Let’s do what we have to do to ruin the careers of people who behave like this.
He believed THE HORSE DIDN’T DESERVE A HOME?
AND SENT HIM TO DIE.
Let’s do what we have to do to ruin the careers of people who behave like this.
He believed THE HORSE DIDN’T DESERVE A HOME?
AND SENT HIM TO DIE.
If someone gifts you a Thoroughbred these days, you could be excused for taking a careful look inside his mouth. If the horse was ever entered into a race, he’ll have a unique tattoo, in blue dot-matrix pixels, concealed beneath his upper lip. Some quality time with the inside of your new horse’s mouth, quite possibly taking a photo to enlist the help of strangers on the Internet, and you might just be able to decode those numbers and run them by the Jockey Club, who will cheerfully tell you your mystery horse’s name, free of charge.
With a name, there is power. The power of pedigreequery.com, the power of Equibase, the power of Google.
Without a name, you’ve got just another horse.
In the olden days, the Jockey Club didn’t give out tattoo research results for free. They charged fifty bucks for it. Fifty bucks, to go into their files and find the number they issued. Even if they were riffling through a cardboard file box in a storeroom closet, it couldn’t possibly have cost them fifty dollars of time to connect the tattoo number with the name. But that was the policy.
So when I took off Packin’ Six’s bridle, I did a casual flip of the lip. I got a line of blue numbers, still reasonably legible. The first letter confirmed his year of birth and the seller’s tale that he was only five years old. The numbers, though, didn’t tell me anything. Only the Jockey Club could have helped me with this mystery.
His close-lipped sellers certainly weren’t telling me anything.
“So where did he come from?” I asked, as the barefoot teenager stripped off the rag-tag saddle. One of the stirrups fell off and landed near my feet. I didn’t like to think about how different my ride could have been.
“My husband brought him home,” the mother said. She balanced a baby on her hip now; I’m not sure where the baby came from. It wasn’t there at the beginning. There were now four children of varying degrees of grayness. Florida Scrub sand is white on top, black underneath, and uniformly filthy to play in. “Sometimes when he’s on jobs, he brings home horses.”
“Oh, what does he do?” I asked, pushing the boundaries of what’s ‘friendly’ on a north-Florida patch of dirt.
“He does contracting work,” she said vaguely. “All over.”
Okay. “Is Packin’ Six his registered name? Does he have papers anywhere?”
She adjusted the baby and slipped on a pair of flip flops to come down to the yard. “Naw, no papers came with him. My husband calls him Packin’ Six on account of his big chest muscles. Look at ‘em!”
I took another good look at his front end. She was right. The horse had massive chest muscles. He looked like a WWE wrestler. I suppose Packin’ Six was a good name, compared to what he might have ended up with. Hulk. The Undertaker. The Rock. And fake names are easily changed.
“But he was a stallion, right? He’s got a huge jaw.” Stallions, like tom-cats, get huge jowls that easily stand out from a more sleek gelding or mare.
“Oh yeah, he was a teasing stallion.”
“A teasing stallion?” Teasing stallions are typically angry and dangerous, living a sexually-frustrated life as they check out mare after mare for a positive reaction before they’re sent to more expensive stallions to be bred.
“Yeah, he was a teasing stallion and then we had him gelded right away… been about five weeks.”
“Do you know what farm he came from?”
“Nah, my husband doesn’t say, he just brings ‘em home and expects me to take care of them!” She laughed and went over to open the gate. “Put him back,” she said to her daughter, and the girl led the former teasing stallion across the grass and sand in her bare feet. He walked quietly next to her, thin tail swaying from side to side. He had a nice walk. He had a nice everything.
Except a name and a history. And I guessed he’d never have either.
It is a well-known fact that you always bargain when buying a horse, a car, or a knock-off Chinatown purse.
I don’t know why this rule exists, and it seems particularly cruel in the horse world, where nearly every sale is an act of desperation. Whether you are waiting for a high-dollar yearling to go through the ring at the Fasig-Tipton Select Sale, or selling off the pony you can’t afford to keep anymore, lacking a Blue Book means that the value of a horse resides solely in each individual’s imagination, and every horseman assumes every other horseman’s imagination to be wholly delusional and without scruple.
I never bargain for anything. If I want something, I buy it. If I can’t afford it, I don’t buy it. I think this is polite. It’s also easier, and makes it easier to plan your finances.
(Once I tried, on the advice of a Lonely Planet guide, to bargain on a taxi ride to Cable Beach, the ghost-town resort beach in Nassau that was made unfashionable by the Atlantis Resort. I failed miserably, but we still wanted to go to Cable Beach, so we ended up spending all of our money on the ride there, which made for a very adventurous walk back to the cruise ship later that afternoon. Did you know Nassau has wild dogs?)
So I’ve never made an offer on a horse. I think it’s just plain mean. “Well, your horse is pretty, and well-trained, and you’ve put a lot of work into him, but if you want me to take him, you’re going to have to lower your price five hundred dollars.” I can’t do that to a person.
Packin’ Six was neither pretty, nor well-trained. No one had put a lot of work into him. But galloping down that road, I knew I was going to give them what they were asking for him. He was worth it.
I brought him back down to a trot and we went jolting up the dirt road, back to the driveway where my Honda sat abandoned, with the bare-footed girl sitting on the trunk, swinging her dirty legs against the bumper. I can’t sit a trot or post a trot in a western saddle; it’s like I’ve never been on a horse before in my life when I’m in one, so I couldn’t have told you if he had a smooth trot or what. He had a nice canter. And like Rillo five years before, I tried him in a saddle I couldn’t ride in, fell in love with his gallop, and went from there. One dark bay OTTB is much like another, I suppose. They are easy to gallop, easy to fall head over heels for.
So instead of trying to post, I leaned my fists against his withers and stood in the flimsy plastic stirrups. He turned in the driveway of his own accord and came to a halt before the barefoot girl. She laughed. “Y’all had a good run!” she said. “Whatcha think?”
“I love him,” I said honestly. No games, no bargaining. “I want him. Can you guys deliver?”
In Days of Yore and Olden Times, the Iron Horse, that spark-spitting, smoke-shrouded spawn of Satan, was a source of terror to living, breathing, horses of flesh. Unused to any sort of mechanization, milk drays and riding horses alike went into bucking fits and tearing gallops to get away from their first glimpse of The Transportation Age. Railroads were a fearsome thing.
Our horses today are more accustomed to the vehicles that supplanted them – perhaps they’re thankful for them, since they are no longer beasts of burden but leisure items and status symbols – and often grow up following trucks and golf carts around, associating them with food, and think nothing of living in the shadow of descending aircraft. But trains, generally less common sights, are still very scary.
If you have a horse pasture near a train track, I think you’re very lucky. Oh, I’m sure you don’t love being woken in the night by the horn or that deep diesel sound or the clatter of the wheels on the tracks. (If it makes you feel any better, I hear the wheels and the engine clattering by too, but that’s because I live almost right on top of a subway track.) But admit it, you’re used to the sound – and so are your horses. And the more loud, terrifying, ginormous things your horses are used to, the better, am I right?
The folks that owned (or possessed, a more loose legal term) Packin’ Six lived in a truly bucolic setting, a dirt road off of a dirt road off of a dirt road, far from the madding crowd, far from grocery stores, even far from a gas station (as I’d find on the way home). But they had one dirty, loud reminder of the outside world: a freight train that went right in front of their house, across the dirt road from their front porch, several times a day.
The train track ran parallel to the dirt road, practically right up against it, a fact that I was considering carefully when the shoeless pre-teen leaned down from the saddle and asked if I wanted to ride the horse down the road.
She’d been producing some very nice 15 meter circles around me, digging her heels into the horse’s ribby sides whenever he swished his tail and tried to tell her that he just wasn’t strong enough to make such tight turns, but there wasn’t enough room in the little yard to do any more than a jog.
“We usually just ride down the road,” she explained. “Sometimes my dad comes along on the four-wheeler. They don’t mind it.”
I eyed the railroad track. “Is that track in use?” I asked. I had a thing about horses and trains. I’d never had a good experience yet. There’d been a trail ride, we’d been on a train track… I’ll tell you about it sometime.
She looked over her shoulder. “What, the trains? They don’t mind no trains.”
Well, they did live across the street. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll hop on.”
She slithered out of the saddle and held the Thoroughbred by the red reins while I stuck a boot in the plastic stirrup and swung aboard. I wiggled around, trying to get comfy, but what’s the use? There’s nothing less comfortable than a Western saddle! At least the stirrups, attached with baling twine instead of thick leather skirts, were nice and flexible. I dug my heel down deep and gave the horse a nudge, hurting my calves in the process. His ribs were like steel bars under my legs. Starving a horse might save someone money, but it does have the disadvantage of making them more uncomfortable to ride.
But he felt nice, bones and all. His steps were quick and fluid, cat-like. His head was high and his ears swung back and forth with each step. He felt proud, perhaps a little feral. I felt his arrogance and I warmed to it. I was arrogant too.
We went past my car, past the barbed-wire fence around the front yard, and into the sandy road. To our left were the rickety settlements of the landed poor. To the right was the freight train track. The Thoroughbred shook his head and pulled a little at the bit. I sat back in the Western saddle, affected my best Man From Snowy River pose, and threw my reins at him.
The train came while we were about a quarter mile down the road, still galloping in the deep sand in the middle of the road. I was bouncing like a fool in the sloppy saddle; his ears were pinned and he was deep in his own Black Stallion reverie. I looked over at the train and two men leaned out of the window of the locomotive, grinning back at me. I raised a hand and shouted, got a wave in return. They took their iron horse off down the tracks, headed south with untold tons of new cars and pick-ups in double-decker transporters, and I took my flesh-and-blood horse on north, galloping up the sandy road, unfazed by the modern world.
“He’s a nice horse, but you can not touch his ears,” she stressed. She motioned with a cigarette to one of the bare-footed girls, who came into the pen, wading through the deep gray sand, and took Packin’ Six by his frayed green halter. Well, I think it was green. Once.
I have such a disdain for nylon halters. When I was a kid, all we wanted were shiny new nylon halters in pretty colors. The barn manager, who was a caustic woman who hated children but loved horses, and so naturally turned to running a lesson barn for a career, went into the feed room and came out with some tattered old nylon halters in varying shades of manure. There was red-manure, purplish-manure, greenish-manure. “Here,” she said, thrusting them at us, adorable little ten-year-olds with curry combs in our hands and dirt on our faces. “Here’s your nylon halters. Your horses will break their legs on them. Enjoy.”
I had a few nylon halters over the years, some truly garish in jewel-tone fashion colors of the nineties, some more subtle, but I never got her leathered sneer out of my mind, and by this time, anyone who used nylon halters was not worthy of my time.
But the tattered old halter was just the beginning. Momma went inside with a bang of the screen door and came back out with the tack: a blazing red nylon bridle from the feed store, complete with nickle-plated curb bit, a red fleece saddle pad woven deeply with horsehairs and blackened with sweat, and the absolutely necessary nylon-padded western saddle with plastic stirrups tied on with orange baling twine. The orange really clashed with the red color scheme.
I might have been a total snob, but I didn’t have any doubts that they had a nice horse and they knew it. So what was wrong with him? There had to be a reason he was here, skinny and in serious need of a pedicure. I decided to tack him up.
“Want me to do it?” I offered to the girl, who was about thirteen and was clearly in charge of training here.
“You gotta take it apart,” she said, handing me the two halves of the headstall. “Put it way back behind his ears. If you touch his ears, he’ll flip over. They eared him at the track.”
Well, you don’t find sixteen-two-hand Thoroughbreds with clean legs standing in sandy backyards keeping company with pigs unless they have some sort of mental instability. So this guy didn’t like his ears handled, eh? I could manage that. Heck, I might even trick him and touch one – just to see what he’d do. I mean, look at these people. They clearly weren’t horsemen. He probably would’ve let me put the bridle right over his ears if I were gentle enough!
I smirked but did just as the girl said, wrapping the two halves of the headstall around his neck and then buckling them together on the right cheekbone. But after I buckled the headstall, I pulled it snug – right up against his ear. He jolted as if he’d been shocked and ran backwards a few steps.
Oops. Embarrassing. A kid on the porch squealed and Momma called down, “Now don’t touch his ears now! Don’t never let nothin’ touch his ears!”
I blushed. But he didn’t flip. So there was that.
“You’re lucky he didn’t just flip over on your car,” the girl said. She glared up at me with accusing eyes. “I said don’t let it touch.” She shook her head and threw the thick saddle pad and the decaying saddle over the horse’s back. I realized that I still couldn’t cinch up a Western saddle properly, and she would have found me out in about thirty seconds if I had still insisted on tacking the horse up.
She would’ve thought I was nothing but a horse snob, and she’d have been right.