Thursday, April 30, 2020

Hey, Mickey

Mickey was an off-the-track Thoroughbred; he raced four years and won over $46,000, which is both a lot and hardly anything in the weird world of racing. He was quite small, 15.1 hands, which translates to just over five foot at the shoulder. (Horses are always measured to the top of the shoulder as it's the highest fixed point in their anatomy.) His registered name was Modest Man, which cracked us the hell up, because a more immodest horse would have been hard to find. He knew he was spectacular. When he stopped racing he was bought and retrained for eventing by a teenager who worked for an international rider named Dorothy Crowell. She renamed him Hey Mickey, and rode him for several years, competing him up through preliminary level, which contrary to the name is the fourth of six levels. Problem was, he could only jump prelim cross country jumps if he came into them absolutely perfectly--they're big enough that they hit the limits of what he could jump, leaving no room for error. If he couldn't clear the jump, he refused to try, which was smart of him, but meant he wasn't really suited to his rider's goals. You could see it in his record--flawless cross-country rounds at every level until prelim, then a stop or two, then they'd bump him down a level and he'd be perfect, then back up and he'd have a stop. He just couldn't quite do prelim. 

He was a quirky little guy. He was high-strung and nervous and opinionated. He was also wholly brave and reliable. Katie's old horse, Pal (still with us at 33 years old!) had taken her to the first level of recognized eventing, but Pal was already elderly and was starting to lose soundness. A young friend of mine, barely out of her teens at the time--now herself an international level rider--took me aside and said, "Buy her a beginner novice/novice horse, NOT a training/prelim one." I already understood this, but it's worth repeating because so few people follow it--you want your kid on the horse he or she is ready for right at that time, not the horse they might be ready for sometime in the hypothetical future.

Mickey didn't suit many kids, and he'd been for sale for over a year, but when we started looking, online, he popped up over and over again. I'd go to some horses-for-sale site, enter my basic criteria (already evented, not a pony, middle-aged, middle-priced) and start scrolling through candidates. "Oh, here's one that looks good," I'd say to my daughter. "Oh wait--it's still Mickey." Mickey, Mickey, Mickey. The universe was clearly trying to tell us something. 

It happens that one of my trainers, Cathy Wieschhoff, lives fairly near and is a longtime friend of Dorothy Crowell. Cathy gave me Dorothy's number, and I asked Dorothy, mom-to-mom, about the horse. Dorothy said that if her own daughter wanted to event she'd buy Mickey for her. We went and tried him, and he was calm and happy and rideable. With his owner he could move under saddle quite well; with my daughter, who didn't have the same level of skill at the time, he poked his nose out and trotted happy and loose. He vetted sound. We bought him.

Then my daughter had a great big adjustment, going from a phlegmatic square elderly Quarterhorse to a lively nippy Thoroughbred. We'd planned, however, on a long period of transition--we bought him in the fall knowing she wouldn't compete him until late spring. She had time to learn to quit kicking him in mid-air over every jump, which had been necessary if you wanted Pal to land cantering, but caused Mickey to leap into a gallop. She learned that if he was tense he sometimes needed less control, not more; she learned to let him blow off steam with a nice gallop around a field. She also learned when to say, "Mickey, it just sucks to be you," and cheerfully ignore the temper-tantrums caused, say, by a new martingale.  

Right from the start they understood each other. Very early in his time with us, he was on the crossties in our barn when I walked through with a long piece of hose. Mickey spooked. My daughter pressed her palms against him. "It's not a snake," she said.

Mickey said, "That is too a snake."

My daughter: "Relax. Shh. It's not a snake."

Mickey: "Snake, snake, SNAKE!"

My daughter (still talking out loud, still with her palms on his shoulder): I'm right here. You're okay. You're safe.

Mickey (calming somewhat): okay. Okay. But it's still a snake.

My daughter: Not a snake.

Mickey: long exhale. Leans his head briefly against my daughter's.

My daughter: Mom? Move the snake.

Sometimes at competitions he would get so worked up, inside his stall, that steam would roll off his sweating body. But when Katie rode him into the start box he was perfectly calm. At their first event he was clearly delighted to be competing again, and he bopped around cross country like a Thewell pony. At the second event, he remembered that he used to run prelim, where the speeds are much higher, and he burst out of the box like he was jet-fueled. In the center of the vast field I laughed so hard I could barely watch. "I could still steer him," my daughter said later, "and I knew he would jump everything." However, a low levels, cross country courses have speed limits--for safety's sake riders are fined for going too fast. After a few fences my daughter realized they were going Mach Six. She sat up and trotted an enormous circle. Then they resumed jumping. Mickey picked up speed again, so my daughter added a second huge trot circle. She trotted the last two fences, and trotted the hill going home (after the last fence you're not allowed to go slower than a trot, to prevent riders from avoid speed faults by standing still), and missed getting speed faults by one second. It was a pony club event, and Muffin Pantaze, one of of the technical directors, followed her over the finish line in a golf cart and chewed her out for the next fifteen minutes. When I caught up to them I was still laughing. 

She learned control. They were best-conditioned and highest-placed in several of our local rallies. They were fourth in their division at the pony club national championship. Before my daughter went to college they competed up to training level. They never had a cross-country fault in all their years together.

Mickey died unexpectedly between Thanksgiving and Christmas of my daughter's junior year. He was the same age as my daughter, so getting older for a horse, but still lively in every sense of the word. When my daughter left for college we could have sold him--but I knew it would be hard to find a kid that matched his personality. He'd been wonderful for my child, and I owed him, so I told him he was home. He still is; we buried him beside my daughter's first pony. She rides a new horse now. Sometimes we both find ourselves saying, to the new guy, "Hey, Micks, knock it off." Then we tear up a little. Then we smile.

Hey Mickey. You were so, so fine.

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