On a sunny day in March 1992, a shaggy 2-year-old Appaloosa gelding named Slow Down cautiously stepped off a horse trailer and into my life.
I clearly remember his first few minutes on Texas soil. He stood quietly on our gravel driveway, his eyes adjusting to the bright sunlight, his ears flicking back and forth, as he carefully took in the sounds of his new home—including the good-natured ribbing being lobbed my way from the farm help.
I’d laughed with them as I inspected my new Western pleasure prospect’s appearance. Life in a Tennessee pasture had left his mousey brown coat sun bleached, with burrolike markings on his face and legs. His gangly body gave him an awkward look, like that of a teenager between growth spurts. But I knew from the way he moved on the home video I’d seen—and from his bloodlines—that there was more to this youngster than first met the eye.
And there was—much more. I’d eventually discovered that beneath Slow Down’s awkward exterior beat the heart of a world champion. But on the way to that discovery, I’d uncover something disturbing in his mind. Lurking there was a deadly fear, one that when triggered, would endanger me, my husband, Clint, and our help. It was a fear so destructive, it nearly destined the gelding to an uncertain fate, rather than to world-caliber competition. As Clint would later say, Slow Down should have come with a warning label.
Slow Down first caught my eye in February ’92, when his breeder sent me a video showing the 21-month-old youngster free-longeing in a round pen. I had a vested interest in this gelding—he was by my world champion Western pleasure and reining stallion, Sun Down Q. Sun Down, whom we lost to colic, had been a personal favorite because of his winning temperament and his talent, both of which he passed to his offspring.
Though the tape—and Slow Down—were a little rough, I liked what I saw. The youngster moved around the pen with balance and coordination, able to maintain a naturally level topline at the walk, jog, and lope. While his jog was merely adequate for Western pleasure, his lope—the cornerstone of a winning performer in that event—was exceptional. He would softly step off into it, maintaining a balanced, cadenced stride with very little knee or hock movement. I knew I could improve his jog with proper training, but a horse is either born a good loper, or he’s not.
Slow Down’s ability to maintain such a lope on a relatively small circle, without breaking down into the trot or speeding up, also meant he was physically strong enough through his back and hindquarters to withstand the tough training schedule necessary to show in 2-year-old Western pleasure futurities. And this colt was born with something else that added to his appeal: a consistently pleasant, ears-up expression, which not only indicated a willingness to work, but also would present a pleasing picture in the show pen. All that, combined with his $1,200 price tag, made me say, “yes.”
What's In A Name?
The shaggy brown gelding (immediately nicknamed Brownie) seemed to have taken his Tennessee-to-Texas trailer trek in stride. I gave him a day to acclimate, watching him closely as I groomed and handled him, to see how much time he needed to settle in. He greeted his new surroundings—and me—with a cautious curiosity, revealing a level-headed, but sensitive, attitude. My years of experience in training youngsters told me that Brownie was ready to go to work, but also clued me in that his cautious approach to life meant he’d need a low-pressure training program designed to slowly build up his confidence. Pushing such a horse before he’s mentally ready can result in a mental “blowup,” akin to a nervous breakdown.
With that strategy in mind, I began Brownie’s training program the following day. His previous owner told me she’d ridden him in a round pen a total of five or six times; I’d assumed from watching him on the video that he’d had a solid foundation of ground work, as well. My plan was to tack him up, then longe him in the round pen, before climbing aboard. To be safe, I’d first ride him in a small, confined, alleylike area, where I could quickly steer him into a corner if he acted up. If all went well there, we’d graduate to the round pen, and from there, to our small arena.
Brownie accepted the tacking up and longeing without a fuss. Confident that he was going to stay quiet, I led him to the first small enclosure, and mounted up. He remained relaxed, trying to understand and respond correctly to my simple start-turn-stop cues. After about 15 minutes, I knew he was ready to graduate to the round pen.
Once there, I kept my hands low and quiet, asking Brownie to move away from my legs at the walk, and to follow my leading-rein cues around large circles and other figures. I then asked him to jog, and finally to lope, immediately feeling the balance and cadence I’d seen on the video.
My husband, reining horse trainer Clint Haverty, had been watching us work, and was impressed with my new prospect. He offered to ride Brownie out in the small arena for m, so I could see the natural ability I was feeling. We had no way of knowing that we were about to see Slow Down live up to his name.