Monday, July 20, 2009

Speckles 'n Shines

Summer camp time so I was thinking about one of the first horses who left some hoof prints in my life.

I don't have a ton of years' worth of horses to remember. I didn't get started in an actual "horse life" until five years ago when I took a job as part-time riding instructor, but more staff, at a Girl Scout summer camp and then working at the year around stable as program staff. This was before I had horses of my own. Since I didn't feel as knowledgeable in the skills of riding beyond beginner level, I focused on the horses. There were some characters!

One fella who became one of my favorites was a little Appaloosa gelding, who I still believe was more POA (Pony of the Americas) than Appy, but, that's what his papers stated. Speckles was all of 14H, if that. Just right for most of the girls we had in our horseback riding classes at summer camp.

When I first met him, Speckles was fifteen years old. Brown with the blanket rump of white spots. His eyes told me something was definitely going on in there. Speckles was for the most part a mellow guy who did have a penchant for stepping on human feet and nipping at arms when his front feet were picked up for cleaning. At first I thought the girls weren't being careful but as time went on, it became apparent to me that Speckles knew what he was doing. He had a mischievous side and, I believe, got some enjoyment from human reactions to his little acts of naughtiness.

In my three years with him, he stepped on my right foot three different times leaving nasty bruises. He nipped my upper arm once when I was working on his front foot, which got him body checked into the side of the stall leaving him to look at me in a "What the......what just happened?" expression. And he kicked my forearm as I turned him out one day. I accept the consequences for that one because I shouldn't have released him like I did, back end closer to me than his front end. He was always a quick little stinker and was excited to be out in the field that winter morning kicking up his heels quicker than I anticipated.

During summer camp trail rides we discovered Speckles didn't like being the lead horse, but he didn't like being at the back either. So, he ended up being number two in the line up when we took girls out on the Friday morning trail rides. He apparently approved of that position.

When we tried him in the front he would balk, he would turn around, he was simply not a leader. When we tried him farther back, he hurried too much often getting right up into the rear of the horse in front of him and once or twice, taking off to get closer to the head of the line. We had a different group of girls every week and they were always beginner riders who'd had at least three summers of the camp program, so it was our job to figure out what was safe. By the third week of camp, we had figured out, Speckles needed to be number two and he was comfortable as well as much more manageable for his inexperienced riders in that position.

Some horses are better leaders, some are better followers, Speckles was a follower who never wanted to be the top horse, but was never the bottom horse either.

Another of Speckles little quirks was that he could unlock certain gates. We had to fix those gates with a chain as well as the regular gate lock. How he figured out the gate lock, only he knows. But there were times when we'd gotten to work and all the horses from his field would be munching grass in the open field. Lee, the manager, said she was sure it was Speckles because every time it happened, it was his field and he was the newest horse in the field. He had the nickname Houdini for a while.

Speckles also liked to entertain by twirling a halter and lead rope around while holding them in his mouth. We discovered this by accident. One day, after a program, a halter and lead rope had been dropped near Speckles. Next thing we notice, Speckles is standing there twirling them in his mouth like a cowboy with a lasso, which is what it looked like. The girls were laughing and giggling. He enjoyed the attention from his little trick, stopping to get a better grip, then twirling again. Unfortunately, we encouraged it and he would try to grab a lead rope just to twirl it. After a while, Lee told us to quit allowing him to do it. But it was so much fun to see him play like that!

For a long time I wasn't that fond of Speckles, that is, until I got to know him better. After summer camp had ended that season, Lee had the opportunity to keep some of the summer horses, with the option to buy the following August, after summer camp concluded. She chose four, Speckles was one of them. The summer camp horses, twenty of them, had been leased for the summer, the other sixteen would go back to Illinois. There were the eight year around horses stabled at the ranch.

After getting settled in for a few weeks that September our Fall weekend programs began. Speckles was always a trooper in the arena, but he had his little quirks. Don't all horses have quirks? You just learn how to deal with them. Speckles was always used in our weekend programs. He was dependable under saddle though he had a problem with walking. That was one of his quirks. He didn't want to walk he wanted to trot all the time, which is not a good thing when working with beginning riders, although gave his rider a challenge.

Before every program we always matched horse with rider experience. We attempted to make sure Speckles would be assigned riders who were a little more authoritative with a little more experience than the riders who were assigned Gloria,or Koko, both the kind of horses who took care of their riders. Gloria and Koko rarely did more or less than was asked of them. Naturally, sometimes, we didn't always get it right. Speckles needed to know he wasn't going to be getting his way. He would always take advantage of his riders if he figured out they weren't going to be firm with him. He'd stop and munch grass. Trot to the rail. Trot towards one of us. Stop in the center of the arena. Keep going instead of stopping. He could figure his rider out quickly too. I watched him do it over and over during summer camp. If he was ridden to his specifications of what a rider should be, he was great!

During out winter months Lee assigned us horses to work with until March. That's how I became better acquainted with Speckles. He was one of my winter project horses. I wanted to work on his walking and his nipping habit. We made alot of progress that winter. We got to a point where he would not even turn his head when I lifted his front feet. He would walk instead of trot when cued.

When weather got better we took the horses on trail rides to get them ready for our spring programs. Some of our horses were great arena horses, others were better at trail. Speckles was an excellent trail horse. I think the fact that he was so smart is why he did so well at trails. The trail offered him a challenge, something different. He preferred to be challenged. He would often become bored with the arena work.

I remember one trail ride where he shined through, and one where.......well, not so much.

On one of our practice trail rides my co-worker and friend, Lori, and I rode a trail that wasn't often used by us or the summer campers. There was an extra steep, rocky hill. Here in Southern Ohio, our beautiful hills are part of the smaller Appalachian Mountain chain and are also known as The Foothills to the Smokys. Smaller versions of the Smoky Mountains.

At first when I looked down from the top, I thought "Nope, we're walking down this one." But then Lori, who is a great horsewoman and natural rider, took her horse down and of course, I figured, well, I could do it on Speckles. The little guy didn't let me down! He was sure footed all the way. He never balked, he didn't refuse when I asked, he just put it in gear and there we went. Now, I will say, on the way back when we had to go up, he looked up the steep incline, actuallyglanced back at me as if to say "I don't think so!" Lori and her horse had already begun climbing so I asked Speckles one more time, with a little more emphasis on my ask and he was off. Picked his way up carefully and quickly, never missing a step. I was proud of the little pony. I had decided he was more pony than horse by then, but it didn't matter, he saw himself as a horse and no doubt, a big horse. Don't all ponies think of themselves that way? I think this was probably the first time I started admiring Speckles.

Now, his less than stellar incident happened during one of our weekend programs. We'd taken a group of girls on a trail ride. Speckles had been acting a little antsy, I thought, but the girl who was on him had ridden him the previous season so I figured she had him under control.

We were getting near the barn, which was in view, but a field away. The line stopped while we all waited for Lori, the last rider, to close the gate to the field we'd just walked through. I was in the middle of the line and walked Ginger back that way. If I couldn't have Speckles on trail rides, Ginger was my ride. She was more of a handful for most of the beginner girls anyway. In the meantime, I heard a commotion up front. I turned Ginger and the only thing I saw was Bailey, a rather temperamental twenty-something Arabian mare, kick Speckles with both barrels. One of the riders on either Bailey or Speckles, screeched, as girls will do. I then saw Speckles rise up on his back legs, dumping the rider and before we knew it he had headed across the field for the barn. The girl was fine, though a bit jolted. She jumped right up from the ground. All our girls wore helmets as well as those of us on staff. I can't really blame Speckles although I was told Speckles had been dancing around and bumped Bailey, which in turn is what caused Bailey to react the way she did, Bailey being Bailey, exciteable and often touchy when other horses invade her space let alone bump into her rump.

Back at the barn, Speckles was happily munching on grass in the front yard. Lee was not happy with Speckles. After the program ended and all the girls had left, Lee said she was going to take Speckles back out and make sure he walked back to the barn a few times. In all honesty, after the lapse of time and the event as it occurred, I didn't really think it would curb Speckles enthusiasm much. I had learned by working with him, he'll gladly work with you if he feels you know what you're doing, guess I had him buffaloed a bit, but he was one to take care of himself and when Bailey kicked him, in an instant, he decided he was heading for greener pastures.

I drove by the ranch a month ago, just to see if Speckles was still around. You never know what can happen with an organization. I was relieved to see him grazing out in the field with the other horses and I remembered, he is now twenty. I am hoping he gets a good retirement at some point. I had even thought, if those horses were ever sold, I wouldn't mind bringing him home, but I'd definitely have to think that through.

In my mind, Speckles will always shine. The little Appy-POA who taught me a few things about horses, and ponies, in my equine journey.

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