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