Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Part Three: The Lowdown

The old horse turned out to be two. Twenty-three months to be exact. But wait. Before you get all excited, he had thirty days on him. And this was the prettiest horse I’d ever seen. I’m not kidding. This one was really pretty. I say Cherokee was pretty. But Lowdown. Let me put it this way. He was so pretty that when we pulled up somewhere and I got ready to take him off the trailer, I braced myself for the paparazzi. As soon as people saw him, they crowded around, oohing and aahing. Their mouths dropped open. They swarmed all over him trying to get his autograph. But I didn’t buy him because of that.

Kurt told me to.

Back when we first started horse hunting, I was quite shocked that I couldn’t find one for seventy-five dollars like what I paid for Cherokee who walked over rickety old bridges and jumped off cliffs if I asked him to. I was fuming when I had to go up to almost three grand to get Spirit. This was highway robbery! I felt that way even before I found out he was a bucker. But when we were horse shopping for Kurt, money was no object. This was going to be his first horse and it had to be perfect. I didn’t want him to have any bad experiences. At least before it took. The magic of horses, that is. That addiction that is sneaky and cunning and makes you buy saddles you can’t afford and whole houses, in fact, so you can keep your addiction right in your own backyard and ride him anytime the urge hits you. No, I wanted him to love it like I did. Get hooked on it so that when he did run into the buckers, it wouldn’t rattle him. Therefore I wanted him to get whatever his heart desired. Which meant black. And it had to be beginner-safe. Which meant expensive.

We found Lisa, Kurt’s dealer (his horse dealer, not his drug dealer, though horses and drugs—what’s the difference really?) who at any given time had a dozen gorgeous, top-quality horses for sale with prices to match. Lisa sold us Chance, a black Quarter Horse gelding who was gorgeous and bombproof. There was no running around sorting through broncs and agoraphobic show horses who didn’t like living alone. And it worked. Kurt was hooked. He stayed up till two in the morning bidding on studded headstalls that complimented Chance’s face. He instructed me to have Chance all saddled up and ready for him so that when he pulled into the driveway after work, he could just hop on. He even started wearing a cowboy hat.

After the Spirit fiasco, when I started horse shopping again, he said, “That’s it. We’re going back to Lisa.” I opened my mouth to protest. I couldn’t see paying that. Not for me. Him? Yeah. Me? No. He reminded me of all the money I lost trying to get a bargain. “Stop crying and just pay,” he said.

Lisa specialized in pretty. Mostly horses of color—Paints, palominos, blacks, even the occasional grulla. Lowdown was a palomino Paint, the best of both worlds. However, I never expected anything this pretty. But he was a colt. Kurt, who I hadn’t seen this excited since I gave him my number in the Halfway Bar, lost his mind. “He looks quiet,” he said.

“What are you crazy? He’s two-years old!” I cried. “We came here to get one that’s twenty!”

Even though my heart was thumping. Already I was secretly hoping he’d talk me into it.

Kurt said, “He has a kind eye.”

I said, “He’s two!”

Kurt said, “Yeah, but look at him.”

Lisa stepped in. “Let’s put him in the round pen and see how he goes.”

He went real good. He went so good, we bought a round pen to go with him. Naturally, if I was getting a colt, I needed a safe place to train him.

Now you may see trouble brewing and you may or may not be right. Young horse and novice rider, because that’s what I was, (even though I spent every waking moment on my pony when I was a kid) is never a good mix. Add fear into the equation and all the wallets in the back pockets of every horse whisperer in the state were flapping open. And I was fearful all right. Skeerd, scared, whatever you want to call it—after Spirit, I was afraid to lope. I had a loping phobia, if you will. I was a little nervous about everything, but loping was the worst.

Trying to prevent Spirit from bucking when he loped had gotten me into a bad habit. For a long time, whenever I cued a horse to lope, I automatically pulled his head up to stop him from bucking. Whether or not he was going to do it. It was like a Pavlov’s dog reaction—horse lopes, I yank his head up. If I even got the courage to lope at all—that’s how scared I was. I made excuses to avoid it. The ground is too hard. The ground is too soft. I have a headache. The horse looked crooked today… Which was frustrating since running was what I loved to do the most. It was why I’d always dreamed of being a barrel racer. I was ruined. But now I was armed with the round pen. And I became, how do you say?—round pen dependent.

Sometimes I think they ought to have a twelve-step program for people addicted to their round pens. It appears horses are the gateway drug that lead to many others. Dependency on the color coordination of polo wraps, pads and reins; overuse of Cowboy Magic; and the hoarding of bits in search of that first high when you threw out the Tom Thumb snaffle and bought a three-piece twisted wire, copper mouth, with a dog bone in the middle.

And the round pen. I don’t know how people ever trained their horses without them. In fact, I don’t know how people even ride their horses without them! Because, to this day, I will not get on my horse if he’s been twiddling his thumbs out in the field for any length of time without throwing him in the round pen first. Just to see what’s under the hood. And if there’s anything sinister going on since I mounted him last, we have a little lesson in who is the herd leader and who is second in line. Then I’ll get on.

So when I bought the palomino Paint (who I named Lowdown after the Boz Skaggs song, Lowdown, for no reason other than I thought it sounded cool and his registered name, Im Justin Image was boring), I used the round pen on a regular basis. And I guess I hit all 7’s because mellow personality and compliant nature along with the round pen training enabled me to actually ride this horse. Even though he was, don’t forget, two-years-old. We went on many trail rides with many friends and no bucking. We even rode on a trail past the lions and tigers and bears that were caged behind Great Adventure in the safari park and not a peep out of him. We rode alone. We rode down neighborhood streets and across busy highways. We went to showdeos, parades, team pennings, and clinics where horses ten times Lowdown’s age made it clear they needed to be there and I, with the colt, could come up with no answer when the clinicians asked me what I needed to work on.

I even fell off a couple of times. Which is ironic, since I’d never fallen off any of the others.

And yet… I lost my fear.

It appears, and don’t tell him I said this since his cowboy hat is tight enough, but Kurt knows how to pick a horse. Either that or the horse Gods had mercy on me. Or you get what you pay for. Or it was bound to happen sooner or later if I kept buying them. Or Lowdown and I just clicked. I don’t know.

I do know that I’m glad I never gave up.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Part Two: The Bucker

After I got Dancer all tucked into her new home with the little boy, I decided to look for something with a little color again. (But not a little spirit.) Obviously buying a plain ordinary sorrel was no guarantee I’d get a horse like what I used to have when I was a kid. You know, something you could just hop on, with a saddle or not, even with a bridle or not, and mosey down the road, with another horse or not. You’d cross busy highways to get to strange trails in the woods, where you’d trot past scary waterlogged recliners and the skeletons of washing machines, suspiciously out of place and ready to lurch forward at any given moment and eat a horse! And your horse doesn’t blink an eye. No, buying a sensible looking horse was no guarantee I could get that again. If they even made them anymore. Therefore I figured I might as well get a Paint.

I hated the fact that everyone was on the Paint bandwagon. They were about as popular as the horse whisperers and round pens. I didn’t want anyone to think I was following the crowd. I’ve never been a crowd follower. I just found out the other day what a Coach bag is. I was standing in line next to a lady in the post office and I was checking her out because she was all dolled up in expensive clothes with an expensive blonde dye job and expensive manicured nails you can’t do chores in. I could tell she was from the lake.

Then I saw the pocketbook. Since I was right next to her and I had my glasses on because I was looking at the Ten Most Wanted pictures, I could see it had C’s on it. I realized that’s what they’re all talking about. That’s a Coach bag. And I thought, eew, what’s the big deal? I wouldn’t pay ten dollars for it. It’s ugly! This is what everybody is putting their stuff in because it’s the fad. It can’t be because it’s nice. My orange leather pocketbook fellow blogger Di from Snappy Finger gave me could run circles around it. Even my canvas bag with the picture of the barrel racer on it was nicer. Certainly more functional since you can carry a few magazines, a package of Little Debbie Nutty Bars and a tube of dewormer in either one (which I did just this morning instead of asking for a bag in the feed store). Or a lot of money. Which is ironic because the lake lady with the ugly bag was the one who has the money. Not me. But I could carry a lot of it if I had it.

Anyway, I’d always liked Paints. Because my first pony was a Paint. I’m imprinted with the tendency for loving anything that reminds me of Cherokee. Because even though he was a 13-hand, splay-footed, cow-hocked pony with lop ears, a sway back and no gas in the tank, he was absolutely beautiful. Stunning. The prettiest pony in the neighborhood! And he’d do anything I’d ask. One time I made him walk over a rickety old wooden bridge that had holes in-between the slats just the right size for a pony’s foot to go through and get stuck, dry-rotted boards and rusty bolts barely holding it all together. It wobbled when you walked on it and you held your breath until you got to the other side. But I didn’t think anything of making Cherokee go over it. There was no question. It was the shortest way home.

When I have my mind set to something, I make it happen. I take action. And so I found the fourth horse before I even got a chance to remove the nameplate on Dancer’s stall door. He was a brown-and-white overo with a black mane and tail and a slight Roman nose that was actually quite handsome. Made him look like an Indian horse. He was real quiet and mellow, not jumpy at all. But there was a red flag. Red flag! Red flag! Red flag! I ignored it. Of course. How could I not? He was so pretty!

The owner, a dealer named Pepe’ who had dazzled me by performing reining spins and side-passes, brought him over to the round pen for me to try. It was the middle of summer and obviously no one used the round pen because the grass in it was waist-high. That was a plus. If I fell off, it wouldn’t hurt so bad. Since having Dancer, and perhaps because I was a mother now, and older, I’d started to realize that I wasn’t invincible anymore. Images involving shattered bones and chests impaled on metal fence posts occasionally popped into my head. Even though I had never fallen off her, I was, how should I say it?—a little skeerd.

For those of you who are reading this before you’ve had your morning coffee, that misspelling was on purpose. There’s a difference between scared and skeerd. You get scared when you almost get into a car wreck. It’s not funny. When you’re skeerd, it’s kind of cute. Like I was skeerd getting my bellybutton pierced. (Hey, that was Kurt’s idea, not mine! And in my defense, I don’t have any tattoos.) Or I was skeerd riding the mechanical bull in the Bar-H, back when it was a country-western place and I owned a pair of cowboy boots that were too pretty to ride in but they looked great hooked over the chrome rung of a bar stool.

But I didn’t really expect any trouble. So when I started loping and Spirit bucked, I was shocked.

“He bucked!” I cried. “Did you see that?!”

“Oh, the grass just tickled his belly is all,” Pepe’ assured me. And since I’d already named him—Spirit (of all things)—I said, “Okay.”

That sucker bucked every time I loped him. Yeah, yeah, yeah, we did everything we did just like with Dancer trying to figure it out, trying to get him to stop. But nothing worked. Somehow I didn’t fall off him either. But the day we were out on a trail ride with a bunch of friends and everyone started loping and my horse started bucking and then I “got to” crying, as they say out in the country, Kurt said, “That’s it. You’re selling him.” And I was relieved. Because I wasn’t going to say it. I loved him! And though Kurt is not the kind of husband who bosses me around, even if I was the kind of girl who would take it, I was grateful to him for putting his foot down. Because by this time, I was full-blown scared.

Nowadays you can’t even give a horse away, the market is so bad, but back then horses were selling great. Still, I put him up for sale for half what I paid since he had “an issue.” The first guy who came to look at him was a big cowboy, quite unusual to see in the suburbs of New Jersey. He was wearing a real cowboy hat. I thought, “That’s a Stetson. This will be good. He won’t let Spirit pull any crap.” But I warned him double and triple anyway. I said, “If you lope, he is going to buck.” The cowboy pooh-poohed it, waved his big hand with the crooked index finger on it and swaggered over to the Roman-nosed bucker with the confidence and assurance of a seasoned rodeo rider. Honestly, I wasn’t too concerned because of those bowed legs of his. But I don’t think they loped three strides before Spirit threw him onto the neighbor’s roof next door and the cowboy lost his hat in the process, exposing more skin on his skull than I expected. I felt sorry for him. He was no cowboy. He was only human. And Spirit needed a different kind of human.

Spirit needed The Mexican.

The Mexican, barely five-feet tall, little, like a little Mexican peanut, and shy, like a boy on a first date, was a friend of a friend who got wind of what was happening through the grapevine. He came over with our mutual friend, took one look at Spirit, and said, “I take heem.” He didn’t even want to try him.

I warned, “He’s going to buck every time you lope him.”

He said, “That no matter. He es so beauty-full.” He peeled off the bills and paid me in cash.

I have to say that I was a little worried. I was not only worried about The Mexican getting hurt; I was worried about him getting hurt and then getting mad at the horse and sending him to the sale. But I got regular reports from my friend that surprised me. The Mexican took Spirit on a trail ride. The Mexican took Spirit to a horse show. The Mexican took Spirit to the beach. The Mexican took Spirit team penning. The Mexican was riding Spirit all over the place and he never bucked! I even started to see him around, on the side of the road, heading for the power lines where there were miles of sandy road to lope down and he’d wave wildly as I passed, a happy Hispanic cowboy on a horse who could care less about grass tickling his belly.

Even though I was happy for The Mexican and relieved that Spirit found a good home, it was a kick in the pants. Still, I was determined to keep going. We started looking for the fifth horse. This time I wanted an older one. Like twenty. Spirit-less. Color-less. I didn’t care. As long as it was like… half dead. Maybe that would work.

Part three: the story of Lowdown.