Monday, May. 27, 2024

Horse Of A Lifetime: Ifeel Like A Snake

This grumpy gray gelding gave the Burke family two decades of grand memories.

There’s a tree marking Ifeel Like A Snake’s grave at Charlie and Dana Burke’s farm in Franklin, Tenn. It’s not a flowering tree or a graceful willow—it’s a holly tree. “We planted holly because it’s prickly, like him!” said Dana, Charlie’s wife.

The aptly named Ifeel Like A Snake was just as famous for his snarky attitude as he was for his longevity and talent.
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This grumpy gray gelding gave the Burke family two decades of grand memories.

There’s a tree marking Ifeel Like A Snake’s grave at Charlie and Dana Burke’s farm in Franklin, Tenn. It’s not a flowering tree or a graceful willow—it’s a holly tree. “We planted holly because it’s prickly, like him!” said Dana, Charlie’s wife.

The aptly named Ifeel Like A Snake was just as famous for his snarky attitude as he was for his longevity and talent.

“Snake” hunted for 20 years with Charlie and the Hillsboro Hounds (Tenn.) and ran over fences for five years, as well as eventing with Charlie and Dana. “He might have been a grump, but he was going to go in there and do what you asked him to do, and do it well,” Dana said.

Snake had a wicked reputation for bucking people off, and in fact, Dana and Jane Howard, a family friend in her 70s who would trail ride Snake, were the only two people to ride him who hadn’t gotten bucked off him. 

Snake’s classic Thoroughbred beauty belied his cranky attitude.  He may have been a stunning horse, but his ears were usually pinned to his head. Charlie noted, “To the day he died, if you weren’t paying attention, he would bite you. He was full of mischief. People would walk by and say, ‘What a pretty horse.’ And he’d come to the door with his ears pinned, like he was saying, ‘I’m the Snake, leave me alone.’ ”

Even though Charlie was Snake’s constant companion in the hunting field—and they attended most of Hillsboro’s opening meets in their two decades together—Charlie wasn’t immune to Snake’s wily ways.
Charlie recalled that Snake “bucked me off one day at opening meet, in front of a field of 85 riders and 100 car followers. There I was, on my hands and knees on the ground, and Snake stopped and put his head down to look at me. I put a hand up to catch him, and he took off running and bucking. He was just full of it.”

In May 2006, after his 20th season of hunting, Snake, 25, suffered a pasture accident, running into a gatepost and chipping a bone in his shoulder. Dana and Charlie nursed him through a subsequent infection, but in July he developed laminitis in the opposite leg, and they made the difficult decision to euthanize him.

“It was with a great deal of tears from everyone, including the vet,” Charlie recalled. “Snake was quite an institution; we loved the old horse. He was a great deal of fun.”

It Does Get Better

When Charlie got a phone call from a friend in early 1986, saying that flat trainer Ronnie Houghton had a nice-looking gray horse, he figured he’d take a chance and bought the gelding sight unseen.

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Then 5, Snake (Rhone River—Lady Share, Impetuosity) had 39 starts on the flat under his belt and had earned $16,050. Charlie promptly entered and rode him in a flat race at the Mells Point-to-Point (Tenn.) in March, where they were third. By April, Snake and Charlie were winning on the flat. Charlie also started hunting Snake and would hunt him throughout his race training.

Snake ran under the ownership of one of Charlie’s daughters from a previous marriage, Jennifer, and she took over the reins for some flat races in early 1987. But by November of that year, the other sister, Betsy Burke Parker, got the ride.

At their debut together, Betsy and Snake won the amateur steeplechase at the Columbus Steeplechase in Callaway Gardens, Ga. They were in the money a few more times and managed to qualify for the Sport of Kings Challenge.

“If you got so many points in America, they paid for your trip to England and Ireland,” recalled Betsy. “He won at Callaway and was in the money at Royal Chase, the fall meet at Iroquois [Tenn.], and earned enough points to go. It’s the only way in the world we could have done it.”

Snake and the Burkes headed to England and Ireland in late 1988 to race at Cheltenham and Leopardstown.

Snake finished out of contention in both races, but Charlie didn’t mind. “Like most American horses, we just got hot and dirty, but it was quite a thrill to go over there with him,” Charlie said.

“When I was standing in the paddock at Cheltenham, Snake looked as good as any of the British horses.
We’d hired a British lad to lead him around the paddock, but my daughter Jennifer had braided him, and he was picture-perfect. I remember saying to myself, ‘Well, Charlie, for an old boy raised on the wrong side of the river in Nashville, you’ve come a long way. It doesn’t get much better than this.’

“About that time, I heard a voice say, ‘Charlie, good luck.’ I turned around and saw that it was Dick Francis saying it. I’d met him that spring at the High Hope steeplechase in Lexington [Ky.]. He shook my hand and wished me good luck. As he walked away, I turned back around and muttered to myself, ‘It does get better.’ ”

Betsy, then 22, vividly recalled her ride around Cheltenham.

“That trip is something I’ll always remember and talk about when I’m an old lady. Racing up that backstretch at Cheltenham was such a thrill. It was a dream come true to have a horse with the kind of talent that can allow you do something like that,” she said.

“It was my father’s dream to be part of the big leagues, and Snake was the ticket to that. To be an amateur trainer, rider and blacksmith in the paddock at Cheltenham with your two daughters—one the owner and one the rider—was his dream come true. I can’t even imagine—it must have made his heart want to burst. It really drew us together as a family.”

By 1989, Betsy had hung up her racing saddle for the most part, and Snake earned his last win in November 1989, in a hurdle race at the FENCE meet in Tryon, N.C., with Peter Walsh up.  Snake ran a few times over timber in 1990, but by the end of that year, Charlie retired him from racing to the hunting field full time.

Snake Was Always There

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“I would say that—with a few exceptions—most members of the hunt would not have had a good time on Snake,” Charlie said. “He was all business and full of mischief. We did put guests on him—generally speaking, if you sat passively on him, he would be passive with you.  But if you were going to try and make him do something, you’d better pay attention, because he’d buck you off in a second.”

Charlie recalled that when Jennifer was galloping Snake, she would come off him every few days. “There was one particular place on the gallop we did that we knew it was going to happen.  It was always the same kind of buck—he’d buck high to throw you up on his neck, then he’d take a sharp right and you’d come off over his left shoulder. It was the same way every time, and you knew it was coming, but you couldn’t do anything about it,” he said.

But the Burkes put up with Snake’s antics because he had so many redeeming qualities. Charlie hunted Snake at least one day a week during each season.

“Snake was always there at the end of a day’s hunting; he was virtually bottomless. He would seldom run out of go. Our country is very hilly, and we run coyotes who take you a great distance, and Snake never gave up,” Charlie said.

“He was keen; he wanted to go on a run. He never backed down. He was kept fit and ridden 12 months of the year. He had great feet. I’ve done all my own shoeing for 40 years, and I appreciate good hooves. He had the desire to go—he’d pull on you enough to let you know you were riding a horse, but not enough to hurt you.  He jumped very fluidly.”

In 1996, Dana decided she wanted to try eventing, so she pulled Snake out of the barn and started his third career.  She earned ribbons at the novice level and so did Charlie, who evented Snake a few times.

Throughout his years racing, hunting and eventing, Snake proved to be absolutely sound. Dana recalled that he popped a splint when he was 15, but the only significant time he had off was after he slipped and fell in 1995, cutting his hock to the joint capsule.

Despite the severity of the injury, Snake was back hunting just four months later, thanks to Dana and Charlie’s nursing.

Snake continued to be the go-to horse for the Burkes. “Even with that grumpy disposition, he was the one horse on this farm that you could pull out and depend on if you wanted to go trail riding, hunting, to a hunter pace, or run over to Brownland Farm and show in a hunter class. We took him to foxhunter relay races, and he would always smoke everybody. I did all that on him; he was so reliable,” Dana said.

“He really was a horse of a lifetime for Charlie,” she continued. “It was devastating when he had his accident because we really thought he would just keep going until he was 30, because he sure seemed like he would. But he had a great, great life.”  

Molly Sorge

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