by Laura Crum
I can’t count how many times my son has asked me if there is real magic in the world. Of course, he was mostly thinking of Harry Potter and flying broomsticks and the like. But each time he’s asked, I have told him seriously that I do believe there is magic in the world, magic that is every bit as wildly improbable and delightful as a flying broomstick. We just don’t (mostly) notice. And nowhere is this more true than when it comes to horses.
Has anybody else ever noticed that when you are open to being led, the right horse comes along? The horse that takes you where you really want to go. Sometimes the horse looks not at all as you thought he would be, but he is the right one nonetheless. This has happened to me many times. But today I want to talk about one particular special horse that came to me when I needed him—Toby the pony, the magical little white horse that taught my son to ride. Toby died in October, five years ago, and I think of him a lot this time of year.
I didn’t envision buying my kid a pony. To tell the truth, I had a very common horseman’s prejudice against ponies. I thought they were all ill-broke and ill-mannered, the result of being too small to be ridden by anyone but children. I had never owned a pony myself, and my limited acquaintance with the ponies of others only reinforced my belief about ill-broke and ill-mannered. So I wasn’t thinking about buying my kid a pony.
But my five year old son was getting too big to ride with me on my horse, Plumber. See my September post “The Story of a Good Horse”. At the same time my young son felt very unsure up on the horse without me, and truthfully, Plumber had too much spook in him to be an appropriate leadline pony. He was also 15.1. “I need something smaller and quieter,” I told my husband.
Well, be careful what you ask for. The very next day the neighbor came over to say her kid’s pony was for sale. My emotions were mixed. Yes, this was just what I was looking for. I had seen this pony packing the neighbor girl for years, sometimes packing her and two of her friends—bareback and wearing only a halter. I was pretty sure he was a reliable pony. But…well, quite frankly I was prejudiced against ponies and by my standards this was a really ugly pony. He was white, with blue eyes. He did not have a cute little head. He was a coarse, solid made critter and looked tough and strong. But white. With blue eyes. Yuck.
Still, I swallowed my reluctance and tried the pony. He was thirteen and a half hands high, and strongly made, one big point in his favor. I am five foot two, and this pony was quite big enough for me to ride. The neighbor girl’s mother often rode him. They were selling the pony because they could only afford one horse and the girl wanted to buy a mare she could show. At sixteen she’d outgrown Toby, who was twenty, and no show horse. But it was clear that they were very fond of Toby and wanted to be sure he went to a good home.
I rode the pony, asked a lot of questions and decided he would work. I tried to ignore how homely he was. He seemed completely sound. He’d had one run-in with cancer—tumor on his sheath—but it had been removed and he was doing fine. I decided to take a chance on him. He had come my way the very week I had asked for such a thing. I bought Toby and we brought him home. And that very day my son, who had been afraid to be up on the horses alone, demanded that I lead him all around the property on Toby. Which I did. Toby was great. We were off to a good start.
Once I got used to Toby, I began to get over how homely he was. In fact, I began to think he was cute…isn’t it funny how this happens? Toby wasn’t really white, he was a medicine hat paint—mostly white with a sorrel “cap” and a big sorrel patch on his left flank and some sorrel in his tail. I learned that medicine hat paints were considered good fortune. And Toby certainly was good fortune for us.
Now I am going to make a confession. I feel really dumb about this, but its true. Nobody I knew put a helmet on their kid when they rode (I ran with a bunch of cowboys and team ropers—and if you don’t believe me, ask anyone you know that runs with such a crowd), so I just never thought of doing it. When my son was riding in front of me on Plumber I was perfectly confident Plumber wouldn’t dump me—and that I could hang on to my kid. This proved absolutely true, so the no-helmet wasn’t the huge mistake it might have been.
When I started leading my kid around on Toby I didn’t stop to think how much easier my child could come off. When we went faster than a walk my husband used to jog next to my son, holding him with one hand. But time passed and my kid grew more confident. He trotted and eventually loped along on Toby, sometimes being ponied by me from my own horse. And, yes, no helmet. I was dumb.
So Toby helped me out. My son was riding the pony independently now, and starting to trot and lope him on his own. And Toby, though a good pony, was a pony. As his previous owner said, “Every pony is a little Napolean. Give them an inch and they want world domination.” Toby would sometimes to decide to go where HE wanted to go, rather than where my son wanted him to go.
The other thing about Toby that was a little disconcerting is that sometime in his checkered past (he’d been rescued from an abusive home by the owner previous to the neighbor, and no one really knew where he came from), he’d clearly been a gymkhana pony. This showed itself in various ways. Several times I watched him “pole bend” the oak trees in his corral—at a dead run and just for fun. And I noticed that though he started out quiet (his basic nature) when my son loped him, about the fourth time he was kicked up to the lope, he began to find another gear. Like he was getting ready to run a pattern.
So one day when my then six year old son was riding Toby in the paddock, walking him down the hill and loping him back up, Toby gave me a wake-up call. The pony had loped up the hill quietly and obediently two or three times, and about the fourth time he was asked to do it, Toby took off on a route of his own, jumping a small ditch and weaving at the high lope (like a good pole bending pony) between some tightly spaced oak trees—with low hanging, solid limbs. My heart was in my throat, but my kid stayed on and ducked in all the right places. When he pulled Toby up next to me, though, he gave me a look. “Mama, I need a helmet,” he said.
“You’re right,” I said. And we went and got one that afternoon—he hasn’t ridden without a helmet since. Thank you, Toby.
Yes, Toby could be stubborn. I had to ride him from time to time and "straighten him out." But Toby never once dumped my son. Never hurt him, never even scared him. He did teach him to ride. And I was several times treated to examples of how hard the pony tried to take care of his young rider. One summer we’d returned from a month long trip, during which Toby was not ridden by anyone. Our pens are big and he had room to run, but still…
The very first thing my son wanted to do when we got home was ride his pony. I had misgivings, but I pulled the pony out and saddled him up and off they went. I could tell Toby was feeling good, but he never did one thing wrong. When my son was done riding I decided to lunge the pony a bit…and you should have seen that critter buck. But despite how good he was obviously feeling, he had managed to hold it together for half an hour of gentle riding with his little kid. Toby had a good heart.
Toby was always very affectionate and loved petting, and we lavished a lot of attention on him. My son rode him almost every day during the years we owned him. Never hard enough to even crack much of a sweat, but lots of rides. We had a good life together.
Sadly, a year after I bought Toby, his cancer reoccurred. I had another tumor on his sheath removed and we put him on some (very expensive) supplements that were supposed to reduce the risk of cancer reoccurring. We had another year in which Toby was sound and perfectly happy and my kid rode him a lot. And then one day the pony was off his feed.
He wasn’t colicked, but he wasn’t right. He had a slight temperature. The vet came out and prescribed antibiotics. But a couple of weeks went by and Toby still wasn’t right. Not cleaning up his food. One day I noticed blood in his urine. The next day I hauled him to the equine center to have his urethra scoped.
The scoping revealed he was bleeding from one of his kidneys. The blood work showed markers indicative of a tumor. The guess was that he had a tumor in his kidney. It was consistent with his history and symptoms.
The surgeon was willing to operate, but had never removed a kidney on a horse before. It would be complicated with an uncertain prognosis; my twenty-two year old pony would go through a lot of grief and perhaps it would all be for naught. It would be very expensive. And this was the third time his cancer had reoccurred. I decided against it. (A year and a half later, faced with colic surgery to save my son’s twenty year old horse—and the same surgeon—I opted to go for the surgery—because the surgeon had done this procedure MANY times and the prognosis was good. I’d make the same two choices, if asked to do it again.)
Having elected not to do the surgery, the likelihood was that Toby did not have much longer to live. The vet asked if I wanted to put him down. Toby, loaded up on Banamine, was happily cropping grass and looked at me bright-eyed, his expression clearly asking, “When do we go home?”
I thought about my son and how worried he’d been when we hauled Toby away. I looked at the bright-eyed little guy. In some ways it would have been easier just to give the word and drive away—remembering the pony happily cropping grass. But I couldn’t do it. And again, it is a choice I would make the same way a thousand times over. I brought Toby home.
It turned out he had a week to live. During this week I explained to my seven year old son that Toby did not have long to live. We let the pony roam around the garden, grazing. We left his pen open and he would go in and out as he pleased. He went in every night and shut his gate behind him—something my son remembers with a smile to this day. I kept Toby loaded up on Banamine and he wouldn’t eat hay, but he would graze and clearly enjoyed carrots and attention.
I will never forget one October afternoon, in the long, low golden light—my son and I were hanging out with Toby while he dozed under the oak trees, occasionally grazing. My son stepped up to his pony many times to pet him. Finally my little boy looked at me and said, “Can you see how much I love him?”
I said that I did see—and I know Toby did, too.
The end of this story involves a bittersweet magic—and I truly believe it was magic. You may call me naïve—and that’s OK. I’ll believe in the magic until the day I die.
Toby was getting near his end. He no longer wanted to graze much, one morning he wasn’t interested in carrots. He had begun grinding his teeth, which is a sign of pain. I made an appointment for the afternoon and tried to prepare my son. That afternoon, an hour before the vet was due, I noticed a strange cast to the light. Looking up, I realized it was smoke. Smoke, in October, in the brushy hills where we live, is nothing to take lightly. My husband scrambled to the top of our ridge and called me on the cell phone. “Hitch up the trailer,” he said. “The fire’s right next door and it’s coming our way fast.”
While my husband stayed up on the ridge fighting the fire with neighbors, I rather desperately hitched up the trailer and collected the dogs. I had at the time four horses—one of which was a dying pony—and a three-horse trailer. I had no idea what I should do, but I got ready to roll. Smoke was billowing over the ridge. I had not yet heard one siren, though my husband had called 911.
And then, in an instant, it seemed, everything changed. With a roar of engines several airplanes appeared and dumped fire retardant on the ridge (drenching my husband). In the next five minutes, helicopters followed, dumping buckets of water. My husband called me back. “Forget it,” he said. “They’ve got it.”
And so it proved. We went from catastrophe to no big deal in the blink of an eye. Half an hour later, when the vet arrived to put Toby down, all seemed normal. Except that it wasn’t. Those who have been through a potentially life threatening emergency will know what I mean. My senses were over the top. And I knew, I absolutely knew, that the dying Toby had used his power to save us.
I know perfectly well that there is a rational explanation for that massive so-quick response to our little local brush fire. I can explain it in logical terms..etc. But I know in my heart that the rational explanations don’t matter.
You can all laugh at me—I don’t mind. I have seen this before in animals, and once with a person. Those with a pure heart are granted the power to do something special with their energy when they die. Create a truly magical moment, save a life. Toby saved us. He died quickly not an hour after the fire was put out—our magical little white horse.
We still love Toby and remember him. He is buried here on our property. And I truly believe he still takes care of my son.