This should probably go in "Driving" but it is truly "Off Course".
In 1970, we bought a pony from the Chincoteague Pony Penning and brought her home to Northern Virginia. For many years, the children in our family grew up having adventures with "Taffy", many of them painful and always unique. Taffy went exploring in the woods and fields, swimming in the Potomac River, to local horse shows and was always pressed into service when an extra mount was needed.
Our father bought a little two wheeled pony cart for her to pull and we managed to figure out the harness and hooked her up. Our method for training a pony to drive would cause wiser people to shudder but it worked for we blissfully unaware kids.
Years went by and the first generation of kids grew up and moved away. When I had a child and moved to Pennsylvania, Taffy came along and my little boy and I explored the Chester County farm roads with Taffy trotting along pulling her cart. Taffy was even on stage in a Christmas Pagent, along with some sheep and me, dressed up as a shepherd.
We moved back to Virginia and Taffy spent many happy days grazing in her field with other pony friends, eating windfall apples and swimming with her friends in the farm pond.
My son and I had been riding a friend's horse and another pony over the summer in the early 1990's but I had damaged ligaments in my knee and had surgery. I was in a leg brace for several weeks and couldn't ride but we went to the barn every day to care for our pony.
One day, while at a local feed & tack shop, I noticed a brochure about a carriage driving marathon to be held in nearby Middleburg. The marathon was to be held in two months and offered 10, 20 and 30 mile options and would be canceled if there were insufficient entries.
This sounded like fun to me! I thought to myself, "Taffy is 22 years old but surely two months is enough time to condition her to trot for 10 miles" so I sent in our entry fee.
My son, now aged 8 and victim, er - experienced with Taffy pulling the pony cart, was drafted to help me get her ready for the contest. I reassured him that, contrary to prior disasters, this marathon drive sent the competitors out individually at timed intervals so Taffy would not be near any other horses while in the contest. (Taffy had been known to not play well with others in the past). Taffy got the first set of horse shoes she had ever worn and we devised a training plan.
Every day for weeks we drove Taffy on roads and trails near our barn. After a month, we had worked up to 10 miles on mostly level ground, going slowly on paved surfaces and driving on grass as much as possible. The weekend before the contest, we took Taffy and her cart out to a friend's house where we could drive her 4 miles on an old dirt road that led up and over a mountain for an 8 mile round trip. We thought that, if she had any difficulty doing that, she would be withdrawn from the contest and our entry fee would be refunded. Taffy seemed to thrive on the effort and we had a wonderful day, coming home tired but enthusiastically looking forward to the next weekend.
The night before the marathon drive, we hauled Taffy and her cart out to our friend, Sharon's, house where we had been the week before, as she lived close to the contest site.
The morning of the drive dawned chilly and gray. We loaded Taffy into the trailer and drove to the place where the contest was to be held. WOW! It was an old racing stable, with a training track and barns and paddocks set inside the track. We were surprised to see so many trailers and horse vans. I didn't think there were that many people around who drove horses and carriages in our area, then I began to notice that the license plates were from all over the east coast, from North Carolina to Massachusetts!
I was dumbfounded when I learned that this fun driving contest I had entered was the United States Performance Tests for Driving! I signed in and collected our number and was told that Taffy was not only the smallest entry but the oldest they had ever had!
I went back to the trailer and told my son, John, and friend, Sharon what I had gotten us into this time. We brushed Taffy and got her ready for the pre-drive vet check, then harnessed her up. Taffy, who had been sweetness and light the week before, turned into a very angry pony, pawing and striking with her feet as we hitched her to her cart.
She behaved so poorly that I determined to just take her out on the training track and to let her trot until she calmed down. Sharon held her head as I tried to hop my leg in its metal brace into the cart. Taffy started off with me hopping along behind and then jumping in. My son said "Sharon, why do you have that funny look on your face?" and she replied "I'm worried about your mom".
Round and round the training track we went, with Taffy trotting faster than she had ever gone before. She was so mad! Perhaps she felt like the poor child, after seeing all the beautiful harness and carriages the other entries had brought along.
Finally, she slowed a bit and began to listen to my cues on the reins. It was nearly time for us to be started on course, so I went back and picked up John, who was to be my "navigator" and help keep us on the correct course.
The timer was started and off we went. The weather, which had been promising precipitation all morning, turned for the worse and sleet started coming down. We trotted on.
Down lovely hunt country lanes and on tracks through manicured woods, past beautiful stables and through farms and estates went the marked course. Even in the cold, wet drizzle, it was fabulous. We passed contest officials at predetermined checkpoints and could tell approximately how far along the course we had gotten until we came down a driveway to a creek crossed by a low wooden bridge.
"Uh oh" I said to John. "You might need to get out".
Taffy approached the bridge snorting and making wild eyes. She stopped abruptly, just in front of it.
"Get OUT" I said to John.
"But she's not doing anything" he said.
"GET OUT NOW!" I repeated and he complied, just as Taffy began to back up.
Now, Taffy had a nasty habit (many of them but this one was really bad) of backing up in the pony cart until she backed into something solid and couldn't go any further. Unfortunately, there was nothing solid nearby and she was backing us towards the rather steep banks of the creek.
John went to her head and she stopped and stood. I turned her and got her back on the drive facing the bridge and told John to walk across in front of her. He reached out for her bridle and I said "DON'T TOUCH HER!"
He walked slowly across and Taffy followed with my heart pounding and holding my breath. Once across, John climbed back in and we continued on our way. He checked our map and was glad to note that there were no more bridges on our route. We had almost reached the finish of our 10 mile loop when we realized that to return to where we started, the course took us through a large culvert under the training track and up the hill to the finish.
This culvert was large enough for trucks to pass through but Taffy was having nothing to do with that! Once again, John got out and went through ahead of her, hopping back in for us to trot up through the finish. Our friend, Sharon, was there waiting with her camera. I shouted to her as we trotted up "NO FLASH!!!"
What an adventure! I was so relieved to have made it back with no disasters that I forgot to tell the secretary that we were not competing in the next 10 mile segment so our time was not stopped. Taffy ended up placing last because of my mistake but we knew our little old pony mare had finished faster than several of the younger, larger competitors and we were proud of her and ourselves for having done it.
I told Sharon and John that Taffy's years of going out in public were now officially over and she was retired to her field where the only thing she had to do was to carry my niece and nephew around and eat grass with her friends.
All throughout her life, Taffy ate Purina horse feed, from "Horse Chow Checkers" to Omolene 100 and, in the last years of her life, Equine Senior. She lost some teeth but never lost weight but, at age 31, her arthritis was so bad that she couldn't walk in a straight line anymore and she developed a very noticeable sway in her back. She couldn't lift her hind feet up very high for the farrier to trim her hooves and we made the decision to have her put to sleep.
My sisters and I, my son, my niece and nephew and many of our friends all grew up with Taffy pony adventures to remember. I don't recall ever wanting anything so much as my first pony. She was quite an experience.
Here's to a little bay Chincoteague mare, 31 years with the same family.
"If you would have only one day to live, you should spend at least half of it in the saddle."