Saturday, September 19, 2009

Loving my old horse

Last month, on my trip, my friends and I rode to the top of Tiger Mountain, where I had ridden my horses every week when I lived in Issaquah. It had been 12 years; I had forgotten what a tough ride that is.

What wonderful memories. Rocky and steep, our horses stayed in good shape, and friends who brought their horses always had to stop to rest half way up the hard climb. At the top, we would watch the hang gliders and parasailers jump off the mountain and soar over the valley and city below. We could see to Mt Rainier to the south, and Mt Baker to the north, the Space Needle to the west on a clear day. When it snowed it was quiet and beautiful, powder flying around us as we ran up the logging road in the dead of winter. I loved it.

On this day, we rode with Gary Shulyer’s Tiger Mountain Outfitters, the stable where I bought my quarter horse Sage in 1992. It’s hard to imagine that Sage is now 29 years old, and that he ever labored up that challenging terrain. He came to me after a career as a trail horse, TV star (Northern Exposure and commercials) and a sideline at team penning. For my friends and me, Sage was a great trail horse until he retired in 2003.

I was surprised when I went back and discovered some of his old friends are still going up the mountain every day. Fit, sound and 30 years old, Chick, Sage’s best friend, is still going strong.

I remember my first ride on Tiger Mountain. Gary put me on a big red quarter horse, and I asked him,” Why am I on the biggest horse, when I’m the smallest person?”

“Because he’s the safest,” Gary answered, “a fawn ran out of the woods and under him followed by a bear, and he wasn’t even scared.”

“Good God, the horse may not be scared, but I would have a heart attack,” I replied.

“Bears don’t scare the horses, but deer do, because they jump around and move so fast,” was Gary’s reply, as if that should explain everything to my satisfaction.

That horse was Sage, and I have photos of my first day on him, hanging on for dear life. I knew nothing about riding. It was another 2 years before we bought him. He was the one who loyally hauled anyone I put on him: good riders, novice riders and little kids. I usually rode Spice, my POA (Pony of the Americas). Sage was always in the lead since my little mare couldn’t keep up with that big stride of his.

I remember cantering up the mountain at full speed, large maple leaves falling around me–a multitude of fall colors spiraling slowly to the ground. Sage ran ahead of me with my friend Lyn on his back. Tank, my Lab, ran alongside me. I had never dreamed I could do something like this in my life, and here I was. It was one of the happiest memories of my time with horses. I can still picture it.

When we moved to California, Spice retired in 1999 with arthritis and Sage became my main horse for about 2 years. We did park ranger patrols and club trail rides, cantering around Lake Poway and through the desert hills. As I started concentrating on my Icelandics, I rode him less, he started getting kind of grouchy, and was eventually hard for a novice to handle on the trails. He became very possessive of “his” mare, and when a new horse came in, there was always a very tough get-acquainted period before everyone settled down.

After Spice died, we adopted a burro from the Bureau of Land Management, and Sage instantly had a new best friend. Now retired completely from riding, he shares his pasture with Blackjack, an old Thoroughbred gelding off the track, and Bandit the burro.

He’s a lucky horse. He has a big corral–over an acre–so he can stretch his legs and not get stiff. He has companions and good food, familiar people and a place where he can be comfortable in his old age.

My ex husband tells me Sage is getting thin and starting to decline a little, which is sad, but expected. I remember visiting one day a few years ago. I went out into the corral and Bandit and Sage came over and stood with me, noses pressed against my neck and shoulder, the horsey version of a group hug. With a big huff, Sage exhaled and then nuzzled me. I breathed a little into his nose in hope he would remember me.

©2009 Terry Albert. All Rights Reserved.

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