In The Beginning, There Was A Red Filly

Sep 18, 2019 - 9:09 AM

There were two fillies out in Becky’s hilly pasture playing at their dams’ sides. One was slender and quick, a bay so reddish she was practically a chestnut; the other was a more solid-boned dark bay. Both were friendly, coming up to Becky and me for attention, but it was the reddish bay I liked—leggy, little and quick, with big mischievous eyes. I just remember laughing and thinking how fun it is to see a baby horse at play. I had no inkling she would ever be mine.

I guess falling in love with a horse is a bit of a cliché. I was a horse-crazy kid, playing with Breyer models, staring at horse trailers as they went by, imagining street signs and suburban walls were cross-country fences, begging my parents to send me to horse camp or take me to pet the Budweiser Clydesdales. I never outgrew it. Now I just look at the Clydesdales and wonder if they can jump.

Becky later told me that she knew Cairo would be fierce the day she was born. Other foals totter to their feet. Cairo leaped straight to her feet “like a baby mule does,” Becky said. When it came time to open the stall door and let Cairo out into the pasture for the first time, Cairo bounded out into the sunlight, into what for her was the unknown, without hesitation.

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Born at 3 a.m., March 24, 2009, ready to take on the world! Photo Courtesy Of Camilla Mortensen

Becky named her Cairo because when she was born she was red and hot. Becky has a thing for place names, with most of her current horses named after places in Alaska: Chilkat, Kateel, Tanana. The other filly in the pasture that day was Farallon for the Farallon Islands. Farallon’s mother is Cairo’s grandmother, and Farallon’s sire is Cairo’s grandsire’s half-brother. They are related in a slightly complicated way, but nothing alike.

Cairo’s dam is a half Irish Draught sired by O’Leary’s Irish Diamond, and he is a Breyer model horse, which makes my childhood Breyer-loving heart sing, and Cairo’s sire was the Thoroughbred Baquero. No one believes me that she’s got Irish Draught in her. They look at me with this “Oh, sweetie, you got taken,” expression when I say my just-above-15-hands or so mare is an Irish Sport Horse. When she was younger, the name Cairo made folks think she’s Arab—in conjunction with her little refined nose.

If I saw Cairo again after that time in the pasture in the next year or two, I don’t remember. I probably saw her from a distance as she grew and was weaned. I saw Becky’s posts about her baby horses on Facebook and “liked” them, but that was about it. Becky breeds, competes and sells lovely sport horses; I’m a girl with an OTTB budget. It didn’t dawn on me to even dream of getting Cairo.

I used to watch Cairo’s mom, Ruby Contessa, compete and wish for a horse like her. Photo Courtesy Of Camilla Mortensen

Sometime after she was started under saddle, Cairo was injured. Becky takes her young horses out for all kinds of experiences, like slow trail rides, or being ponied at the park. On one of those rides, Cairo spooked while waiting in a little paddock to be loaded in the trailer. She tried to leap out when a flock of geese suddenly burst from the grass behind the little corral she was in but instead caught her hind legs on the chain across the front and got hung up, tearing the skin off of one and later leaving a decent-sized scar.

The next time I saw Cairo was after she’d healed, and Becky, my friend Nadia and I went for a trail ride at the park. Cairo was little and hot and difficult on the trail but tackled everything Becky put in front of her, from stream crossings to fields and woods. I remember her fury at being walked off the trail into the tall grass to let another horse pass us. She still hates that. But again, I didn’t really look at her—I noticed her; I liked her, but she wasn’t a horse I thought I could have.

Becky turned Cairo out for the summer when she was 4. She thought Cairo had all the talent in the world, but the little mare could just be so difficult, it was better to let her go romp than to ride her on an off-and-on-again schedule around Becky’s shows. The other little mare, Farallon, was sweet and malleable, so Becky kept her in work.

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Cairo got her name because she was red and hot. Photo Courtesy Of Camilla Mortensen

That was the same summer I sold my OTTB Huey, having realized he wasn’t going to jump the bigger fences I wanted to do. I was trying to figure out what to do next. Try again with another OTTB? Find something on Craigslist? My only criteria was that the horse I bought had to feel like it wanted to jump the moon. Everything else was secondary.

With no horse to ride, Becky invited me over to ride at her place. I rode Farallon and was charmed. She was 10 times nicer than anything I had found and tried. I knew she was probably out of my price range—I was shopping with what I sold Huey for and a little savings—but I figured I would give it a shot. I asked.

Becky was beyond nice about it, but I wasn’t surprised to learn that Farallon was more than I had saved and then some. She had a great mind, a sweet temperament and a lovely jump and Becky wanted to keep her a little while longer and then sell her as a lovely amateur mount.

I had told Nadia about how much I liked Farallon, and that I had planned to make an offer on her. “Is she that beautiful little horse Becky rode at the park the other day?” Nadia asked.

“No,” I said, “a different one.” “Oh,” Nadia said, disappointed. “I liked that one.”

Apparently my friends know me better than I know myself.

But the next day, Becky called and said she had this other mare, Cairo, who had been sitting in the pasture, the one she’d ridden in the park. Cairo was athletic but little and had that scar on her hock. She was talented, but more of a pro ride. But what pro would want to try to deal with Cairo’s hotness in her 15.1-hand package? For me, Becky was offering the chance of a lifetime.

I jumped at the chance, and I got on. I had liked Farallon. Cairo I loved.

Her little green 4-year-old canter was more balanced and athletic than the full-grown, trained horses I was trying. Under all that head tossing, tail swishing and scarred hind leg there was a cute little horse. Or maybe it was because of all those things. I fell in love with her.

You know it when you feel it, the first time you canter on your heart horse. The one that gives you wings. The one whose every footfall beneath you is just right, even when she’s behaving badly.

I like to joke that the way I got Cairo was kind of like a girl who gets a crush on a guy… and then meets his brother and thinks the brother is way hotter.

As we rehab from Cairo’s high suspensory injury, I groom Cairo so slowly and carefully, scratching her at her favorite spot on her withers, brushing her until her coat glows a hot blood-bay.

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Irina Kuzmina Photo

I am always the last one to tack up, and nothing has changed now that we are just walking. She looks at me with her dark, wide eyes and swivels her ears so I see their black points. When she’s mad, her eyes get wide and show whites at the edges while her mouth sucks in on either side in a disapproving grimace. “She’s like a cartoon,” an equine bodyworker once told me of her expressive face.

I love her because of her, but also because of all we do. Soaring over preliminary-level fences, her blatant distaste for the submission required for dressage, the way she leaps eagerly into the trailer, always up for a new adventure. The way she refuses to debase herself by whinnying when she sees me, but instead stares at me intently, ears pricked, until I come close.

And that’s the thing with these large, delicate animals. We love them for them, and who they are with us. Whether you compete at the highest levels, or all you ever do is groom and longe—call it a stereotype, call it an obsession. There is something deep and strong that binds us to them.

I didn’t know Cairo was mine at the beginning, but she is mine, and I am hers, until the end of our journey, whatever that may be.


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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