7: Chuckles the Thoroughbred

That night, Molly called Frank to tell him that Sparkle turned out to be a dud. It was fine. Molly was already over the disappointment and excited to see the next horse.  

“Chuckles” had been advertised as a chestnut gelding, a red coloured male horse. The ad said he was 16.3 and had raced, evented and done the jumpers. He was 11 years old, just coming into his prime. This was exciting to Molly because she wanted an experienced horse, one that she could just get on, a horse that would already know what it was doing, and one that was old enough not to act like a green baby. Off track racehorses were popular in Molly’s area, there was no shortage of them coming from the local tracks. Chuckles, being a thoroughbred, had raced with a rider on his back, not pulling a sulky.

Molly had heard that off track thoroughbreds that weren’t fast enough for the track made great riding horses. That is, assuming they were just too slow and not because they had been injured. Injured racehorses that get retired from the track face a more uncertain future.  Molly thought it was a good sign that Chuckles had done other sports after leaving racing, it showed he was sound for riding. 

The farm where Chuckles lived was about an hour and a half North East of Burlington. Greta and Molly set off at about 10 a.m. stopping for coffee and a bagel on the way. Molly was certain this must be one of the best ways to spend a day.

Upon arrival they pulled into a small hobby farm, it was so small they had driven past it several times before finally seeing the address on a fence post, hard to read and easy to miss. Molly noted the large old Victorian red brick house, a small barn and a couple of fenced paddocks. A few hundred yards away she could see two horses in a paddock. One of them was a chestnut!

A young woman, about 20 years old, greeted them as they parked.  

“Hi, I’m Natalie, you must be here to see Chuckles,” she smiled. 

“Hi Natalie, yes we are! I’m Molly, we corresponded by email. This is my sister Greta.” Looking around Molly added, “This is a really cute farm.” 

“It belongs to my parents, it’s a lot smaller than the one they used to have. They just sold this one too, they want to downsize again, which is why I need to sell Chuckles.  I had hoped to retire him as a ponying horse at the track, but I decided I didn’t want that life for him.” Natalie looked toward the paddock where the horses were, adding, “So let’s go get Chuckles.”

As they approached the paddock Molly could see that the other horse, a dark bay, was a young and impressive looking mare.

“Is that your horse too?” Molly asked.

“That’s a mare we’re keeping here on rest while she recovers from a racing injury. Chuckles is keeping her company. She’s a nice horse… won over $2,000,000 at the track so far and she’s only 4 years old.” 

“Wow. That’s impressive,” said Greta, as Molly nodded with raised eyebrows.

Natalie turned and walked over to Chuckles. He stood quietly, swishing his tail in the hot sun. The other horse was standing as close to his tail as possible to benefit from it’s fly swatting qualities. Molly noticed there was no shelter from the sun in the paddock and at over 30 degrees on a hot August day, both horses looked hot.

Natalie explained that she had been working at the local racetrack, training young thoroughbreds. Her family used to be in the racing business, which was how she came to have Chuckles.  He had been purchased by a group of investors from a Kentucky breeder for $90,000 as a baby, maybe two years old. His breeding and bloodlines included some of the greatest racehorses of all time, like Northern Dancer and Secretariat, among others. Much to the disappointment of those who bought him, however, he didn’t do well at the races at all, and was retired quite young.  This was when Natalie’s family had purchased Chuckles for their daughter to use as a show horse.

Natalie mused about the years they had spent together, how he was able to jump as high as the highest hole on the jump standards, and how she had flown him to Florida each winter to compete. Most recently, she had been eventing with him, level 1 or something. She didn’t explain why exactly, but only that with her parents moving from a farm to a house, she couldn’t keep Chuckles. She could have boarded him somewhere, thought Molly, but Molly didn’t want to ask why that wasn’t an option.  

Chuckles was sweet and had a calm demeanor.  While Natalie went over to the small shed to get his saddle and bridle, Molly and Greta looked him over more thoroughly. 

 “He is definitely not 16.3, maybe 16 hands, or 16.1,” Greta noted under her breath to Molly. 

“Ya, true, but he’s broad. It would be more of a problem if he were narrow,” Molly replied, running her hands along Chuckles back. 

His ribs were showing quite a bit, but he was still a handsome horse. He had a nice eye, a broad shoulder and big barrel, and a long body. Longer bodies were typical of turf racers from Kentucky where turf (grass) racing was the main racetrack surface.  

Chuckles looked a bit tired with his scraggly uneven mane, dull coat and unusually short tail.  He definitely needed some TLC. He was only 11 years old but seemed older.  Molly noticed a scab from a sore on his withers and an old healed scar from a girth rub under his belly. 

“What’s this from?” Molly asked, pointing Natalie to the scab on top of his withers when she returned. Natalie explained it was from am ill-fitting Western saddle used on him while she tried him out as a ponying horse at the track.  

Ponying horses are used to help manage racehorses before and after their races. They are typically calm, well trained horses, who don’t mind being bumped and pushed by overzealous and hot racehorses. The ponying life could be rough and so Natalie had decided not to leave him there.

As Natalie went on to share the adventures she and Chuck had experienced over their years together, he stood quietly, tail swishing methodically with periodic, half hearted nips at any flies that landed on his shoulder. He was relaxed and had a pleasant look on his face while Natalie put on his saddle and bridle.

She walked him into a dirt paddock that had a small jump in it, and with complete ease in her running shoes, shorts and t-shirt, she got on and walked, trotted and cantered him around. She was clearly a natural rider and full of confidence. She popped him over the small fence and cantered away with total ease.  She slowed to a walk, bringing Chuckles over to Molly and hopping off.

“Want to get on?” she said with an encouraging smile.

“Uhhhh, I’m not sure,” said Molly, ”I’m a bit nervous, sorry.”

Another hit on my head and I’d be in big trouble, she thought. 

“Ok, well, take your time.” She said with a kind smile.  Chuckles remained there, standing quietly. 

“Try him Molly, put your helmet on first. Did you bring your helmet?” prompted Greta.

Molly got her helmet on and decided to go for it. She stepped up from the mounting block and onto Chuckles back and again he stood there quietly.

Molly asked him to move forward with a squeeze of her legs and away they went around the small dirt pen. Once she felt comfortable, she asked him to move up into a trot. He was so good, so steady and calm. Next, they went into a canter, it was smooth and easy. She worried it would be hard to stop him, or that her unsteadiness in the saddle might make him nervous, but it didn’t and he slowed down as soon as she asked him to, with a light pull on his reins.  With every passing second, Molly found herself more and more comfortable.

Greta watched in amazement that Molly was able to do what she was doing, with a strange new horse. She could see she was unsure up there, but there she was, determined to do it. She admired her for that.

Molly didn’t want to push her luck by trying to take Chuckles over a jump and decided to get off and leave it on a good note. She noted the old spur mark dents in Chuckles side, little divets where someone’s heel would have dug in with a steel poker attached to their boot. She touched the saddle sore on his back to make sure she hadn’t opened it when she rode him.  It was still a scab and seemed undisturbed. 

“I’m interested Natalie, but I’ll need to have a lameness exam,” said Molly. 

Natalie was quick to point out that she couldn’t wait for a vet check unless it happened within the next day or two.  She was leaving for Europe the following week. Greta also felt that Molly could skip the lameness evaluation. Her reasoning what that if Molly got one year out of Chuckles, it would be worth it.

“Why pay for a lameness evaluation if he’s only costing you $2,000,” Greta had reasoned.

Natalie suddenly perked up with a suggestion, “Hey, I’ve seen lameness evaluations done loads of times, they’re just flexion tests. You bend the leg at the knee and hold it for 60 seconds, then put it down and trot the horse off to see if they maintain an even step on that leg. I can do that for you now, I know how to do it. I just need one of you to time it.” 

Molly was excited at the prospect of saving some time and money and having the exam done now. It would at least give her the peace of mind knowing she had done flexion tests, so she could make the decision she knew she wanted to make. 

“That would be great Natalie, let’s do that!” said Molly.

Natalie walked Chuckles over to the driveway and with Greta timing her, she held up his front right leg, bending it at the knee, with his hoof held under him near his belly. 

After 60 seconds, Greta gave the cue and Natalie trotted him off down the driveway. 

Chuckles was limping. A fairly big limp too. You could tell because with every other step, his head popped up.

Natalie pulled him up, clearly dismayed. “Well, that’s strange,” she said. Picking up his foot to inspect it, brushing it off as she looked closer for a rock or some other indication as to why he was limping. Having found nothing, she shrugged and held up his left front leg to repeat the test.  

“He probably stepped on a stone when I trotted him the first time,” smiled Natalie.

Greta again timed her. 

After Greta gave the signal at 60 seconds, Natalie again trotted off with Chuckles and again, Chuckles was limping, his head bobbing up and down with each alternating step.

“It must be the rocks on the driveway,” said Natalie. “That, and I just pulled off his front shoes, so his feet are probably more tender than usual…  I should have swept the driveway before trotting him on it…” She lamented. 

 “He’s not lame,” Natalie reassured Molly.  

Molly looked at Natalie and then at Chuckles. She realized that her need to buy this horse was going to usurp any evidence that she shouldn’t. She was being driven by the power of “What if I had died? What if I die tomorrow?”  

On top of this, she didn’t have the experience to understand what the implications of lameness were, and to her it was like if she herself had a sore foot. She would rest it, and all would be fine. In fact, it only made Chuckles more appealing. They could mend together.   

Molly and Greta said their good-byes to Natalie and started the drive home. Contrary too better judgement, Molly was bubbling over with excitement, “I’m about to be a horse owner!” she screamed to Greta. “I think I’m actually going to make this happen!”

5: Horse Shopping

Molly called her sisters and close friends to tell them the news. It was met with lots of “Oh my gods” and “I’m so sorry” and “Oh Molly… oh you poor thing.”

None of which, to be honest, were very helpful.  Molly had three older sisters, they were five (Patricia), six (Greta) and seven (Frauka) years older than her. A reaction that stuck in her mind was from her sister Patricia, who after the initial news had recounted her reaction saying, “You know, when I heard about this, I was like, that’s it, I’m putting all that stuff between us aside and focusing on being there for you, that’s all that matters now.”

It was very sweet and sincere, so sincere in fact that Molly wondered if Patricia realized what she had admitted, the part about the stuff between them. By the sounds of it, bad stuff. What did she mean? Molly had always felt things, cutting remarks and put-down. Family stuff. But Molly only understood them as the receiver, how they made her feel insecure, unworthy, and stupid. So it surprised her when Patricia blurted out some understanding on her end of bad feelings between them.  Molly had never had the courage to ask her, why had she been so harsh at some of Molly’s lowest points.

Molly recalled a time when she about 18 years old and having what she could only describe as a panic attack, about something their step-mother had done, or was doing at the time, she couldn’t remember an exact reason.  Molly had broken out in blisters all over her body. She had gone to her sister in tears, to show her the blisters, and for some sisterly advice. Patricia had looked at the blisters, then leaned back recoiling and looked at Molly stating, “You’re fucked.”  

And now, Molly thought, she was ready to put it all aside to help her soon to be invalid sister. Molly believed people were inherently good. Patricia was no exception, she had many amazing qualities, a razor sharp wit, the ability to throw an amazing dinner party and to top it all off she was a social worker. But memories ensure we remember the good and the bad. Molly couldn’t help but remember how often they’re relationship seemed out of balance over the years and that she never really understood why, or what she had done. Her sister resented her, there was no question about that, she always had. Be that as it may, the present circumstance had redirected their relationship now that death was apparently looming. 

Even Molly’s sister Greta had booked a flight in from Winnipeg, leaving her big job managing the McPhillips Station Casino, one of the big native reserve casinos, to come and see her ailing sister.  And her oldest sister Paula, seemed almost giddy about the news, and promised to come visit and care for Molly “when the time came”. 

Before her car accident, Molly had been preparing her resume to make a job change. She was ready to move on to her next challenge and take her career to the next level after five successful years. She had been contemplating her relationship with Frank, they had been together for a couple of years and the relationship didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

And now?  She was lucky to have a job with enough tenure that she could stay on and get paid for thinking with the capacity of a chipmunk. Frank had turned out to be her rock, answering the phone at all hours, providing infinite, compassionate patience. It was ironic.

 “What if I had died in the crash?” she thought, “what would I regret not doing?” It was in that moment a singular thought came, like a bolt from the blue. 

“If I had died, I would have never owned a horse,” she heard herself say.

Horses had significance in Molly’s life. Ever single birthday cake candle wish she’d ever made was, “I wish for my own horse.” And blow.  A wish not unlike many little girls and boys. Molly’s love for horses was tied to a memory of her mother. Molly’s first memory of her mother was watching her ride her horse, while Molly sat on a fat pony named “Beany”, desperately trying to copy her mother’s equestrian skills. Beany was a babysitter. And Molly was, at the time, very much still a baby at 4 years old.

Molly’s mother, Inga, had grown up in Sweden and had ridden horses there as a young girl. After having four girls, she had decided to buy her first horse, no doubt looking for something of her own after being consumed by children for so many years. She had finally made her dream of owning a horse come true, and purchased a pretty bay mare she called, Sundance. She kept Sundance at a farm not far from their home, run by a kind farmer we called “Mr. Van”. Mr. Van had ponies on his farm that Inga rented for Molly and her sisters to ride while she visited and rode Sundance.

Horses

Sundance was a sturdy and athletic Morgan cross. Beany was a black and white, rather lazy pony. Perfect for little Molly. Molly remembered a sunny day, watching her mother trot around on Sundance, while Molly walked in a small round pen with Beany. Molly had wanted to move faster, but Beany seemed immune to the kicking from Molly’s small and ineffective legs.  Such great memories Molly thought.

These early experiences evolved into a lifelong need to be around horses, watching them, reading about them, being near them and riding them. After her mother died, Molly would beg to go to a riding camp for the summer, and worked week-ends cleaning stalls to pay for riding lessons, and then summers during school breaks.  Molly’s father couldn’t support her ongoing horse obsession but as long as she paid her way, he was always glad to drive her to the barn and faithfully dropped her off and picked her up from the farm without a complaint. The barn work was more like child slave labour but Molly loved it. In exchange for working Saturday and Sunday, sweeping, cleaning stalls and feeding hay and grain, Molly received one riding lesson each week. 

Over the years, Molly would incorporate horses into her life whenever and wherever she could, but always with the understanding from her father that they were too expensive to own. Owning horses was for people with money. Molly always found a way to ride though, either paying to ride with her own money or by riding the horses no one wanted to ride because they were free. It was practical, affordable and it worked. 

Molly’s thoughts returned to her current situation. “If I had died and never fulfilled this one dream, I would be rolling in my grave, I’d be so pissed off. How ridiculous it that. And why? Because other people get what they want but I don’t because somehow I have to aspire to a higher level of practicality than they do?!”

She began to reason with herself like a child arguing to a parent. Next, she started combing the online classifieds, gleefully signing up for a dozen Facebook groups that listed horses for sale in Ontario. She needed to get an idea of what was out there, she also needed to get an idea of what she was looking for, and what it cost. She had no idea what she wanted and so, she started to ask other people.

The only thing more exhuberant than a person shopping for their first horse, is someone else, helping that person shop for their first horse. It’s not their money, and not their responsibility; win-win! More importantly for Molly, it completely distracted her from her current issues and recent diagnosis.

Molly wanted a safe horse. She couldn’t afford to hit her head again on a high strung horse.  The more you hit your head the worse the concussions become, until you’re a mumbling, slurring football player at the age of 45. Not fair, and not cool, but true. 

Horse shopping would involve a lot of driving and hopping on and off unknown horses, so she would need someone to go with her. He sister Greta had booked her visit down from Winnipeg, which could be timely for horse shopping, mused Molly. Greta had a horse of her own in Winnipeg and was somewhat experienced having shopped for one before. Molly thought it might be fun it they went together, and perhaps Greta could offer her some advice and experience on how to buy a horse that’s safe and sound.

So with hat, Molly picked out a couple of horses from the classifieds and planned to go horse shopping with Greta the following week.