Sunday, March 21, 2010

Warm Sunday

Horses I Have Known: Part 13

Today it was at least 70 F with warm sunshine. I gave a riding lesson after church and did not work the Boys. I'm coming down with a bit of a cold, so I need to fight that off instead.

But on to Toby's story.

At the riding clinic with Kenny Harlow, Toby was the absolute star. He learned every exercise faster than any of the other horses and didn't really seemed challenged by anything. We even ended up going out on a rather long trail ride on the third day, and I had to let him be in the lead group. I missed out on the training exercises Kenny was doing behind us, but I did sort of chaperone a young rider and two others on horses that simply did not want to walk as slowly as Kenny's group. It was matter of fighting with our horses to make them tiptoe along with the larger group, or let them walk out nicely.

When we got back, Kenny set up some more challenging exercises for everyone, including walking over a blue plastic tarp, and playing with some plastic bags. He knew I'd had issues with Toby's spooking so he took him on as his demo horse. It was again Toby's time to shine. While he wasn't perfect, he responded to the training faster than any of the other horses and quickly was striding over the tarp and dealing with the bags with complete confidence. Kenny kind of looked at me as if to ask, "So what's the problem with this horse??"

"Let's try the mylar balloons," I suggested. These are those shiny special occasion balloons you can find in most gift stores. I'd loaded two in my trailer just for this moment.

When Kenny came walking back into the arena with the balloons, his star pupil exploded into a panic. Toby was leaping about, completely out of control. Kenny worked him in a small circle on the end of the rope reins while Toby leapt and raced around him every time the balloons moved. He had turned into a maniac.

After a while, he finally settled down, and started walking instead of bolting. At that point, Kenny seemed convinced he had overcome Toby's terror. With the balloons still in his hand, on the end of less than three feet of string, he started walking towards the other riders, leading Toby behind him. Suddenly, without any warning, Toby leapt forward, striking out with his forefeet at the balloons in Kenny's hands, popping one of them in a fraction of a second. Kenny whirled around, pulling the other balloon and his arm out of the way, and stood for a second looking at my horse.

"Don't ever, ever challenge this horse when he is scared, " he said quietly. Then he added, "Can you stay for a while after the clinic is over? I need to work this out."

He moved the remaining balloon off to the side, finished up with some more exercises with both Toby and the other horses, and then concluded the clinic.

After everyone else had left, he took Toby from me again. "I've never quite seen a horse react like that," he said. "He's really dangerous." I kind of gulped, and nodded. "I don't think I'd want to work in the round pen with him, especially if he was afraid of something. You're going to have to be careful with him."

Then he mounted up and worked for another 30-40 minutes until he was able to ride Toby past the balloon hanging on the side of the arena without any more spooks. It all ended on a good note, and a year or so later, when Kenny thought he was going to need a demo horse for a clinic he was giving, he asked to borrow Toby because he knew he'd do all the exercises without any trouble, but his warnings stuck with me. Toby was not a horse to be treated lightly.

A word here about his breeding. He was the son of one of the top breeding racehorse stallions in New Jersey at the time, Papa Riccio. Papa Riccio was a multiple stakes winner and a pre-poetent sire whose offspring almost always resembled him. But he also had a reputation as a dangerous horse who had attacked grooms and was difficult to handle. Word was that his offspring were either good or bad. The good ones were exceptional and the bad ones were...well, bad.

My vet had an encounter with a Papa Riccio colt around the time I got Toby. He'd been called to a farm to give the colt an injection. When he got there, he went into the stall and started to treat the horse. The horse reared up once, then again and hit his head on the rafter. Then, my vet said, "That made him really mad." The horse exploded and attacked him. He jumped out the door as the horse came at him, and got the gate closed as the horse reared and plunged, getting its front legs stuck in bars atop the stall. My vet ran out of the barn to get help. By the time he found someone and hurried back to the stall, he found a young woman groom holding the horse safely on the ground. Somehow she'd gotten his legs out of the bars.

She looked at my vet and kind of grimaced. "Oh dear, I hope you didn't try to give him a shot. He doesn't like shots."

No kidding. Thanks for the warning. But it did stamp into my vet's head a darn good idea of the kind of bad horses Papa Riccio might sire.

Blessed that I was, on the whole, Toby was not one of his father's bad sons. He has nearly impeccable stall manners and my vet calls him "The Prince." He stood quietly the first time I clipped him, and is an absolute gentleman for my farrier.

But under all the manners, there lurks the other, dark side of his soul. Whenever the stress level builds too high, he does become the "demon seed."

It's something I try to avoid at all costs.


  1. Toby sounds like a complicated horse who is very talented yet can't be pushed over his limit. Being the wonderful horsewoman you are, I'm sure you've figured out how to handle him and what buttons not to push by now.

  2. Anonymous10:00 AM

    Interesting case - direct aggression when scared. Sort of like panic, but more intentional. I'll be interested to hear more.