This post originally appeared on a blog site called "Rescue Dog Tales."
He came with the name Pony-Pony. For obvious reasons, we changed it—quickly. But we didn’t go with my son’s suggestion: Brownie. To the child who’d named the goldfish with big eyes, Eyes, and the one with a gold cap, Hat… well, you get the picture. Instead, we admired the overgrown mane of this plain Jane equine and equated it with our favorite vintage animated cartoon character.
Shaggy it was.
Shaggy wasn’t even fourteen hands high but came with a reputation. His owner stated it simply: he was “a bad pony.” If you’re me, that could be a myriad of problems. If you’re a horse whisperer, that’s an indication that people are the problem. In any case, I was left with an animal I’d been warned about and I was the only one who could do anything about it.
Since I’m a protocol person, I did what I normally do—started with groundwork. In this case I put him on a lunge line. The first problem was, he had great ground manners. He was a little barn sour and herd bound, but well behaved. He caught on to my voice commands quickly and appeared to like learning something new. I didn’t want to discount what a tyrant he might have been and was hopeful it had been a personal thing but experience kept me on guard.
It wasn’t until I climbed aboard that I noticed the glitch.
He was not only barn sour, if he lost sight of a horse for even a split second, he went ballistic. He could trot around the ring like a perfect gentlemen, albeit it a quick-strided, uncollected gentlemen, but once he lost track of a horse, he was frantic. Soon I came up with a working hypothesis: he was green broke—at best. He allowed people on his back out of the goodness of his heart but that didn’t mean he knew anything. And he didn’t. This explained the twisted wire snaffle they had in the mouth of a pony that was being jerked where you wanted him to go as well as the desperate herd-bound behavior.
Through what I like to call “option modifications,” we overcame the attachment to his friends, but then I found myself up against the biggest problem of all: excessive forward motion. That pony could move out. And wow, did he fly. The first time I asked him for a lope in the pasture, he adjusted his stride proportionate to the total square footage of four acres. What was once a short stride in a small round pen was now a full gallop that covered turf in record time.
Too many bad horse wrecks had left me fearful of speed. My first horse was a bona fide runaway that dropped me on the highway and was traded away (so I was told) while I spent seven days recovering in a hospital bed at the age of fourteen. Then a few more spills over the years made me fearful of anything that covered ground. So the first time Shaggy kicked it into overdrive, I slammed on a half-halt so fast it made his mouth gape. Then the funniest thing happened: he stopped as if he didn’t understand the concern. One moment I asked him to lope, the next I recanted. He must have thought, “How fickle.” Then he did something else that blew my mind: he put his head down and walked quietly, even tranquilly, on a loose rein. Well, any animal I’d ever rode that bolted off like I thought he had was intent on putting me through the side of the barn. But not Shaggy. He was only having fun.
I was mesmerized. How could he be so calm when his reckless pace inferred he was freaking? I took a few deep breaths, got a good grip with my shaky palms and picked up a trot again. I have no idea what compelled me to try again except maybe the ease with which he extended effort. He was “feely.” He moved forward with such enthusiasm it was as if I’d experienced something illegal but was anxious, although wary, to try it again.
With my heart in my throat I cued for a lope. And he delivered. With earth whizzing by, I forced myself to sink into the saddle and use the reins only to steady and steer until the most amazing thing happened: his stride lengthened and his neck elongated until we were floating—sailing through the grass at a pace that scared the living shit out of me. I hung with him for as long as I dared but when it was time to turn back toward the barn, I lost my nerve and asked for a downshift, which he cordially delivered. Then his hooves regained the happy two-beat gait that delivered me to the barn with easy repose.
When I dismounted, legs like rubber, he rubbed his face against my shoulder as if to thank me for finally “getting” him and I reciprocated by thanking him for forcing me to try again.
Shaggy simply wanted to fly. The problem was, I was afraid to soar.
I hadn’t always been that way. I was a Tomboy by trade; a cowboy by night. I wasn’t a girl who played with Barbies and sang show tunes. But I’d let life fall by the wayside with a series of failures that programmed me to abandon risk and adopt mediocrity. I was no longer the lass who’d hold tight and take wing, I was a grown woman who was riding the brakes.
As my confidence grew, so did Shaggy’s versatility. Today he’ll pull a cart full of kids singing Christmas carols through the state park at an extended trot until his heart bursts. Or take friends down the highway to the Wawa for ice cream, wait at a light while passing trucks knock us off balance with a barrage of wind, evade road hazards like dead stuff and road trash, and get us home on time, sweat pouring from his underbelly.
Every time I take him out I’m reminded that no matter how scared you are, there’s only one direction you can go—forward. I needed a second chance and I got it from a pony who needed one too.