my daughter. I'm on the hunt right now. Sunny sounds great. I've only been kicked once and the strange thing is I had this intuitive sense the horse was going to do it to me. Needless to say he isn't my favorite horse, but we tolerate each other. i think his issue was about dominance as well.

Keep us posted on sunny and the trail rides. What fun!


Laura Crum said...

Thanks Mary and Michele--its funny, in a way, this is my childhood dream come true, too. (I think I wrote about this in my "Trails Along the Ridge" post.) But like you guys, most of my life (including my youth) I went out on the trails on less than ideal trail horses. (I did have one great trail horse, Flanigan, who was also a great arena horse--I'll write about him in some future post.) Sunny has sure been lots of fun for me in his role as trail horse, though one would find him very frustrating (his previous owner did) if he was asked to do anything that required much athletic ability. He was tried at team roping, dressage, and jumping (an odd combo to say the least), all without much success. Trail horse is what he's good at and enjoys. I guess the lesson here is to pick the horse to fit the job (!) So far, the kicking issue hasn't been much of a problem. As I say, we'll see what the future holds.

Grey Horse Matters said...

I never trusted my horse Erik who was a Dutch warmblood on the trails so we seldom went. He was really spooky. But now I have Dusty, a 15.1 hand palomino quarter horse. She is just as sane as can be on trails or anywhere. It's a joy to ride her, maybe it's a palomino trait to be unflappable.And she also tried to kick me when I first got her. Sounds similar to yours.

Laura Crum said...

I have heard some old horsemen say that "yellow" horses are in general "easy" ones. Sunny is the first palomino I've owned, but I've known many over the years and it seems to me that they were mostly easy going personalities. I would not same the same for buckskins, however. I'm not sure what's in a color. Bay has always been my favorite color and most of my good horses have been bays. i do find Sunny (and his bright gold color) very appealing, however. And he is a "Quarter Horse type", though unlike my other horses (who are all registered Quarter Horses) he has a very cold-blooded look (sort of like a big pony or mini-draft horse). I've been told he was brought by a horse trader out of old Mexico. That's all I know of his early history.

Mrs. Mom said...

I hope to A) have both my sons continue to be interested in horses as they grow older, and B) be able to have good horses for them to ride along with me on trails some day.

Thanks for creating a new day dream for me Laura! The idea of hitting the trails with my guys just tickles me to no end!

Have a fantastic day!

Laura Crum said...

Mrs Mom, i just got back from taking my little boy on a two hour ride (using Sunny and Henry, of course) and I want to validate your "daydream". This has been so much fun for me. After a lifetime spent doing vastly more "exciting sounding" things with horses, I am finding this time of peaceful trail riding through the woods with my kid the most delightful of all (I wrote more about this in my previous post, "The Trails Along the Ridge'--in April). And yeah, I had to work at it to find the right horses. You know Sunny's story, and I paid a vastly inflated price for Henry because the owner knew I wanted him very badly (my little boys pony had just died). But I don't regret the money--Henry is truly bomb-proof and worth every penny. I just hope he lasts awhile. He's perfectly sound and healthy--turned 20 this month. I'm crossing my fingers. I hope you find just the right equines for your kids, too.