Everything I Needed to Know About Loving A Horse, I Learned From My OTTB

Dec 17, 2018 - 10:02 PM

Baby Huey was my first horse. Although I’d been riding since I was a kid, I didn’t enter horse ownership until my 30s. Huey gave me a crash course in everything I needed to know, from riding a green horse to letting go of an animal you care about.

To go where I wanted to go with my riding, I had to sell Huey. Because I sold him, I was able to get Cairo and chase my dreams. But I never stopped caring about what happened to him. When you care about a Thoroughbred, or any horse, it’s a risk—you place so much affection on a big, oh-so-fragile animal.

I bought Huey to soothe a broken heart. I needed something to love.

For the record, that was a terrible reason to buy a horse. In fact, when my then-trainer Felix Jaramillo was discussing selling him to me, he specifically said, “Don’t buy him because you love him. Buy him because he’s the right horse for what you want to do.”

“I love him because he is the right horse,” I told Felix, meaning it utterly.

Huey, race name Bucky Badger (Purdue King—Tinsel Toes, Silver Ghost), was a big-boned, gregarious, 16.3-hand gray off-the-track Thoroughbred. As far as I know, his greatest claim to fame before becoming mine was beating a horse named Beer Goggles when he finished sixth in a field of eight in his one and only race. He was probably having way too much fun running with his new best friends to think about running away from them.

Huey was also a goofball and had personality three times the size of his big body.

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I bought Huey because I needed something to love. Photos Courtesy of Camilla Mortensen

I had been living in Wisconsin, where I moved with my fiancé, and then stayed after breaking up with said fiancé two weeks before the wedding (as one does). I lingered in the Midwest for two years, teaching at the University of Wisconsin and riding with Felix at his Prairie Sport Horses. With Felix, I got to ride his project horses in addition to taking lessons on school horses. Huey was one of those projects, fresh off the track. I adored riding him and spent late, dark evenings at the barn feeling the joy you get when an OTTB figures out what you are asking under saddle.

After some time, I decided to move back to Oregon to be with the man I had started to date right after the whole non-wedding fiasco. Right after I moved, my new boyfriend and I broke up. I was devastated. I remember yelling at him, “I could have stayed in Wisconsin.” And then, indignantly, “I left Huey for you!!!”

He later told me he felt very bad about the Huey part. That’s probably why we are still friends.

I went back to Wisconsin for a visit, and Felix offered to sell me Huey for a low price for such a lovely prospect. I bought him on a payment plan, and a very nice shipper cut me a deal on getting him across the country.

Huey was named for the silly cartoon duck Baby Huey, and while it kind of suited him, that wasn’t quite what I wanted for him as a show name. And I sure wasn’t going to take him in any classes as Bucky Badger. I named him after my favorite fairy tale, or rather what folklorists call a “tale type” — a way of categorizing folktales. Love Like Salt is a story in which a father misunderstands his daughter telling him, “I love you like salt” as not loving him enough—his other daughters compare their love to diamonds and gold. In fact she is telling him that because salt is what gave flavor to the world; without him, the world was flat, colorless.

My world needed flavor, and Huey was that.

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Around the barn, my big, goofy horse was known as Baby Huey, after the silly cartoon duck.

Huey taught me that sometimes when you’re down, it’s OK to take a risk. I never regretted buying that big, beautiful, silly horse.

And you know all those people who would never buy a gray horse? Well, sure, we had some serious poop stains over the years, but Huey’s constantly changing color was fascinating. He was a dark dapple gray when I first rode him. And as time went on, his color changed to a fleabitten gray, but his flea bites were so big and red, he looked like an Appaloosa—and was mistaken for one several times. “Nice Appy,” a big hunter trainer told me when I got him. “Thank you! He’s a Thoroughbred,” I told her cheerfully. “Well, I hope he jumps like an Appaloosa,” she retorted.

To this day, I have no idea what she meant by that.

Huey loved slow trail rides, and he gradually grew to like dressage—after a very dramatic first dressage show that involved a mule, a lot of bucking, and a patient judge who went on to become one of my best friends. Once we got going with dressage, Huey made me feel like I was a genius of flying changes and lateral work. I suspect he was just prone to leaping about and going sideways, so I was channeling his natural propensities.

He had one speed when it came to jumping—and it involved the phrase “damn the torpedoes.” In his youth he had that gleeful buck, but as he grew older, I could throw anyone on him. Thoroughbreds do grow up, I learned, though Huey never stopped being a character.

I switched from jumpers to eventing because Huey loved cross-country so much. He taught me that sometimes you will upend everything you thought you were going to do with your riding career if the right horse needs you to.

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I switched from jumpers to eventing because Huey loved cross-country so much.

Huey was a stall walker, and when he injured the carpal sheath in his knee I learned all you need to know about how to keep a horse quiet, from mirrors to supplements to stall entertainment. His vet still remembers the three days he had him at the clinic and the path Huey tried to wear in the stall. Huey taught me that for some horses turnout isn’t a choice, it’s a must, and if you are going to keep an OTTB in a stall, you are going to have to spend some quality time keeping him amused.

I rehabbed Huey oh so carefully. I wanted him to last forever. Huey taught me that while taking it long and slow is frustrating, it means a better, sounder future.

Speaking of stall rest, Huey was kind of an adrenaline junkie. Startling and leaping was in his genes. As a result, his youthful antics meant he needed stitches on a couple occasions and a variety of antibiotic injections. I never knew I’d get so good with a needle or stitches removal. I still have friends who call me to pull their horse’s stitches since I’m “good at it.” I remember Dr. Violet looking at one particularly vivid gash, putting his hand on my shoulder and saying, “Well, Camilla, we know he’s a good healer.”

The same youthful “leap first, think later” skill set that is common in young OTTBs was hard on his shoes, too. I caught my farrier, who I’m pretty sure is not Catholic, crossing himself a couple times before nailing the Huester’s shoes on. And I got really good at pulling half-sprung shoes and wrapping feet in duct tape.

But it was always worth it, because when I got to the barn and called his name, Huey would come charging in from the pasture, screaming, race up to me, stop dead, and shove his head at me for scratches.

Then he would turn around and stick his butt in my face, because butt scratches were the best. If I didn’t comply, he’d waggle his rump at me and do what I called the “Huey Hula” to entice me to scritch around his tail. If there were no humans available, he’d try to find a good stick to scratch with. He also was fond of gnawing on sticks, to the point that I’d toss fresh apple branches in his paddock for him to nosh on. I think if he were human he would have been a smoker.

Huey loved bananas. It didn’t matter what else was going on in his life. “Every day is a good day for a banana,” as Jasmine Fullman, one of many people who loved him, said. The browner and mushier the better. I learned bananas are a great place to hide Bute.

There was an elderly, almost blind man who lived at the barn I boarded at for most of the time I owned Huey. Lloyd used to slip me beers (or sometimes a soda, and I was never clear if that was because he couldn’t read the can or felt I needed more sobriety on certain days). He would pluck me roses from his garden. As I stood talking one day to Lloyd, a beer in one hand and roses in the other, Huey sauntered up in his pasture, reached out and ate the roses.

After that Lloyd saved me his damaged blooms, and Huey never failed to remind me that it’s always a good idea to stop and eat the roses.

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You should always take time to stop and eat the roses.

In the jumper ring, Huey and I somehow won an adult medal class at an A show. And at that same show, won a couple jumper rounds. I had pulled him out of the pasture that morning, hosed him off and raced over to the show grounds. He was that kind of boy.

Huey and I learned to event together, and I know I made some mistakes. I’m pretty sure that sometimes he just closed his eyes and went for it.

At training level we ribboned. And eliminated. And ribboned. And eliminated. And I realized Huey was happiest at 3 foot and below. He could jump bigger, but it wasn’t his thing. I loved him, and I’d owned him almost eight years. But I had to choose: stay at novice forever, or sell Huey. I owned, and still do, another horse, Flash, who has an old injury that sometimes makes him lame for months at time. Flash was not sellable. I could barely afford one horse; instead I had two. Three was not an option.

But I was plagued with guilt. Who would love the big funny horse like I did? I posed that question to my friend Becky, who looked at me dumbfounded. “He jumps 3 foot, trailers, trail rides, you can do anything with him except jump as big as you want,” she told me. “Guess what? A horse like that who does 3 foot is someone’s dream horse.”

I think every off-the-track Thoroughbred deserves to be someone’s dream horse.

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Eventually I had to choose between keeping Huey and striving toward my own riding goals.

So I put him up for sale but only to the right home. I knew Sophie Fullman, who was then 13 or 14, was right for him when she got on to try him, and he got that silly happy look on his face.

I knew it was even more the right home when Soph’s mom Jasmine agreed that if they bought him, I could have in the contract that I would help choose his next home if they sold him. At that point Huey was 14, and their trainer, Judy Herson of Big Dog Stables, said she totally understood wanting to make sure an older gelding had a soft landing down the road.

I couldn’t do right of first refusal—I couldn’t afford to have him back. So off he went, and I loved how he was loved. Soph dressed him as a unicorn that first Halloween, and I cried when Jasmine sent me the photos.

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Sophie Fullman and Huey.

Time went on, and Soph and Jasmine later made the painful decision to sell Huey and called me up. I knew again I’d made the right choice as it was so very clear Huey would only go to the perfect place. One woman seemed like the right fit, but at the last minute she started to back out. At Jasmine’s behest, I called her.

I got the lady on the phone and listened to her for a while. Finally, I interrupted and asked, “Do you love him?” She stopped talking, flummoxed, and began to explain how his size, experience etc., were important, but she had reservations. “But do you love him?” I repeated. No. She didn’t.

Felix was right to tell me to get the right horse and not one I simply “loved.” But his advice was as a trainer to a rider with dreams to chase looking to buy a prospect. I was asking this lady if she loved Huey as a person who loved this older animal, and I wanted to make sure her dreams were about him.

I told her that Jasmine, Soph and I didn’t want Huey to go to anyone who didn’t totally love him. (And I thanked the stars and everything else that I had sold Huey to someone who I knew understood that.)

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I think every off-the-track Thoroughbred deserves to be someone’s dream horse.

The lady declined to purchase him. And the person who did buy him, Jessica Schwing, gave him the home he so richly deserved.

He vetted sound at 17, so his rehab did work out, way back when. And Jessica told me when the day came to retire from jumping, he’d be her husband’s trail horse, and then a pasture pet. Jessica fed Huey bananas and kissed him behind his ears in the spot where his now white hair was soft like rabbit fur. She took him to the beach and made sure he had turnout and pasture friends. Jessica loved his antics and his quirks. She let Huey be Huey and the center of attention as he so loved to be. She paid the vet bill and held on when he hurt his hock, and the vet said the horrible words “career ending.” As always, Huey bounced back from it.

I went to visit Jessica and Huey one summer day, and we chatted about the big guy. His treats, his bits, his moments of saintliness, his moments where you just shake your head and wonder how he got so much personality.

Then one day this fall, Huey fell down, acted neurological. Something wasn’t right. Always upending people’s expectations to the end, it was cancer that killed him at almost 20. But it wasn’t melanoma like gray horses often get. Huey had to be different. He had lymphoma. He went fast after his diagnosis, and Jessica made sure his last days were special.

He went, Jessica told me, in the morning, surrounded by love.

I wish Jessica and Huey had more time together. I know she and I and Jasmine and Soph and all those he knew him are glad for the time we had. “He had a whole secret society of admirers who were bringing him slightly overripe bananas,” Jessica said of the rest of his fan club.

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Jessica Schwing and Huey.

I asked her if it was OK if I blogged about him. Huey was once mine, but it was Jessica who took care of him until the day he died.

“He would see it as no less than his due,” Jessica said. “He always had a pretty good opinion of himself.”

Thanks to Huey, I learned how special it is to love and care for a horse, and share that love with others, until the very end.


Camilla Mortensen is an amateur eventer from Eugene, Oregon, who started blogging for the Chronicle when she made the trek to compete in the novice three-day at Rebecca Farm in Montana. Camilla works as a newspaper reporter by day and fits training and competing Cairo around her job.

Read all of Camilla’s blogs.

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