He had a big engine and a hard mouth. My trainer said he was a manly-man’s horse because he was dark, big and intimidating. He was liver chestnut in color– a rich chocolaty brown, with a diamond shaped white blaze on his face. His thick coarse mane and tail were black, making him difficult to groom for the show circuit because it was time consuming to braid all that mane into equally spaced and banded lengths, required for the English shows. His long and flowy tail was part of his beauty.
Although he was a registered Quarter Horse, he was what is commonly referred to as a ‘Running Quarter’, designation he was one fourth Thoroughbred. He had a large barrel, solidly built engine in the rear and a beautiful intelligent eye. He stood at sixteen hands…5’3” from the ground to his withers…in laymen’s lingo, that’s his shoulder height. He towered over me.
The first time I saw him, I was with my best friend and riding buddy, to observe him as a potential purchase for herself … a relative novice in the saddle. She found him too difficult to manage during her ‘test drive’. However, when she asked for my opinion, I got in the saddle and found him smooth and responsive.
He was young and ‘green’; too inexperienced himself to be considered a safe mount for beginning riders. But he caught my attention because he was an elegant mover when he had a talented rider to showcase his strengths under saddle. He had a keen look about him, and a very graceful gait.
I instantly thought him both handsome and striking in the confident way he moved under saddle.
That’s when my three-year journey with Heza Cloud Dancer began.
The first six weeks were a nightmare.
CD, as I came to call him, was nervous coming out of his stall, dancing around so much I had to grip him by his halter…and he was edgy under saddle. Horses are ‘fright/flight’ animals by nature—they instinctually run from fear or danger, as was their means for survival for centuries. CD startled over any loud or unusual activity around us, both inside and outside the arena. His reaction was always explosive and unpredictable, which was the only predictable trait he maintained throughout our three-year partnership together as horse and rider. He tended to drop and spin, bolt and buck. Sometimes he’d make a guttural squeal in his worked up terror, which is horrifying for any rider to hear.
After each episode, I became more and more concerned about my own safety, as well as his. So I moved him to another barn that was much further from home, but substantially quieter overall.
My trainer at the old barn wished me good luck after I turned in my notice to vacate. Although he disagreed with my decision, he did extend his opinion about my riding ability, telling me I had good instinctive skills as an equestrian. “I’ve had riders out here who’ve been in the saddle their whole lives and couldn’t have handled those explosive situations as well as you did. You’ve got what it takes”.
I had him fooled.
My best friend told me I was a quitter to pull out after only six weeks, suggesting I instead continue to ‘ride it out’ in hopes my horse would eventually settle in. When I suggested to her that there was a safety issue involved (mine), she stopped talking to me for months on end.
Long after I made the move to the new barn, she ultimately followed with her own newly purchased horse, after she had a riding ‘mishap’ and broke her shoulder blade. She began to understand the value of the quieter barns. Our friendship re-engaged, and she became a regular riding buddy. We rode five to six days a week, weather permitting. I noticed CD began to calm down in time, but other personality traits emerged.
He became quite bold in a bully sort of way. One day I forgot to bring carrots, and he spun around in his stall refusing to let me in. With his substantial hind-end fully blocking the stall entry, he had his back leg at the ready to kick out at me when I tried to push him aside. It took some thought, but I eventually solicited the help of Ellen, the barn manager. Upon opening the stall gate, she immediately let him know his behavior was NOT acceptable by giving him a firm POP on his rump with a riding crop, along with a loud “NO!”
I was startled myself. This was not the kind of action I wanted to employ, and now that Ellen had done so, I was not anxious to have to repeat it. CD spun around with his head high and his eyes wild with surprise, but he backed off. Her advice was to stop bringing him carrots upon my arrival. She advised I wait until he was back in his stall for the day, and only if his behavior warranted it. She posted a sign on his stall door, telling people to stop feeding him carrots as they went by. After weeks of this change in routine, he managed to terrorize everyone who passed by with carrots in hand.
For the most part, CD had lovely ground manners outside his stall…that is, until another person or horse came near. That was when he’d pin his ears and become difficult to handle. People around the barn assumed he only had a nasty side. In discussing this with my vet one day, she explained that CD was what vets refer to as a ‘dominant gelding’…a horse that is gelded late, long after testosterone manners become learned habit.
Dominant geldings are extremely territorial, and according to the vet, I had become the focus of CD’s domain, given that I was the primary caretaker in his life…much like a dog’s fierce devotion to his master. Had she not explained this behavior, I would have gone on thinking he just hated me.
In fact, she said, it was just the opposite. According to her, CD wanted my undivided attention. Like a child with tantrums, if he didn’t get his way, he acted out. Thus, when my attention shifted to someone else in the vicinity, he acted out by pinning his ears and snapping at anyone within reach….which was always me.
Not long afterwards, I had the opportunity to test her theory. It was rainy season, and after several weeks of wet weather and no riding due to poor footing in the muddy arenas, I stopped by the barn to check on him. The assistant trainer had him exercising in the round pen on a lunge line, asking him to walk, trot and canter in circles around her.
With my young daughter in my arms, I watched from a hill just above the round pen, which provided a clear view. As soon as CD noticed my presence, with each pass he pinned his ears as he went by us, giving us that nasty look I knew only too well.
The assistant trainer noticed immediately, and suggested I swap spots with her to see if there was any change in temperament. With some reluctance, I agreed. She came out, and I went in, handing my daughter over to her while I took the end of the lunge line. Instantly, CD relaxed his back, lengthened his strides and, at my cue, moved fluidly along the perimeter of the round pen.
As the months went by, our mutual understanding and partnership grew. It was a slow process but I worked hard, each day spending an hour or more in the saddle as we worked on balance, pacing, gaits, flying lead changes and trust.
CD compelled me to face down my biggest fears, while offering me the gift of experiencing my most euphoric highs. Those occasions were on days when our partnership under saddle was fully in sync; when we became ‘one’ as we moved through our paces. It was the ultimate goal for every rider…. to feel that intimate connection with the horse using only the most subtle of cues and telepathy. That sense of accomplishment for me was grander than anything I’d ever experienced before. After a day like that, I’d find myself singing out loud to the radio…all the way home.
My trainer, Pam, schooled him several times a week using different bits in an effort to soften up his mouth. She tried everything, but found it really didn’t matter. When he wanted to haul ass and go, he was off and running. Typically, he never got more than three or four full length strides in before I managed to gradually circle him to a slower pace, pulling low and hard on the inside rein to bring his nose down and in, causing the rest of his body to swing out, and follow a circular direction.
CD’s explosions became less frequent, and luckily I managed to handle everything he could dish out under saddle. By the time I’d owned him for two years, I thought I’d seen every trick he had in his bag. I never once got bucked off, or left in the dust when he dropped to his knees, spun right or spun left and then bolted. I even hung on when he jumped small jumps like they were skyscrapers, galloping off in exuberance.
But, on one windy and brisk spring day, he got me good.
I’d saddled up to join a group lesson in the big outdoor arena—about the size of a high school football field. My riding buddy stood watching us, as she leaned against the white washed fencing, along with several other Moms whose daughters were devoted horse enthusiasts and taking the lesson as well.
As I warmed up CD, we began a slow canter down the long stretch of the outside rail. He seemed unusually energetic, requiring my full attention as I worked to keep him steady. When we passed my friends there, my riding buddy spoke up: “He looks like a real handful this morning!” and I yelled back over my shoulder “He is so full of himself today!” We continued to canter around the perimeter of the arena, with the wind blowing in hard gusts, causing my eyes to squint from the flying sand. Several laps around, I cut across the center of the arena to ride by Pam, who was standing in the middle coaching us as a group.
As I went by, I asked for her thoughts: “He‘s so feisty! What do you think’s going on?”
“He’s just feeling great because of the crisp clear weather….it’s springtime.” We continued our cantering, staying close to the rail. But then, something happened as we rounded into the short length at the far end of the arena and came out of the turn.
Like the sound effect from an action film, I heard an extremely loud, incredibly heavy, metallic sounding CRASH. Like a forklift dropping hundreds of pounds of metal to the hard ground. Clearly, CD had heard it too and his reaction was instantaneous. He let out that horrific squeal of terror, and like a fully loaded spring-action cannonball, he dug his back heals underneath himself and lurched off in a full dead-on run, with his nose so far out in front, it almost pulled me right over the top of him.
I felt my eyes stinging as the rush of air whizzed past. I pulled hard to get his nose down, to no avail. I tried using only my inside rein to bring his nose in. I tried a different angle, by leaning as far back as I could, until I was almost laying down flat. It was like pulling on a steam locomotive. I had zero effect. In a surreal split second, I heard nothing but the thundering of hooves. I’d lost all control.
He was headed right for the far corner at the other end of the arena, where he clearly was looking to jump out and bolt. The only problem was the ground on the other side. It was a very steep uphill slope beginning at the edge of the arena itself.
In my horror, he ran us into the corner and suddenly lurched to the left. As he spun around, he rammed another mount whose rider, Amanda, was only twelve years old.
Equestrian etiquette dictates that when a rider has lost control, others in the arena stop their horses, but stay mounted, in order to keep control themselves. This young rider managed to keep her horse steady, but I was completely mortified, and yelled out an apology to her as we then bolted towards the other side of the arena. “Oh my God, Amanda! I am so sorry!”
Wildly dodging jumps that were set up all around the center area where Pam was standing, CD continued his frenzy. She yelled out “Do NOT attempt to get him in a circle at that speed! He’ll fishtail out!” And roll with me underneath.
Trying to stay balanced, I was growing dangerously fatigued in my attempt to get any control over the matter. I began to wonder if staying aboard was wise. CD stumbled, which slowed him down to a mere gallop. I was so relieved, I relaxed my posture, but before I could gather up my reins, he stumbled again.
This time when he popped up, he spun hard to the left…causing me to lose a stirrup and my balance, hanging awkwardly off his right side. Again, he jettisoned faster than the speed of light, and by the miracle of God, I hung on and pulled myself upright. As I rebalanced myself, I purposely dropped the remaining stirrup so I could stay centered in the saddle. I had to get control… or risk serious injury to myself and to my horse. Since nothing else worked, in my exhaustion, I finally began to get fed up.
So I urged him on.
You want to run? Then LET’S GO!
With my abrupt shift from passenger to driver, I pushed the gas peddle in any way I could. Without my stirrups, I used my leg to let him know I was now in the drivers seat. I wanted him to think this madness was MY idea.
I figured he had to wear out eventually, so my hope was to slowly gain some steering, which might allow me to guide him into the turns prematurely. By cutting those turns early and well off the rail, I had a clear space to my right that would presumably provide a soft landing. So, still at a breakneck speed, as he banked hard left for the next turn, I pushed off with all my strength to the far right, praying I could clear him, and his hooves in the process.
I hit the ground hard, skidding across the sand like a surf board. I had the wind knocked clear out of me and in a daze, I laid there for several minutes until I had my senses back. CD, however, continued to race around frantically for several more laps, only eventually slowing down for a buck or two as the stirrups wildly slapped at his sides. Finally, blowing hard, he danced around with his head high, and whinnied loudly.
As people tried to get close and grab hold of his reins, which were now dragging on the ground in front of him, he played Catch Me If You Can. He finally focused his sights on me, attempting to sit up with my worried friends trying to help. Trotting over, snorting as he approached, CD pushed in and put his nose on my shoulder, as if to say “What the hell are you doing down there?”
I knew I had to get back in the saddle to walk him out…he’d worked himself into a full lather. I felt empty and I was too dazed to be afraid. It was, however, a huge emotional turning point.
The horse world is a small one. CD didn’t win any friends around the barn that day, and his reputation as ‘unpredictable’ and ‘not an easy mount’ spread to the horsey-set even in neighboring communities. Pam refused to ride him anymore, saying she couldn’t risk personal injury, given that she made her living in the saddle. My friends began to call me Annie Oakley.
After the hairline fracture in my pelvis healed up, I continued to ride five days a week, but during the half hour drive from my home to the barn, the anxiety built up so much that my knees would literally be knocking by the time I pulled up to the barn.
Tacking up, I had to dig deep within myself to find the nerves of steel that weren’t in my nature. As I led CD out to the arena and prepared to mount up, with each ride I took, I had to morph into the kind of rider I didn’t want to have to be. I rode every single stride he took, and demanded he pay attention at every single moment I sat in that saddle. A true equestrian would likely say “Well, Ann, how do you think good riders DO it?”
Not surprisingly, I finally made the decision to sell CD and look for a more suitable mount, maybe one that would be a good dressage prospect. So, I brought him over to the barn where I’d originally purchased him. I advised them against giving CD carrot treats while he was in their care. But one day just a week or two later, I received an angry phone call. “Come get your horse! He’s an absolute terror and we won’t have him here one more day.”
CD had literally pulled down the entire front wall of his stall, along with the two adjacent stalls on either side, as he lunged forward at a visiting guest in the barn who just happened to be holding a bag of carrots.
With great disappointment I brought him back, but I knew I couldn’t just let him stand in his stall every day. So, I decided that maybe a change in training could be nice. I traded in my old Crosby hunt seat saddle, and swapped it out for a Crates western show saddle, lots of silver flash. Surely a manly-man would enjoy a big bold horse with a new flashy look.
Riding western was a whole new deck of cards. Everything had to slow down. The trot got traded in for the jog, and the canter had to become the lope. It felt like riding in slow motion. We actually had fun learning some new tricks… opening gates from the saddle, riding through and around different obstacles, and for me, learning to ride with reins in one hand only. But, CD continued to pull surprises from his bag….nothing like the BIG one, but I rode with my eyes wide open and a hefty pair of western chaps. No spurs required.
I began to place ads.
FOR SALE: 16 HAND AQHA GELDING. ENGLISH / WESTERN. BOLD PERSONALITY. NOT FOR BEGINNERS!
After working with several potential buyers, giving lengthy riding demos to showcase CD’s versatility and skill under saddle, each one of them got scared off during their own test drives. “He’s got a big engine!” CD was simply more horse than they could or wanted to handle. And unfortunately, his reputation had preceded him.
Then the LAPD Mounted Police came out to take a look. They loved him! His intimidating size and bully-like demeanor was exactly what they were looking for. But unfortunately the interest dissolved when their vet showed concern over a routine leg x-ray, which showed early signs of navicular disease, indicating the possibility of future lameness. After that disappointment, and some months later, I ultimately found a life-long rider who could provide him a safe and nurturing home, where I knew he would be loved and well cared for. CD was a manly-man’s horse, and finally he was going to a manly-man.
It was one of the hardest days of my life. As the horse trailer pulled away from the barn with CD loaded inside, I watched as his head popped out through the open window and swung around.
Looking right at me with those wide frightened eyes, he began his distress calls. With tears flowing and my vision blurred, I stood motionless as the trailer disappeared around the bend. Even out of sight, I could still hear him calling: “Hey! What’s going on here? Where are you sending me?? Noooo…please!! Don’t send me away!” Well, if he wasn’t thinking those thoughts exactly, I sure as hell was.
Not being ‘an animal person’ by nature, I was stunned at the depth of my feelings for Heza Cloud Dancer. He’d provided a window into myself, pushing me to find out what I was made of. On so many occasions, I gave serious thought to simply walking away. At 1200 pounds, he held the trump card with no questions asked. As much as I struggled to understand, over the duration of our three-year journey together, he became a tumultuous passion.
Heza Cloud Dancer taught me to trust my own instincts, and to pay attention to those extra sensory perceptions that are embedded within all of us, making us more in tune to the awareness of unpredictability.