How Cricket Behaves in a Crunch
Copyright © Judith Shaw
My black pony Cricket certainly loves a challenge. He’s very smart and has always been somewhat underemployed. He’d have made a great search and rescue horse. In fact, I have a story about that.
Maybe ten years ago, I heard about a group trying to organize horse search and rescue on our mountains. The terrain can be very rough: although dogs have no trouble, the people following the dogs often do. The idea was to give the searchers a way to keep up with the dogs in areas where there were no roads. It was a great idea, and I was very keen to do it. Cricket was the perfect horse for the job.
There was a problem: Cricket found it very hard to stand to be mounted, and I was clumsy and slow getting on. I usually needed someone to hold his head to keep him from wandering off. The literature was clear: members had to be able to mount from the ground without help. No exceptions. I practiced mounting from the ground but, though he is a small horse, I am a small woman, and he couldn’t tolerate my clumsy attempts to get on.
So we had a talk. I told him all about search and rescue. I told him what he would do and how good at it he would be. I told him we’d have a lot of fun. Then I told him about the mounting thing. If he could stand to be mounted, and if I could mount from the ground, we could do it.
I realize it sounds, well, weird, but after that conversation, Cricket nearly always stood to be mounted. Unfortunately, the group’s funding never came through and the idea died in the womb, but he certainly did his bit to make it succeed.
Cricket was a joker, always looking for new things to do. Basically, I think he was bored, like a teenager on a street corner looking for trouble—and finding it.
You know barracuda? Those beautiful silver fish with lots of teeth? Divers often see them hanging around, watching the action. Because barracuda are intelligent and very efficient, not much of their time is spent chasing food, and they get bored. They like to watch divers, I guess, because divers make a change from fish—as entertainment, that is. Not as food. Cricket is a bit like that. The more difficult the problem, the more interested he seems to be.
One strange Memorial Day in Springfield, MA, a freak snowstorm left three or four inches of snow on the ground at the Vermont Spring Classic Horse Show. Carriages aren’t meant to be driven in the snow, and horses aren’t used to it. When it came time to do timed obstacles, not many drivers were willing to compete. It’s an event where speed is of the essence, and the ground was slippery. Cricket didn’t care. He went around the course with perfect aplomb and was so confident, he made me confident. It was the first timed obstacle event I ever won.At a carriage show in upstate New York, a week of heavy rain turned the showground into a quagmire. Half the dressage arena was covered with sticky mud, inches deep. The other half was under water. It was interesting watching drivers trying to get their horses to enter the arena. Cricket acted as if the mud and water weren’t there. Unfortunately, the dressage was cancelled shortly after, and I never did get to see our scores. They would have been awesome.
Lest you think he was a paragon of horse-show virtue, in the ring classes—where horses go around all together, doing whatever the judge says to do—Cricket was horrid. The mud was six inches deep, very hard to move in, and he wanted no part of it.
Cricket could be an arrogant S.O.B., but at crunch times he just did his job and put up with my mistakes without resentment. I loved Combined Driving, the carriage equivalent of eventing (without the jumps). The Marathon phase, a fast trot across country with hazards to navigate, was my absolute favorite thing in the world. At my level (Training), the hazards were pretty simple: enter through the In Gate, go through three lettered gates, A, B and C, and exit through the Out Gate. How hard could that be? A navigator, in the cart to help in case of emergency, was even allowed to tell the driver where to go.
I was great at the cross-country part. I sucked at the hazards. At least once in every competition Cricket and I had to back up a significant distance to remedy one of my directional errors. Horses hate to back up. When hitched to a cart, they hate it even more. Cricket always backed without complaint, but I could hear him thinking, “Next time, Mum, pay more attention to the letters!”
Now what about Tom the Wonder Horse? If he refused to go somewhere there was a reason, and he made it clear I’d better listen. In a crunch he always got us through, but not because he enjoyed crunches. Tom’s preferred method was to keep us out of trouble in the first place. For example, after I got us lost on Lebanon Mountain, Tom refused to ever let me take the wrong trail again. If we went near it, he took the bit in his teeth, turned his head away from the trail and power-walked in the right direction.
Cricket and Tom were both caretakers. Their preferences—and personalities—were different, but they shared the same goal: to keep me safe and moving forward. They never let me down.