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I still have the horse show number sitting on my dresser. Number 111. Such an easy number to remember, especially considering the horse that represented the number. The flashy blood bay who won his halter and color classes, who got complimented all day on his “beautiful classic head”, and was believed to have the potential of a great carriage horse. The leggy, lightning-fast horse who won every gymkhana class he went in, especially in the jumping class, where he jumped twice as high as he needed to in order to clear the jumps. The sweet little gelding with kind brown eyes who could be found between classes with his head resting in his handler’s arms, and his handler resting on his head, both of them content to just relax and be loved by each other. I am that handler, and those who know me and horse number 111 know that it took a long time to develop the energetic, trusting horse that was at the horse show that day. Funny Farm’s Rowdy Captain Midnight had not always been the horse that everyone saw at the horse show.
1999 was the year of our first Miniature foal, eight long years ago. Nana had always been horse-crazy, but could no longer ride because of a surgery on her arm, so she bought a pregnant Miniature mare. The mare finally gave birth to the colt we had been waiting for, on March 25th at exactly midnight. He was a blood bay colt, all legs, with one white hair on his forehead. He had been born with the laid-back personality of his mother, which helped him become a trusting, loving colt. He was fine with being handled at a very early age, and he was so small that my Papa, who was beginning to develop a strong bond with this little colt, would pick him up and let him sit in his lap. Midnight was very tolerant of children, which I experienced first hand, being only seven years old and a little bit scared of horses. He loved getting attention, and was the only horse in the barn who would let you hug him for as long as you wanted. He had the personality of a best friend, and his sweet horse-y hugs meant more to me than anyone knew.
As Midnight grew and developed, and as we became more knowledgeable with Miniature horses, we became more active in the Miniature horse world. We bought a few more Minis, and we started going to a few local shows on a regular basis. Midnight was a quick and willing learner, and became a bomb-proof, well-trained show horse. He was eager to learn, only wanting to please people. He hated when people scolded him or yelled at him, and strived to earn praise, hugs, and kisses. The only time he had ever done anything “naughty” was when he was very young. He was in his stall, and Nana told him to move over so she could muck out his stall. When he didn’t move over, Nana pushed him gently, and he kicked her. Nana has never been one to tolerate kicking in a horse, so she kicked him back. He was so devastated to have angered her that he never kicked again. That was the kind of personality he had.
Midnight grew to be very tall for a Miniature horse. Most Minis average around 34 inches, and can only grow to 38 inches before they are no longer considered Miniature horses. Midnight stands at about 36.5 inches, and is all leg. The more he grew, the better he became at jumping. It wasn’t until one day in the pasture that we recognized his talent. I was practicing our new gelding Casey over the jumps. Midnight was two years old, and although he was now old enough to jump, we hadn’t worked with him on it yet. I took Casey over a jump, and after we cleared it, I heard Nana laughing. I turned around to see Midnight standing behind us. He had followed us over the jump! From then on, whenever I would jump him, he would clear the jump with the stamina and precision that most hunter/jumper horse owners dream of. He was always so excited to jump. Sometimes it seemed like he only behaved in the shows so he could compete in the jumping course at the end of the day!
We’d had Midnight for five years when Papa was diagnosed with cancer. All of a sudden, Nana and Papa were bombarded with hospital bills, and didn’t have the time or money to have six horses. Papa decided to sell Midnight, because Midnight was Papa’s horse, and Papa figured he wouldn’t live much longer anyway, so there wouldn’t be any point to keep a horse for him. Unfortunately, he was right. We sold Midnight to a little girl named Katie, and Papa died less than a year later. We thought that Katie would be a good owner for Midnight, because Midnight was so good with kids, and we would be able to see him at the shows because Katie went to the same shows we did. This was a reasonable, but inaccurate thought.
Katie was a 6-year-old girl, the baby of the family, and a little bit spoiled. She didn’t know much about horses, and got frustrated easily. She didn’t communicate with Midnight in a way that he could understand, but got angry with him when he didn’t perform to her satisfaction. Although she wasn’t abusive, Midnight was so used to pleasing people that he couldn’t seen to take being yelled at and being a disappointment to someone. With every tear Katie cried, every jerk she gave the lead shank, every time she stormed out of the barn angrily, Midnight’s spirit slowly crumbled.
Eventually, Midnight transformed from the sweet, loving horse that I knew, to a sulky, depressed horse who was sometimes even dangerous. I would hear stories from friends of Katie’s family about Midnight doing things he never would have done at our house, things like kicking, biting, rearing and bucking. He went from a small-town horse hero, to a horse that did nothing in the show ring, and had to be fought with to behave. We saw what was happening to our beloved gelding, and tried to convince Katie to sell him back to us, but her ears were closed to the subject. She did not want to give back her horse, no matter how badly he misbehaved for her.
After planning and scheming many failing ways to get Midnight back, we finally found that the only way we could get him back was to wait patiently. When Midnight was seven years old, Katie’s mother came to Nana and told her that they would be selling all of their horses because their family was going through a divorce. Although we were trying to downsize and sell a few horses, we made an exception with Midnight and were eager to buy him back.
A few short weeks after we bought Midnight, we decided to take him to a small show a few miles from home. I took him in a handful of classes, and although he grudgingly did everything I asked him to do, he was depressed all day, to the point that it was unhealthy. We realized about halfway through the day that he hadn’t had a drink or urinated all day. From then until the end of the day we spent all our time between classes trying to get him to take a drink, but we learned the saying “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” firsthand. We actually cheered out loud when Midnight peed in the ring before our Jumping class. We were worried that he was sick, because of his lack of interest in everything from the classes to his hay to other horses. He wasn’t acting like a horse. I realized at the end of the day that I would have preferred that he had been sick, as opposed to the deep state of depression he was in. There were vets and medicine that could cure him if he were sick, and then he would be free to act like himself again, but I knew that it would take more than a couple of shots and stall rest to get back the Midnight I knew and loved.
For about a year, Midnight was just a pasture ornament. I would work him a few times a month just to keep him in shape, but his attitude toward work never seemed to improve. It wasn’t that he was lazy or unwilling to work. He still had a little bit of his strive-to-please attitude left, but his gentle brown eyes would take on a worried look whenever we’d do anything that seemed to bring up bad memories, like when Nana tried to drive him, or little kids came around the barn. You could see and feel every muscle in his body tense up, and he became like a spring until the activity was over. There were little things that he would freak out about that never used to concern him, like being body clipped. We found out on his first spring back on the farm that although he would tolerate his ears, face, and legs being clipped, he was terrified for some reason of the clippers being near his belly and hindquarters. Some sweet talk and petting would eventually settle his worries, but I wondered if he would ever be the same.
About a month ago, Nana decided that we should try to take Midnight to another show, now that he was accustomed to us and was starting to relearn that he would get rewarded if he did what we asked him to. She told me that she wanted me to take him to a small local show so that he would have a positive experience at a show. I didn’t have much time to work him, but the few times I did, he seemed to be still sulky. Every time I worked him, he would always do what I asked, but he wasn’t as eager to do it. When I jumped him, he was nowhere near the high-jumping horse he was before we sold him. He would lift his legs so that he barely cleared the jump, sometimes even hitting his hoof off the rails. He just didn’t care any more. My stomach did back flips when I thought about how the show might end. It seemed that his fate was uncontrollable, and that taking him to the show would either demonstrate to Midnight that horse shows weren’t so bad, or the show experience would make him even more moody and angry than he already was.
It was the morning of the horse show, and my concerns for Midnight were sprinting circles in my head. When we arrived at the show ring, we unloaded the four horses we had brought and offered each of them a bucket of water. Midnight was the only one who accepted the offer, taking a big drink. It seemed to me that this was a good omen, but I tried not to get my hopes up.
I got Midnight cleaned up, and took him in the Halter B Geldings class. The show was so small that there were only two other horses in the class, and Midnight won it. We then took him in Open Halter B Championship, and he won that too. Although he was winning his classes, he still wasn’t acting normally. He was restless and impatient the whole time. I had trouble getting him to stand still, and when he was standing still, he was tossing his head agitatedly. I wasn’t really sure what to make of this, but I figured he had improved at least a little bit since the last show we brought him to.
Midnight continued to act restless for the entire morning, although he placed at the top of all his classes. He had taken two big drinks of water, though, so at least he was healthy. The afternoon classes were mostly gymkhana classes, so I reasoned that Midnight would probably be happier because the gymkhana classes didn’t require that he stood still. While we were waiting for our next class, it began to rain hard. I walked over to a tree with Midnight, so he was partially shielded by the tree’s leaves and branches. I felt bad that he was getting wet. As I petted his face, he laid his head in my arms, and I laid my head on his head. We stood there like that, leaning on each other until our next class.
Midnight was good for the gymkhana classes, but his heart really wasn’t into it. I had to pull on the lead rope to get him to keep up with me, which was disappointing because I knew he could run so much faster. His legs were so long that he had a new habit of doing a really fast trot instead of cantering, which slowed us down a little bit. It wouldn’t have bothered me so much if it wasn’t for the fact that I had seen him when he was younger galloping across the ring with a freedom in his eyes that I wondered if I would ever see again.
The Jumping Class was the last class of the day. I wasn’t expecting anything different, really. I figured he would take the jump course at a slow canter or fast trot, not putting any extra effort in, but doing enough to cleanly and quickly clear the course.
It was our turn to jump. I walked Midnight over to the gait, and yelled “Ha!” my cue to canter. To my surprise, he shot off like a rocket, cantering to match my fastest run. He cleared the jumps with amazing height, and by the time we had finished the course, the whole crowd was cheering for us, even people we didn’t know. I remembered then how much of a crowd-pleaser Midnight used to be.
By the end of the Jumping Class, I knew we had gotten the old Midnight back. I was filled with pride, mostly for Midnight, but also a little bit for myself. I was thrilled that something I had done had persuaded Midnight to appreciate life again. It had taken a lot of time, but it had paid off. We had our Midnight back.