Friday, March 05, 2010

Time Does Not Stop For Sorrow

PJ's Folly in Maryland. This head held many secrets. It took me years to unlock them
Horses I Have Known: Part 8

After Si's death, I was in a bind. He had not been insured at the $4500 I had spent on him had wiped out most of the money I had set aside for a new horse. Prospects looked bleak. Russell was still able to be ridden, but his competition career was over, so I was at a loss.

I called up Jan, the dealer I had bought Si from and when I told her the news, she was really upset. Immediately, she promised she would find me another horse, and, although she could not get me one for free, she offered to sell me one for the price her husband paid, not taking any profit at all. She said she'd find a horse better than Si, and told me to be patient.
Several months went by with no luck. Then one cold winter day, Jan called to tell me she had a prospect. But the ground was badly frozen and she had no indoor. Still, I took the three hour drive down to look at a very nice, pretty bay. I couldn't see much of his movement, so I wasn't able to decided on whether to take the chance of buying him. By the time I made up my mind after the drive home and a day of thinking, the horse had been sold and I was again out of luck.

It was at least another month before Jan called again. This time the footing was good and she was sure she had a horse for me. At $1500, he was stretching my budget to the limit, but shipping him from the Midwest and some other complications would not let her lower the price any more, so once more I and my friend Jacquie drove down to Maryland to go horse shopping.

PJ's Folly in Maryland. He was not your typical racing Thoroughbred, that's for sure.

PJ's Folly was a strongly built 4 year old. He had a bowed tendon, already cold and set, an adorable face, good basic conformation, and a huge trot. He was a bit reluctant to work, but once he got going, he was quite a boy. In the barn, however, Jan and her workers were just a bit cautious handling him. He was somewhat aggressive in the stall and when the stablehand tried to put back boots on him before I rode, he moved gingerly, ready to leap out of the way should PJ try to kick. None of that bothered me too much. I'd met a lot of difficult horses in my time and had always managed to improve their ground manners once I had them in my control. As a matter of fact, when we were done riding, I went into the stall with PJ and tried to bite me. I simply laughed and told him to cut it out--which he did. Jacquie said she heard Jan breathe a sigh of relief. I suppose she'd thought something like that would ruin the sale.

Here I am in Maryland riding PJ for the first time. I was a little concerned that he might not be big enough for me. He eventually matured to 16.2 h, so that was never a problem. He was all ready to stretch down from day one.

We settled, provided PJ would pass a vetting--which he did--but I'll let that go for now. I had some basic xrays taken and, of course the tendon issue looked at, and soon he was shipped up to me at Prime Time.

Poor PJ was a wreck when he arrived. The entire horse trailer was shaking from his quivering body and he was sweated up. How he must have suffered on that long drive to New Jersey. I knew I was going to have a lot of work to do to make him a happy horse, but I had no idea how complicated it was going to become.

He settled in well in the barn, but it was soon apparent that somewhere along the way he had suffered from some really bad handling. He was definitely aggressive in the stall, and would threaten to go after anyone who invaded his space. Interestingly enough, he did not seem to offer to kick, but would attack with his front end, head snaking out, teeth snapping and his forelegs striking. Since he seemed much better with women, I warned all the men there to just leave him alone, especially after one of the boarder's fathers, hanging over the stall door was charged by a raging horse then proceeded to yell and threaten PJ with his hands. Somehow, that was the last thing I wanted. I yelled back at the father, telling him not to punish my horse. I was totally convinced that PJ had been beaten at some point and did not deserve any more trauma.

Later, when I went into his stall with the manure fork to pick out some poo, he dived at me--or rather the fork with striking front hooves and a frightening determination. I stood my ground quietly and in a second, he backed off and went back to his hay.

PJ had been a racehorse. To this day, I am convinced of several things. He was a big boned, big horse, not like what people see at the typical racing Thoroughbred. His racing record showed only one third place finish in a dismal career, which is why he was sold to the dealer. Obviously he had the bowed tendons (Two, actually) and it later turned out he had evidence of a broken bone in his front foot--so much for a pre-purchase vetting with hoof xrays!! His bulky build and overall size had worked against him on the track, as I also suspect he was rather slow to mature. And, I think it had worked against him in the barn. He was the kind of horse whose massive body would have been quite intimidating to a groom and I am sure someone handling him had used the manure fork as a weapon to beat him, or hold him off.

Just to prove how deepseated a horse's fears can be, for at least ten, if not more, years with me, I still had to be careful going into PJ's stall with a fork in my hand. I would always warn the barn workers where we boarded as well. Even after years of never being so much as threatened by a fork, I can still remember PJ's going after me one day as I was picking his stall with careless abandon because I was sure he'd overcome his terror. The attack was short, and as quickly as he moved to strike he stopped himself and actually looked confused, but the habit was still there. By the time I brought him home here to live with me, I had finally vanished altogether, and I could even use the fork to ask him to move out of the way if I needed to, but that was only after more than those ten years of quiet handling.

And quiet handling was my motto. For the first year I owned him, I never once corrected him with more than my voice for bad manners. If he was aggressive, I simply made sure I was out of harm's way, told him "no," and let it be. The red letter day was the one when I was in his stall grooming him and he made a move to kick at me. Without a thought, I moved out of the way and threw the brush at him, hitting him solidly in the rump. That was the turning point. Instead of cringing away or defending himself, PJ blinked, flicked up his ears and simply looked at me as if to say, "Oops, sorry about that."

Undersaddle, PJ was a different story. He was a contradiction from day to day. On some days he was beautiful to ride, forward and elegant. His enormous trot was lovely. His canter--well, that needed a lot of work. He had no right lead and it took me what seemed forever to try to teach him to take it. Then, a day later, he would not stretch through the bit, or seem to be able to trot, much less canter with any skill at all. It was positively frustrating.

The first time I took him out on the trail, I found out that he hadn't a clue about how to gallop. He offered a nice quiet canter, but we might as well have been in a children's pleasure class. He wouldn't go on when I urged him and didn't relax his back or go into the bit at all as most race horses will. No wonder he never won a race. Years later, I realized if he had been trained right from the start he probably would have been a winner. He had a huge stride and when I rode with other riders on equally sized Thoroughbreds, they would have to canter to keep up with PJ's trot, and if I cantered they'd have to gallop. If I galloped, it was totally impossible for them to keep up. PJ's grand father had been a Kentucky Derby winner (Your Host) and from the pictures PJ had inherited his athletic build and talent. I'm glad his original owners never discovered that because then I never would have owned him--he was that good.

But there was another side to PJ as well. On one early ride, we had to cross a stream. PJ was OK at first going in, but then when we reached a little island in the middle, he stopped. And we simply stood there. He started to shake just a little as the enormity of what he'd done by crossing the first patchof water had been. I kicked, tried to turn him, slapped him a little with the rein, and even had one of my friends try to give us a lead. Nothing worked. PJ was frozen in time and space. I was just about to dismount and soak my own legs in the water when finally, he slowly took a step and made his way to the other shore. His brain had simply overloaded and his body had gone along.

His sensitive nature was clear. But there was much more behind his behavior, and it took me a while to unlock his secrets. It was, at the time, an amazing journey to come.


  1. Anonymous11:29 AM

    He sounds like quite the challenge - he was fortunate to have had you.

  2. What a fantastic trainer you are! I really wish you were closer because I would come for some lessons.

    PJ sounds like a mystery.

    Starting young horses, the right way is SO important, it is the FIRST times that matters most!
    That is why I have much respect for Saul. He is an amazing young horses "starter". He has much to learn for more advanced older horses. But with the babies, he is a star.

    Simply because he is very calm, but also very playful, and he manages to get there without fighting (or very little). He is also able to give very strong basics such as :
    - following your nose,
    - maintain gait,
    - maintain direction.

    It sounds like such obvious banalities, but not many horses know how to do it properly that young!

    I am looking forward for more stories about PJ.

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  4. P.J. sounds as if he's going to be quite a challenge to figure out. I like horses with personality and he is such a pretty boy. But I do wish that I knew the histories of some of my horses so I might know why they act a particular way towards something. For example Donnie is shy about his halter even after all these years. Unraveling a mystery seems to take forever but with support and gentle understanding we seem to muddle through.

  5. PJ sounds like the twin of Gulliver. My jaw was hanging by the time I finished reading.

    I've really loved all your stories thus far! Can't wait to read more.