In 2010, I got the horse of my dreams.
Five-year-old OTTB, Bonhomme Richard, a.k.a., "Jones", was everything I could have hoped for, shopping as I was, with a very limited budget. He was young, athletic, tall, talented, and sensible .... A handsome bay, with a classic head and clean legs, he came to me already started over cross-rails. He was a joy to ride in company or alone, in the arena or out on the trail. He was perfect. I was sure we'd be competing in no time.
Then, three months after I bought him, at the peak of the hottest summer on record in Phoenix, he stopped being able to sweat. Temperatures were up over 115 during the day and never dropped below 100 at night. Poor Jonesy was miserable, even inside the barn with fans blowing on him around the clock. I’d tried everything I knew how to do to help him. So did my vet. But there is no guaranteed cure for anhidrosis in horses, in fact we aren't even sure what causes it, and he didn’t respond to anything we tried.
He went downhill fast. He lost weight. His hair started to fall out. He developed sores on his legs. Then he quit eating. As much as I loved him, I knew he’d die if I kept him in Phoenix. I had to do something.
Jones had come from Kass Dewey’s ex-racehorse rescue facility in Tucson. She only dealt in off-track thoroughbreds, and she only sold quality horses. So, the day I finally accepted the truth about Jones and decided to call her, I broke down in tears. Asking if she’d take him back was one of the hardest decisions I’d ever made. To my surprise, not only did she agree to take him back, she said I could trade him in -- pick another horse and trade straight across. It was an incredible offer ... but I didn’t want any of the other horses.
Don’t get me wrong, there were some nice horses at Kass’s place. Really nice horses. She had about a dozen or so attractive, athletic geldings all living a life of ex-racing luxury, hanging out in her rescue paddock. Any of them would make a nice horse for someone ... just not for me. I wanted Jones.
I needed a horse though. Without Jones, I had nothing of my own to ride, and as anyone who knows me can tell you, I NEED to ride. So, after spending all I’d saved to purchase Jones, my options totaled exactly one. If I wanted another horse, I’d have to pick one of the others at Kass’s: a consolation prize for losing the horse of my dreams.
It would be a business decision, I decided. I’d buy a resale prospect, train it for a few months, then sell it. Quick. No attachment. Minimal investment. I’d recoup my money, maybe pull a small profit, and then go buy the horse I really wanted. Something to replace Jones.
I mulled over my options until the weekend came and I could make the four-hour round-trip haul down to Tucson. Unless she’d gotten anything new since I’d been there to look at Jones, four stood out in my memory. There was a lanky and flashy four-year-old bay with high white socks and a fantastic trot; a stocky dark brown who was plain as a mud fence but had already started jumping with a girl who lived down the block and rode him bareback in a halter and lead; a two-year-old chestnut that would probably grow up to be a knock-out if I wanted to wait two years for him to be old enough to jump; and a nine-year-old gray who was truly stunning -- and a gorgeous mover -- but way too old for what I needed.
It really was too bad about that white one. He'd caught my eye as soon as I'd walked into the paddock that first time I'd visited Kass. He would have been the one I brought home, in fact, if he were younger. But he was NINE: way too old to resell. Too old to start a competition career, too. As pretty as he was, he would never work for me. And the two-year-old was just too young.
So it was down to two. Would it be the fancy four-year-old bay or the smaller, plainer five-year-old, the dark brown who already had some schooling over cross-rails? In my head, I called them Fancy and Hunter, and by the time I’d pulled into Kass’s driveway, I was pretty sure that I would be going home with Hunter. He’d probably make a kid’s horse, he was ready to start competing now, and he’d sell easily. It was just a matter of taking a quick look at the others to make sure and then loading up Hunter and heading home.
After I unloaded Jones and got him settled into his cool, comfortable indoor stall, I said good-bye, and then holding back the last of my tears, I left my dream horse behind in the barn. Resolutely, I headed out to the pasture, empty halter hanging over my shoulder, determined to put my feelings aside and make a businesslike choice.
Like before, a small herd of geldings -- browns, bays, chestnuts -- gazed at me as I opened the gate and let myself into the paddock. I looked right past the gray who was standing in front of the herd, taller than any of the others by a hand, with his silvery-white coat proclaiming his age like a billboard. Too bad, I thought again. He’d be just what I was looking for -- if he were younger.
I shooed them off, trying to get them moving and spread them out so I could get an idea of which one's gaits I liked best. Having put the gray out of my mind, I focused on the others. It was an exercise in frustration. None were keen to do much besides jog a few steps and then bunch back up and ignore me. So I clucked and waved and clapped my leg, walking in circles, kicking up dust, and not accomplishing much else. That's when I felt the tug on my shoulder.
I turned around, and there was the gray. He'd sneaked up behind me with the other old guys who were even lazier and less interested in trotting around the pen than the younger ones who were mostly ignoring me from the rail. The tug I'd felt was Jones's halter -- the one I'd carried out to the paddock over my shoulder.
The gray looked at me expectantly, so I laughed, pet him, and then shooed him off before turning back to the horses I was going to buy. I chased them, fruitlessly, for another lap or so, and then there was another, harder, tug on the halter.
When I turned around this time, the gray didn't let go. He just held the noseband of Jones's halter and smiled at me. I swear he did. He smiled.
I smiled back. I chuckled and tugged on the halter, expecting him to let go. He didn't. He tugged back. I pulled. He waited ... and then he took a step toward me. His eyes glinted as he watched me. I pulled again and took a step back. He stepped with me, still not letting go of the halter.
"Okay. Seriously," I said, giving the halter a very firm tug, hard enough to get him to drop it. "You're very cute. Go play. I'm busy."
He moved off a step or two and then stubbornly stood there, daring me to waste my energy trying to make him go away.
I didn't play his silly game. I ignored him.
Turning back to the herd, I worked at them for a bit longer -- finding it somewhat more difficult now because of the big white horse standing right in the way -- and not making much progress. Finally I gave up and just put the halter on Hunter.
Kass didn't allow the horses to be ridden at her place. Most had been standing in a pasture for months, and getting on cold like that would be beyond dangerous. She required that you take them home, restart them, and if you still liked them three weeks later, she would cash the check. To make a long story short, I longed both Hunter and Fancy, and after watching them move, I decided to take the younger of the two. His movement was exponentially better, and he was so pretty that his resale value was as close to a guarantee as you can get with a green horse.
I thanked Kass, and headed for the trailer with my new, fancy bay colt.
I got about twelve feet.
Suddenly, it just felt wrong. I couldn't make my feet move. I stood there for a full minute, warring internally with myself, and then finally I turned to Kass. "Can I just look at the gray?"
She grinned. She and that danged white horse had known which one was going home with me from the beginning. It just took me a little longer than everyone else to catch on.
I tacked him up and put him in loose side reins as I had the others. Like any ex-racehorse, he had no idea what to do with a longe line and side reins. Unlike most, however, his solution wasn't to bolt or resist or jitter around when I asked him to move off. His answer was ... passage. Not a ridiculous racehorse jig. Not a nervous, stilted trot. Not a jog. Passage. My chin hit the ground. My eyes bugged out.
And I drove away from Kass's place with a nine-year-old gray gelding in the trailer.
I didn't know it then, but I understand it now; it was just the first of many, many things that I would understand better with the passage of time: I had to lose the horse of my dreams to find the horse of a lifetime. One white horse. The horse who changed everything.