Before he retired from the show ring, I exercised Katherine’s (my trainer) off the track Thoroughbred a few days a week. Or he exercised me. It’s a toss up. He was showing 4th, and working easily at the next level at home. He’d win, and win, and win. Basically, his stall door was blue and fluttery; very Betsy Johnson.
I’m not within yodeling distance of 4th level, but Katherine was comfortable: my hands and seat were competent, even if I didn’t have the chops for the fun stuff. He was a fantastic ride. I fell in love with the guy. I’ve always had a soft spot for forward horses that are slightly anxious. He is high strung, but obedient and willing, smart, and well mannered enough. Great gaits, fabulous relaxation and submission (well-trained, obviously) and honest 364 days out of the year.
You just had to hope that on the 365th day you had a root canal.
On day number 365, every sneaky thought he ever suppressed combusted internally, and he exploded out of control. His barn name was Houston – as in “Houston, we have lift off” – due to the sheer volatility of his explosion. He had the brains to of a Silicon Valley engineer: we think he had some sort of random-explosion algorithm worked out.
Houston isn’t crazy. (I’ve been on a few insane horses. Once. I don’t get on them again.) He tried so hard to do it right every second. I think his once a year meltdown was a safety valve to get some mental relief from his self-imposed anxiety.
I can relate to that.
It starts with a glint in his eye that says right now, I am the Devil.
He could buck: he twisted his back in the air, flipped a hip, dropped alternating shoulders, snaked sideways, plunged and did the stiff-legged hop, and softened his knees as if to drop to the ground before shooting straight UP. He was a crazed bottle rocket under a tin can.
Given the odds (1:365) and the fact the glint was in his eye before you got on, it wasn’t difficult to stay safe if you paid attention. (He wasn’t out to get a rider, he blew whether you were up there or he was turned out). See the glint? Untack him, let him out in the arena, and watch the fireworks. They were SPECTACULAR. Our farriers who do the rodeo circuit? As soon as the truck stopped, you’d hear: “Did he blow while I was gone?” Witnessing one episode was enough to have you hooked for life.
“WAIT…wait!!” Daisy would yell, while running toward the vending machine, “Let me get a diet Coke first” When it was time, he drew an audience. Oddly, he’d stand quietly waiting.
This was Houston’s grand retirement performance: He came swinging down the center line, beautifully relaxed and through, and flowed into a perfect relaxed, square halt, softly chewing the bit. You couldn’t get any better. It was a ten. Katherine saluted the judge, picked up her reins, give him a gentle squeeze to trot on, and Houston went Nuclear. It was as if Fred Astair glided, soft stepped, and swung his way perfectly onto the stage, and then turned into Charles Manson.
It was so chilling, the judge called for an ambulance while Katherine was still ON.
Once Houston was done, he shook himself like a dog, put himself in a frame, and tried to start executing the first sequence of the test. Katherine had managed to stay on. He was relaxed, calm, on the bit and through. The judge yelled her out of the arena, furiously ringing the bell, not knowing Katherine was trying mightily to leave. Houston knows what’s expected in a dressage arena: no way was he just going to walk out. They executed a perfect canter pirouette and did a lovely half-pass out of the arena. He kept trying to half pass back in, knowing they weren’t done.
The whole thing made no sense to him at all.
Especially since the stunned crowd was feverishly giving them a standing ovation. (Out of sheer relief that Katherine was still alive I’m sure. Totally mortified, but alive.) But Houston didn’t know that. I just needed a moment to compose myself. I’m ready for my test now. Why are they clapping? I haven’t DONE anything yet.
OTTB’s ya gotta love ’em.
After his retirement, I got to ride him five days a week and up my lessons on him.
I was just careful to look him in the eye first.
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