TRUE TALE

I had fed, groomed and care­fully trained Smoke, but there was one thing he needed that I just couldn’t pro­vide.

EQUUS - - Contents - By Ju­lia Dake

Look­ing for a leader: I had fed, groomed and care­fully trained Smoke, but there was one thing I just couldn’t pro­vide.

When I first saw Smoke Danc­ing, he was liv­ing in a small herd, caught be­tween two com­bat­ants in a con­tentious di­vorce where nei­ther would care for the horses. Their pas­ture was grow­ing barer, and they were get­ting more and more pa­thetic ass the days went by.

The old cow­boy who was help­ing me make my choice told me about the geld­ing’s breed­ing. He stood 16 hands, gray and el­e­gant, with a Thor­ough­bred body and a fine-boned Ara­bian head. Two hot-blooded breeds poured into one horse. He clearly needed res­cu­ing, and I had no doubt I could gen­tle and train him. All you need is love, right?

I soon nick­named him Launch­pad be­cause, well, that’s what he turned in­too for me. I have asked my­self many times since, What was I think­ing? My only ex­cuse was that I was young, barely an adult, and I still thought I was un­break-- able. But that was be­fore Smoke.

That horse could “dance.” Usu­ally, it would go some­thing like this: Some hor­ren­dous horse-eat­ing creature--of­ten a leaf or pa­per cup---would spring from the un­der­brush. After star­ing in hor­ror for a nanosec­ond, he would spin and ac­cel­er­ate with as­ton­ish­ing speed. If I was not yet un­seated and on the ground, Smoke would stop as sud­denly as he had started, spin and rear. And if I was still on his back, Smoke---hav­ing by now long for­got­ten about the horseeat­ing creature---would then duck deep be­tween his knees and try to bring his rump up over his rear. By this time I would almost cer­tainly be down in the dirt, or wa­ter, or gravel.

Then, with­out so much as a back­ward glance, Smoke would flip his tail up over his back and trot, gal­lop or am­ble off, de­pend­ing on his mood.

Now the fun be­gan. Catchatch me if you can.

I am a stub­born woman, and this horse was not go­ing to best me. Curs­ing like a sailor, I would track that geld­ing down and even­tu­ally he would give up---usu­ally be­cause he was ready. More than once, dur­ing my frus­trat­ing searches, I would look up to see Smoke stand­ing close, star­ing at me as if he did not un­der­stand my prob­lem. All of which was only the pre­lude to our next bat­tle: get­ting Smoke back onto the trailer.

Long be­fore any of the fa­mous nat­u­ral horse­man­ship train­ers came on the scene, I did not yet grasp that all of this was my prob­lem: that our con­tentious re­la­tion­ship stemmed from my own in­abil­i­ties. Back then, I was just angry. More than once all I wanted was to get my sad­dle off his back, get in my truck and leave him be­hind.

TheTh last straw came sud­denly. After many months of train­ing, I thought SmokeSmok and I were reach­ing an un­der­stand­ing.stand Smoke dis­agreed. When I re­gaire­gained con­scious­ness, with Smoke wai­wait­ing for me at the edge of the arearena, I con­sid­ered the burn­ing in my an­kles, the pain in my should­eder, the bro­ken el­bow, the bro­ken foofoot,ot, the place be­low my eye where hhe kicked me---and I sstopped. Smoke won ththe last round. I was foufour months preg­nant anand could not be stupid any longer. This part of my life was over.

I placedp an ad in the news­pa­pernews that af­ter­noon. Two daysd later a man ar­rived at the barn, trailer in tow, and asked to try my geld­ing. In the crossties, Smoke stood like a statue. I had al­ways ap­proached him cau­tiously and low­ered my sad­dle gen­tly onto his back. This man slapped---and I do mean slapped---a polo sad­dle on and tight­ened the girth. Smoke stood qui­etly. The man slid a bri­dle onto his head and led him out into the arena. I was still wait­ing for the dy­na­mite to ex­plode.

When I rode, I would step onto the mount­ing block and ease gin­gerly into

the irons. This man leaped up onto Smoke and set­tled in. The horse re­mained calm. I was con­fused.

The man ges­tured to his friend to bring him his polo mal­let. The other man walked up to Smoke swoosh­ing and whoosh­ing the mal­let through the air. The hor­ror of a pa­per cup or a my­lar bal­loon couldn’t pos­si­bly com­pare to this mon­ster. Yet Smoke stood qui­etly.

By now I was get­ting mad and start­ing to re­con­sider my decision. After all, I hand-gen­tled this geld­ing. I was the first on his back. I saved him from a po­ten­tially ter­ri­ble fate. I rode my first-ever dres­sage test on this horse. We placed last, but we were there, and that counted for a lot con­sid­er­ing our re­la­tion­ship.

The man in the sad­dle took the mal­let and started swing­ing it over my geld­ing’s head, around his shoul­ders, across his back. He tapped him with the mal­let lightly on his legs and flanks. Smoke just stood there. I was stunned and, oddly, proud. My first “adult” horse, my neme­sis, was ex­hibit­ing all the traits I tried to teach him and al­ways, al­ways knew he had.

Off the pair went at a nice trot, the mal­let still swing­ing and swoosh­ing. Then a lovely can­ter, a re­ally lovely can­ter. The kind of can­ter I would dream about. The man whooshed and swung. Next, in a feat I thought I would never see, he rolled the geld­ing back onto his haunches, changed leads and raced off at a gal­lop, still swoosh­ing and swing­ing. All the things I knew this geld­ing could one day do, he was now do­ing for a stranger.

This went on for about 10 min­utes. The ex­pert horse­man, as I now thought of him, gal­loped Smoke to the cen­ter of the arena, hauled him to a stop and dropped the reins. Smoke Danc­ing, AKA Launch­pad, stood per­fectly still. The man stroked his neck and jumped down. He strode over to me with Smoke qui­etly fol­low­ing and said, “I’ll take him. He is go­ing to make a good polo pony.” Ap­par­ently. Un­sad­dled and wait­ing in his new hal­ter, Smoke Danc­ing was as beau­ti­ful as I will al­ways re­mem­ber him: well fed, lov­ingly groomed, vet­ted and shod. He was go­ing to be a polo pony. I pat­ted him goodbye and told him to have fun. The ex­pert horse­man handed me my money and pointed Smoke Danc­ing to the open­ing of the trailer. True to form, at least his new form, he walked right in to the trailer with­out any hes­i­ta­tion.

Smoke gave a long call as they pulled out of the sta­ble yard and flipped his tail in salute.

Years and many horses later, I now un­der­stand that my gray geld­ing needed some­thing I could not give him at that time. He needed a leader, some­one who would make him feel safe even in the grip of a horse-ter­ror. He needed---no, he re­quired---a rider who was strong and con­fi­dent and would, in turn, give him the con­fi­dence he needed.

My own ten­ta­tive and hes­i­tant ap­proach only made him ner­vous. If I were up­set about cross­ing the creek, he was up­set about it as well. If I, the leader, was afraid, then cer­tainly there must be some­thing to fear.

Step up, mount up, and ride off---that was what Smoke needed. No tip­toe­ing around; just get on and ride. The mal­let-swing­ing, polo-play­ing, ex­pert horse­man did ex­actly that. Be­fore my won­der­ing eyes, I saw my res­cued geld­ing be­come a strong, con­fi­dent horse.

Smoke Danc­ing went on to have a long ca­reer as a polo pony. I saw him on the field one time, and he ap­peared to be do­ing ex­actly as I told him. He was hav­ing fun.

The man walked up to Smoke swoosh­ing and whoosh­ing the mal­let through the air. The hor­ror of a pa­per cup or a my­lar bal­loon couldn’t pos­si­bly

com­pare to this mon­ster.

FIRST STEPS: The au­thor’s work with Smoke Danc­ing read­ied him for the next phase of his life.

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