When a horse person talks about The Horse, their eyes shine and probably get teary. They might sound reverent at the same time that they cuss that damn animal for the foolishness it and they got up to or into. It’s surprising how many times The Horse was a ‘project horse’. Project horses are Never. Ever. Easy. Every day is a negotiation, a work around, like trying to dig through rock with a plastic spork. It’s frustrating and maddening, and on the days it works it’s as rewarding as being a parent on a good day, or being head over heels in love. In fact, it’s a lot like both those things. I’ve worked with something like a dozen serious Project Horses, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to come across more than one that, for me, were The Horse.
Flash was born so premature that he didn’t have hooves or skin pigment yet. He only had ‘golden slippers’, the beginnings of hooves, and a whisper-thin coat of metallic red hair over bright pink skin. Dr. Cornsforth, was an old, experienced vet who’d seen just about everything. He watched this tiny red and pink creature the size of a new fawn, sprawled in the sawdust. Flash tried to get up, floundering, and couldn’t do it. Five minutes became ten. Ten turned into twenty. He never stopped trying, but his tendons wouldn’t hold him up. He was just too early. Finally, watching one last effort that ended Flash, panting, in the sawdust, Dr. Cornsforth cleared his throat. His voice was all rusty as he simply said – “I’ll get the needle.”
We stepped away from the stall, my parents, me, my sister, and the vet all fighting tears. When we came back from the vet’s truck, Flash was chasing his freaked-out first-time mother around the stall, staggering on his ankle-joints with his useless feet flopping ahead of him every step like clown shoes. We looked at Flash. We looked at the vet. We were pretty new to foaling out mares (I think she was our third ever), and Flash was… so TINY.
“Anything that wants to live that badly should have the chance,” pronounced Dr. Cornsforth.
We cornered the mare, and it took two of us to hang onto her and one of us to hold up Flash so he could nurse for the first time while my dad headed to the convenience store for diapers and sunscreen.
Dr. Cornsforth showed us how to splint Flash’s legs and feet with wooden surveyor’s stakes, diapers, and duct tape. The mare settled down once the thing chasing her looked more like a foal and less like a staggery flopping thing. We hung a heat lamp in the stall. My sister and I took turns slathering Flash all over with sunscreen, and sitting in the paddock with Flash and his mom, toting Flash into the shade when he was too hot, and into the sun when he was too cold. The closest we could come to an incubator. His dam turned out to be a pretty decent mother, even if she did have the brains of a guppy, and Flash grew up.
Flash had all his father’s brains, all his father’s amazing athleticism, all his mother’s looks… and had all of his mother’s panic reflex. His skin darkened, but it stayed so sensitive that even when he was a grown horse – technically he was pony-sized since he only got to fourteen hands, one and a half inches tall - we had to pad his halter with fleece so it wouldn’t rub him bloody over the nose and behind the ears. You could leave a welt on that thin, thin skin by brushing him too hard with a stiff body brush.
He was lightning-strike fast, and race-car red. He had blue-green iridescence all over him, and golden dapples to match his flaxen mane. Flash was breathtaking. He was also so small that most trainers were just ridiculously too large to ride him. He’d break out into a sweat at too much contact of leg, rein, or seat; giving him cues had to be like brushing him with a feather. No sweat. I could ride on feather contact.
But. I simply could NOT stay on him. Flash spooked like a cutting horse. I’d had horses do that before, and plenty of them were faster than me; but Flash didn’t spook – he vanished. As far as I was concerned he’d spook low to the left, and I’d suddenly be hanging in the air with my brain screaming ‘where did he go?!’. Then I’d hit the ground and Flash would appear on my right side as if he’d teleported there. I wasn’t at the top of my riding yet, and I certainly wasn’t good enough to train Flash.
I was in the early years of marriage when a trainer came along who was small enough, and good enough to stay the trip. He taught Flash to be a reining horse, and our Flash-rabbit suddenly blossomed. He blew through his competition. He did reining exhibitions with no bridle. He went to the Canadian National Arabian show and placed Reserve Champion his first serious show season.
At the end of that show year, Flash’s trainer was going home to Montana, and wanted to take Flash along to keep him in training. It was perfectly sensible. We sent Flash’s half-brother, Panther, along to be ground-worked over the winter. My parents paid the boarding and training fees, and all was serene for several months. And then my mother got a phone call from the sheriff’s department.
The sheriff’s department had rescued Flash and Panther and taken them to a vet’s office in Missoula. The vet estimated they hadn’t had their feet trimmed nor their shoes seen to in months. Both were suffering from malnutrition. Flash was on an IV, but the vet thought the sheriff had brought him in “in time”.
My mother called me. My dad had to stay to see to the other horses. Would I go with her to pick up Flash and Panther? I called my husband at work and was out the door in 45 minutes. All the way from Gardnerville, Nevada to Missoula, Montana we worried. At our overnight we called the vet again. Flash was off the IV, but only borderline responsive. Panther was a nervous wreck.
I admit I fantasized aloud about the myriad tortures that this trainer might expect when he got to the Hell of Animal Abusers. My mother was more prosaic as we got out of the truck. “All we can do is get them home and go from there,” she said.
Panther’s head popped up over the wall between him and the parking lot, tipped so he could see us. He was standing on his hind legs, forelegs scrabbling on the wall, and the second he laid eyes on my mother he started to scream at the top of his lungs. “I’m here, I’m here! Don’t go! I’m here!”
“Panther! We don’t do that!” managed my mother in a reflex scold. Panther’s head vanished, but we could hear him charging in and out of his stall, raising dust in a cloud, ‘talking’. Half-barked, half nickered sounds of anxiety.
When we got to the stalls, my mother went in to Panther to make him stop tearing around like a lunatic. He raced up to her, slammed to a stop, and put his head flat against her chest the way all our horses seem to, ‘talking’ so fast until it sounded as if he was sobbing. “It’s been awful and I was so scared and I’m so glad you’re here and PLEASE DON’T LEAVE ME.”
In the neighboring stall was Flash. Dull orange all over. Mane and tail ragged. Hip bones jutting out under his skin, ribs showing all the way back into his flanks. He stood with his head down in the corner, one hind foot cocked up in warning. “If anyone comes in here I’ll defend myself.” My Flash. Who was so gorgeous and talented. Who had been so little that as a girl I could pick him up and carry him around.
“It’s okay, it’s okay.” I crooned it to him as I slid carefully up toward his head. It was NOT okay in any way, and I was so angry I was shaking.
He flung himself against the wall when I tried to touch his shoulder.
I swallowed hard. Made myself relax. “Don’t be a dolt,” I told Flash, and offered him a bit of carrot. Starved as he was, it was a low sort of trick; but sometimes we resort to the low. We got them in the trailer, and started for home.
Unfortunately, we’d had experience hauling horses who were physical and mental wrecks. We stopped every two or three hours so the horses could rest for an hour. Drive two or three, rest one. Drive two or three, rest one. It was a long trip home. We’d stop to rest, get out and feed a few carrots, gently rub our boys with towels and tell them over and over that we were still there, they were okay, it would be all right; but in the truck cab we worried.
Panther was resilient. Even when he was a pain in the butt it was mostly because he wanted to crawl in your pocket and be loved; and his brain had always been rock-solid. Panther would be all right. We weren’t so hopeful about Flash. Mental resilience hadn’t ever been his strong point. If we could get past his panic and get him thinking, get him to trust again, then maybe. Maybe. We said maybe, but I don’t think either of us thought the odds were in Flash’s favor.
Flash recovered physically, but day after day it was agonizing to win back his trust. He didn’t ever mean to hurt us, but seven hundred pounds coming down on a horseshoe on your feet isn’t nice. He’d jump and wrench arms and hands and fingers that were trying to saddle and bridle him. He’d spook into his handler hard enough to stagger or knock the handler down. For week after week my dad or I would take him out of his stall, groom him, saddle and bridle him. After a while – an hour or two at first but gradually it got shorter – he’d calm down. When he calmed down, we’d take off his tack, feed him carrots, groom and generally make much of him before we let him out into the pasture to graze with Panther.
When I’d get home in the evening, my husband would ask me, “How did it go?” More and more often I’d be able to say, “It was a good day. Nobody got hurt.”
We progressed from tacked and standing in the barn to tacked up and standing in the arena. The arena was a whole new anxiety. I’d stand in the center of the arena with his reins ready in my hand, my hand on his neck, giving riding lessons to neighbors’ kids with Flash standing next to me while I wondered if Flash was going to break out into actual hives. Then, one day, it was too much work waiting for something panic-worthy to happen. Just like letting the air out of a straining balloon, Flash relaxed. His head came down and he looked at me in a perfect picture of puzzlement. “Lady, what the hell?”
So I got on him. Flash went hard and coiled as a hooding cobra. tensed up, but nothing happened. Absolutely nothing happened. Ears flicking back and forth, watching me out of the corner of his eye, he risked relaxing again. I patted him, got off him, took his bridle off right there in the arena to feed him a carrot chunk. I didn’t skip or sing, or float, but inside I was madly laughing dervish of relief. Flash was thinking again. He was going to be all right.
It wasn’t the last tough day, and the highest I’ve ever been off a horse in my life was off of Flash; but his panic and fear dwindled over the years. Eventually my husband and I moved and couldn’t take Flash, and my parents took him along with their herd when they moved to San Antonio; but to me he’ll always be The Horse.
The trainer? We heard several years later that a quarterhorse went down on its side with him on board and smashed his leg so badly that he’d never ride again.
Flash is an old man now, and silver in the face. He was a lesson horse for children for ten years at my parents’ San Antonio stable, and this year has graduated to being a therapy horse for the San Antonio Wounded Warrior Program. Pretty good for a project horse.