Speech: And Then There Was Lightning…. By Susan Stewart

 And Then There Was Lightning….

I remember going to get my first pony with my dad.  I was 4 years old and we took a big farm dump truck full of hay to North Springfield to a place where my dad sometimes rented big equipment, like bulldozers.  I think it was the Gurney’s place, if my memory serves me.  We drove in the yard and there were ponies with foals there.  My dad worked out a deal where he traded the load of hay for a one-year-old liver chestnut filly that was a half Shetland/half Welsh pony.  I was so excited to get my own pony! 

The filly was brown and being that I was 4 years old, of course her name had to be “Brownie.”  However, I had recently seen a movie, or maybe it was a TV show, that had a horse named Gypsy in it.  As a result, I was torn because I also wanted to name her “Gypsy” after the horse in the film.  One night shortly after that, as I was falling asleep, I solved the dilemma and decided to name her “Gypsy Brownie.”  That made me very happy, but in reality, the majority of her twenty odd years of life, she was called “Gypsy.”

Gypsy and I learned together, though I think she got smarter and I got scareder over the first 3 years or so together.  She was very clever, as most horses are, about finding out what she could get away with, with me.  Since I was very young and didn’t have much training or direction, she got away with a lot! 

By the time I was 7, she was able to get me off her back almost every time I got on.  Of course, she was pretty creative about how she did it so that I didn’t have much predict. 

One time she would find a low branch of an apple tree that she could just fit under, but I would be scraped off, and another she would find just the right piece of ledge on the dirt road to unload me on, so it would really hurt when she decided to buck me off.  The up side was that I sure learned how to keep my balance under many circumstances to avoid the impact with the ledge and how to anticipate the sharp turn under the tree so that I could steer her away before I was left swinging unexpectedly on an apple tree limb.  The down side for me was that she was so clever, that she was faster at finding new ways to create an unexpected dismount than I was at anticipating her newest bright idea, and I ended up way too often in a twisted pile somewhere I did not plan.  As a result, I was pretty scared of her and needed some encouragement to ride her by the time I was about 8.

So…Pony Club was the answer.  Pony Club was a life saver as not only did I learn how to ride, and ride well, but I also learned how to care for a horse and the tack (the equipment you use with a horse.)  I learned how to properly groom the horse and clean the tack, how to feed properly and how to recognize if something isn’t right and what to do about it—when to fix it myself and when to call the vet, etc.

At some point along the line, I was starting to outgrow Gypsy as she was a relatively small pony being half Shetland.  So the answer was to breed her to an Arabian stallion and produce a wonderful colt.  He was born in a lightning storm when I was about 10 or so.  He had this streak of white across his shoulders that looked like a bolt of lightning – hence his name – Lightning.  He also had a white patch on his rump and was mostly brown with some black.  Today, we would call him a Paint and he would be a highly desired color.  Then, he was a just a pinto, but beautiful in my eyes. 

        All the things I had learned from working with Gypsy in Pony Club I used to train Lightning. There are some old pictures of me with Lightning as a foal and Gypsy in the barn yard.  I spent a lot of time grooming him, halter training him, leading him and then when he was about 1 ½ or 2 years old, I put a saddle on him.  I got on him, not knowing what to expect and he just stood there. Then I had my dad lead him forward and he took a couple of steps, a bit unbalanced, unsure of what I was doing on his back.  After doing this a few times, he started getting used to me being on his back and then started to learn how to respond to the pressure of my leg, the rein and my balance.  Shortly after, I started taking him to Pony Club and we continued to learn basics, then dressage and jumping.

Lightning had a lot of Arabian qualities and had some more size than Gypsy.  When he was fully grown he was 14 hands 2 inches (a hand is 4 inches and the standard way of measuring the height of horses at the shoulders.)  This made him the exact height that he could be entered in horse shows as either a pony or as a horse and opened up possibilities in the horse show arena.  We trained for and did a lot of three day events, which is one day of dressage, one day of stadium jumping and one day of cross country jumping.  We had a lot of fun and won a lot of ribbons.  There are a couple of pictures around of me jumping Lightning in horse shows.

………Show big picture……..

We also participated in gymkhanas, which are games on horseback, as I had done earlier with Gypsy.  However, I found that I could still do better riding Gypsy in the gymkhanas because she was small and had very smooth gaits.  Gypsy and I were almost always the winner of the “bareback buck” class.  This is where you put a dollar bill under your butt while riding bareback.  The rules are simple – you follow the announcer’s instructions as to gait and direction and if you lose the buck under your butt, you are eliminated.  The last person with the buck still under his butt wins.  The gaits get faster and the changes from one to the other quicker as it gets closer to the finals, but Gypsy and I were masters at that game.   The other one we did very well with was the egg in the spoon race.  This game is simply, who ever gets from one end of the arena to the other fastest, with the egg still in the spoon he is holding without touching the egg, wins.

Lightning and I did some long endurance trail riding as well.  We started with just the Autumn 25-mile ride when he was 3, then moved up to the 50-mile ride, which we did twice – when he was 3 and when he was 4 years old.  These were great fun and as we were used to doing the long trail rides described above and really knew our basics from Pony Club, we would do well. There were judges hidden in the bushes along the trail to mark your horsemanship (how you treat your horse, whether you know when to slow down and let your horse recover, etc.) which counted as much as the speed in which you do the ride.

…..Show pictures……….

 The pictures of me with Lightning where I am on his back by a fence and the one where I am holding his head and he has an old rope halter on were taken at the lunch break on one of these rides.

I always had the responsibilities of taking care of my horses.  In the winter, this was significant as I had to get up early before school and let the horses out of the barn, clean stalls, carry the hay over from the cow barn, chop out the ice from the water bucket, etc.  In the evening it was putting the horses back in the horse barn, feeding them and bedding them down for the night.  It was a very special time of day.  I particularly liked bundling up and going out to see a clear night sky full of stars.  I said to the first star that I saw, “Star Light, Star Bright, first star I see tonight.  I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.”   I guess this is the country version of my daughter, Moriah’s, “Hold your breath and make a wish!” every time we go under a tunnel or “Make a wish, it’s 11:11.”

One of my favorite summer evening activities would be to go up to the horse pasture and feed the horses grain.  I would call them and put grain in separate places near a large piece of outcropping ledge and watch them eat while I sang Kum Ba Yah, making up verses as I sang.  This was about the only song that I could sing relatively on key, so it was my standby.  If I didn’t bring them grain, I could just about forget about catching them.  They would head out across the brook or hide up behind the sugar house (where we made maple syrup in the spring.)  The horse pasture was large and they could move a whole lot faster than me, so they often sent me on long chases before catching them.

(….Sigh, look up, shake head….)

When Lightning was about 4½ years old, disaster struck for me.  My mom had suggested several times that I go check on the horses and give them their grain.  They were in a lower pasture that was a lot further to walk to than their usual horse pasture and it was hot and I was lazy.  I didn’t go until late in the day. 

I walked down to the lower pasture and called and called.  No one came.  I kept looking as I knew that Lightning and Gypsy were in one pasture and a couple of other horses that I was taking care of were in another pasture.  Finally I saw him and he wasn’t coming for his grain.  This seemed very strange.  He was way down in the pasture and not moving. 

I could see that Gypsy, with her expert Houdini skills, had gotten into the other pasture to visit with the other horses.  Unfortunately, she had not passed the knowledge of these skills on to her son.  He attempted to cross the fence and apparently failing, had kicked at the barbed wire and had twisted the barbed wire around his hind leg and was stuck with his back legs in the pasture he had been in and his front legs in the pasture that Gypsy and the others were in.  He had obviously been struggling a very long time.  His sides were all sunken in as though he had been without water for quite some time. 

I grabbed Gypsy and swung up on her back and galloped up through the pastures to the barns and found my dad.  He came back down with me and we cut him loose and we brought him some water.  My dad went back and called the vet while I stayed with Lightning and tried to get him to eat and drink.  The vet finally came and said that he had partially severed some of the tendons in his back leg.  He was not sure that he would be able to recover.

We moved him in a truck up to a space just below the wall in the front yard.  He had some shelter from the wind and weather there and had water and grass and he was close to the house.  I stayed with him all the time.  I slept there and stayed home from school to take care of him, changed his bandages and kept him company. 

I felt so responsible.  Perhaps if I had gone down earlier when my mom first suggested, he wouldn’t have struggled as much and wouldn’t have hurt himself so badly.  I was so guilt ridden and was devastated.  I never left him for more than a few minutes.

My big brother, Sandy, was a veterinarian in Catskill, NY at the time.  He, as well as our vet, contacted many experts in the field to try to find a way to heal him.  They called everyone they could to try to get help.

(…..Sigh…….)

 In the end, the tendons snapped and he had to be put down.

(….Sigh……)

 I will never forget the sight of him being led by my dad up the dirt driveway behind the house to be taken to the sandpits by Muckross Pond to be shot and buried.  This was the saddest thing that had happened in my life until then.  I cried and cried.   I loved Lightning so much and it had a huge impact on me. 

Shortly after, we had Gypsy bred again and she produced a lovely chestnut filly, who I named Bonita, but I could never really get attached to her.  I sold her to get some money to buy another horse.  I used Gypsy for pony rides with kids who came in from town to ride.  She was also a great lesson pony, which brought me a little income as well toward a new horse.

We bred Gypsy again as she was too small for me to ride and that way I could sell the foal and get more funds for another horse.  She was a good brood mare and produced very nice foals.  I did not get attached to this filly and sold her as soon as she was weaned.  I did not even name her as I knew she would not be mine.  I had a few other horses that came and went during this time, but none that had any major significance in my life.

          But as you know, now that I am old and grey, I again have the love of my life in the horse world with my beautiful Jake.

About Susan Stewart

Susan Stewart is a Past President of Renaissance Speakers and 2012-2013 Toastmasters District 52 Secretary. She is also a member of Open House Toastmasters and co-sponsor of Toastmasters 4 Leaders. She is the Past President of the Sunland-Tujunga Shadow Hills Rotary Club. Besides riding her Morgan horse, Jake, she also is on the Board of Directors of the Sunland-Tujunga Community Grants Fund and the Oversight Committee of the community good news newspaper, Voice of the Village. In her spare time, she helps Richard Stewart with his commercial and residential painting business, Richard Stewart Painting and is compiling a coffee table of photos and poetry entitled "The Rocks of Rancho Tujunga." The book will highlight her husband, Richard Stewart's work as "El Bandito" and his rock cairns as well the rock buildings in the historic area of Sunland-Tujunga Shadow Hills and local poetry regarding the rocks.