On a late summer evening in 2006, following forty-five minutes of struggle and stress, my daughter Jamie, our friend Lori and I finally succeeded in getting a feisty little gray Arabian gelding loaded into a horse trailer. We were taking him to Jamie’s place. She hoped to train him and, eventually, show him. After spending his first four years in the pasture just being a horse, it was time to give Gray Rebel Piper – affectionately known as “Bert” – a job.
I always thought that once you get the butt bar up and latched, the work is done and you can breath a sigh of relief – the humans have won again. But to Bert, we were just a little group of absurdly optimistic bipeds and this thing was far from over.
He squealed. He stomped. The trailer rocked back and forth. The racket was awful.
Then something happened that I’ve never seen before or since: Bert slipped under the butt bar and stumbled backward down the ramp to freedom.
I was certain that a big, traumatic chase was imminent. However, instead of bolting, Bert simply trotted in a little semi-circle and sauntered up to Jamie as if to say: “That was kinda fun – what else do you want to do tonight?”
One thing we weren’t going to do that night was get Bert back in the trailer. It took a new day and the presence of his owner, Ron, to finally convince the little Arab that getting – and staying – in the trailer was the right thing to do.
Bert was born June 12, 2002. As he grew, Ron played with him in the pasture and taught him how to behave around people: no biting, no kicking, humans are a good thing. But Ron never taught Bert that carrying people around was proper work for a horse.
Jamie liked Bert. She found him playful, sweet and more than a little spirited. He loved to run and would take off at a gallop by himself without warning or apparent reason. But like with the loading incident, he always reported back.
Ron supported a small herd of horses at his place. As is customary with horses everywhere, they tended to gather at the fence line whenever a human appeared. Some enjoyed staying for a little social time once the treats were gone. Bert was always among those who stayed.
It was during one of these meetings that Jamie, who had been perched on the top rail of the fence, made a spontaneous decision to mount Bert. The horse was close enough to the fence for Jamie to simply ease one leg over and slide onto his back in one smooth motion. Just like that, Bert had a rider.
Ron was duly alarmed. No way was the two-year old ready for this. No way was Ron ready for this:
“Are you crazy?” It was more of an accusation than a question.
But Bert didn’t seem to have a problem with it. He stood next to the fence as calm as before, as if he was unaware that anything significant had changed. It wouldn’t be the last time Bert surprised his doubters.
After Jamie brought Bert home, she began to discover little quirks in his personality. He hated and feared water. He did not submit gracefully to being bathed and during the rinse cycle he would sink to his knees, even while on the crossties. Applying fly spray was similarly traumatic. He favorite avoidance behavior was rolling in the dirt. You can’t put a halter on horse who is rolling in the dirt. He despised the indoor arena, resisting any attempt to coax him into to this mysterious temple of doom.
While Bert allowed Jamie to mount him without much fuss, he was still unpredictable, reserving the right to bolt whenever the mood struck him. Whether Jamie was on him or not.
“He would take off without warning and then twist himself into a “U” shape while going flat out.”
Jamie continued to work with Bert, making a special effort to introduce him to new environments. This included his first visit to a horseshow. It was just an exploratory outing to get him accustomed to the show atmosphere.
“I was worried he might freak out, so we took special precautions. Hiliary and I brought multiple lunge lines and ropes and even tranquilizers.”
They didn’t have to use any of it. When they unloaded Bert at the show grounds, he reacted the same he did when Jamie sat on him for the first time, he simply stood there, waiting for whatever the Universe offered next.
He was calm enough that they thought they could risk entering him in halter. He fell asleep in the class. Hiliary suggested they try him in walk/trot. Jamie took him in the class and they got a third. She could not believe this was the same horse that enjoyed bending himself into a “U” at full speed.
As Jamie was to discover over the next two years, Bert was full of all kind of surprises. He loved small animals; especially Jamie’s dogs Leila and Andi. It was not unusual for Jamie to find Bert and one of the dogs curled up together asleep in his stall. He was a babysitter with kids. They could brush him for hours or climb all over him. His appetite for human interaction seemed insatiable.
In 2008, Jamie moved to Florida. She had Bert trailered down several months later after spending some time back at Ron’s. The first two years in the new environment went well, but by his third summer in Florida, Jamie began to notice a change in Bert. “There was just something off about him.”
Bert started losing weight. Then he suffered from two severe bouts of colic. He became lethargic. Jamie had multiple test performed, but no one could figure out what was going on.
Over the next few months, Jamie tried everything she could think of to help Bert. She changed his diet, altered his routine and tried different medications. She even moved him to a different barn. But nothing seemed to help. Finally, a vet suggested that Bert might have developed an allergy to a local mold.
Jamie decided that it would be worth trying to move Bert back to Michigan to see if that would help. He would stay at Lori’s. At least for a while.
Within weeks of returning to Michigan, Bert started putting on weight. After six months, he started acting like the old Bert.
Jamie got the opportunity to see her buddy several times while he was at Lori’s. It became a Must Stop on her semi-annual visits back to Michigan.
While she missed Bert, seeing for herself how well he had recovered left little doubt in her mind that bringing him back to Michigan was the right thing to do. He wouldn’t be returning to Florida with her.
At his new home, Bert had several horses to play with and Lori to keep him company. But soon after he recovered, he started misbehaving. He broke down fences, bullied the other horses and seemed restless and anxious. It was clear to everyone that Bert needed some kind of job to keep him occupied and out of trouble.
What Bert really needed was a horse-crazy kid.
To be continued…