Beginners called him names not suitable for inclusion in a family publication. My father (an international eventing and show jumping competitor in his Army days) called him my life insurance policy. I called him Moses, and he was one of the smartest and most opinionated horses that ever lived.
I found him at a lesson barn, where his job was trotting beginners over crossrails. He hated beginners, hated children, hated trotting beginner children over crossrails (but was incredibly good at it) and was the best evaluation horse in the barn. Most people got on Moses, and he’d sit in the middle of the ring yawning, no matter how hard they kicked. If he was asked correctly, he’d respond correctly. If not, he didn’t go.
They assigned him to me for my evaluation lesson. I’d been warned that he tried to bite when being mounted, so I took the usual precautions, but they weren’t necessary. I got on with no fuss, touched him lightly with my legs and had a soft and pleasant ride, which included hopping him over a couple of decent-sized fences. The girl doing the evaluation took one long look and said, “You don’t belong in my groups.”
He was everything I wasn’t looking for in an event horse: He was little (15.1 hands), older (11 when I met him), a long-backed and short-legged Quarter Horse, with ringbone, sidebone, splints, pedal osteitis, a straight shoulder and navicular changes that should really have stopped him cold. Additionally, he’d been a beginner lesson horse for years, and I had doubts about his “mouth” and manners. After all, this was a Quarter Horse bred to cut, not for dressage or eventing.
He’d been started for the snaffle bit cutting futurities, panned out there (he saw no point in bullying cattle), was then tried for western pleasure (too forward) and so ended up in a lesson barn. I resisted his lure for almost a year (a low center of gravity is not, after all, the ideal shape for a dressage horse).
But he did three to four lessons a day, every day, and never took a lame step in his life. My vet, intelligent man, said not to waste my money having him vetted—just shut up and BUY HIM. So I did. I’ve not regretted a single minute of it; hopefully neither has Moses.
A New Lease On Life
Once he realized that his “trotting over crossrails” days were over, he blossomed. He could produce a lovely, truly floating medium trot, and if the dressage judge had an eye that was educated enough to look beyond short legs and a long back to a little fellow who was 100 percent correct in his movement and giving everything he had, we won through second level. Some judges preferred the eye-catching movement of the warmblood and a cranked-in headset to accurate, relaxed, correct and accepting the bit. When we showed in front of these judges, our scores ranged from 4s to 7s. In front of other judges, we’d average between 7 and 9, and we normally finished with 8 or 9 for submission/obedience and gaits.
Some called him Guru. He had common sense, a sense of his own worth, and a firm belief that riding him was a partnership undertaking. He could (and would) jump anything you presented him to—if you presented him correctly and went with him. He wouldn’t do it for you. If you didn’t come along for the ride, he let you know. I ate more cubic yards of arena dirt than I care to remember, but every ounce of it was justified. He took me to one preliminary event, and I found out later that my coach let me go only because she was confident that he would quit before we got hurt. (He did.) She knew that at least one of us had some sense.
Show and event managers called him The Barometer. He was absolutely reliable in his common sense, and everyone who knew him knew that. At one big event at a beautiful facility, a circus shared the grounds. They had staked out the elephants about 150 yards from the start of cross-country. Moses and I were the first combination on cross-country that morning, and Moses explained in no uncertain terms that he drew the line at elephants in his warm-up area.
He had put up with everything else I’d ever asked of him (including skijoring—towing a skier behind us around his pasture, jumping “fences” we’d built out of snow—costume classes, ducks, deer, geese, polo and my sister’s kids), but elephants were just too much.
The organizer knew Moses well and realized that if Moses was pitching a fit, the Thoroughbreds coming later would probably kill someone. They moved the start of cross-country. We won that one anyway.
Hunter judges called him Gorgeous. He was perfect with his knees and back and won every hunter class he entered, as long as I didn’t get in his way. I once won a fairly large bet on him riding over a complete hunter course without a bridle. He won hunter classes at a state fair over some very fancy entries when the fair management began to inflate a hot-air balloon at the end of the ring. Since hot-air balloons occasionally landed in his pasture by mistake, he knew what they were and couldn’t have cared less. Between the balloons and the moonbounce across the road, he shrugged and soldiered on. He could jump short, long or mid-range, all with the same perfect form. We never had a photo of him with less than correct form over fences. (We won’t discuss his rider.)
My trainer used to call him her Exercise in Patience. She would set up gymnastics—big ones—with spacing designed to teach our horses something very specific. She expected us to sit quietly and let the horse teach himself how to lengthen in one stride, shorten in one stride, handle bounces to big (and I do mean BIG) spreads.
Most of the horses would take four or five trips through before catching on. Not Moses. He’d knock maybe one rail in the first trip, and in his second, he was letter perfect. Then he’d look at her and say, very clearly, “This is boring; show me something new.” She said it drove her crazy because he’d figured out three or four lessons’ worth of material in one half-hour session.
He could also be called a Past Master of the Book of Evasions. You could practically see him pulling Volume III off the shelf, thumbing through the index, discarding that (“tried that one, didn’t work!”) and pulling out the next volume. He was working on Volume VIII when he retired.
When he started getting a little creaky, I loaned him to a 10-year-old Pony Club rider. She was about 4 feet and 80 pounds and was riding a 35-year-old pony that her mother had Pony Clubbed and that still managed to dump the kid on every cross-country course. Since the kid needed a confidence builder, she rode Moses for a very successful year (baby starter to open novice in one season on a horse on which her legs never cleared the saddle flaps). Her mother called him Heaven Sent.
Then he went into semi-retirement at the farm of my best friend. I’ve known her since college (more years ago than I like to admit), and she’s one of the finest horsewomen I know. She had a major wreck with a young horse some years ago and wouldn’t admit that the fall had shaken her confidence. Since she needed a confidence builder and Moses needed an adult leisure village (horse shuffleboard and rocking chairs supplied gratis), she offered to add him to her string on her spread in the Rockies. She called him Zen.
Talk about coming full circle: He continues to earn his keep (sort of) by testing for the Boy Scout Horsemanship merit badge (if Moses says they pass, they pass). The Scouts still call him names.
He keeps my friend’s husband entertained and occupied. My friend describes it as watching the crusty, retired Navy captain (her husband) face down the crusty and opinionated old chief non-com (Moses). The Captain builds a fence to keep the horses out of the hay barn; Moses sets to work to find a way under, over or through it. The Captain crib-proofs the field; Moses invents other ingenious forms of amusement.
He truly is a little engine that could and living proof that you don’t have to be 16.3 hands and of European ancestry to make a difference in someone’s life.
This article originally ran in the Dec. 16, 2005, holiday edition of the Chronicle. Moses passed away at the age of 33 on Dec. 18 this year, and so this story is re-appearing in tribute to this wonderful gelding.