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And Then There Was Sassy!

By: Cate Cavanagh

By Florence MattersdorferPublished 5 years ago 10 min read

The Horse of a Lifetime

Although Brooklyn born and raised something stirred within me that I could not define when it came to horses. Horse crazy is what my folks called me.

After years of paying my dues riding—you know the drill: the falls, the runaways, the ones that bucked and the ones that reared, as well as paying my dues in life rising from poverty to professionalism—I knew I had earned the privilege of owning a horse. My childhood dream was of a Bucephalus-like horse, a horse like Alexander the Great's. Like most riders, I had ridden horses at least sixteen hands which is the size of your average horse-big. A favorite mount was huge measuring eighteen hands at one time. So here I was, the adult searching for my childhood vision.

I encountered Sassy on a hack line at a dude ranch. She had just recovered from shipping fever, which can be fatal, and was on the line to help build her up. The wranglers were true horse lovers who never overworked the horses and Sassy because they had worked so hard to rehabilitate her, was their favorite. As their favorite, they were rather picky as to who rode her. I guess it became evident after many morning chats that I too was an animal lover. Since Sassy was their favorite I immediately got “Do we have the horse for you!” What they brought over to me was more like a pony than the majestic horses I had ridden my whole life. She was just over fourteen hands, which is a big pony height, and, because she had been ill she was still, sadly a bag of bones! Seeing my deep reservations they encouraged me to just take her out and think about it because she really was a good, little horse who was unspoiled as she was just green broke or not "educated" yet. Disappointed that it was clear they did not understand I wanted a HORSE, not a pony wanting to not be rude I agreed.

Then the unexpected happened. Something unique. To this day I still cannot explain what it was other than it was something spiritual I felt on a deep soul level. Upon our return, I took off her saddle and just stared at her. Like an artist, I mentally superimposed conditioned musculature on her bones. She also had perfect confirmation. She was an Arab-Mountain Welsh pony mixture so I knew she would have endurance and intellect. I had found my dream horse!

Sassy, however, was of a different opinion.

It is often said horse owners choose horses like themselves. I myself was not tall but of an athletic build. I had a determined temperament (not stubborn, mind you!) and strong endurance. And boy! Was I was to need it all!

When Sassy was brought to what would be her home she expressed immediate displeasure. Accustomed to the tranquility of faraway upstate New York hillsides the clatter and honks of Brooklyn streets and highways was far from a harmonic symphony of crickets and rustling leaves.

The first time I took the water hose out to bath her, she panicked, obviously thinking it was a gigantic snake. I now knew all would have to be done from scratch and this would be no easy task. What was a leisurely ride in the country that had been taken for granted was NOT going to be the case where in order to ride in Brooklyn's famous Prospect Park one had to cross a horrific traffic circle complete with buses, garbage trucks, honking cars and the occasional fire engine. Once in the park, there were colorful joggers and bikers off the bridle path and of course, portable barbecues and bongo drums of denizens. No problem. After all I had bonded with my equine partner as for Sassy, however, her evident opinion was “Oh, yeah? I don't think so!”

From the beginning, it was side kicking and bucking her way across that huge traffic circle, often with the light against us. It was pinning me against the wall when I saddled her up and only one speed: run! Many were the times I fell off, once getting trampled and requiring stitches. I realized that for all my years of riding there was one disadvantage I had, as do many riders. I had only ridden tall horses. Tall horses are fluid and smooth in their transitions and gaits. Riding a small horse was quite another matter and I soon learned that the other riders at the barn would never ride a small horse for that reason and for another: small horses, especially those with pony mentalities were just too darn smart.

That I was heartbroken was to say the least. My dream had become a nightmare but I couldn't have imagined that soul connection I insisted to myself. I just couldn't have! It was when I overheard one rider stop in front of her stall and say, “There's a can of Alpo with your name on it” that the stubborn me kicked into gear and decided there and there I was not giving up on my dream, on my insight of that very first ride. That was real and it wasn't Sassy's fault that she was foisted into her own nightmarish environment. I would help her learn to trust me and that's where it would all begin.

Diagnostically, I knew she had learned to get ahead of the bit which means she learned to pick her head up and push the bit into her teeth where she would lock it in place hence getting no signal from the bridle. So, the immediate solution was a standing martingale. A standing martingale holds the head down in such a way as the horse cannot lift its head above the bit line. This would not be forever. It would just be a basic training tool for the time being to teach her she could not get ahead of the bit. As for her bucking, I realized it was up to me to be able to feel her petite body begin to bunch up so I could move her forward by squeezing my legs into her side which was not hurtful but would just give a direction to move in so as to relieve the pressure. After all, if I could break that initial behavioral response eventually it would no longer be her weapon but just a little “boopy” way of stretching her kinks out.

As for getting her to cross that circle, I knew there had to be gratification for her to overcome her fear and outright anger. What was the obvious gratification? Food, of course. But, not just any food. Something harmless, not sugary and something that could be given at frequent intervals.

So, armed with pockets filled with unsweetened shredded wheat I began the coaxing of Sassy unbeknownst to her. I started by giving her one after she was girthed up. She received another one at the corner just before the right turn toward the circle. Her cue was a bend of her head toward me which she quickly learned was a treat from the saddle. At the stop before the traffic circle, while waiting amidst cars, she got another. In the middle of the traffic circle, she got another. Once inside the park, she got another. From there she had to walk a mile between a treat and she would receive another at the top of Cantor Hill which was the only place in the park where horses were allowed to engage in a slow run. It was only a matter of a couple of weeks before she had reached a point of getting a treat at the entrance of the park and upon return to the stable.

Six months after bringing her to Brooklyn New York I relocated her to a stable off a beach. Here there was going to be another adventure: breaking waves, high-speed planes overhead and miles and miles of openness. It was here I shifted her to a running martingale which allowed more movement of the head but that I controlled. After all, it was time to decrease the muscle mass under her neck as a result of her constantly trying to lift up her head and develop those above as well as develop flexibility of the neck. In time all she needed was a hackamore which is a bridle without a bit! I showed Sassy the joy of being fully let out at a full run and in return, she taught me how to ride a small, powerfully built large, pony-sized horse. She was a natural at learning dressage which is what most call dancing movements and learned to love going for a swim in the ocean after a ride. She would turn her head toward me on a summer day as if to ask, “Now? Can I swim now?” But it wasn't until I would drop the reins that she knew she could drift into the surf and go for a swim.

She had one physical quirk though—she had fatty elbows. It did not matter if you pulled the forelegs forward or not to stretch the folds of skin she would always get elbow sores. Rather than not ride while she healed I realized the only thing to do was learn what I did not know how to do-- bareback. She was also wonderfully round in the body so much so she got the nickname “The Bucket” so you can imagine I was off more than on with her looking at me quizzically from above as if to say “Why are you there?” I eventually learned to walk, trot, canter, gallop and jump bareback and, truth be told the saddle never went on again. We had just become so in tune with each other it was as if all I had to do was think and it was done.

She voiced trained so quickly that once, when I was pulled off her back by a low hanging branch that jabbed through my tee shirt I simply called out “Sassy, come!” and she stopped and trotted back to me!

She loved to play, especially horse tag at which she excelled! She loved avoiding our being tagged by other riders and because she and I were so much in sync no one could tell when I would ask her to move to the side or back up! We were never tagged! She ate her carrots and apples in baby bites to the point that on her birthday she would get gifts from friends of baby food carrots and applesauce!

Her reputation for being a handful to ride (for others,) speed and intellect became so reknown that once, when my daughter was on vacation in California with a relative someone came up to her and said, “Your Sassy's owner, aren't you?” We still laugh about that. We were used to riders in Staten Island, New Jersey and Long Island hearing about her but California? Really?

There were few who dared ride her. They feared her speed and intellect. The few that did I allow were told a few simple things: go very light on the leg and never, NEVER tell. Only ask.

She speaks French, not German! German style riding has the attitude "You will do as I say" whereas French style riding is "Shall we do this?"

All horses are special. They have their own personalities and if you do not break their spirit they will always give more than you ask. Many would have browbeaten Sassy but what I gained by not doing so was a willing and devoted partner who looked out for me as much as I looked out for her. By using knowledge and horsemanship, not brute force I had the friendship of a lifetime with Sassy not likely to be duplicated.

When it became time for me to “let her go” I had long since known her passing would be one from I would never fully recover. Although there remains an emptiness deep within my soul each time I look at her retired headgear and saddle I feel a bitter-sweetness but I smile.

If you enjoyed reading this please feel free to send me a gift. Thank you.


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