Sunday, Mar. 3, 2024

From Rescue To Ribbons: Everybody Loves An Ice Cream Sammich

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It was on a Wednesday in April 2020 that an old friend of Sally Shaffer’s called to report her neighbor’s son had died by suicide, leaving behind his farm, his animals and his grief-stricken father. The farm was now bank-owned and heading for a sheriff’s sale, and the father had only three days to remove four ponies from the property. 

The beleaguered man was desperate. The ponies were in such poor condition that he couldn’t give them away to his son’s neighbors, and he simply needed them gone. He planned to ship them to the Sugarcreek Stockyards in Sugarcreek, Ohio, even though the pandemic had shut down the weekly auction normally held there. Instead, all inbound animals were being sold to licensed “kill buyers” and shipped directly to slaughter.

Though she doesn’t run a rescue, Shaffer admits to always having “around four or five” rescues in her barn at any given time. She had no connection to the ponies’ former owner or his father, nor did she know much about the ponies themselves, but Shaffer believes there is a home for every horse, and she refused to let them end up at Sugarcreek. Instead, she hitched her trailer and headed out that same day to purchase the ponies herself, sight unseen.

Sally Shaffer picked up four ponies from a foreclosed property after its owner died, including an 11.2-hand pony her neighbor’s children initially dubbed “Blaze.” Photos Courtesy Of Sally Shaffer

When she arrived at the foreclosed property in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, Shaffer found four “raggedy looking” ponies living together on a dry lot. Though they had lived there for several years, their former owner had done little with them, including providing routine care. In fact, that winter, his neighbors donated hay, just to help the ponies survive. As best Shaffer could determine, the ponies were Amish-bred and had originally been purchased at an Amish auction. They weren’t feral, but hadn’t been worked with recently. 

“I just thought, ‘What have I got myself into?’ ” Shaffer recalled with a laugh. “The whole state is locked down, no one is going to want to come see these ponies, and now I have four more mouths to feed.”

At her Autumn Lane Farm in Thornville, Ohio, Shaffer set about restoring the ponies’ health. They were dewormed, vaccinated, and had their teeth floated and feet trimmed. She then gave them about three months to regain condition and decompress. By the end of summer, Shaffer decided to see what, if anything, the ponies knew of being ridden or driven. But with the tallest only standing about 14 hands, the ponies required test pilots who were both small and horse savvy. Fortunately, Shaffer had a solution at hand.

“I have a good Amish friend, and he has a whole passel of children,” Shaffer said. “I asked if I could bring the ponies up there and have the kids ride and drive them.”

One of the four ponies in particular impressed the children. Where two of the ponies looked to be Welsh, and the third was clearly a Standardbred cross, the fourth—an 11.2-hand piebald gelding—looked different from the rest. He had a Hackney-type head, and while he lacked typical Hackney knee action, he was forward-thinking, seemed to have an unflappable temperament, and was proficient in harness. Due to his speed, the children named him Blaze and asked if they could keep him to drive to school.

“This gentleman takes good care of his horses, and I thought, ‘Well, there’s one mouth I don’t have to feed for a little while’,” Shaffer said. “So, Blaze With No Blaze—that’s what we called him—stayed up there, and the children drove him to school. They loved him. Semis could pass him, and he didn’t care. He was just bombproof. They got him all fit and fat and shiny.”

But about eight months later, the children were ready to move on to a larger horse, and Blaze returned to Autumn Lane. Shaffer—whose primary equine business is breeding and layups—didn’t have a specific use for a small pony in her program, so for the time being she turned him out with her broodmares. Because Blaze’s outstanding temperament made him seem well suited for children, Shaffer reached out to her friend Angela Moore, who runs Stealaway Inc., a hunter/jumper facility in Pataskala, Ohio, to see if she had any interest in taking Blaze on as a lesson horse.

“I’ll bet it took three months to convince Angela she needed the pony,” Shaffer said. “She’d heard the story—he was free, he was raggedy, he was Amish. But finally, she broke down and said to bring him out, and they’ll try him.”

A Whole New World

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When Blaze unloaded at Stealaway, Angela Moore thought he was the most adorable creature she had ever seen.

“I just wanted to go hug him,” Moore admitted.

But Blaze would have to be more than just cute to find a niche at Stealaway, a busy program with clients ranging from recreational riders to those aiming for the most prestigious of A-circuit shows. Moore invited one of her “pony kids” to give Blaze a test ride; as the pair trotted around the arena, Moore’s interest was piqued.

“He had been driven a whole lot more than he’d ever been ridden,” she said. “But I put a pole down, and he went right over the pole. Then I made a little crossrail, and he trotted over that, too. He was so agreeable to everything, and he didn’t have a clue what he was doing.”

Stealaway has an active youth program, and Moore thought little Blaze might work as a lesson horse for smaller riders learning the basics. She agreed to take him on trial for a month. The next day, she tried him with a rider on a very short longe line, and though it didn’t seem that he had been longed before, he was more than willing to cooperate. From there, she incorporated the 8-year-old pony into her lesson program. Some days he carried beginners on the lead, and on others, more experienced children taught him new skills while riding independently.

“We literally started using him in lessons, and he learned as the kids learned,” Moore said. “We had to teach him how to canter—he had no clue about cantering. It was either gallop or trot faster.

The pony renamed Ice Cream Sammich quickly fit into Stealaway’s lesson program, teaching and learning from children including Claire Mally.

“But honestly, the bigger kids only rode him about 10 times,” she continued. “After he understood the commands for walk-trot on the longe line, I would let the littler kids loose, but with me right next to him. We started going around the whole ring, then maybe walking over a pole together, and then it just kept progressing from there.”

When it became clear that Blaze With No Blaze would be staying at Stealaway, Moore decided he needed a new name for his new beginning. In honor of her own sweet tooth, and inspired by his coloring, she renamed the pony Ice Cream Sammich. Depending on who you are speaking to, the pony goes by “Ice Cream,” “Sammich,” and often, just “Sammie.”

“He is so perfect now. If I have a real beginner on him, I can send them walking to the opposite end of the indoor arena, and tell them to turn around,” Moore said. “I’ll say, ‘trot, Sammich’, and he’ll trot down the long side right to me.”

Shaffer got updates on his progress from her granddaughter Aubrey Shaffer, who rides with Moore, and knew Sammich had found his home.

“In some respects, he’s a typical pony,” Sally said. “He will throw those dirty head ducks, or turn right when you think you’re going left. He’s making riders out of these kids, he really is. He’s not mean, but he’s plenty full of himself. He is as fit as any racehorse is right now, because everybody wants to ride him.

Aubrey Shaffer, the granddaughter of Ice Cream Sammich’s rescuer Sally Schaffer, is one of the many children at Stealaway who have enjoyed riding the pony.

“I just gifted him to Angela—she calls him my pony, but no,” Sally continues. “I’m not taking that pony from all those little girls. They’d be heartbroken! He has the life of a king—a whole passel of little girls that just worship the ground he walks on.”

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From Driving To Showing

Although Moore hadn’t envisioned Ice Cream as a show pony when she first met him, after several months in her program, she decided to bring him along to Brave Horse, an A-rated show facility located in Johnstown, Ohio, just to see what he would do.

“You take a pony to a place like that, and there’s going to be golf carts, water trucks and tons of other horses,” she said. “But he was just not fazed at all. In fact, I’ve never seen him fazed by anything.”

The next time Ice Cream visited Brave Horse, he competed in the walk-trot poles classes with Moore’s student Claire Mally, who was also responsible for much of his initial under-saddle training. The pony then became a regular at the North East Showtime (NEST) schooling show series in central Ohio. And last fall, Mally rode Ice Cream in his debut at the World Equestrian Center in Wilmington, Ohio.

“The WEC indoor facility is like being at a shopping mall,” Moore said. “The first time we took him there, he was perfect, like he had lived there all the time.”

Ice Cream Sammich handled his World Equestrian Center—Ohio debut like an old pro with young rider Claire Malley.

More recently, Tatum Pelok has taken over the reins with Ice Cream, competing in both poles and crossrails. Pelok, 9, says she loves to ride Ice Cream because he doesn’t need a lot of kicking or clucking, and because he listens to her words, not just her body. Sally’s granddaughter Aubrey has competed Ice Cream as well. According to Sally, Ice Cream and his young entourage have “collected more tri-colors than you can shake a stick at.”

“One thing you have to know is that everybody who sees him, loves him,” Moore said. “At the horse show, all you hear is, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s the cutest pony ever!’  People will stop and ask, ‘Is that Ice Cream Sammich?’ Every morning when I go out to see him, he makes me smile. He is a joy bringer.”

When Ice Cream isn’t busy cleaning up at major equestrian venues, he is at home teaching the littlest of littles, participating in the Stealaway Summer Camps, or helping at the farm’s popular Fun on Farm Days. During these special events, kids can just be kids—running around, making tons of noise, playing farm games and taking pony lessons. Ice Cream is always the most requested mount.

Meanwhile, Ice Cream continues to learn new skills with his junior riders during their lessons. Most recently, he has begun offering flying lead changes, and Moore thinks Ice Cream might make his short stirrup debut this season.

Sally is quick to credit Moore for helping Ice Cream become the pony he is today; Moore credits the pony himself, saying that it is almost as if he did this job in a previous life. But Sally also believes Ice Cream’s success carries a much broader lesson for equestrians everywhere.

“I want people to know that there are so many diamonds in the rough, that are just one owner away from the slaughter truck,” Sally said. “If people would just look—there are so many worthy horses.”

Ice Cream Sammich with three of his riders (from left) Aubrey Shaffer, Tatum Pelok and Claire Malley.

“I can’t imagine not having this pony around,” Moore added. “I think he’ll continue to flourish here, and everybody’s going to continue to love him. Part of my mission [at Stealaway] is to promote mental, physical, and emotional health through horses, and I think Ice Cream is a big part of that for a lot of people. He’ll keep being special to these little kids, and what more can you ask?”

The other three ponies saved by Sally that day have also found loving homes. The Standardbred cross mare, Penny, was placed through Heart of Phoenix Rescue’s Appalachian Trainer Face Off Showcase and lives with Angela Kruger at Cobra Fields Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. As for the two Welsh-type ponies, Dollar is a companion horse at Davina Beck’s Sweet Clover Farm in Ohio, and Miss Belle found her lifelong home with Sally herself. Miss Belle has proven to be an excellent driving pony; she and Sally have competed successfully in pleasure driving, and will hopefully soon also make their combined driving debut.

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