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October 26, 2010

Being Beautiful Was Bentley's Highest Aim

Bentley had the "Look of Sparrows," rather than the more well known "Look of Eagles." Cartoon by Custer Cassidy.

Bentley would have been a sensation as a runway model. He was stunningly handsome, moved like sunshine and had no work ethic whatsoever. He never exerted himself when good looks and charm could get the job done.

Of all the horses I have prepped for competition, Bentley was the easiest I ever presented for a jog, FEI or otherwise. There was never a hold while the panel decided whether or not to let him go. There was never a debatable moment. Oh no. If Bentley trotted out sound, you knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that he was, in fact, sound.

Bentley, you see, was a drama queen and a horse-hypochondriac. No horse ever suffered like Bentley. And the world didn’t understand his symptoms.

Don’t get me wrong. Bentley had the best of vet care, and he was (honest!) sound. There was nothing wrong with Bentley, except between his gorgeous ears. A scratch or a scrape that would have a normal show horse sneering in derision would incapacitate Bentley for a week. A clinch over-tightened on a new shoe, which would normally cause a momentary flinch and then be disregarded, could make Bentley three-legged lame for days if you didn’t pull the shoe immediately. Again, this was not a poor job of shoeing. The blacksmith shod dozens of our horses, including a couple of Olympic contenders, and Bentley was the only one who ever complained.

My event mare Tory once came in from the field with every hair in place, quite sound, with a hole in her leg the size of a small hubcap. A call to the vet, stitches, and Tory was back in working order. In fact, she passed the jogs at her next event with the stitches still in. She never took a lame step throughout the whole process. We probably would have had to carry Bentley back to the barn on a stretcher. We had Bentley gone over from stem to stern on many occasions, and nothing, but nothing, ever showed up. Even the vets were baffled.

Put Bentley’s bridle on the wrong hole, and the world came to an end abruptly. If Bentley’s saddle pad was not freshly washed, soft and fluffy (he preferred them warm, fresh out of the dryer), you heard about it. (One good thing came out of that—I got into the habit of keeping my saddle pads clean!) If his boots had the least little bit of dirt or grit on them, you knew it right away. He was worse than Pony Club stable management examiners.

The Look Of Sparrows

Bentley was a Thoroughbred, and he could have had a successful career as a conformation hunter had he possessed even a little will to exert himself over a big jump. Every photograph I have of Bentley shows him in classically correct form, whether the fence was 2’ or 3’6”. He jumped those heights effortlessly and, when pressed, he could easily do the larger fences. But he didn’t want to. You’ve heard of the “Look of Eagles?" Well, Bentley, for all his scope and talent, had the “Look of Sparrows.”

He was purchased at a fairly significant price to take a student of mine safely through the preliminary levels of eventing. (I hasten to add that I had nothing to do with this sale or purchase.) The professional who sold her the horse had been working with her and said he would be an appropriate mount for the start of her climb up the eventing ladder. Right.

She started him at novice and had quite a successful run. When she moved him to training, “things” started to happen. There were monsters in the woods, monsters in the water, and one spectacular time that we got on film, monsters in the start box. After 45 seconds (yes, it’s on film) on his hind legs in the start box (and that was after the “go” had been given, so it was timed objectively and accurately), we decided maybe eventing wasn’t exactly what Bentley wanted to do. It wasn’t the height of the fences. It was the great outdoors.

So we started shopping other forms of jumping competition to see just what this talented and lovely twit was willing to do. We tried the jumpers, which didn’t pan out. Throw colored poles in his path and you could forget it. Colored poles sometimes left paint on his hooves, and you couldn’t have that! He’d tolerate the low stuff in baby jumper classes because there was no effort involved, and he could show off his lovely face and style. And besides, in the baby classes, speed was not involved. Ask Bentley to really move out and that, as they say, was that.

When the colored poles got higher and some odd-looking panels started showing up in jumper classes, and, above all, he was asked to go fast, we soon learned that this was not in Bentley’s game plan. So we tried the hunters.

Nothing fazed Bentley as long as the fences were proper hunter fences and of a size that didn’t require him to exert himself. Bentley sailed over his kind of fences in the hunter ring with a panache that the judges loved. He adored being braided and fussed over. He even let us dress him up for Halloween shows. As long as he was being admired, he postured and preened like a peacock. Pin a championship ribbon on his bridle and watch him pose for photos. He’s the only horse I know who actually enjoyed being ridden with a cooler slung over his withers, a trophy and a huge ribbon flapping in the breeze.

His owner, an adrenaline junkie, quickly got bored. So we swapped. I put her up on my mare Tory, to do the jumpers, which is a whole other series of adventures. She let me do Bentley in the hunters. Bentley didn’t care much for any kind of contact. He went in a soft rubber snaffle, and even that was more a nod to convention than use, because if you so much as twitched on the reins, you knew about it. He would much have preferred to be shown in silk ribbon trimming.

There we were in a decent-sized hunter class, and there I was in two-point (oh yes, you didn’t sit into Bentley if you knew what was good for you) with floating reins. Fortunately, he did steer off the leg or I would have been in a world of hurt.

Bentley clocked around the ring with a blissful expression on his beautiful (but incredibly silly) face. Our second trip was slightly more adventurous. The distances had started out as average, but about halfway through that second trip, they seemed to be getting shorter and shorter. Bentley’s stride had been getting longer and longer over each fence, and by the time we finished, we were sailing. We left the arena in a cloud of dust. That was the last time Bentley did the hunters on a floating rein, and he objected strenuously to the discipline.

Oddly enough, Bentley was the horse you’d give anything to have for a boyfriend or husband who doesn’t ride. He was a saint with beginners. He’d put up with antics and errors from beginners that would have had him comatose if we’d done them. He’d walk quietly with a beginner whether on a longe-line or free, and he refused to trot unless he was sure the rider was going to remain reasonably in one place. He never once complained when a beginner grabbed the reins or handfuls of mane, though when his owner or I ever tried, you heard about it. He would bravely carry boyfriends and husbands through the woods and especially through the creek without protest, though when we wanted to take him out of the arena it was a Wild West show.

Blinded By His Beauty

And then there was dressage. Bentley must have realized that dressage is part beauty contest. He had a spectacular trot and a canter that would send shivers down your spine. The judges loved him. Even though he never actually came on the bit, he perfected an illusion of submission that seemed to gull a lot of the judges. There was one time that I will never forget, and I don’t know how long it will be before I forgive!

It was a fairly good-sized show and sanctioned. I had entered Tory in a couple of classes to see if by some miracle we could reach a consensus on the subject of dressage. Tory hated dressage. If we were lucky, we occasionally produced a flat-footed walk.

That day, for some reason, Tory decided to cooperate. She was obviously tense and on her toes, but it felt to me as though every time she was ready to explode, she seemed to take a deep breath and tell herself that she could hold out a little longer. It was the high point of her dressage career, and I was tickled with the test. I was looking forward to some reasonably complimentary comments from the judge and maybe even a ribbon. I was chagrined, to say the least, when I saw the marks and realized the judge had included an error penalty because I had started my trot one letter before the appointed place.

Then came Bentley. My friend rode him into the ring with their usual brio. I watched enviously as Bentley floated around the first half of the test, almost distaining to put his feet on the ground. At the test midpoint, when they were to cross on a short diagonal and halt, they suddenly struck off in the wrong direction in a perfectly nice medium trot (not part of the program) and went on to ad lib the test, a circle here, a reinback there. She’d forgotten the pattern completely. I waited for the whistle, which never came. About half a minute and four or five ad-libs later, my friend was back on course and finished in style. Her test results contained no errors, no penalties, only a great deal of praise for a lovely moving horse and a fine rider.

Tory’s test had been the highlight of her career. It was one of the few times that she made a conscious effort to submit to dressage. One teeny, tiny rider mistake in an otherwise correct test. Was virtue rewarded? Did honest and hard-working effort triumph over good looks, charm and an error-filled test? Because we shared a truck and trailer, I had to ride home with that blue ribbon flapping from the sun visor, and because she was my friend and my student, I had to be gracious. That was 30 years ago, but hey …. We still joke about it.

Kathie P. Mautner grew up as a "Foreign Service brat," and now she works as an insurance attorney and competes in ballroom dancing. Her horse experience includes eventing, dressage and hunter/jumpers as well as volunteering as a Pony Club D.C. "I'm a survivor of ponies of all sizes," said Mautner. She also writes humor pieces for the Chronicle recalling her mispent youth as well as a serious column every now and then.

 

 
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