The Post of Don Sam Incognito

Sam has been dusting off his hooves, preparing to type this post.  Sometimes I imagine that he’s smart enough that if I had a giant computer with hoof-sized keys and a Horse-English translator, he could write his life story.  And he might comment on what he really thinks of all of us.

We’ve been trailering out to Movin’ Free,  a local boarding stable where our Horsemasters group is taking lessons on Thursdays.   Last year, we got a beautiful ten-year-old slant-load trailer and an ugly clunker truck with issues.  This year, I’m getting over my anxiety about truck driving and learning to haul the horses.   Every week, it seems, I call my mechanic, Rick, the world’s best backyard mechanic, and we fix something else on the truck—pack the hubs, replace ball joints, trace down the short that blows out the turn signal fuses.  Next it will be the steering column.  Each week the truck gets better, and I get a bit more confident.  By the end of summer, I’ll have an ugly but workable truck, I hope.

And Mattie and Sam have been very patient with all the trailering.  Unlike some horse owners I’ve talked to, I give them plenty of hay in the trailer, so that they walk in eagerly and stand contentedly during the trip.  They are both experienced with trailers and it’s no big deal to them, it seems.  Sam is such a pro that he backs out of the trailer, even when I’ve swung the divider aside and he could turn and walk out head first.  It’s a funny sight, him carefully picking up each hind foot, feeling his way back to the step down at the back of the trailer.  At some point, he must have spent lots of time in trailers, I’m guessing.

This summer, Trish has been riding him, except for these three weeks when she is in the field (she’s a geologist) and Casey is riding him.  It’s been a steep learning curve for Trish.  She’s spent lots of time on horses in a camp situation, but this is her first time taking formal lessons on a horse as challenging as Sam can be.  Sam takes the measure of any rider who gets on him and will go just as far as he needs to to test the limits of their skills.  He’s not mean, just a trickster. Trish started out not being able to get him beyond a wandering walk until I got on him and showed her how firm she needed to be to convince him she knew enough that he should cooperate with a trot.  One day, I stood in the middle of the corral holding a driving whip pointed at his hip and he perked up and began to trot with her.  Now, riding with a bat, she’s able to get him to move out when she wants him to.

When an experienced rider like Casey gets on him, it raises the level of challenge.  At the lesson she rode the other day, he kept crow hopping when she tapped his hip with the bat.  He did settle into the exercise, but, in his Sam way, he seemed to be giving her a bit of payback for not having ridden him yet this summer.  I know this seems anthropomorphic, but Sam proves how smart he is over and over again.  And, from my perspective on Mattie’s back during the lesson, Sam looks great with his long mane and wavy tail, his neck curved into collection at the trot, his haunches providing the power of the gait.   He’s in better condition than he was last year this time, and it’s great to see.

Last weekend, the Horsemasters gathered for a weekend “camp” with Hannah Knaebel, a trainer from Vashon Island, WA.  During the weekend, an equine dentist who travels to Fairbanks from Arizona each summer, gave a talk on floating and aging a horse’s teeth.  She offered to look at our horses, so Trish and I brought Sam over, hoping she could give us something definite on his age.  She looked at the grooves in his teeth on one side and said, “This shows him as 18.”  The groove came down from the gumline but hadn’t disappeared from the top of the tooth yet.  This meant, however, that he had been 18 for the past five years, or, as I suspected, was getting younger each year.  Not likely.

Then she looked at the same tooth on the other side.  The groove had grown down the tooth leaving a smooth place at the top.  “Definitely over 20,” she said.

“That explains a lot,” I said.  He always seems younger than the age I’m guessing he must be.  She told us that sometimes the teeth wear irregularly so that the gum on one side came down over the top, smooth part, of the tooth, making it look younger.  The good news is that, except for the cracked tooth that we removed a couple of years ago, his teeth are in good shape.  She praised the floating job Colleen, my vet, had just done.  All good news for Sam.

It’s been interesting watching others ride Sam.  I’m careful who comes to work with him, knowing that he asks his riders to earn his trust.  He works better with consistent riding and, because I want to focus on Mattie, it’s better when I can count on someone to come bond with him and spend the summer learning what he has to teach.

In his Don Sam way, he condescends to offer us the challenges he spends all day in the corral dreaming up.  In our ignorant human way, we work through frustration to patience, to adjustment of our skills, to the ability to work together with him so we can tap into all that he really knows.

If I knew who originally trained him, I would thank them for the opportunity Sam has given me and the other riders who’ve spent their summers with him.   I’d ask Sam, but he’s not telling.

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