Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Toby the Pony

By Laura Crum

In my latest mystery novel, Chasing Cans, just out this spring, my protagonist, equine veterinarian Gail McCarthy, acquires a pony for her child. Toby, the pony in that story, is based on our own Toby, a pony I bought two and a half years ago, when my son was five. Toby the pony single-handedly taught my little boy to ride.

My son had been horseback since he was six months old, sitting in front of me in the saddle, but still did not like to be on the big horses by himself. Not to mention that none of the horses I had at that time were suitable as a mount for a young child. When a neighbor mentioned that she wanted to sell Toby—her teenage daughter had outgrown him and moved on to a horse—I jumped at the chance.

I’d watched Toby quite a bit over the years. A largish (about thirteen hands) mostly white pinto pony, with blue eyes, Toby was homely and phlegmatic in appearance. I had seen him packing various little neighbor girls around, bareback, double and once triple (!) Nothing seemed to bother him. He looked sturdy, solid, and reliable (and 100% sound), and I figured he was just what I needed.

My neighbor explained that Toby had some health problems (Cushings disease and a run-in with cancer) and he was twenty years old. I bought him anyway, and the very first day I brought him home, my little boy demanded to get on him. Leading my kid around the property on Toby, who never twitched an ear at anything, I knew I’d made a good decision.

In the ensuing years I learned a lot. I’d never owned a pony before, though I’d longed for one as a small child, and Toby was a real education. Ponies are not a smaller version of horses, I found. No, ponies are much smarter and tougher minded than any horse I’d ever owned. At least Toby was. Oh, and did I mention stubborn? But most of all, endearing.

Toby continued to take care of my little boy, who never once fell off of his beloved pony. We did have some minor setbacks, as when Toby tried to convince me he had no idea how to longe, despite the fact that the former owner had assured me she’d longed him often. When I called her for advice, she suggested the whip. “Every pony is a little Napoleon,” she said.

Sure enough, upon one application of said whip, Toby miraculously remembered how to longe. And this testing behavior persisted throughout our relationship, though it certainly lessened as he and I grew to understand one another.

And Toby’s version of taking care of my child wasn’t exactly what I’d imagined. As my little boy progressed from the leadline to the longe line to riding independently, Toby showed us that he had plenty of life. Indeed, at a thump from my kid’s heels, Toby was quite willing to take off at the high lope, as we found out. I still remember my son coming up the hill at a hand gallop on a route chosen not by him but by Toby, which involved leaping a ditch and ducking under a very solid oak tree limb. (After this I proceeded to give Toby a few training rides—fortunately the pony was big enough that I could also ride him. As always, it didn’t take him long to decide it was in his best interests to revert to obedient behavior.)

Still, Toby seemed to have a sixth sense about what a rider could handle; nobody ever came off of him. It didn’t hurt that he had very smooth gaits. My son was eventually able to trot and lope the pony independently, and remain in good control of him (to my kid’s great delight). Through it all, Toby remained sound and apparently healthy; he got his meds for the Cushings, shed out, looked great, bucked and played in his corral…etc. He was ridden four or five days a week on average, rarely hard enough to crack a sweat, and seemed to be enjoying life thoroughly.

We all loved Toby, most of all my son; the pony became a member of our family. He’d be with us today, but unfortunately his cancer reoccurred. We operated on him once to remove a tumor and he recovered nicely to give us another year of companionship. But when the cancer reoccurred yet again, this time in his kidneys, we made the decision to let him go. (Kidney cancer in a horse requires the removal of a kidney, a difficult operation that would put the horse through much suffering. We didn’t think this was appropriate, given Toby’s age and the fact that this was the fourth time his tumor had come back.)

Toby’s last days were spent on painkillers which kept him comfortable, and he wandered around our small horse ranch, grazing wherever he wanted, and shutting himself in his own pen every evening. My son and I said good-bye to him and told him we loved him (and if you’ve ever helped a little boy to say goodbye to a beloved animal, you know how sad this was). Nonetheless, in the green grass and sunshine, Toby dozed near us contentedly and rested his head against us; I swear our pony said goodbye and told us he loved us, too.

Toby is buried in his corral, with a stone to mark his grave. That corral is now occupied by Henry, the sorrel Quarter Horse gelding who is my son’s new mount. But Toby will never lose his place in our hearts—the magical little white horse who taught my boy to ride.
Cheers—to Toby

Laura Crum


Anonymous said...

Hi Laura
It's Elaine Collins here. I was at the SV Library night which I SO enjoyed. I was the homeschool advocate and you signed Chasing Cans for me.. As my husband would say I was the chatterbox teehee

I want to say I have read all your books now except my signed one (I am savoring the fact I stil have it to read.) I feel like we are friends because of knowing Gail. I can tell there is you in her and the mothering thoughts and ideals I read in the books are in my heart as well. It is my belief you and I definitely have similiar mothering hearts.

Also, I talked to Pat at the SV Library today I was relieved to hear all of you and yours are ok from the fire.

My email is gtrsnd@comcast.net if you ever want to write. Gotta know I will love a new Gail mystery
Happy Mothering
With Joy,

Laura Crum said...

Thanks Elaine, I do remember you from the signing. I'm glad you enjoyed my books and no, the fire did not threaten us, though we did help some friends evaluate their horses. Thanks again for your concern.

Mrs. Mom said...

Toby sounds liek he was an amazing fellow, and what a perfect mount for your little man to start on. It is always great to hear of people who "do the right thing" by older horses- and not just forgetting about them. I think that the senior horses I have met (and been owned by) all LIKE tohave a job, and kids fit the bill to a T. They all seem to have a "purpose" again, and it seems to make them happier in their twilight years.

Great job remembering a special old soul Laura, and I am happy that your little man got to be around such an amazing pony!

Laura Crum said...

Mrs Mom, thanks for your comment. Toby was a great pony for us, and Henry, my son's new mount, turned twenty this month (we had a party, naturally). Fortunately Henry has no (known) health problems, so I'm hoping he can last awhile. But there is nothing like these older horses for kids. They are the greatest. And as for retiring old horses and keeping them to the end of their days, I'm kind of known for that around here. My oldest horse (almost forty) died out in his pasture this last December (maybe I'll do a post on him soon). And I have four other "retirees" at this time--one I rescued, three are horses that I owned and used who either got injured, lame, or just too old to ride. I really love my old guys!