The Birthday Mustang

RickyFaceTwenty seven years ago I did a crazy thing: I went to a Mustang adoption, adopted a yearling, moved him into our rented barn under the pretense that he belonged to a client, and on this day twenty seven years ago, I presented him to my mother as a fiftieth birthday present. Potential recipe for disaster, right? But, it led to a host of treasured memories, and an amazing life for one mustang.

The deception couldn’t have been better.  The adoption event was a month before my mothers birthday, so I needed a cover story for this feral colt I was bringing home. I involved my students and friends in concocting a story about a friend of a student whose colt had grown up unhandled on a huge property.  They had me covered on the day of the adoption, and met me at the barn to help

Ricky, just after adoption
Ricky, just after adoption

get the colt into his new home.  During the ensuing month, a party was planned.  We would have a dinner with my student and her family, but first had to feed the horses.  Waiting at the barn was a host of our friends, a decorated barn, barbecue, and a now approachable bay birthday gift.  As my mom was taking in the surprise event, someone asked if she had seen where her gift was. “It better not be in the barn behind me!” was the response.  Everyone looked at each other, as the realization slowly dawned on her face.

First time on his back!
First time on his back!

In spite of that comment, my mom enjoyed working with her rugged little colt.  We named him Ricochet, for the stripe that makes a bend above his nose – Ricky for short.  I helped her teach him each new lesson as he grew, and she got very good at handling him.  She kept telling me that I would have to be the first to ride him, a point I was willing to concede.  But when the time came, she was actually the first in the saddle.  There were some rough spots along the way, as with any green horse.  There was the first time he was approached by a rider and horse – memories of being herded were too strong, and my mom ended up draped on the fence.  But, all in all, progress was made.  We even took him to an adoption event, where he coolly grazed as we were swarmed by admirers and potential adopters with questions.  We were a bit nervous, as the numbers grew and he became completely surrounded – but Ricky didn’t bat an eye!

Then there was the summer we almost lost Ricky.  Our hardy fellow, with the ever present appetite, was laying in his paddock ignoring me when I came to feed.  I pulled him out to take his temperature – 105!  The vets were called, and during the exam decided to do a belly tap – for reasons I’ve never been clear on, but for which I was so grateful.  For, into the syringe came the thickest, greenest puss I’ve ever seen!  Idiopathic peritonitis was the final diagnosis.  I hauled him into the Veterinary hospital, with no better than a 50/50 chance given for his survival.  They clearly underestimated Mustang toughness!

It was a scary couple of weeks, as Ricky chewed up every catheter they tried to leave in for his belly flushes.  After losing three, they gave up and just did the tap each day – and he was a star!  The vet students fell in love with the handsome tough mustang, and told us that they fought over who got his care each day.  The first three medications they tried, all in the penicillin family, caused bad reactions; so, they had to settle on an antibiotic not highly successful in treating the type of bacteria he had.  At one point, his fever spiked as high as 106.  But, as long as it was 103 or lower, that little bugger would eat – apparently most horses stop eating at much lower fevers, so the vets were all amazed.  In the end, I think that might have been the single factor that led to his recovery.

Mom and Ricky
Mom and Ricky

Mom enjoyed riding and jumping Ricky for a few more years.  He was great on the trail, and was turning into a cute little jumper.  But, my mother was enjoying Dressage on my horses – and Ricky was not built terribly well for a life of pirouettes and half-pass.  Still, all was well until the day that he reminded us just how young and spirited he still was.  I was giving my mom a lesson over some small gymnastics.  Ricky was jumping like a champ, and all were having fun.  They were taking a break, walking on a loose rein, when I suggested just one more go.  My mom started to pick the reins up – Ricky yanked them out of her hands, then did his best rodeo impression, dumping her in the dirt and bolting off around the five acre field!

At about that time, I was retiring Ben from competition and had Dani as my main ride.  We decided that mom could have more fun doing what she loved on Ben, and Ricky could go spend some time being a Pony Club horse.  It happened that a good friend had a kid in her club who was looking to lease a horse, and she thought he’d be a good fit for Ricky.  So, we made the tough choice and sent him off. They had a year or two of eventing, and the two got along great!  We had fun watching them on cross-country, and even going to a broomstick polo match.  But my favorite story of Ricky and Elijah had nothing to do with riding.

From the time he was easily handled, we’d kept Ricky’s mane roached.  His crest was naturally thick, and the mane emanated from well below the line of his crest.  This gave him more than enough for two full bushy manes!  Thinning it was just out of the question.  Roached, it literally was as thick as a push-broom, and nearly as stiff! The day Elijah came to pick up Ricky, he said he was going let Ricky’s mane grow out.  I warned him how hard it would be to take care of, but he was determined.  And so, he let it grow.  As it became long enough to fall to both sides (which is precisely what it did), I waited to see how he was going to manage to thin it.  A few weeks passed, and we went to one of their shows – and lo, Ricky’s mane was roached!  My friend said that Elijah had been determined, but when reality set in, and he was faced with caring for that massive unruly mane, he easily caved to the suggestion to roach it again!  And so it has stayed roached ever since!

My favorite picture of Ben and Ricky, as the Blues Brothers!
My favorite picture of Ben and Ricky, as the Blues Brothers!

After Elijah, Ricky returned home for a while.  But we were without facilities for working horses, so he hung out with the rest of the herd.  It wasn’t many months before my friend called with another Pony Club boy looking for a horse.  It seemed like another good fit, so off Ricky went again.  This young man, Ben, did very well with Ricky, indeed.  Ricky would offer the occasional high spirits, but that was the best part according to Ben!  They made a great partnership, and even qualified for the Pony Club Nationals.  Sadly, on the way to Kentucky, Ricky came down with traveling sickness.  Ben and his family made sure Ricky got the treatment he needed, and were so worried about the boy!  But, he recovered well and the only thing lost was Ben’s chance to compete on Ricky.

At the last big event Ben rode Ricky, it was clear he was outgrowing the little fellow.  Although sturdy at 15.3 and 1200 pounds, Ricky was still too small for Ben’s increasing height.  It was time for Ricky to either come home, or get another rider.  Happily, for all involved, Ben’s little sister Carlie had done some rides on Ricky and they were a great match.  Typically spunky with Ben, Ricky had been a perfect gentleman with the more cautious Carlie.  With Ricky’s help, Carlie blossomed as a rider and Ricky once again made the trip to Kentucky for the Pony Club nationals.

Ricky and Carlie at the last show we attended
Ricky and Carlie at the last show we attended

By this time, Ricky was in his late teens, as was Carlie.  Ricky had been a part of their family for at least as long as he’d lived with us.  The Christmas Carlie was seventeen, my mom made the heartfelt decision to gift Ricky to her.  We wrote a book of stories and photos from Ricky’s life, and had her over for dinner.  Her mother and sister  knew what was coming, but Carlie was taken completely by surprise!  For the second time, Ricky became the gift of a lifetime!

Mom being "inspected" by her old friend
Mom being “inspected” by her old friend

Recently we visited Ricky, now aged 28 and in semi-retirement at my friend’s stable. As we got out of the car, I called his name. His head came up from the hay he was munching, and he marched to the gate. I walked over, and he immediately began nuzzling and snuffling all around my head. As my mom came up with some carrots, he happily took the offered  treat, and nuzzled her face and shoulders in between bites. It has been nearly a decade since we last saw him, and almost two since he lived with us – yet, he clearly remembered the first human friends he had. To be the first people to earn his trust, and after all this time receive such a clearly affectionate greeting – it’s impossible to describe how profound a feeling that is!

Neither of us will ever forget this special little Mustang.  It was a tough choice to let go, but in the end it seems to have been the best choice for all concerned.  And neither of us will ever forget that surprise birthday, twenty seven years ago when the birthday gift was, in fact, behind her in the barn.

So, Happy Birthday, mom! Here’s to many more years in the saddle!


2 thoughts on “The Birthday Mustang

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