TALES FROM THE TRAILS
Some of you are familiar with Champers, the old gelding who sends cute Tweets in my name each morning. He’s the other face in the picture at the top of each column. This is his story.
It was Dec. 24, 2006. I was out in the yard when a golf cart with three teenage boys in it pulled up to my gate.
“You got horses, right?” one asked.
I allowed that I did, indeed, have two horses. “Want another one? For free,” he said.
“No thanks,” was my reply.
I knew all about free horses. As soon as you get them, they go lame. Or colicked. Or did something that cost a lot of money. Free horses were never free.
“It’s a really nice horse. It belongs to my neighbor.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing. You wanna see it?”
“No. I don’t want any more horses. See that one? She’s pregnant.”
The kid looked at me. “This horse really needs a good home.”
“What kind of horse is it?”
“A Thoroughbred. He’s just down the road.” The kids sensed a chink in my armor. “It won’t take even five minutes.”
Ten minutes later, we stopped in front of a gate.
“Hi,” I said, shaking the man’s hand. “You got some persuasive salesmen here.”
We walked back to a scrubby field surrounded by a rusty wire fence. The horse was a dark chestnut, fuzzy, thin and short. Nothing like a Thoroughbred. It gave us the once-over.
“My daughter used to ride, but she has been gone three years.”
“What’s his name?”
We couldn’t get within 20 feet of Chance. It took 40 minutes to corner him and get a halter on.
He was short, his mane and tail impossibly knotted, embedded with twigs. His coat was dull, his ribs visible, the front of his chest criss-crossed with scars. His hips stood out. His hooves were cracked and needed trimming.
“He ever been sick? Ever colicked?” I asked.
“No, nothing like that.”
“Had his shots?”
“I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head.
I did know. I didn’t want this angry, miserable, not-a-Thoroughbred horse. “I need to think about it.”
We walked out of the field. I turned. Chance stood toward the back of the field, watching to make sure we weren’t coming back.
It was a look of such infinite sadness that it froze me in my tracks. More than the annoyance, more than the anger, more than anything, I saw how very lonely this horse was. And I knew for a certainty that, if left here, it was very possible that he’d simply give up and die of loneliness. Here was, perhaps, the saddest horse I’d ever seen in my life, and I was turning my back and walking away, leaving him to his world of nothing.
In that moment, I knew I was lost.
“Well… ” I said. I must be nuts. “I guess I could give him a try.”
The owner smiled. The golf cart boys were grinning. They’d found a sucker.
“Yeah, but you see, it’s not really up to me. I have two other horses. If they like Chance and he gets along with them, then he can stay. But if they don’t, he’ll be back here in five minutes.”
“That’s fine,” the owner said. “You want to take him now?”
“How about early tomorrow morning, on Christmas Day?”
“OK,” he replied.
I got back into the golf cart, and the boys brought me back home. They were ecstatic. All I could think of was what an idiot I was to bring in some hostile, unhappy, unknown horse. What was I thinking?
As I walked over the next morning, I realized I must be crazy. Bringing home a strange horse? One who hadn’t had shots? What if Chance had some disease and my horses got sick? There were about a million reasons to change my mind. Just at that point, I looked down and saw an odd sight. It looked as if someone had emptied their change purse all over the road. There were coins in piles and scattered across the sand.
A sign, I thought. This horse will somehow bring me good luck.
The owner met me at the gate, and we walked out to Chance’s field. He saw us coming and played the stay-away game. I finally caught him. He hadn’t been out in years. His head was up, nostrils wide.
“Good luck,” the owner said. “Merry Christmas.”
I walked my Christmas present home.
My gelding clearly liked him and wanted to play. The two commenced sniffing, biting, squealing and otherwise getting acquainted. Within an hour, they were best friends.
The mare lunged at him a few times, and he obligingly moved, so she was satisfied.
The vet came out a few days later to do shots. He opened the horse’s mouth. “Well, look here.”
The upper lip was tattooed in blue ink.
“He’s raced,” I said, dumbfounded. “So he is a Thoroughbred.”
I contacted the Jockey Club. He was a well-bred horse, with Bold Ruler on both sides, 16 years old. He’d won a few times. “You were a Champ,” I told him.
After that, he had a new name: Champers.
One day a woman drove by while I was grazing him out front. She pulled over and turned off the engine.
“Glad to see you ended up with him,” she said.
“You know this horse?”
“I live nearby. I’ve always kept an eye on him. He has had a rough life. All that scarring on his chest — he got hit by a car. It was pretty bad. They didn’t think he’d pull through.”
“When was this?”
“Years back. There was always just something about him…” The woman watched him for a minute. “Anyways, I’m glad you ended up with him. He looks happy.”
She drove off. I never even knew her name.
Champers became the soul of our herd. Here was a horse who had been severely damaged by life, and through luck or chance had found his way to my pasture.
I made him a promise. He’d never be sold or given away. He would live with me for the rest of his life.