Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Farewell to a Friend

by Laura Crum

I lost my oldest horse last December. Burt was nearly forty: a horse I bought while I was in college (and I turned fifty-one this month). He appears only briefly in my mystery series about equine veterinarian Gail McCarthy, mostly in my first four novels, Cutter, Hoofprints, Roughstock and Roped. But he was a huge part of my life, and I would like to take this opportunity to tell his story.

Burt was the first horse I ever bought who really worked out, the first horse I determined to keep until he died (turned out to be a long road). I know all you other horsewomen out there will understand when I say that the three horses I owned before Burt, though all good horses in their way, were not really right for me. I owned each a couple of years (broke one of them to ride and trained another to be a pretty good reined cowhorse) and then sold them.

Now I’d grown up training horses and breaking colts for my uncle, who competed at team roping and raised Quarter Horses, so I’d ridden some pretty nice horses over the years, horses I really liked (and wished I could afford). I was determined to find a horse for myself that I liked as well as I’d liked some of these others. But in my teens and early twenties I hadn’t very much money, and my only path to acquiring a quality animal was to buy a young horse and train it myself. I’d tried this twice before (as I mentioned above) with what I considered to be incomplete success (though both the two horses I mentioned were bought by people who loved them and kept them until the horses died, so I guess I didn’t fail too miserably with their training.) Then came Burt.

I literally stumbled upon him by accident. I was in my last year of college and had recently sold Hobby, a little gelding I’d determined was just too stubborn a personality-type for me. I didn’t really need another horse; well, lets face it, at that point in my life I needed another horse like I needed a hole in the head. But I couldn’t resist making an offer on Burt.

I’d gone with a friend to look at a litter of Queensland Heeler pups, and there in the corral was a bright bay gelding with the liveliest look in his eyes I’d ever seen in a horse. Now I’m a sucker for bays; its long been my favorite color in a horse. And Burt was the particular type I liked—a fifteen-three hand bay gelding, a brilliant sparkling red with no white on his face and those very alive eyes.

“Is that your horse?” I said to the guy with the pups.

Turned out the horse wasn’t his; it belonged to a friend, an eighty-year-old man who had raised horses his entire life.

“This here’s the last of the old guy’s line. We call him Burt.”

Well, I got the old man’s phone number and asked him if he’d like to sell Burt. Sure he would, and he named a pretty high price.

I’d learned that Burt was a well-bred five year old Quarter Horse gelding who’d had thirty days of riding put on him by a ranch cowboy when the horse was three—and hadn’t been ridden since. I knew that this was not a scenario that was likely to lead to an easy project. Still, the look in that horse’s eye….

I made a very lowball offer—less than half of what the man was asking. He pooh-poohed this and I told him, “Fine. Here’s my phone number. Call me if you change your mind.”

Two months later, I got the call. I’d nearly forgotten about Burt by then, but he jumped back into my mind right away. The old man was ready to sell him, and to make a long story short, we comprimised on a price a few hundred over my original offer. Great. Now I had a horse again.

Burt turned out to be a kind and willing animal, just as I had intuited. He never once bucked or balked in all the years I owned him, and he had very smooth gaits. He wasn’t particularly spooky and was quite athletic and had lots of “cow”. As with all horses, though, there was a slight catch. Burt had a little too much go.

No matter how much I worked with him, Burt’s lope was always trying to accelerate to a gallop, his walk wanted to be a trot. Trail rides with Burt proceeded in a prancing jig, a gait that frustrated me no end. He never wanted to run away, nor was he ever out of control. He simply always wanted to go a little faster.

Nevertheless, Burt had a lot of good points. When I left college, I hired on at a working cattle ranch in northern California, and the cowboys there all tried to buy him. I had a pretty fancy handle on him by that time, and he would spin and slide and work a cow with the best of ‘em. I could corral rope off of him and gather cattle in the roughest country around. I spent many long days herding and separating cattle on that ranch, and Burt proved to be a real trooper. Didn’t matter whether it was pouring rain, snowing, well below freezing, a howling gale (all of which we endured), and/or we’d been working for ten hours already (true story), Burt was still game and cooperative. All that go had found a real purpose.

Eventually I gave up cowboying and went to work for a series of horse trainers. I bought a three-year-old (Gunner) and began training him to be a cutting horse. (For more about this, read my post “The Real Horses Behind the Books”—March 2008.) Since I had no job for Burt (and not much money), I loaned him to a ranch family I knew and their three teen-aged girls used him for team penning, barrel racing and goat tying, as well as ranch chores, at all of which he was quite successful.

As the years passed and Burt got older, I found him a home with a friend who wanted to trail ride, and when she got a divorce and could no longer afford a horse, I took Burt back and retired him to the pasture. Burt was in his early twenties, then, still sound and usable and we rode him occasionally. I could put anyone on him—first time beginners and little children included—and take them for a trail ride.

Time passed. Burt stayed sound and bright-eyed all through his twenties. In his thirties he began to lose his teeth and started to have a hard time keeping weight on. I put him on a diet of “equine senior delight” and he promptly gained back his lost weight and became glossy and healthy again. In his mid-thirties Burt looked much younger than many horses that were twenty or so, and he still came galloping in across the pasture at full speed when I showed up to feed him. It always brought a smile to my face.

Burt remained sound and healthy and was trotting briskly around on the morning of the day he died of a massive stroke one month short of thirty-eight years old. He had a good life and was loved by many people, including me. Something about him was very cheering; he just had an innately joyful energy. To see him was to feel happier. I’ll always be glad I made the decision to buy him all those years ago, and equally glad that I chose to keep him and take care of him until the end of his long life.

To Burt!
Laura Crum


Mrs. Mom said...

Thanks for sharing Burt with us Laura- he was really an incredible fellow there. Glad he was with you for the most of his life too!

Now darn it, I gotta go find the Puffs Plus again...The Water Works turned on full blast here!

Laura Crum said...

Thank you, Mrs Mom. I still miss Burt. He is buried out in the pasture he lived in, with a stone to mark his grave, and two of my other retired horses (both now on equine senior delight) live in that pasture, and commemorate--in the best way--by their own happy retirement--his life. I do miss him. Happy trails.

Jami Davenport said...

Wonderful post, Laura. It brings tears to my eyes.

Grey Horse Matters said...

Burt sounds like a wonderful horse who was loved by everyone. It's sad to lose our partners, but he lived to a good age and I'm sure will always live in your memories and your heart.

Laura Crum said...

GHM--Yes, I feel very fortunate--I only hope that many of my other horses will have as long (and healthy) a life as Burt did.
Thanks Jami, and good wishes on your new release--here's to best sellerdom!