While both of my parents schlepped me back and forth to the barn twice a day every day to take care of Gar, it was primarily my father who drove me to the barn in the mornings. As a freshman in high school, I joined the Junior Varsity swim team. This meant I was in the water every morning by 5:45 am. My dad drove me to the barn at 4:45 am like clockwork to feed and muck Gar before dropping me off at the high school in time for practice.
When I turned fifteen, I completed the required Driver’s Ed classes and earned my permit. However, my Dad took it one step further. I don’t know how he got wind of “hardship licenses,” but he did, and off we went to the DMV to plead our case. My mom was conveniently out of town when this happened, but I left the DMV with a “hardship” license which meant I could only drive between the hours of 4:30 am to 9 pm (so whenever I wanted). Dad was now off the hook.
Being the only starting sophomore with a driver’s license immediately quadrupled my popularity. I went from having no friends to having four. They were all swim nerds like me, so my “freedom card” didn’t amount to much in the way of impropriety, just a few runs to McDonald’s at lunchtime. This was against school rules, but sometimes my friends could get a pass off grounds, and when they didn’t, they’d hide in the trunk of my car until we got out of the parking lot.
All of that for a Big Mac.
The license made a huge difference for getting back and forth to the barn. Conversely, that also meant I skipped a lot of school my sophomore year in order to do just that. (Sorry, Mom. It’s true.). This was before I moved to the barn with adult supervision, Double J Stables. Once Gar was at Jennifer’s barn, I didn’t do that because I knew that wouldn’t fly with her.
(Supervision without even being present was one of Jennifer’s super powers).
Coach Hot Pants
I swam Varsity my sophomore year of high school, but I didn’t really belong there. By that time kids were swimming with the team for an hour and a half before school started and then again after school for another two hours. Swimming in Texas was fiercely competitive, and by that time, I had the horse bug pretty good. After school, the last thing I wanted to see was another black line down the middle of a swim lane. The only place I wanted to be was looking between a furry pair of ears.
It was ultimately Coach Mo’s decision to include me on the Varsity team that year. I was right on the cusp of qualifiying, but did end up with my friends on the team. They swam exponentially better than I did, as they swam exponentially more.
Funny how that works.
If you’ve ever seen “Coach Mellor” from the sitcom The Goldberg’s, add a mustache, and that was Coach Mo. (For those of you that haven’t, picture tight, short, polyester gym shorts and you’ve got it). He walked up and down the side of the pool the entire time, checking his stopwatch, blowing the whistle around his neck, and writing notes on the clipboard he carried. Coach Mo was either directing us, encouraging us, or swearing at us, and sometimes it was all three at the same time.
If we really pissed him off (being too slow), there was a chance you’d be struck by the Bic pen he would chuck at you in frustration. That usually preceded the clipboard being thrown against the wall, in full nuclear fall-out, so you understood just how pissed off he really was with you (or if you were lucky, with everyone on the team). One time, he got so mad at one of our best swimmers, he yanked him out of the pool as he was cussing up a storm, and wrote in permanent marker across his chest, as the kid was heaving and dripping wet, “SLOW.”
And you know what?
We all loved Coach Mo.
He put 1000% into the team and we all knew it.
Having a coach like that is priceless.
Now that I was boarding Gar at Double J Stables, I was more or less under direct supervision. Being in a professional barn, my enthusiasm was given direction through education. This was my first experience with the power of sports, and the education sports brings, to a young person’s life.
It is a great microcosm for the macrocosm of life.
Gar had the job of surviving me as my “first” horse. He made out a lot better than the first car I bought much later on—a used Honda Civic, which got its oil changed once or twice a year if it was lucky. This is no joke. That car just kept on ticking. I sold the car after the door latches started to falter.
On one of those long farm driveways in Middleburg, I almost lost a client around the bend when her door flew open. We both shrieked, and then she almost went through the windshield when I slammed on the breaks. (That might be a little bit of an exaggeration, but the embarrassment was not).
The latches may not have lasted, but the engine sure did.
Gar did survive, and fared better than the car (none of his latches broke), as he ushered me into my brief competition career in the Hunters and straight to Eventing. But Gar was a hony, and while I hadn’t exactly outgrown him, I was getting close. Lucky for Gar, there was a young girl who was learning to ride and was about to outgrow her pony. It was perfect timing. We started sharing him. It was a good way for me to start thinking about transitioning to something else, and for her to start feeling comfortable on a much bigger horse than the pony she was used to.
Love at First Sight
Jennifer let me start riding Amos. When I first walked up to him in the field, the first thing I noticed, besides his dangling lower lip, was his height. He was 16.2 hands compared to Gar’s 15 hands and it felt worlds apart, even from the ground. Not only that, but he had huge withers, which Gar decidedly did not. I didn’t know anything about him, only that he was available, and that was enough for me.
I threw tack on the big red thoroughbred and hand-walked him out to the dressage arena next to the barn. Standing at the mounting block (also a new piece of equipment for me since he was so tall), I threw a leg over and Amos was off and jigging. His ears were in a completely different zip code, his neck was so long. My reins were suddenly way too short for my horse. I went from driving a Honda Civic to driving a suped-up Ford F-250 with a Turbo Diesel engine.
Amos jigged all the way into the dressage arena. He was big, powerful and jacked-up. I was a little scared, but my excitement overshadowed my fear. I picked up a trot, or tried to, and immediately learned “The [Dreaded] Circle” was my friend. We never left it, even if it did move around the arena. The faster Amos wanted to go, the smaller the circle got. I only tried out the first two gears—the jig and the trot. It was that way for a few rides until I got the guts to canter him, again on “The Circle.” I had no idea how to ride him, or what I was doing, but I loved riding that fireball from the get-go. Luckily, I had “adult supervision” (aka Jennifer) to help me through the process.
Standing out in the field, I noticed Amos started looking for me when he heard my voice. The once expressionless horse now had a very cheerful one. Slowly, I started to hear pieces of Amos’ story. He once had a kid who loved him, and competed him, but the family had fallen on hard times. In the end, the kid stopped showing up. It was the only reason Amos was available for riding.
I had been riding Amos for three or four weeks when “his person” unexpectedly showed up. I walked into the barn and found Amos in the cross-ties. A girl, maybe a year or two older, came out of the tack room with a grooming box in her hand. For a second, it looked like there was a dog/cat stand-off in the barn aisle. Her demeanor was less than friendly and we gave each other a wide berth.
I got a bad feeling.
I collected my own grooming supplies from the tack room and went to find Gar. I stepped out of the tack room right as Amos stepped backwards in the cross-ties. Without missing a beat, the girl kicked him as hard as she could in his belly. I saw the anger dripping off of her like poison. Amos skidded on the concrete. The whites of his eyes wide with fear.
His lower lip started flapping nervously.
The whole thing stopped me in my tracks. Holding my brush box, I looked at the girl with my mouth hanging open. She held my gaze like “What the fuck are you looking at?”
I wanted to throw-up.
I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t sure what the situation was with the girl, and with Amos. Later, I approached Jennifer and asked. She said he could be bought for expenses due on his upkeep.
I needed a horse, and he needed a rider.
And I loved riding him.
I sold Gar to the little girl for $3,500, which was what it cost to buy Amos. I didn’t even know Amos’ age or his competition record, but I went out to the barn that day with a brand-new nylon halter just for him and said, “Never again, Buddy.”
My Heart Horse
I couldn’t ride one side of that redheaded firecracker, but Amos taught me more than how to ride. He gave me one of the greatest lessons of all time:
If you believe in a horse and tell them they can, they will give you the world.
More than that, they will give you their heart.
He hadn’t “officially” been “my” horse for very long when I did what I always did at the barn—put Amos in the cross-ties and went into the tack room to grab my brushes. He stopped me in my tracks on my way out when I caught him as far forward in the cross-ties as he could get, head held high, ears forward, just staring at me, waiting for me. He nickered, and started pawing, very politely, trying to hurry me up.
Just like that, Amos became my heart horse.
Jennifer was great about hosting clinicians at the farm and I took my first clinic with Denny Emerson on Amos. At that point, Amos and I could put together a course of novice-level jumps pretty well. Shortly thereafter, Karen O’Connor, then Lende, showed up to the farm and I learned the difference between speed and impulsion. We practiced “walking” over a jump. The vertical had a placing rail in front, and Karen put the rail up one hole every time we jumped it. It went up to four feet for me—by far the tallest jump I had ever jumped in my life—and from the walk.
It was roughly at this time, 1987 or 1988, Karen became the Adult Team Coach and David O’Connor became the Young Rider Coach for Area 5. I didn’t have a horse at the (prelim) level, but there were so few of us, I got to participate in the program anyway. Amos and I went to Young Rider Camp at Prarie Creek Ranch in Pittsburg, Texas. I don’t know what it’s like now, but back then, Pittsburg was a sleepy little town.
There was one small, rundown hotel there. What I remember is the crusty shag carpet in the room, the missing bathroom door, and the vinyl bathroom floor being squishy when you walked on it. We were just happy to leave without bed bugs….or a fungus.
Of course, one of my most meaningful memories of camp is the time we stalked David’s rental car one evening at the little cinema in town. (We were bored, what can I say?). We almost got away with covering it in white shoe polish and toilet paper, but the attendants came out and threatened to call the cops. We were just about finished removing our handiwork when David came out of the movie. He just shook his head and drove off.
At camp, David had a different way of teaching us impulsion versus speed (and adjustability). He set up a seven stride line. We did it in seven strides, but then he would start calling out a number, and you had to produce that amount of strides. He made it easy at first calling out “Six!” or “Eight!” Then it started getting tricky. I think we were up to ten strides when I couldn’t make it happen.
David said, “Get off. Let me get on for a second.”
(If I had a dollar for every time I heard that in my career).
The abridged version is that David hopped on and produced fifteen strides right out of the gate. Then he produced sixteen strides.
I got back on and made twelve or thirteen happen, but that was as good as it got. (This might be a little generous in my recounting of the situation).
David had also brought a series of ultrasound pictures with him to camp. It was the first time I had heard of an ultrasound, and about all of the soft tissue issues that Event horses can develop.
One thing was for sure—I walked away with more knowledge from that camp than brain to fit it in. In total awe of the complexity of the sport, I remember David saying, “If you want to be anybody in this sport, you have to live in Middleburg.” I was only sixteen, but it was on that day I decided I would live in Middleburg and train and compete with the O’Connor’s.
Took me a few years, but I got there.
(Postscript: By the time I got there, the O’Connor’s had already left for England for a couple of years. That’s how I ended up at Wofford’s.)
The Hard Luck Horse
Despite our good run together Eventing, Amos had a hard time catching a break in his life. When he said training level was enough for his old bones, I was getting ready to head to college, so I looked to sell him.
To the right person.
(Post postscript: I wish I knew then, what I know now. He was a very sound horse, and probably just needed routine maintenance. I just didn’t know about any of that yet. I don’t even know if it was available at the time. It would have made a world of difference to him.)
I was in South Carolina at the time being a working student before college started. (But that’s another post for another time). Amos wasn’t easy to sell. He was hot and confined to the lower levels. It sort of eliminated most possibilities for him. One day, the right person came along and found his enthusiasm charming.
I learned a valuable lesson: There is a horse for every rider, and a rider for every horse. You just might have to be extra patient some of the time.
She was a young law student who couldn’t afford much, but she was a good match and it worked.
I kept tabs on Amos because, like I said, he was my heart horse. I spent my winter break from college, during my sophomore year, at the farm in South Carolina so I could ride and take lessons with all of my friends there. (A lot of things happened my “sophomore years.” Hence, the word sophomoric?? Hmm...).
While I was there, I went to check on Amos where he was boarded about fifteen minutes away. I drove past the fields, toward the barn, but something caught my eye. I saw a familiar red horse trotting in the covered arena. I parked right in front of the arena and watched Amos, lame, wearing a single front shoe, being used for an adult beginner’s lesson. They’re not so “hot” when they’re in pain…
I was livid.
I called the owner in tears.
How could you?
She fessed up. She had meant to call and tell me she really didn’t have the time anymore since she had met someone (a boy) and she wanted to sell him. I begged her (shamed her) to sell him back to me.
So she did.
I gave her $1,000 for him. It was all I could scrape up. I went back the next day and found Amos in the field along the driveway. I pulled over and parked next to the fence line and dropped the ramp of my trailer. I called him and he came right over. I slipped his halter on, opened the gate, and he almost ran me over. He loaded himself and never looked back.
They always do.
This was his “freedom card.”
Amos lived out, yet again, in another field at a great barn near my college when I returned to school after break. I couldn’t afford to keep him, but I begged my parents to help cover his field board until I could find another situation for him. This time, it would be a lease only.
Reluctantly, my parents agreed. For them, horses weren’t pets the way the dogs were (because of the sheer expense), but even they understood protecting your horse (any animal) from a bad situation. I had to find him another situation, and quick.
The End of The Story
I ran an ad in the local equestrian journal. I shooed away a lot of pesky flies from that ad, but then got a call from a nice lady who lived a couple of hours away. She and her husband were both vets and had an eighty acre-farm with a few horses on it. She wanted to event a little and thought Amos sounded like a golden opportunity. They came out the following weekend.
Beth was tiny. She looked like a peanut on Amos. But she liked him and knew he could teach her a lot. Just as important, I liked Beth and her husband. I explained the situation: Amos had had a rough road. Too many times he had landed the short stick. I couldn’t let that happen again. This meant being “his steward” and being responsible for him until the end. Being veterinarians, they both understood.
Amos went to live on their eighty-acre paradise with a few other horses. Beth had Amos for four or five years. I graduated from college and kept heading north to Middleburg. We kept in touch, and Beth always reported back on their escapades together, sending photos. Amos was in a great situation. I told her she could keep him as long as she wanted, but that I would always make room for him if she decided otherwise.
He was my heart horse.
I got the phone call no owner ever wants to receive. Beth called me, crying. A gate that should have been closed wasn’t, and the horses got out. They all ended up running down the state highway. Amos was hit by a car. I’m sorry to say, I can’t remember what she said about any of her other horses. I don’t remember the rest of the conversation.
It was a bitter end for a horse I tried very hard “to save.” But sometimes shitty things happen and there is nothing you, or anyone else, can do about it. At least he was loved by not just one person, but two, until the very end. That’s more than a lot of horses get. I’m still friends with Beth and her husband. They are still the same “salt of the earth” people as the ones I met almost thirty years ago and they are still good stewards of all animals, both big and small.
My heart horse, Amos, turned out to be a hard luck horse.
It was one of life’s brutal lessons.
Sometimes bad things happen to good people, and sometimes bad things happen to good horses.
Luckily, the horse world is full of people who try really hard to do the right thing, for their own horses, and for horses they’ve never even met.
Amos wasn’t my only heart horse, but he was my first. He paved the way for a lot of other “difficult misfits” that crossed my path throughout my career. I am forever grateful to him for all of the valuable experiences he gave me.
There’s a special place in Heaven for all of the other hard luck horses, and the heart horses, too.
The ones just like Amos.
This is the end
This is the end
My only friend, the end