As we here at Phoenix Farm were reeling from the loss of our great schoolmaster Schultz (whom I wrote about in my last blog), only 10 days later we were struck another blow, when Heather lost her semi-retired event horse Sam, 18, to colic. Sam had slowly become our assistant schoolmaster over the last few years, but he forever remained Heather’s.
So I asked Heater to share him with you in her own words:
I didn’t want him. Not initially. The first time I saw Sam, he was bolting wildly across the property with a rider who had broken one of his many rules—he disappeared in to the trees and reappeared alone, branches and leaves clinging to his mane and tail. My boss at the time, Sharon White, who was charged with selling him, said cryptically, “That’s not a match.”
Sam had an accident and an injury shortly afterward—one of many that should have ended his life—and he disappeared for several months while recuperating. In the meantime, I would lose a horse, a beloved, enormous, gentle soul called Bentley, as black as a moonless sky. When Sam returned to our farm to be sold post-rehab, I’d just started looking for a new horse.
The pressure from Sharon started subtly enough. “You know who you should sit on? Sam. I mean, he’s here, he’s in your price range . . .”
I’d politely decline, smiling, but in my head thinking, “Is she nuts? He isn’t like my Bentley at all—small and white, and crazy!”
As weeks would go by, the pressure would increase, until I sat on him just to shut her up. And I learned: Sometimes it’s just as important to have wise friends as it is to be wise yourself.
I didn’t want to like Sam, but it took less than one lap around the indoor ring to get a big, stupid grin on my face. From the moment my bum touched the saddle, and my legs clasped his sides, we fit. Like coming home to the smile of an old friend.
I tried not to make the decision in haste. I rode him for a few weeks, I made John take a spin on him, and I even took a lesson from an impartial third party. But the deal was sealed in those first five minutes, whether I could admit it or not.
When I vetted him, the vet said, while watching him jog around on the longe line, “He won’t make a conformation hunter with that head, eh?” And while most people would say calling his head “common” was a kindness, he’s spoiled me forever on typey. “He needs room for all the extra brains,” was all I would say.
We didn’t have much of a honeymoon, as he set about immediately explaining to me how it was going to be. I’d come to understand that living with Sam came with a lot of rules, and that the fact that I hadn’t been given a copy of the rulebook was not his problem.
He was an inveterate cribber, a habit I’d eventually give up on trying to stop. We just called it “the sound of Sam.”
He didn’t care AT ALL for whips. Or metal bits. Or other horses doing anything other than walking past him. But his No. 1 rule was: Do not hang on my face. He’d already washed out as a racehorse and as a foxhunter by the time I met him, and two different event riders and their trainers had given up on him.
Right before I wrote the check, another trainer called me and told me, “That horse is dangerous and is going to hurt someone. Don’t let it be you.”
And the thing was she was right. And wrong. It was all about the rulebook, you see: Sam believed that if you followed his rules, you could have the ride of a lifetime. But ignore the rules at your own peril.
At the first event I took him to, I was walking unsuspectingly around the cross-country start box on long reins, fiddling with my watch, when the starter began to count me down, “10-9-8 . . .”
And Sam let out the most joyous of squeals, before he started leaping and bucking, great pouncing leaps, dragging me to the box. I was horrified (he nearly dropped me) and exhilarated—here was a horse who loved his job. I never let anybody count me down again, past 30 seconds or so. It’s not like he’d stand still in the box anyway; it was far too much excitement, and standing still was for suckers.
The first winter I had him, he spent the majority of our dressage rides rearing or running backwards as I attempted to teach him lateral work. He simply couldn’t envision why going sideways was a good idea, unless I was trying to kill him. When he finally got it, it went in to the database, and he would later teach those skills to numerous students.
I won a lot on Sam. A lot. But I also fell off of him in every jumping lesson I took for the first six months. He was a terror in a warm-up ring, and he never approved of lots of horses cantering and jumping around him. Warm-ups were short and sweet. And I tried to warm-up, get off and walk the course, and then get back on again exactly once. He insisted on once. There was that golf cart he damaged when I tried to break that rule.
Sam would eventually retire from competition and become our assistant schoolmaster to Schultz. And while the rules always applied, there was something grand about watching this “crazy, dangerous” horse pack around 8-year-old kids and timid mature ladies. He’d teach them how to do shoulder-in, how to not jump ahead of him, how to refine their aids, how to listen when your horse speaks (which Sam did often). And if you didn’t listen well enough, he’d just talk a little louder.
Sam had a wicked sense of humor. As sly and sarcastic as a fox. If you didn’t think his jokes were funny, well, that was your problem. When you’d break a rule, he’d correct you, and peer down at you with the most pointed look on his long white face. “Oh, dear human, whatever did you do THAT for? You left me no choice, you know…”
And yet after a hellish, bedridden pregnancy, he was the first horse I got on, just a few weeks post c-section. For all his silliness, I couldn’t imagine who else I’d trust more.
As mentioned, when I bought him he’d already survived one death-defying incident, when he got a foot caught in a stone-riveted bank. In the years I would have him, he’d do that twice more.
Shortly after I moved with him to California, he got cast, seriously injuring his neck. In the early days it wasn’t clear he’d survive it, and then it was, well, he’d survive, but he’d never be ridden again. Then one day I was cleared to ride him, maybe just light flatwork. Then I was told I could jump him. I’d never compete him over big jumps again; the potential strain on his neck was too great. But I did compete him again, and his second show back he was reserve champion for Area VI at novice. We’d been leading going in to show jumping, where we dropped a rail to fall to second.
I was teary in the awards, and I think a few people thought I was crying from sadness. But I explained that every day I sat on him was a gift, one I didn’t take for granted. That was five years ago, just a few months before I became pregnant with our son, Wesley.
I late June, we had a rogue weather event, in which a lightning storm, with powerful thunder, swept through one night, an almost-unheard-of event here in Northern California. We suspect hat one of those thundering cracks spooked him, and he bolted into a fence post, impaling himself with several massive shards in the front of his chest. As horrid as it was initially, it healed with hardly a scar.
I guess it’s because of how many times he’d cheated death that I became convinced he’d live forever. When John called Monday morning to say they’d found him down in the field and it looked bad, I was sure he’d be fine. When I saw him swaying and in shock, ataxic and shaking, I still though he’d be OK. When the vet told me there was no hope, I couldn’t hear him.
And in the end, when he was gone, as I held his big, ugly, noble head in my arms and wept, I kept thinking he’d somehow leap to his feet and be fine. He’d been fine so many times before. Why not now?
But this time he didn’t get to his feet. He’s really gone and will not come back to me in this lifetime. The hole in my heart is great, too great to yet be filled. But even if lessening the pain meant one less moment with him, I’d still take them all. Because my world is so much better from having had him in it. I would not be the rider, the horseman, the trainer, the teacher, or the person I am without my Sam. My Sam. Gone, but never, ever forgotten.
I miss you, old boy. Thank you.