My Greatest Horse Ever isn’t great for any of the usual, mundane reasons.
He’s not particularly pretty, for instance. When my (very young at the time) cousin saw the baby picture of him from his temporary papers she said, with all seriousness, “Oh, I didn’t know that Image was a donkey when he was a baby.”
Intelligence is definitely not among his gifts. It took ages to teach him how to jump. He’d jump over with his front end, then walk through the jump with his hind legs. When he finally did jump both ends over, we clapped, which traumatized him to no end. He didn’t know how to roll, and to this day only does when another horse rolls first, whether he needs to or not. He does NOT know how to scratch, as many of his horsie friends would be willing to testify.
Patience is certainly a virtue, but again, not one of Image’s. He wears his toes down pawing anytime he’s tied for more than 30 seconds. (Cue little Randi again, “Image is NOT a patient horse.”)
And anytime a kindly individual offered to help out at a show by heading Image while he was harnesses and hitched, I always had to warn them, “Be careful, he bites.” It’s not that he was mean, he just really, really loved to drive, and didn’t quite know what to do with all that excitement. So he bit any hands that got too close and wiggled incessantly. There’s a reason why Hawk stands like a rock to be harnessed – because Image didn’t.
He really, really loved to drive.
That’s why, despite all evidence to the contrary, Image is The Greatest Horse Ever. I have never driven another horse that loved to drive as much as Image. He believed that walking was a waste of energy and that other horses were in the ring solely for him to pass.
Unlike most horses that like to go FAST, Image also liked to go fast around corners. He loved the stake race … turning, turning, turning … though he saw no reason to allow room for the cart as he dodged around the cones. As a result, when he decided to take matters into his own hands, he hit a lot of cones. Once memorable race, he knocked over 3 cones, for a total of 15 seconds in penalties, and still won.
Image is a five time Canadian National Champion Roadster Horse and an AMHA Superior Event Horse in Open Roadster. Back when cross entries were still allowed, he was Grand Champion Roadster Horse, Single Pleasure Driving Horse, and Country Pleasure Driving Horse … at the same show.
With everything that he won, my favorite memory of driving Image has nothing to do with a show ring. We brought him in one day, noticed that his eyes were reflecting orange, and loaded him up to take him to the vet. By the time he was there, it was clear that he couldn’t see, stumbling over the small obstacle course of brooms and buckets they set up to test him. He’d had an autoimmune attack on his eyes, and we headed home with lots of ointments and a “wait and see” prognosis. The next morning, after treating him every 2 hours late into the evening until his pupils finally dilated, I was relieved to see that he was pawing at his stall door, his usual demanding, obnoxious self, and I thought he was better … until I turned him into the round pen and he walked straight into the fence.
Luckily, his vision did come back. Even after it did, he couldn’t go out in the sunlight after all the medication he’d had to dilate his eyes, so we got him a fly mask to use as sunglasses. My favorite memory of driving Image was when I hooked him up for the first time, after not being sure that he’d ever be able to drive again. He’d been cooped up in a stall for a couple weeks and was raring to go. We headed straight for the hayfield and I remember ripping along next to the trees, so grateful that I was able to drive him at all.
A week later, we showed at Stampede. We kept the mask on him until he got to the door of the Big Top, then pulled it off. He hadn’t been working, and I had no expectations of winning anything and drove him like I had no expectations, happy just to have the chance to show him again. It wasn’t until I realized we’d squeaked into the championship class on a second place that I thought, “Hey, we still have a shot!” and really drove him. That was his third Canadian National Championship.
It was during Aggie Days, one very cold March, that Image first started having some soundness issues. We brought him in to run a demo, and he was lame. The vet thought that he probably slipped on the ice and hurt his SI joint. From then on, it was a struggle to keep him sound. His physiotherapist was able to keep him going for several years, but long trailer rides soon grew to be too much for him. The first time we left him home from a show, we turned him out in the pasture to graze and he paced the fence and screamed the entire time.
The lameness didn’t slow down his enthusiasm for his job. I could usually drive him at about 80% and not have the lameness be obvious, and it appeared that judges couldn’t see it as much as I could feel it, because he didn’t stop winning. I remember coming out of the show ring with two Grand Champion trophies (those beautiful model carts that Lorne Rouleau made), in tears because I knew that it was almost over, that Image couldn’t do this anymore.
My great comfort was that I could still drive him at home, still tear around the yard with him deciding, like always, that I must’ve forgotten to tell him to turn, and we were turning NOW. When Hawk was driving me crazy, and I was convinced I didn’t know what I was doing and was screwing him up forever, I could go drive Image and calm down. Image very carefully taught the 4H kids to drive, giving every person just as much horse as they could handle. When Curtis wanted to try skijoring, it was Image we hooked up that day in the snow, and he’d run until he was out of puff, catch his breath, and be ready to go again.
Then I hooked him up one spring a couple years ago and he stood quietly while I harnessed him, never moved while I hooked him to the cart. He walked off quietly, and kept walking even when we got the edge of the lawn, where he usually took off like a shot, and I knew that he was no longer a driving horse. Image absolutely loved to drive, and when he no longer approached it with the joy he always had, I knew it was over.
Today, Image is 21 years old, and while he’s a little stiff, he’s happy, healthy and enjoying his retirement. He is, and always will be, the horse to which I compare every horse I drive.
Every horse lover in the world has a “heart horse”, that means as much to them as Image does to me. I’d love to hear about yours!