Looking Back on Lad – a love story
by JOELL on DECEMBER 24, 2008
At 17.2hh and 29 years old he looked his age. His lower lip hung open and he drooled. His huge withers and backbone stuck out as if he was emaciated. His perfect crescent moon on his forehead morphed into something of a long crooked lightening bolt. Advanced arthritis meant that we couldn’t keep him in a stall, so he would live out in pasture. His eyes held a wise, gentle gleam.
He lived out his last years in a pasture with some five or six weanlings on Joe Shelton’s rescue ranch. He was quick to reprimand a bold foal and even quicker to let the shy ones bask in the security of his huge frame.
At 25 he taught novice riders to jump and was still up for a good gallop on the trails when the opportunity presented itself. However, arthritis and size was a double-whammy. We turned him out for good after he got down in a stall late one night and couldn’t get up. Some friends owned a lay-up farm and I trailered him to their place for what I thought was the last time. Laddy limped out of the trailer; his one eye swollen almost shut from thrashing in the stall. His shaggy coat and enlarged ankles left no trace of the handsome show horse of days past. The owner of the farm patted Lad’s long neck and asked what the old horse’s name was. I managed to choke the word “Lad” as I handed him the lead rope. Suddenly the man’s eyes lit up and said “Not Lite Lee Lad?” Astounded, I nodded yes.
“Honey!” the man yelled as he handed me back the rope and went running to find his wife. “You’ll never guess who’s here! It’s Big Lad!” The wife appeared from the house, recognized her old friend and came running to him. It was obvious she know him as she immediately started scratching his favorite spot behind his left ear.
It turned out that this couple had taken care of Lad 20+ years and 1,000 miles ago during his race career in Arizona. Lad was nervous and difficult. Billy, his one time exercise rider and now retirement manager told us stories of how Lad used to pace a stall all night and rage around the track no matter what part of him hurt. He said that Lad never ran a good race until the trainer built an outdoor pen for him so that he could watch the racetrack day and night. When Lad came off the track from his morning gallop, reared, wheeled and tried to jump back onto the track, that meant that it was time for Lad to race. He was indeed a hard horse to forget. He had found a home that would love him like I did.
At 20 Lad began his career as a lesson horse. I ran a riding program through a Montessori school in Sacramento, California. We had a couple of acres fenced in the front of the school with big oak shade trees and a small riding area. I always kept Lad plus Bert and Ernie, our lesson ponies in pasture year-round and gave lessons for as long as the weather would let us. In the 100+ degree summer, the kids would ride around the pasture while I turned on the sprinklers. Lad could always be counted on the carefully place the kids in the direct route of the water spray. He was spoiled with carrots and apples from the school kitchen and developed a taste for graham crackers. The children, age 5 to 12 were always enchanted to go from riding the ponies to enjoying the view from a 17.2hh Thoroughbred. He was my “Equalizer” who knew how to instill confidence and when to issue attitude adjustments. You could count on Laddy to walk gingerly with the scared kids or to be found lounging peacefully under a shade tree while a particularly bratty child tried to kick him into a trot. He received more Christmas cards from students than I did. I keep them in a box with his ribbons and photos.
When he was 15 we attempted our first dressage test. He kicked, bucked and whinnied throughout the entire test. The judge called us to her after our final salute and wanted to know how old the tall and slim promising prospect was. She assumed that he was a 4-year-old warmblood. “He’s 15 this year, Ma’am” I replied. She scowled. We placed 3rd.
At 10 Laddy was packing a very inexperienced me around jumper courses. There are times when I had no idea which fence to take next, but he always got me there. I didn’t know what a “spot” was; I just pointed and took ahold of his thick mane. He was honest and bold. He forgave me all my mistakes and taught me when to be a passenger and when to be a pilot. He was famous for dragging me along for a victory lap around the arena after a particularly good round. He taught me to live for the moment.
Along the years, I have many, many fond stories of Lad. Like when I tried to use him as a pony at the racetrack. Somewhere around the quarter pole, Lad would transform from steady pony to racehorse. He would incite the horse he was leading into an all out horse race with me somewhere in the middle. He was always letting himself out of his stall at the track in the wee hours of the morning and roaming the grounds just out of the reach of the security guards.
Or the time he got tired of packing around a scared student and so he decided to trot back to me in the middle of the arena. Unfortunately, there were two jumps between him and me, which he cleared neatly. When I looked up and saw what was coming I called out to the student “Hey, I thought you said you never jumped!”
“I CAN’T!” she wailed.
“Ya can now!” was my reply.
She went on to be a fairly accomplished rider.
Laddy ha dan empathy that drew people in distress. He was the horse you told your troubles to. He nursed me through sick children, a divorce and career changes. He patiently stood as a dozen or so girls cried tears of teenaged angst on his lanky shoulders. He had a soft spot for baby anything and treated chicks, kittens, foals and toddlers with a tenderness that belied his immense size. My dad said that if he were human he would be Uncle Remus; a rich storyteller who taught moral lessons in life through gentle, colorful stories.
Laddy died many winters ago on Joe Shelton’s rescue ranch. He laid down in his stall and just couldn’t get up. The I’d like to think the vet cried as she mercifully ended his long and wonderful life.
He will always be one of my truest friends.