On the Trail to my First Horse Part 3 - TONY
by Juliet R. Harrison
The time from the actual decision to buy my first horse…..to fulfilling that childhood (and now adult dream)…to the final purchase, was more than 6 months. I should have known it would be hard to find a first love. Perhaps it was because I had only budgeted $3,000.00 for mon amour. We all know that falling in love is easy, but finding the perfect love – not so much.
As my adult riding lesson dissatisfaction grew - from experiencing a scary fall, to just knowing that lessons were not filling the intimate connection that I was longing for, a new boarder arrived at the fairgrounds barn where I had been hanging out. Post divorce, she arrived with a number of horses in tow. More horses then she could afford to keep, now that she no longer owned a farm. She decided to put several up for sale. Whether the scare from the fall provided the perfect excuse or it was just the right time, it all seemed fated. My instructor, Nancy, felt that one of the horses that was to be sold might be perfect for me. A handsome, smallish but sturdy Morgan gelding named Two Socks.
For a multitude of good reasons, I decided to try on the idea of Two Socks. Perhaps I just fell forward into the idea, knowing that board at the fairgrounds was be excellent care and one that I might actually be able to afford. It was winter and he would need a refresher course in being more than a pasture ornament. I had time to get to know him. We would have a kind of trial period. I spent time grooming him and getting comfortable working around him. It truly did feel like he might be the perfect fit...that is, until winter ended. In early spring I started to take riding lessons on him and I discovered that we were not a good match under saddle. He was rather head strong and I did not feel connected to him in any good way once I was on his back. Even on the ground he started to exhibit some problematic behavior that I knew I would not be comfortable dealing with. Since the idea of my own horse was to be able to bond and to limit my riding panic, we all realized that Two Socks would not be the horse for me.
I admit that I was disappointed but I was still determined. Thus began a 6-month horse buying odyssey with many more failed attempts. Like the beautiful blue roan at the Quarter Horse barn where the trainer/wannabe Native American, called himself Lakota. He met us with his shirt open to his navel, leaning back on a bench and promptly dropped his dangling cigarette on his lap ruining the whole effect. He proceeded to yahoo the poor horse so badly that when I took my trainer back to look at him the next day, she would not let me on him due to his now very sore back. I do believe that “Lakota” was really from Queens and his real name was Irving.
And then there was the other Quarter Horse, the one we called Harry Potter, a former ranch horse with lots of riding miles who had been used as a pony at the racetrack. I got him from a Standardbred breeder and Saratoga outrider. Both my trainer and I tried him at the owner’s farm. I bought him with a two-week trial period and Nancy trailered him home. Good thing we had the trial. The first time I rode him back at our barn, I was lucky enough that my trainer was on hand. The moment I got on she immediately told me to get off! He had hunched his back ready to set off bucking. ‘Cold backed’ she called it. We could not even stop him moving forward so I had to kick out my stirrups and leap off. Definitely not the horse I was going to bond with.
There was the 17.2 hand Thoroughbred that arrived at a local broker from a race track in the South. His height alone was enough to intimidate me. So much so that I was unable to come up with a good name for him. We started by simply calling him No-Name. Another purchase with a trial period. Nancy, my trainer, said that he was the only horse she had ever met that seemed to be reserving judgment on whether we were a fit for him. As if he was giving US a two-week trial. He might have worked out, but when I brought the vet out he did not pass the lameness tests. Something was not right with his back hip. I can’t say that I wasn’t relieved.
The next horse was an appendix Quarter Horse that I actually got to take on a wonderful trail ride at the dealer’s place. We went out for at least an hour after my trainer approved of him. We rode past barking dogs that ran right at us, past landscapers with leaf blowers and through water. Jake was a kind of raw-boned teenaged blood bay. Just the sweetest guy. However, once we got him home, he came up swollen and lame in both front knees. He would not be able to do what I wanted. I was hoping to jump my horse. Even Nancy felt terrible when the dealer came to get him. We both still wish that we had had the money to keep him and let him be a nice quiet school horse for her, but we had to let him go. We had all bonded with him in the short week that I had him, but, in horse shopping, you can’t always second guess yourself. All we could do was trust that the dealer would find him the right home.
We checked out a number of other horses that only warranted a quick look. Horses that were not at all as they were described in their ads. Shorter or with less training. Horses with runny noses and skinny bodies. I was getting frustrated and decided it might be time to take a break. It was emotionally draining to get my hopes up at every listing, to invest a bit of my heart with every one we brought home, only to be disappointed time after time. I thought, perhaps, that the problem was that I could not pay more. That none of the horses were right because they were “cheap” horses and cheap horses were problem horses. Things are different now, but in those days, it was harder to find a good riding horse in the Northeast for under $3,000.00. Whatever it was, I needed to stop for a while.
Wouldn’t you know, within a week or two of this decision, Nancy called me to the barn to tell me that she had heard about another horse that might be right for me. He was located at a barn near where I worked. A youngish half draft horse in my price range, she said. She thought it could be worth a try. I called the owner and set up a time to come to see the horse on my lunch break. I told the seller that I would not ride the horse until I brought my trainer out with me at another time. Did I mention that I had a few prerequisites for any horse that I would own? I wanted a gelding that was at least 15.2 hands, preferably 16 hands. Something with a big stripe similar to what I had been riding in the jumping barn where I had been taking lessons. I wanted a horse that could jump. I wanted what is called, a sane, safe and sound horse, and…I did not want a white horse or plain red horse. White horses were too much maintenance and red - was boring.
I was resigned to being disappointed again, when I headed to Bill Broe’s barn that day. I had no way of knowing that I was about to meet MY horse. I had a horse friend meet me there to provide another set of eyes and ears. The animal that was led from the stall to the wash rack for grooming and saddling was – big, sturdy and….bright red. He had what seemed to be huge hooves, a red mane to match his body and a tail that was woven with strands of red, cream and white. A beefy chestnut horse with a big blaze down his face to his muzzle, white socks on his back legs and paler coat on the front. Even better, he seemed to have a bit of a twinkle in his eye. Along with what I still thought of as a boring red coat, he also had a boring name. Tony. Just plain old Tony. Coming from work and without my trainer, I was not prepared to ride, so Bill’s daughter, a riding instructor, got on him in their indoor arena and put him through his paces. I don’t remember much of watching that ride, other than thinking that here was a HORSE. Solid, young (somewhere between 6 and 7 years old) and with what seemed to be a good head on his neck for working. I was informed that he was a Belgian Quarter Horse that had been bred and trained in Canada. He was broken to ride, but also to drive singly and in pairs. Bill had taken him on a hunter pace just the previous weekend where he did fine. He had also been down in Colonial Williamsburg right before he came to the Hudson Valley and been used as a farm paddock greeter horse and a Revolutionary War reenactment horse. Talk about being “bomb proof.” I was warned that he had an excellent “Whoa!” -- if I asked it of him, I had better be prepared to stop. I now understand that it came from his driving training. I remember Bill saying that he was well broke but not well schooled in ring work, so he was not working out for them as a lesson horse. He did not like high hands and had a tendency to move through the bit at the canter. They felt that he really needed more hours in the ring and a single rider/owner to get the most out of him. I remember asking his price and realizing that I had misheard when I had asked over the phone. Where I thought he said that his price was $3500.00, $500 more than my top budget, I was beyond pleased to hear him correct that to $2500.00! $500.00 under my top price. I remember leaving that day and being so excited. Thinking that I had maybe found my horse, I called Nancy and told her she needed to come and meet him immediately, and that I needed her to make sure I was right about this horse. I did not want to wait to ride him first and then have him vetted out after, giving us another delay, and as I knew Bill had contracted a lot of barns about Tony being for sale, I did not want to risk missing out on him. So I arranged to have him checked by the Vet. The friend who had come with me also agreed that he was a very good prospect and offered to share the vet fee with me. If I did not buy Tony, she would.
Within a few days the vet got back to me, Tony had a slightly clubbed front hoof, but was strong and sound. He should be able to do what I was hoping. I arranged to bring Nancy back so that we could both ride him. What I discovered was that he had a very strong and animated trot that if you did not post to it, would practically fling you out of the saddle. He had a very forward and eager way of going but when asked to whoa, he would do so immediately. Although he was certainly strong, he was not going to run away with me, which was my biggest fear. I discovered that he was not really flexible, having not done a great deal of ring work, but he was smart and very willing to learn. I learned that he was very big and wide and that getting up on him was going to require climbing on something high. He was 16.2 hands and I am only 5’3”-- I believe I used a fence rail when I tried him out at Bill’s. Or maybe it was a picnic table. Nancy said to “buy this one.” I said I would consider it overnight and let Bill know right away. I am not sure I got all the way home before I had decided that this horse would be the one. This time, it all just felt more “right.”
With incredible excitement and trepidation, after all, I was fulfilling a lifelong dream, we brought a trailer to pick Tony up and take him “home” to the fairgrounds barn. It was June 26th. I recall that because it was my wedding anniversary, and two days later, I would be turning 43. I had waited for this moment for a lifetime. After I paid Bill and got my paperwork taken care of, Nancy handed me a lead rope and told me to go in the barn and get my horse. I will never forget walking up to his stall, and seeing what suddenly seemed to be this huge horse, pin his ears back and lunge at me…at the stall bars. I panicked. Scared to death, I suddenly wondered what the hell I had gotten myself in to. This horse was crazy. Bill, who was there in the background, came by and said not to take that behavior from him, that he often feigned grouchiness in his stall, and to go on and open the door and get him. I stood there taking very deep breaths. Then, I opened the door, walked in, hooked that lead rope on his halter, walked out the stall, out of the barn and at Nancy’s urging, right onto the trailer with my first horse.
I loved my Trade Winds (the name I had given my childhood barn of Breyer horses) Tony for 11 years. We did so much together. From trying to train him to jump until he developed arthritis, to barrel racing at a trot, dressage work and of course, driving. I ground drove him in competitions against farm horses and won ribbons. I rode him in shows with fancy tack and clothing. As he aged and became unsound for riding, I would take him on walks like a dog around the farm that we eventually moved to with the rest of the fairgrounds horses. For a while I owned another horse too. Doc was a stunning Buckskin Quarter Horse. There was room in my heart for both of them for quite a while. I lost Doc after about 6 years. But Tony was the one that really felt like MY horse. Once described as a little boy in horse clothing, he retained that twinkle in his eye his whole life. It has been over 3 years since I had to let Tony go. The arthritis became too painful for the big guy. It still breaks my heart. So much has happened in my life since I lost him. Sometimes I pause to think back and wonder if all really did happen. Did I really have that wonderful sweet horse of my own? I believe that he loved me as I loved him. Not a perfect horse, but perfectly mine. The far from boring, big red horse named: Tony.