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Remembering Joe

December 26, 2012

From the archives!

MemorialDayParade1977WM“Growing up on a farm in IL I had animals around as long as I can remember. There were always cattle in the fields, pigs raised to sell and eat, numerous dogs and cats usually abandoned “in the country” to be taken in by the nearest farmer if they were lucky. But for me the creature that captured my imagination was the horse. It didn’t matter if it was reading about “Little Black” the pony or watching great horses like Secretariat on television or reading accounts of horses like Snowbound or Exterminator…horses that had fire yet were controlled by a rope or a rein fascinated me. I had long tamed special cows and would sit on them wishing it was a horse.

A few months after Secretariat won his Triple Crown a nondescript sorrel pony arrived. It was said he was too slow but he was an 8 year old gelding that gave rise to dreams. He logged many miles riding to any number of towns 4-5 miles away in any direction, or crossing fields following tracks of a deer or other animal. There was a spot said to be where the Pony Express went through and I’d sit there imagining waiting for the next rider…what it would have been like to ride without fences – the dangers the riders faced never crossed my young mind.

As the years melted away Joe competed in open horse shows, in 4-H fairs, in FFA competitions. He won a roomful of ribbons and was a companion like no other. I remember trying to catch a Charolais-Angus crossbred calf one time and couldn’t get close to it – I got a rope and climbed on Joe, trying in vain to get close enough to rope it. While I wished Joe was bigger, faster, better he showed me something more important. Reliability. Doing the best that you can even if it’s not as good as someone else. Endurance and persistence is better than rushing to an accident.

GaryAprilMeJoeJuly1977There were accidents. When I’d get too sure of myself he’d stop sudden or otherwise make sure he planted me in the field for a walk home. Once taking a shortcut he stopped and refused to move…I kicked and slapped with the reins and pulled his head around in vain. I got off and found a branch entwined around his hind legs. Another time my border collie broke loose and tracked me to a friend’s house…the friend’s Doberman and my dog hated each other and sure enough a fight broke out. Before either of us could yell both dogs were under Joe, with me on top of him. I didn’t want to step on the dogs but feared one of them biting him…when they broke apart briefly I kicked Joe into a canter to get far enough away to be safe so I could get off and help break the dogs up.

With all the miles put on him and all the ignorant things I did to him he never bit, never got mean. There were few things he wouldn’t tolerate…electric clippers was one of them. But I learned to trust him and would take him places many horses wouldn’t go. I learned what buttons I could push on him and in time there was a bond that few understand.

My last year of 4-H I still couldn’t afford a “real horse” so was still showing Joey. We’d do halter and western pleasure, English pleasure, barrel racing, keyhole race, trail classes and whatever else was laid out as a challenge. Others sat on fancy quarter horses with expensive pedigrees…but when a steer broke loose it was me with Joe and a friend with an equally “low class” horse who penned the contrary beast in the corner and held it so the owner could grab the rope (something that happened at least once every fair it seemed!). The last year I was down to my last class as a 4-H member, which was the trail class. This was something Joe normally cruised through – backing through barrels was easy because by then I could put him anywhere. Crossing poles and bridges, including the tilting ones, was easy. Joe would tolerate what terrified the expensive horses. During that last trail class we were to ride up to a mailbox and with the right hand, pull out a yellow raincoat, put it on, take it off and put it back in the mailbox; then ride over a pole, back through a trio of barrels, go over a tilting bridge and lastly ride to the middle of a circle, walk around the outside with a small bucket of grain while the horse was to stay still, ground tied in the center. Many of these exercises we did on a daily basis, such as getting the mail, so I knew there was nothing I could pull out of a mail box that would scare him. I pushed that. I rode up to the box, said “whoa”, dropped the reins and opened the mailbox. As I pulled the yellow raincoat out (which spooked most competitors) I flipped it over Joe’s head, then again taking it off. Once the box was shut I picked up the reins and went through the obstacles in order. I got off in the circle and told him “whoa”, walked a few feet to the outside of the circle, around the outside of it, held the bucket up and trickled the grain from hand to bucket. He was drooling but remained still, but I could tell it wouldn’t be for long so walked back to him, gave him a couple kernels of corn, remounted and rode out. I waited for my name to be called in the results but it was’t happening so I started talking to someone, and only when it was called twice did I learn we’d won the class!

JoeInLotWhile that was certainly a highlight, it wasn’t what cemented him in my heart. Some time later we attended an annual trail ride, along with my sister and her part Arab Lady. This was an all day event in strip mine country – there was water to walk through, hills to climb and descend, many natural obstacles that tested a horse’s fitness and reserve. Many a person early in the ride talked of “waiting for the pony” but midway through the ride it was Joe who was waiting for their 16 hand horse! On this particular ride two groups were separated and on the trail was a dicey situation – bushes formed a natural wall on the right while on the left was a steep drop down to a small pond. I had no doubts Joe would handle it so we started across. My sister’s horse paniced, and tried to pass us. Without room to do so she unwittingly shoved Joe off the narrow path. I threw my weight forward as he scrambled desperately for footing back up on the path. I felt his rump sink into air and looked down quickly for a spot to try to land as he continued trying to find land under him. He stayed on his feet, but couldn’t get solid footing in the steep hill and partway down I lost my balance. The last thing I remember is looking up at his feet coming towards my stomach…then hitting a small ledge. He didn’t touch me, but had feet on both sides of me. I couldn’t breathe but whispered “WHOA”. I faintly heard other riders above trying to get my sister’s horse off the trail and saw a couple others coming down the hill. They spoke of a whole new respect for Joe…he had twisted in mid air, injuring his shoulder trying to miss me. When we found the easiest way up one person led Joe while I grabbed his tail and had him pull me up as I tried to breathe normally again. From that day forward there was something beyond description between me and Joey. He would go slower on hills after then but I didn’t push him.

I moved away and he stayed on the farm…I desperately missed him and had other horses during the time I lived across the country. I handled show champions and sons and daughters of Kentucky Derby contenders, but none ever quite resided in my heart as Joe did. Life – and horses – took me to Oklahoma in 1991 where Joe and a couple other horses joined me again. I used him once again as a lesson horse, knowing he’d make a student sit down and ask correctly but that he had a heart of gold. His muzzle was lighter colored, his eyes still sparkled with mischief on a sunny morning.

JoeOne young lady came out wanting to ride, but was terrified once up there. She would grab the saddle horn, too afraid to raise it to guide him. Many lessons passed and she, too, learned Joe would watch out for her. A rodeo was coming to town and she begged to compete in the barrel race. Her mom told her “I don’t think we can do that – it’s for professionals.”

I remembered back as I looked at Joe and then looked at my client and said “let her”. I received a bewildered look in response.

“What will she ride?”
I nodded in Joe’s direction “Joe will take care of her. They won’t make any time but he’ll get her through the pattern. He knows it – all she’ll have to do is sit up there and guide him”.

Rodeo day dawned and I rode my appaloosa mare Sierra and led Joe the short distance to the grounds. As polished quarter horses streaked around the barrels I went over with Lisa how to get Joe through the pattern. “Don’t worry about time…use your legs to guide him around the barrels but don’t knock any over.” She nodded, every bit as serious for an Oklahoma playday as a competitor at the National Finals Rodeo. Her name was called and she mounted up, approaching the entry way to the pen as a bay mare blazed past her leaving the arena after a good time. The signal was given it was her turn and she kicked Joe into a lope, aiming carefully for the first JoeJanJerryAprilbarrel. She looked up for the second one, then it seemed in no time she was at the third. As she turned for home the announcer told a brief story of “this is a 28 year old pony with a first time competitor…let’s cheer ’em home!” The time wasn’t close to the time of the bay who ran before. It was three times as long as almost everything else – but she accomplished something that some didn’t think possible. She overcame her fears of falling, of speed, of being in a crowd – and she completed the pattern. Her little face beamed as Joey pranced out of the arena, his nostrils flaring and his eyes glancing at me as if saying “did I do good?”

Within a month age caught up with him and he laid down for good in the pasture. He was by many accounts 28 years old, but I suspect he was a little older than that. No one knows how many kids he taught to ride or how many miles those old legs carried me when we were both much younger. He didn’t have papers but had lived a long life, always been healthy and remains a measure of a good horse. There’s been other horses and will be more – but there will never be another Joe.

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