Monday, June 05, 2006

The Critter Caravan Rides Again

It's been almost two years since the Critter Caravan rolled into Celebration, Florida, bringing three cats, two fish, and a bird from the condo in Illinois to the door of Duloc Manor. But even with six furred, finned, and feathered animals, our menagerie was not complete.

In addition to all of the above, I own two horses as well. One, Cochise, is an old-timer that I've owned since he was 4. He has now achieved the ripe old age of 29, so there's no way I would subject him to a 1200 mile journey. I board him at a friend's house in the Chicago suburbs where I know that he is well cared for. He's been retired ever since we moved to Florida, and he spends his days moseying around the corral with his elderly Saddlebred buddy (owned by my friend and also retired).

But my second horse, Figment, is young and ripe for work. I bought Figgie a couple of years before moving to Celebration ever crossed our minds. Cochise was getting too old for strenuous riding, and I was longing for a more "durable" trail horse. Two things muddied the waters a bit: 1) I prefer a horse that I've trained myself, and I'm getting a bit older and more fragile. When I bought Cochise, I was 16 years old, and he'd only had a saddle on his back once or twice previously. I loved the challenge of riding out his frantic bucking and slowly but surely turning him into a compliant (but still spirited) mount. But now, even though I wanted an unbroke horse that could be trained to my own specifications, I wasn't sure I still had the guts (insanity?) to physically accomplish that.

And: 2) The area where I boarded Cochise had changed significantly in the past two decades. Once it had been farmland and a handful of homes scattered on minimum one acre lots...most had considerably more land than that. Now it had turned into Suburban Subdivision Sprawl. The barn was a tiny three-acre oasis surrounding by continual construction. There is another small barn next door on one side and another home with a big land parcel on the other, but once you get beyond that, it's pure subdivision.

I don't take animal ownership lightly. I believe that when you add a cat, dog, or horse to your family, it should be a lifetime commitment. But would I logistically be able to keep a young horse for its entire lifespan in the Chicago area? The number of barns was dwindling rapidly, and the trails where I used to ride were now over-run with bicyclists, walkers, joggers, and ATVs. Even though my friends have no intention of selling, I was afraid that someday they wouldn't have a choice.

But Fate intervened, and one day while reading the local Penny Saver newspaper, my eye caught a Horse for Sale ad. Normally I read things like that out of curiosity and nothing more, but this one made me do a double-take. The Penny Saver isn't a usual venue for horse sales, and it's rare to see anything from a local barn, mainly because there are so few. But this horse was only a few miles away, and it was cheap, unbroke, and most imporantly, a blanketed Appaloosa.

Appaloosas are a breed of horse. Most people think of them simply as "spotted horses," but they are a lot more than that. An Appy doesn't necessarily have to be spotted; it's a major characteristic, but there are others such as striped hooves and a white to the eye. A horse can have a solid coat and still be an Appy if it meets the other criteria.

Cochise is an Appaloosa, but when he was young, his coat was almost solid bay (brown). He had a sprinkling of snowflakes on his butt, and they have become much more prominent over the years. His bloodlines go all the way back to authentic Native American roots (the Appaloosa was developed by the Nez Perce tribe), even to the point that one of his early relatives is listed on his pedigree simply as "Indian Mare." But due to the lack of spots, I've spent over two decades trying to explain to others that an Appaloosa does not have to be spotted in order to be purebred.

'Chise's "stealth Appaloosaness" served us well in hunter/jumper shows, where many judges don't like a spotted horse. They associate Appys with Western riding and some will not place them high in English show classes. Since Cochise looked like a cute little solid bay unless you got up close and personal with his rump, we managed to do pretty well in the local show ring.

But I must admit that my favorite Apps are the loud, spotted ones, and I had always harbored a secret dream that I would own a flashy Appaloosa someday. When I saw that the ad said "Chestnut with large, white blanket," I had to take a look.

My ever-supportive husband tagged along, and we both liked what we saw. The horse in the ad had just turned three; he was the product of an elderly Appaloosa mare and a young Appendix Quarter Horse stud (an Appaloosa can be out-crossed to certain other breeds and still be considered a "pure" Appy). The stud's owner wasn't sure he would know what to do, so he was turned out into the pasture with the mare. Nature took its course, and now I was looking at the result.

Figment was a lovely chestnut color with an enormous white blanket on his rump dotted with chestnut spots. He was just the sort of Appaloosa that had always cantered through my dreams.

Hubby thought it would be a good idea to have another horse to soften the blow when Cochise inevitably cantered off to that great big Pasture in the Sky. My friends were agreeable to boarding another horse, so Figment became the latest member of our family. I named him after one of my favorite Disney characters, the little purple dragon that has become the symbol of Epcot. Figgie always wears a purple halter in honor of his namesake.

I worked with him for two summers, although my busy work schedule kept me from doing as much as a I wanted. We did a lot of arena work but rarely made it out onto the trails. Then fate intervened again and we bought our Celebration homestead. The next three years were a whirl of visiting the construction, spending weekends in our newly completed home, and then the permanent Big Move to Florida. During that time, Figment enjoyed a life of leisure chasing the two old-timers around the corral, consuming vast quantities of hay and turning it into fertilizer, and just generally being a "wild" horse.

But now that things have settled down, I have finally made the arrangements to bring him to Florida. A little searching yielded a lovely boarding barn in Clermont, right across the street from Lake Louisa State Park, where I can trot along on nearly 20 miles of equestrian trails. There are 10 acres of pasture, so Figgie can graze contentedly all way, plus a round pen and arena where we can brush up on his training.

Now that we had selected a home, I was worried about the logistics of hauling a horse 1200 miles; I know that people on the show jumper circuit do it all the time, but I tend to be a worrywart where my animals are concerned. Happily, I found a Florida-based firm called "Equine Limousine" that was going to be in the Chicago area in early June. Their quote was pretty reasonable, considering the skyrocketing gas prices, and their trailer is truly cushy. It has running water, padding, air conditioning, a video camera for the driver to monitor his charges, and even a fire suppression system.

I didn't know the exact day of the pickup, since that would depend on when they arrived in Chicago, but I knew it would be this week. I called them on Saturday, having just returned from a week's cruise, and discovered that they would be arriving MONDAY MORNING!

My husband had hoped to be there for the send-off; he was scheduled to be in Chicago for the week, but his flight wasn't schedule to touch down till 10 a.m. on Monday. Oops! Thank goodness for Southwest's liberal change policy...he was able to change his flight to Sunday evening so he could report to me firsthand as Figment was packed into the trailer. Figgie hasn't been in a trailer since he was delivered to me five years ago, and his mom came with him on that trip. I could just imagine a horrible scene in which he absolutely refused to get in and was left behind in Chicago. Since I couldn't be there myself, I felt much better knowing that intrepid hubby was on the scene.

As I type this, it's Monday morning, and the horror stories that danced through my mind did not come true. After some initial reluctance, Figment climbed aboard the trailer. He didn't like the ramp much, which is common with horses because they don't like the hollow sound. But once he got over that, he clambored inside and immediately began munching on hay. He stamped his hind leg a few times to indicate his displeasure, but other than that he didn't seem to traumatized. It's a four horse trailer, so he'll be gaining two friends in Ohio, which I think will calm him down even more.

Since there are several stops between Chicago and Clermont, it looks like he won't be arriving until Wednesday night. I'll be on pins and needles in the meantime, but the driver is very understanding so I can check in periodically via his cell phone. With the video monitor, he'll be able to tell me exactly what Figgie is doing at any given time.

I'll update this blog entry tonight when I walk to the driver and when my husband sends me the photos that he took of the send-off. And hopefully by Wednesday night our little family will be complete in Florida (well, almost complete, since Cochise will remain contentendly at the same home where he's spent the last 20+ years).

I'm sure glad that we have a hot tub, because once I start riding again, my butt and legs are sure gonna need it!

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Barb,

So glad to "hear" from you again! I've missed your blog entries. Hope you had a wonderful cruise and hope to read a trip report on your cruise site!

Denise in PA