Monthly Archives: May 2012

Sammy’s Homecoming

I mentioned in my last post that it was homecoming week, but I didn’t want to talk about it until it was all said and done.  The big news is…this weekend I drove to Georgia and brought my sweet horse, Sam, home to Virginia. To make a long story incredibly short…(or, now that I’ve written it out, not so short), I’ve known Sam every day of his fourteen years, owned him since he was three years old, and brought him along to the Preliminary level myself. He was my whole life growing up. No matter the circumstances of adolescence, I always had my Sam.

My Sam boy and I before we loaded up to head to Virginia.

I spent my first two years of college at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton so I could continue to compete with the goal of completing a one-star. We were finally hitting our stride at Prelim, but our last season was foiled by abscesses and general hoof problems. Sam stayed with Mom when I left for the University of Alabama as I was 1. Really anxious to finish school as fast as possible 2. Did not have a truck and trailer of my own 3. Did not have any idea of the horse scene or know anyone in the area to consult for reference. In any case, I was a bit burned out and needed a little break.

I did not really embrace the typical college life. I felt very out of place and alone, and I found myself desperate to be with horses. I did barn work at a local farm in exchange for rides. I was fairly unhappy in Tuscaloosa, and the sweet, misunderstood horse I bonded with there got me through. I finished my last semester of college doing an internship for Mental Floss in Birmingham, Alabama. I got stuck in that city much longer than intended. Once again, lack of finances, transportation, and connections kept me from bringing Sam to me. I did some riding at a hunter jumper barn which was a learning experience on many levels.

I had realized by this time that I didn’t ride because it’s just what I’ve always done, I ride because I love it so. That break, though longer than I’d hoped, made me realize this and put me in a completely different mindset about my life with horses. Sam, meanwhile, was becoming a professional pasture pony and near constant nuisance. He was Prelim fit when I left, and Mom hoped he would pack her around Beginner Novice. Instead, my sweet Sam decided he was not interested in taking care of anybody, and got more and more disagreeable under saddle as time went on. One day, he ended up bolting and, in the heat of the moment, Mom did an emergency dismount, landed on her rear, and fractured her L1 through L4 vertebrae. When I received the phone call that she was in the hospital because of my horse’s bad behavior, I had a complete mental meltdown for worry over my mom, guilt for leaving my horse, and all around sadness for not having my Sam. After that, Sam’s workload dwindled to near nothing. While Mom tried very hard to give him plenty of attention (and succeeded in getting past her fear of him after falling), she simply did not have the time to ride multiple horses and take care of the menagerie at home, too.

Last summer, I decided enough was enough, that I was stagnating in Birmingham, and I needed to get home to my boy. I made plans to move to Newnan, continue with my freelance work, and pick back up riding and teaching. It was during the move that I was offered a full-time job at the USEA. Because I didn’t know where I was going to be living, I once again had to leave my horse behind. I rented a room on an incredible secluded farm near Middleburg and moved into a carriage house on the property in December. I had moved in with nothing but the clothes and few essential items I’d brought with me in October, and Mom and I moved my belongings later in January. We made plans to ship Sam up in March.

Then this happened. Three days before he was supposed to come home, he rendered himself unable to travel for a short time, but mostly unable to be put out in the pasture 24/7, and the window of opportunity to receive him before several consecutive weeks of work trips for myself was gone. We continued exploring different options to get Sam to Virginia once he was healthy, but they fell through one by one. One night over margaritas, I proposed to my friends “what if we just go get him ourselves?” The idea of a road trip appealed to everyone at the time, but life does get in the way of grand plans, and they could not join me. My friend Katy had me take her rig anyhow with the instructions “Go get your boy!” I cannot thank her enough for enabling me to bring Sam home. I’ve met many incredible people since moving to Middleburg, and another of them, Cortney, kindly offered to make the trip with me.

We left Middleburg at 5am last Friday morning and promptly got ourselves rerouted off the interstate and delayed an hour due to an accident. About a third of the way through the trip, we switched seats and Cortney suggested that the trailer brakes did not seem to be responding the way they probably ought to. Further inspection revealed the brake box was toast, and we’d have to take our time on the way down and wait to sort the brakes out on Saturday. Good thing I had a mechanic with me and allotted an extra day “just in case anything went wrong.”

The trip down took a solid 14 hours, and the next morning we headed into Columbus to have the brakes checked. The wiring turned out to be the issue and was causing a short. One shiny new brake box and one fancy, updated wiring system later, and we were on our way again! Since I wanted to be sure Sam had several hours of daylight to acclimate in the pasture (probably more for my sake than his), we decided to depart Georgia at 10pm Saturday night and drive straight on till morning. As I put Sam’s boots on, he seemed to sense the energy in the air. This was not just another trip to the vet’s office, and when was the last time I was the one getting him ready for a trailer ride?

We made it through the night! Sam snoozed most of the way.

Once we made it through Atlanta and I was able to eyeball Sam the first time we stopped for gas, I relaxed and settled into the drive. We gave Sam plenty of long breaks to stretch his neck out the window and offer water. He didn’t eat much hay and wasn’t interested in water, but he traveled quietly. We made pretty good time through the night, and after switching seats a couple times for much needed snoozes, we pulled over in Lexington, Virginia for our last tank of gas and a decent hot breakfast. We picnicked by the trailer while Sam, though he looked super sleepy, pulled a few mouthfuls of hay and begged for bits of bagel.

Once we pulled off of I-85, we were in the homestretch. I couldn’t help but shout at Sam throughout the trip: “Welcome to Virginia!” and “Welcome to Middleburg!” and finally, “Welcome home!” Driving down the driveway with my Sammy in tow was one of the best feelings in the world. The farm owner was there to greet us, and as Sam backed off the trailer, he took an easy look around. We pulled off his boots and threw him right out into the pasture. He barely blinked before burying his nose in a big patch of clover. Not long after, he found a mud puddle and proceeded to completely coat himself as he rolled off 14 hours of trailer time.

He never skipped a beat getting off the trailer and into the clover.

The pretty mare, Lilly, strutted over to the fence to say hello. Sam was too busy munching to notice her then, but he got a few flirts in later. He very much has the “I can take it or leave it” attitude about girls. He knows they love him. He’s too sweet not to adore! Soon, we brought Harold over. Harold is a 15-year-old Thoroughbred gelding who has longed for a good friend for a long time. We threw him right out with Sam and stood at the gate to watch (obviously, this is not the way to introduce ALL horses, but for these two, it seemed like the easiest thing). They touched noses, squealed once each, and then they were off! They trotted, they cantered, they gallivanted around the pasture like old friends. It was. PRECIOUS. Now they are practically glued to one another. They walk about the field with Harold’s face pressed against Sam’s belly. They prefer to eat from the same patch of grass. Sam is even happy to share his breakfast…we’ll have to work on that. Harold is a bit hyperactive and likes to run and play. Sam is game for a few moments, but he’s pretty chill…and pretty chunky…so he just watches Harold cavort while he munches clover: “Oh, there he goes again. I’ll just wait here.”

Sam and his new best bud, Harold.

Everyone loves sweet Sam! Katy gave him a big hug when she met him, and the farm owner says he is “a noble beast.” I am just thrilled to have my sweet boy back. He is closer than ever before. I can literally see him in his pasture from my kitchen window. It’s wonderful just to spend time with him. Brush him, sit with him. Take him for a walk up the lane. I won’t be riding him just yet. He’s been in such inconsistent work for five years, and I’m in no rush. We’ll do some hand walking for a bit to get both he and I moving and get the ground relationship solid again. Then we’ll do some easy hacking around the property before we venture out further into the countryside. The scenery will be very different to what he is used to, but if I know my Sam, he’ll take it (mostly) in stride. It feels so surreal to finally have him home, and his arrival was a long time coming. In the end, it all worked out just right. As mom says: “The order of the universe has been restored.”

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Bailey’s Story Part 1

This is homecoming week, but we aren’t going to talk about it until it’s all said and done. In the meantime, I’ve got another homecoming story that I’ve been meaning to share for a long time. Originally written to be posted on another blog, it has been saved on my computer since last summer. The story takes place in 2011 and chronicles the homecoming of our dear, sweet horse, Bailey.

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I was working as an assistant photographer for Mark Lehner one weekend in March [2011].  Sunday, cross-country day, was as cold and dreary as the previous day had been sunny and pleasant.  The last horse in the Novice division was heading my way near the end of the course.  As the stocky chestnut jumped into the field, it occurred to his rider that she might have missed a fence, and as she trotted in a circle to regroup, I thought to myself what a good and patient horse she had.  After the pair passed, I checked the photos I’d taken of them on my digital camera before resetting for the Beginner Novice group.

I froze, not from the cold, but from shocking recognition of the horse in the frame.  Zooming in on the photo as close as possible I thought, could it be?  He had all the right features: a big square head with a long, straight stripe from his forehead all the way to the end of his nose; a thin, wavy tail that looked scrawny and not suited for his solid body.  His legs were short but strong, and his movement was characteristically choppy.  The one tell-tale sign of his identity was not visible from the angle of the photograph, but I had a good feeling in my gut.

Agape, I stared hard as the horse crossed the finish line and made a turn towards stabling.  I ached to run after him and wished I had a pair of binoculars, but I would have to wait another couple hours to investigate.  The moment the camera shutter clicked on the final passing competitor, I leapt into the car and drove anxiously to the photographer’s trailer.  Tossing my memory card full of the day’s photos over to Mark to be  sorted and uploaded, I made a beeline for the viewing computers to look up more photos of the horse with the familiar face.  I wanted to examine his chestnut butt; I was looking for something specific to prove it was him.  And there it was: an oddly placed, black ”birthmark” the size of a toddler’s fist clearly visible to left of his tail.  Quickly punching out a text message to Mom, I imagined the look on her face when she read it.  After six years of grieving and searching, “I found Bailey.”

Maybe it was dumb luck, maybe it was fate, but I just happened to be working at one of the few events in the south Bailey had attended.  Ever since we had sold him, we regretted it.  Bailey was part of the family, and we’d been trying for years to find him and, if possible, get him back.  As it happens, our sweet Quarter Horse had been sold more than once since he left us, and the only lead we had was he might be foxhunting in Hyde Park, New York.  Then, after one lucky sighting, I had his new name and, after a quick search in the USEA database, his owner’s email address.  I sent her a quick note expressing our happiness to know our Bailey was happy, healthy, and still eventing.

Bailey joined our family when he was five years old.  He belonged to a student of mine whose college classes cut into barn time, so I filled in the gaps, riding him on the days between her lessons.  Bailey has excellent, promising bloodlines for a cutting horse (his grandad is Doc O’Lena), but he grew too large for his intended life as a cow-pony and was eventually found and purchased by my student.  He was quiet, easy, agreeable.  I spent a lot of time with him on the longe line, teaching him voice commands and building strength through transitions and self-carriage.  My Thoroughbred Sam was, at the time, a snarky 6-year-old that had decided he’d been too easy-going as a youngster and was out to make me pay.  Riding Sam was, at the time, a constant challenge to not just stick to the tack, but to have any fun at all.  I grew to appreciate Bailey’s laid back work ethic and his knack for wicking away the stress of bringing along a headstrong Thoroughbred.

One evening as I sat alone in my room, Mom opened the door and let herself in.  She was wearing a silly, suspicious grin.  She sat down next to me, silent and smiling, letting the suspense build up until I shouted, “what? what is it?”  She answered, “I bought Bailey.”  To this day she doesn’t remember how much she paid for him, or what possessed her to buy a horse on impulse.  All she can say is that she knew we had to have him, and that was that.

Just a few days after Mom’s big announcement, my first horse, a proud redheaded mare named Breezy, died suddenly in the pasture.  Moments before, I had watched her leading the charge in an afternoon fly-by with the herd.  I had retired her from competition, but at 20 years old, she was as healthy and ornery as ever, semi-tolerating teaching the occasional lesson and hacking about the farm with me.  I was tacking up Bailey when the barn owner came inside. He approached me and said, “Don‘t freak out.  Breezy is dead.”

I left Bailey standing in the cross-ties, dodged the outstretched arms of the farm help, and demanded to know where my Breezy was.  She was lying under a young cedar tree not far from the gate.  There was no evidence of pain or struggle.  She had simply laid down and left us.  I stayed with her until she’d been buried under the tree where she’d fallen.  Someone else had untacked Bailey and put him away in a stall.  No horse could ever replace Breezy, but somehow, with sentiment and love only a horse can give, Bailey made it a little easier to move on.

I graduated high school a year or so later.  Bailey had proven himself to be a solid Novice level event horse.  His dressage wasn’t stellar, but he was a point-and-shoot jumper with snappy knees and smart intuition.  He and Sam complimented each other in style, and I was picking up good placings in competitive divisions on both horses.  I had a full semester before starting college and picked up a working student gig in Hamilton, Georgia.  Mom happened to get a new job, and off we went together to an unfamiliar town.  At the time we had three horses, three dogs, and five cats.  We didn’t have much time to search for a boarding facility within our means and were tight on funds after moving.  We ended up having to sell Bailey.  A little girl tried him after an event at Poplar Place, and the family took him home the same day.  As the trailer pulled down the gravel driveway and out of sight, Mom sobbed.  I think she would have called off the sale right then if she could.  Bailey was good to us. He was part of the family, and we had let him go.  We were consumed with guilt for the next six years.

Bailey had a good life after us.  He went on to be a champion junior hunter in Florida, which surprised everyone who had known him as an eventer.  He was a bit big for the little girl, and apparently not so keen on arena life.  He was sold to an adult amateur in New York, where he experienced foxhunting and continued eventing at Novice.  We hadn’t known if he was eventing at all anymore, but he had a lengthy competition record in the Northeast.  Then briefly, he and his rider took a trip South during the winter months, and that’s when he galloped right into frame in front of me.

After a few of friendly emails between his owner, Mom, and myself, we asked that if she ever thought to sell him, please let us know.  We had no expectations, we just threw it out there just in case.  A few weeks later, she emailed me to say she intended to sell and was happy to think Bailey might go to a home where he was already loved.  I called Mom immediately.  She didn’t answer.  I sent her a text: “Bailey is for sale!”  She stepped out of whatever meeting she was in to call me back, greeting me with “you better not be pulling my leg.”  The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, and no way would we pass up this opportunity to bring Bailey home.  And this time, we weren’t going to screw it up.  Mom and I had a few serious financial discussions and made an offer.  She accepted.  Bailey was coming home.

In the weeks leading up to his arrival, it felt too good to be true.  Mom had a previously scheduled vacation to the Grand Canyon to get through, and the Equine Herpesvirus scare forced us to make very careful arrangements for the trip.  We met the shipper at a gas station off the interstate at 6:30 a.m. on a crisp June morning just a few days before Bailey’s birthday [June 20].  When we dropped the trailer window to say hi before continuing down the back roads to the farm, he poked out his big familiar head to look around, bright-eyed and curious.

Bailey settled in so well, it almost feels like he never left.  New adventures have already begun: Bailey’s got a girlfriend, plays a good right guard, and the motley crew is making plenty of mischief.  The family feels complete again.

His AQHA registered name is Bailey Slice. I evented him under the name Bailiwick.
Shannon Brinkman photo, used with permission.

Bailey came home after six years away. He settled right in. Not long after this photo was taken, Sam and Gamble came galloping up to the fence to greet him. We’re certain they remembered each other.

Bailey was fit as a fiddle when he came home. He jogged around a bit, then settled right in. It was like he never left. It just felt right.