Copyright © Judith Shaw
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. What about an old horse?
My retired Morgan Cricket is thirty-three. His registered name is Green River Promise, and UVM Promise, a world famous park harness horse, was his grandsire.
Cricket was born to be a park horse. He has a showy, knees-up trot with what is sometimes called a level forearm: When he trots, his lifted front leg, between pastern and knee, is parallel to the ground. (Truth to tell, he didn’t do the level forearm thing very often. It’s too much like work.)
Park horses were bred to strut their stuff on the groomed dirt tracks of London’s parks. They were, in the days before sports cars, society’s ultimate status symbol.
It’s a beautiful gait, but not exactly classical dressage, where power from behind, not action in front, is what wins the day.
Keep this in mind as you read the rest of the story.
Five years ago we sold our farm, and Cricket went to live with a friend of mine. He shares a paddock with Rocky, her white Arabian gelding. It’s a perfect friendship. Pushy Cricket pretends to bite Rocky, and laid-back Rocky pretends to be afraid. At night they sleep cuddled together in the same stall.
Cricket’s new home is a forty-minute drive from my house, and I don’t see him as often as I should. I use the distance as an excuse to stay away, but it’s not the real reason. Cricket is part of my previous life, my life with horses, and seeing him hurts.
When I do visit he lets me know that he hurts, too. He doesn’t look at me or respond when I call. He won’t even take a carrot from my hand.
It’s Cricket’s way of giving me the finger.
I’ve been trying to visit more often, because, like me, he’s on the long downhill slide. One of these days the phone will ring and I’ll have to call the man with the backhoe. I know it and try to do better.
A few weeks before my annual trip to Australia, I drove to his barn to say goodbye. It had been snowing, with maybe four inches on the ground and an inch of ice underneath. Not good footing for human or horse.
I went to the fence and called his name, expecting, as usual, a stinging snub. Instead, he came right away and let me rub his ears and have a smooch. It freaked me out. Was he sick? Did he have a premonition? Was he planning to die while I was gone?
I fed him the carrots, scratched his forehead, and untangled his forelock. Then I grabbed the wheelbarrow and a fork to pick out his stall.
I love cleaning stalls, at least if the stall holds a horse I love. It’s a meditative experience and very calming.
When the stall was done I moved the wheelbarrow into his yard. I was picking up clumps of frozen manure when someone yelled, “Catch Cricket! He’s out!”
I looked up to see the flick of his tail disappearing around the side of the barn. On the wrong side of the fence.
It wasn’t the first time I’d let Cricket make a run for it. In my horsey days I’d let him escape any number of times. These days I’d be called attention deficient, not absent-minded or off with the fairies, but it amounts to the same thing. When I need to pay attention, my mind is often somewhere else.
Cricket thinks it’s a game. He loves when I try to catch him, keeping just out of reach and smirking at my feeble human efforts.
But it wasn’t my barn, and I didn’t have a lead rope or a scoop of sweet feed to lure him back. All I could do was call his name and hope.
In no more than two anxious minutes, Cricket appeared around the corner of the barn—doing passage!
For those of you not familiar with classical dressage, passage (rhymes with dressage) is a slow extended trot, beautiful to watch, that takes strength, coordination, and a whole lot of training. The horse’s entire front end appears to float.
It’s a movement the experts say is part of every horse’s natural repertoire, but I’ve never seen one do it in a field. For Cricket, barely broke to saddle and not well trained at all, to perform fifty yards of passage—through snow and ice—is beyond unlikely.
Imagine your grandmother doing a series of back flips across the front yard. That’s how surprised I was.
He trotted up to me, looking about ten, not thirty-three, and dropped his head onto my shoulder, laughing.
“Don’t count me out,” he said. “I ain’t dead yet!”