From Junk to Jumper

During our search for the perfect husband horse (which is apparently a mustang with PTSD), we came across an ad for a 6 year old, 16 hand plus, appaloosa gelding (very similar in color to Odessa). For those non-equestrians reading this, shopping for horses is exactly like online dating. Height is always exaggerated (think four inches shorter than advertised). Age can be subjective (overestimated by about 2 years). You should always read between the lines for those characteristics not mentioned, and you may not recognize your “date” when you finally meet face to face. Since Darling Husband and I are suckers for “color” we decided to swipe right and take our online romance to the next level.

Now I have not always been obsessed with color (aka paint horses or horses with spots). In my younger days, I used to make fun of people that when given the choice would pick an inferior horse in temperament, confirmation, or ability just because it had flashy colors. I have now turned into that person. Give me color and chrome, baby! I justify the hypocrisy by reminding myself that all of my equestrian goals have evolved (new goals, new midset, we’ll call it growth).

After driving around some back roads (gravel not paved) on the outskirts of Waco, TX we finally arrived at our destination, a vacant single-wide trailer surrounded by chain-link fence, at least a half dozen rusty scrap cars on blocks, and several abandoned farm implements strewn around the overgrown yard. This yard apparently served as a horse paddock as well. How the animal had not already died of tetanus, I’m not sure (lord knows no one spent the money to vaccinate him).

Our “date”, Red (yet another imaginative name) was tied to a gate awaiting our arrival. This was one of those blind dates, that makes you wonder why you even accepted, and you hope it’s over quickly. Red was skinny, not complete starvation skinny, but there wasn’t anything about his living situation that gave me hope his condition would be improving. He was ewe-necked and lanky. The best thing you could say for him was, he had a nice tail.

Top picture the night we brought Comanche home. Bottom picture 7 months later.

Red’s owner was a horse trader, picking up horses cheap, and selling quickly to make a few bucks before the cost of maintaining them eats into any profits. Apparently Red had been on the books longer than she anticipated so she was considering sending him to auction. For a horse like Red, an auction is a one way ticket on a truck to a Mexican slaughter house. We hadn’t fully committed to saving all of the downtrodden that crossed our path at this point yet, and unlike Odessa who had great confirmation, there wasn’t a lot to recommend Red…until he moved.

Red’s owner gave us a quick run down of his good points, while recommending that we lunge before riding him (that’s code for “you’ll need a flight plan prior to take off”). She lunged him in a circle and asked him to step out. Neither of us expected him to bust out moves like Jagger, but he did (an absolutely gorgeous extended trot) . I was looking at dressage potential movement (IF you could get him to replicate that leg action with a rider, and if you were envisioning an appaloosa dressage horse). Red also knew a trick. Apparently whoever had trained Red, was vertically challenged, so he had been taught to park out like a Saddlebred when you mount and dismount. This is when a horse walks his front legs forward while leaving his back legs stationary, handy because the stretched horse is closer the ground and it’s difficult to gather up for a buck when you are doing the equine version of a split.

I was in love, but Darling Husband wanted nothing to do with the junkyard horse. Since this shopping trip was all about finding the perfect husband horse, and I had struck gold in Houston (can’t be too greedy), I reluctantly accepted that we would be leaving this guy to his fate. We thanked the owner and got back in the jeep. I prayed to the equine gods to spare Red from the auction.

A week later we returned home with Battle (the mustang) in tow, and the equine gods answered. It occurred to me, I could make the mustang situation work in my favor. If Darling Husband insisted on bringing crazy home, Red could be my consolation prize. Battle wasn’t ready to be a consistent mount for anyone, (maybe ever). Odessa was safe enough for an upper intermediate rider (she wouldn’t kill Darling Husband). Red could be our second “ride-able” horse until (rephrase that, if) we trusted Battle. My argument took a while to formulate, but a month after our first date, I had convinced Darling Husband we should commit to the scraggly appaloosa.

The time apart had not been kind to Red. He had easily lost 100 lbs since our last meeting having picked around the abandoned vehicles getting to every last blade of grass in his small enclosure. Red gamely jumped on our trailer. I guess he figured that wherever we were going couldn’t be much worse than living in a junk yard.

Red’s name was changed to Comanche. You can’t go wrong with appaloosas and native american names, and Texas was originally Comanche territory. Also, fun fact, Comanche was the name of one of the few equine survivors of the battle of Little Big Horn and one of only four horses in U.S. history to receive a military funeral with full military honors. So my Comanche joined the ranks of our other two rescues. We de-wormed him, slowly introduced high quality feed, and gave him all the hay he could handle. Comanche’s life was definitely on the upswing. He had left a life of total isolation, surrounded by scrap metal to become one of a herd of three, in a pasture with a barn. That was until he met his nemesis (Beau Pony) on the other side of the fence.

Comanche lost the battle with Beau Pony…

Farm orientation is not complete until your introduction to Beau Pony, and Comanche did not come out unscathed. The little demon tormented Comanche through the fence, sticking his head through to bite when he was being ignored, and then retreating right before he received the kick he deserved. An entire show season and several months of training have been derailed in the treatment of these guerrilla warfare tactic casualties. Electric charged wires now run on both sides of our vinyl fencing to keep everybody honest.

Unfortunately, Beau induced injuries were not our only veterinary set-backs. We also spent six months treating skin cancer lesions located on Comanche’s (of all places) boy parts. You can’t explain certain horse ownership responsibilities like inspecting, cleaning, and treating the ulcers on your gelding’s sheath to people not familiar with agriculture or animal husbandry. It doesn’t exactly make for socially acceptable dinner conversation in most circles. I imagining it happening like this.

Non-Equestrian: “How’s everything? What’s new with you?”

Me: “Oh just great, a few hours ago I was elbow deep in my horse trying to convince him to drop his manhood, so I could soap him up and dig the gunk out of the tip.”

Non-Equestrian: spits margarita out, horrified expression, silence

Me: “These are really good margaritas. We should do this more often.”

Initial rides on Comanche were interesting, I took the previous owner’s advice and lunged him prior to the first few rides. Whoever had trained (if you call it that) Comanche, had definitely forgotten to install brakes. The horse wasn’t malicious or panicking, he just travels at the speed of give it all you’ve got. He completely ignored all my seat and hand cues. Not wanting to get into his mouth too much, we resorted to very tiny circles any time our speed bordered out of control (every 4 strides), and this was just the trot. It took almost 3 weeks before I had the cajones to go beyond second gear. Two years later Comanche requires an independent seat, impeccable balance, and effective half-halts to hold him together. An accidental shift in weight can send him careening around an arena.

Working with Comanche has been humbling. He has probably had more success making me a better rider, than I have had improving him. He’s an extremely sensitive horse, that’s eager to please, but that much sensitivity creates a highly strung animal that is easily frustrated. I question everything I’ve ever been taught, read, and knew about training horses after working with him. Two years in and we are just finally seeing success with downward transitions, responding to seat, and staying off the forehand (most of that within the past month). Although Beau Pony induced injuries and other various health ordeals delayed some of his training, I’m happy with the progress we’ve made. I’ve never ridden any animal with his speed and stamina combined into one package, but it gives me hope that just maybe we’ll gallop our first cross-country course this year. I’m already dreaming (quasi planning) participating in our first one day or three day event in 2020.

Comanche at a schooling show.

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