by Lesley Scott
I bought Gertrude as a skinny yearling standing knee deep in mud and mire.
|Saving Gertrude, a Happy Birthday
By Lesley Scott
I was in the barn, brushing Top Hat ready for a Birthday Ride and jumped when unexpectively the phone rang. My friend, Jeannie, was talking so fast, I asked her to repeat the story. “James just bought two Belgian mares and he wants to sell them as soon as possible,” she caught her voice, “ James bought the two horses yesterday, and he hasn’t given them anything to eat or drink! I carried a large bucket of water and they drank and wanted more. Please come over here and set him straight.” I thought she was probably over reacting, though James was a mean and difficult man.
My husband, Karl, and I headed over there and asked James to show us the Belgians as Karl munched on his favorite fruit, an orange. The water and hay was not in the paddock where the two young horses stood knee deep in the mire.The mud was so deep, I could not even see a footprint when the two horses picked up their feet and horrified, I told James what I thought. His excuse was that he only just bought them and could not afford to keep the mares.
“How much?” Karl asked James. He said he wanted $350.00 for each mare. The last thing we needed was another mouth to feed. This one will be able to eat a lot. When the largest horse plowed herself through the muck and mire to lay her head on my shoulder, I just knew. He had to say, "Yes, Happy Birthday."
“James, what if I were to hand you $200.00 in cash money?" I asked. He didn’t think about it too long before he agreed to sell the one I liked for two hundred dollars. I am also a decent horse trader; it felt good to still be one. I was anxious to remove the poor thing from such an unhealthy place.
Karl placed the cash in his hand, I also had a horse trailer hooked up, a large halter, lead lines, and plenty of hay up front. She all but leaped right in as fast as she could. Obviously, she wanted to get away from the nasty conditions where she was kept. Jeannie’s sister took the other filly. Now James couldn't starve the fillies.
The first thing I did was deworm her with Ivermectin, which is a wormer that even kills ear mites. I picked up her hooves and the smell of hoof rot, or thrush, made my eyes water. This poor mare! She needs to be regularly fed plenty of hay and a small amount of grain for a week or so and gradually add more grain to her diet. I pinched her dry skin tissue; she was very dehydraded. The lovely filly would surely have died without my intervention. I fetched a blanket from the tack room, as she was shivering.
I called the blacksmith, Jerry, as soon as Gertrude was in her new stall, munching down her hay. He promised to be here first thing in the morning. When Jerry saw the shape she was, he said several times, “This poor thing!” When he picked up her feet, full of thrush, he made a face and said, “You ought to put Coppertox in her hooves several times a day and call me in six weeks. I told him I was doing it twice a day under the shade of my weeping willow tree. I wanted to weep.
She was about six feet or more at the shoulder, so I was being lifted high off the ground, trying to keep her from moving around. We had to try something else. “Jerry, “I said, “Why don’t we use the rope to tie up another foot?” This keeps the horse unbalanced enough by letting the blacksmith tie one of the other feet. It usually works on young, inexperienced horses.
It worked well, as I had hoped. Fighting a huge mare would be dangerous. She let Jerry do whatever he needed to do, because she was a normally mellow. He had to use a hoof knife to scoop out her hooves that were full of thrush. I could tell it was painful, but Gert stood still. I gave her a sweet golden apple for a treat. I used a spatular to mix up the ingredients for a poltice to put on her sore feet.
When Jerry and I checked her teeth, we discovered she was barely a yearling. What luck! She was just starting out and nobody had jerked her around or done other stupid training tactics that will ruin a horse. Now I wouldn’t have to try to undo bad habits. I was so happy to start fresh. This was good luck, indeed.
Gertrude’s wonderful temperament made her a joy to handle. She was calm, never spooked or pulled on the halter when she was being lead. She loved to hug and for me to hug her back. The other animals felt safe because Gert was friendly toward all of our other critters. My quarter horse, Wink, thought Gertrude was his mother because she was the same color. She was a burnished copper color with a white mane and tail. She was an eye catcher.
Gert loved for me to walk on her back after her weight was up to a ton. She was growing fast, like any two year old. Gertrude would back up to the hay manger between the horses and the tack room. I had to stand on the manger, grab a ceiling beam and swing over to her wide back. She groaned with pleasure as I walked and used my toes to massage her muscles. She always made me smile, even if I was only thinking of her.
Gertrude was so smart and eager, she basically trained herself. I was surprised when I climbed from the fence on to her bare back. I was wishing we had a nice English saddle that would fit such a large horse. But Gert was okay with the arrangements and that was fine with me, as I held my breath. I have trained plenty of horses, ponies, donkeys and mules. None were as easy to train as this filly.
I had to special order the snaffle bit I was using in her mouth which was wide. It only pulls a little on the sides of the mouth, unlike other bits with ports on the bar in the mouth. A snaffle bit is what I wanted to be easy on her mouth and she would look forward to seeing it. She wasn't a bit upset about having the bit in her mouth.
So I finally got up enough nerve to pick up the reins, but barely making contact with her mouth. I have good hands when it comes to riding and training horses. I squeezed my legs lightly and Gert walked out of the paddock. I used my right rein by pulling it out gently and the left one, I laid across her neck, down low. This is called “indirect reining,” and I had good luck with it so far. I use indirect reining to start a horse on riding English; I don’t fit in a western saddle.
We repeated this first lesson until I could see she was growing bored. It was time for the next lesson. Damn! I wished I had a saddle that would fit. “Well, here goes,” I told myself as I was sitting on her with the reins in my hands. She was calm as I squeezed my legs. When we were in the big pasture, a fall would be better cushioned; I squeezed a little harder and made kissing noises. I said “trot” at the same time.
There was no reason for me to worry. Gertrude went right into a trot as natural as if she’d done it all of her life. She even remembered her indirect reining and we trotted around a few times before I said, “Walk,” I sat back, and pushed my hands forward (another cue to learn) and she slowed down to a nice, peaceful walk. We repeated this lesson several times a week during a three week period. She did a great job and I was so pleased.
Okay, time to canter! Since Gert was so large, especially riding bare back, I could easily be thrown if she puts down her head. I didn’t think she would do it on purpose. First, we walked in a circle with markers, then, we trotted smoothly and as I squeezed, we were trotting fast. I said, “Canter.” She cantered. It was so smooth, not what I thought at first. She remembered her reining and we cantered in a nice circle! Wow! It was such a delight to work with this lovely Belgian who weighed 2200 pounds.
We hadn’t lived in Whitakers, NC for a year yet. We were excited because it was snowing now and had been snowing that night. I wore my high topped rubber English riding boots. I noticed later I had shin splints from walking through 15 inches of snow! I even fell in a frozen ditch and slipped every time I tried to get out. I finally crawled to the end of the ditch and pulled myself up with the drainpipe.
The animals were still in the barn and wanted to go outside to see all of the excitement. We had three horses, two mules, and three donkeys. They ran and bucked, snorted, chased each other and had a blast. But when they decided to graze, and put down their heads, they looked so puzzled. Karl and I laughed and laughed. That was nearly 20 years ago, and I still laugh about those silly animals.
The snow stuck around for a while and disappeared slowly. Soon it was springtime and the fescue was growing fast, even with the animals’ constant grazing. I called a neighbor who baled hay and stuck a deal for him to cut and bale most of my pasture and I could put the animals in the other pasture. Plus I wanted 300 bales of hay in my loft.
After the phone call, I happened to glance out of our sliding glass door,I couldn’t believe what was going on with Gertrude. She was running from the fence to the catfish pond, leaping into the cold water and wallowing around like a hog! Being alone, I didn’t have anyone to see the spectical. I counted on her doing it again. Indeed, she made it an unbreakable habit. Everyone had a chance to see her wallow in the water.
Both Karl and I worked at Consolidated Diesel Company, building diesel Engines for Cummins. Karl worked in repairs, and I stayed on the line, putting the pistons into the cylinders and torquing the piston rod caps. It was very strenuous work and sometimes we worked until two in the morning on second shift and from six a.m. until three or four in the afternoon.
Though I tried to keep my life on the farm from slowing me down, I stayed sick and tired with a lot of migraines. My neurologist and family doctor told me to slow down and try to lighten my load. I was advised to quit my job, which sounded good to me, anyway.
Karl was not happy and didn’t want me to quit until we had our dual wheeled Ford truck paid off. It would only be a little over a year. I was bummed out and we both decided to part with some of the livestock. I had a wonderful friend, Beverly, who has always wanted a Belgian mare and she would also take Athena, a bay half Arabian mare belonged to both of us.We took turns with her over the years. Gertrude was the same age, almost twenty.
When I called her, she said, “Lesley, are you kidding? How could you part with that Belgian? Also you know Athena always has a home here.” I explained I couldn’t take proper care of them because of my hours and rather than sell them to anybody, I would be happy if they “stayed in the family.”
A few days later, Beverly drove the 335 miles to Whitakers to pick up Gertrude and Athena. She had plans to breed Gert to a wonderful jack and also to teach her to pull a cart. I could tell she was beside herself with joy. I was feeling a sense of loss, but I knew I did the right thing. She would be happier at Ammon’s Ark, Beverly’s large farm. Hardy, her son, kept her another ten years and loved her, as well.
She did teach Gert how to pull posts and other items that it would be easier to pull. She was reaching her potential. I would never have the time to put that much work into either mare. I cried a little I already missed the two older mares. I told myself they would be happier and that is what they deserved.
Later Hardy, Bev’s oldest son, ended up with Gertrude on his magical boarding and training business. He had a pond, a bridge over the water and the stalls were under an awning, connecting the house and his barn where Hardy kept his own horses. The place was beautifully landscaped and they worked hard to improve the farm every day. It was a perfect place for Gert.
Hardy often called or emailed me that Gert was doing well and he loved her a lot. He could put three kids at a time on her large back. Then came a time when Gertrude was over thirty years old. Her coat was shaggy and brittle and she did everything in slow motion.She was slowly fading. Hardy waited as long as he could. She was put down by the vet later that year.
Gertrude deserved to be spared the pain of living and being so sick almost all of the time. Hardy sent me an email, explaining what he had to do. “She deserved peace and thank you, Hardy.” I still cry whenever I read this story.
She was and always will be the Best Birthday in my life! "I love you, Gert."