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February 5, 2014

Do The Flames Make Her Go Faster?

Minnie, the Mighty Minion Mobile

Like a teenaged boy who’s just seen a supermodel on the beach, when I pass a tractor-trailer load of horses on the road my head whips around, my eyes widen, and I stare for too long. 

Most often, it’s the boxy silhouette of a commercial shipper that catches my eye; loaded down with young Thoroughbreds or a show barn’s string of hunters and jumpers headed to warmer climates for the season.

But twice, I’ve unexpectedly spotted the same navy blue Peterbilt, glittering with chrome and lights and followed by a perfectly polished 15-horse Streamliner with softly curved edges and custom painted farm name. Even from several lanes away I can recognize the driver. My dad.

My father's gleaming, perfect rig.

My appreciation for trucks and horse trailers is embedded deep in my DNA and was heightened by miles of riding shotgun, family meals at truck stops (breakfast served 24 hours a day!) and the voices of admiring truckers coming over my dad’s CB radio:  “How ‘bout ya, South-bound horse trailer, that’s a mighty fine looking rig you’ve got!”

So imagine my reaction when Elizabeth and I hired a commercial shipper for the first time and the driver arrived in a pick up truck and stock trailer…

 Supporters of stock trailers—back away from your keyboards! Before you draft a response to my blatantly elitist opinion, please read on (and remember that we ate family meals at truck stops—how stuck up can I be?).

First of all, I discovered that stock trailers aren’t so bad when our horses arrived relaxed and cool despite 90-degree temperatures.  Also, the gods of horse transportation have more than adequately punished me for my snobbery; I think you’ll agree if you read on…

So stock trailers don’t suck, but unloading all of your tack trunks and equipment from someone else’s rig in the middle of the night after a grueling weekend of horse showing does.

I called my dad, Johnny Barker, (who buys and sells almost as many horse trailers as he does horses) to see if he had any ideas. We were in luck—he had a 6 horse head-to-head on consignment that he’d let us take and he knew of a good truck—priced to sell—that we could buy to pull it.

We purchased the truck on my dad’s recommendation, sight unseen, and he parked the entire rig at his horse show facility a few hours away from us in Greensboro, N.C., where it would wait for a week until Elizabeth and I could get there. My brother John saw her first: “She’s a hoss. The flames are pretty sweet,” he texted me.

Flames?

John’s next text was a photo—a white Freightliner with electric blue flames painted across the hood, shooting out from behind the headlights and licking at the bottoms of the doors. Her name came to me instantly: the Mighty Minion Mobile, or “Minnie” for short.  She was AWESOME.

Meeting Minnie

Elizabeth and I set out early on a warm September morning to retrieve Minnie. To make the most of the trip, we coordinated the delivery of a horse to coincide with the truck and trailer pick-up. The horse would meet us at the empty showgrounds, we’d load him onto the new trailer, Elizabeth would fire up Minnie, I’d follow in her Tahoe and we’d be on the way. We drank our coffee and excitedly discussed the plan.

When Elizabeth got a speeding ticket two hours into the trip, we didn’t let it dampen our spirits. I snapped a selfie with the blue lights parked behind us and ribbed her for her uncharacteristic lack of charm when faced with a state trooper.  We decided we’d be fine if that was the worst thing that happened to us all day.

Face-to-face with Minnie, we admired her for several minutes before climbing into the cab. Perched in her air ride seat, I turned the key…nothing. No rumble of a diesel engine. Not even a click. Nothing.

We dug out a set of jumper cables and while Elizabeth filled water buckets for the horse, I tried to squeeze her Tahoe into the tiny space between Minnie and a fence. With the hood up, I positioned the cables so I could judge the distance, but after a few attempts it became clear that they weren’t going to reach, so I put the car in reverse and pondered another solution. 

Evidently I should do less pondering and more paying attention because I accidentally ran over the end of the jumper cables, snapping them in half when they caught on the edge of the hood. Somehow they must have also been looped around the bumper of the Tahoe, because that ripped off too. 

We remained upbeat, noting several times that at least we hadn’t brought the children along…think of what a mess that would have been! We took the destroyed jumper cables as a sign that we needed help. 

I called a family friend who had a diesel shop nearby and he promised we’d have a mechanic on the scene in 20 minutes. While we waited we reattached the bumper (kind of), explored the empty barns , and found an almost full can of hoof oil. Things were looking up!

The mechanic had Minnie fired up in no time. First stop—fill her up with diesel fuel.  The $400 charge at an out-of-state gas station must have looked suspicious to my bank, because my debit card was instantly deactivated. No problem, I handed the attendant my American Express. Declined. Seems that news travels fast between financial institutions. 

Not So Fast

Finally paid up, Elizabeth carefully guided the enormous rig out of the gas station and down the nearby on-ramp. I watched in awe as she merged into traffic. Years of driving a four-horse trailer had made her a pro! I was more nervous following than she was behind the wheel…perhaps because I had a better view of the black smoke that billowed out from underneath the trailer after just a couple of miles.

We pulled over to the shoulder and called the mechanic back. After two hours of tinkering, starting, stopping and more smoking, the mechanic and his colleagues were still trying to figure out the problem. I felt like I was 16 again when I called my dad to ask what we should do. I sat on the side of the highway with my back to traffic and tried to choke back tears as I listened to his advice.

He had no sympathy for our predicament. In fact, he told me we should be thankful—thankful that we only had one horse, it was only 80 degrees, it wasn’t the middle of the night, and we weren’t stranded.

We were fortunate enough to have a team of mechanics and friends within 10 miles who had an extra stall for our horse. In short, if we couldn’t handle this minor bump in the road, maybe we needed to rethink the arrangement altogether. He ended the conversation with the statement “Maybe you just weren’t cut out for shipping horses.”

It stung. 

Finally, we were able to limp back to our friends’ farm. We abandoned the horse and the rig and Elizabeth and I finished the trip just as we’d started it 13 hours earlier; together in the Tahoe, making plans.

It was another two weeks before we got Minnie home. By then I’d begun to appreciate my dad’s callous reaction—the experience was an education in truck maintenance and a lesson in character building that as a parent myself, I’ve referred to many times over.

It’s easy to make things easy for your child. It’s hard to not help when they are broken down—in any sense—but often necessary. They have to learn to help themselves.

Jennifer Barker St. John grew up as the daughter of two hunter/jumper trainers and rode as a junior and on the Clemson University (S.C.) NCAA team, winning the individual championship in 1998. During her career outside the horse world, she showed her Rhinestone Cowboy to multiple amateur-owner hunter championships. You can read her hilarious introductory blog, "Living The Glamorous Life" to get to know her. 

Now, St. John runs Congaree Show Stables in Eastover, S.C., alongside her friend Elizabeth Grove. They concentrate on students (or as, they call them, “minions”) from 7 to 17 years old who do well on the South Carolina Hunter Jumper Association circuit. “Among our greatest accomplishments: teaching them to wrap correctly and properly muck a stall,” St. John, who serves as the president of the SCHJA, said. She balances training and riding with raising her “sweet, polite, usually well dressed but always sort of dirty” toddler daughter Holston.

 
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