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My Greatest Horse

Okie after winning the Hunter Pace
Okie after winning the Hunter Pace

Okie and me in dryer times
Okie and me in dryer times

During a very wet spring some years ago, Spring Valley Hounds scheduled its annual Hunter Pace in my home town of New Vernon, NJ. It had rained steadily all week accumulating several inches, but that Sunday morning another inch pounded down on the already-saturated earth. It was no day for a riding event, to say the least, and I assumed the Spring Hunter Pace would be cancelled. I had breakfast and ran errands all morning. By 11:30 am, I happened to pass the show grounds and saw a few horse trailers and people standing around in the rain. To my surprise, the event had not been cancelled. Riders would be going out until noon.

I hurried home and tacked up Okie, my ten year-old Appaloosa gelding. Having purchased Okie from someone who lost interest in riding, at 14.2 , Okie was too small for me, but he was a wonderfully athletic horse with an honest heart. I bought him because I knew him, he was the kind of horse that needed to be ridden regularly, and didn't want him to go to someone who wouldn't ride him enough or would do so in an unproductive way. Even though he was too little for me, he carried me well, he had a very smooth way of going. My intention was to eventually find him a good long-term home.

Okie was a handful at times; a little unmanageable. His curiosity and sense of play had gotten the better of me more than once. People remarked that he was stubborn, but I knew Okie was simply a survivor, a True Appaloosa and tough as nails. I also discovered he was one of those horses that needed to be challenged and, having been so, would rise to what was expected of him. He was solidly built, extremely strong and never sore or off a day I owned him. He was also a fast learner. I'd ridden him in two other hunter paces and once he discovered that they were sort of controlled races, he loved them.

Okie sensed where we were going when I loaded him. Pulling up to the show grounds he saw the other trailers and immediately knew what he was there for. He became "electric" as I liked to call it. I quickly registered us and backed him out of the trailer. Once on the ground, he was difficult to hold and saddle. He danced around, staring at the other horses, his eyes wide. When I mounted him, he began to prance and jog back and forth in the rain, hollering at the other horses. I didn't discourage him; I felt he was just acting like a professional athlete, "psyching himself up" against the competition.

Usually, hunter paces are run in teams of riders, but so few had shown up in the awful weather that they sent riders out alone. On full electric, Okie danced up to the starting line. I held him until the judge started us and we moved out like a shot from a cannon.

My plans to sell or trade Okie for a bigger appaloosa led me to believe this would be one of our last events together. Also, the rain had reduced the number of entries to very few. I knew how sure-footed Okie would be compared to the other horses, so I decided to go for a total win. Okie must have sensed it because, even in the lousy weather, it was hard to hold him back.

The course was a disaster. Rain still fell and the mud was very deep in some places and slippery in others. I remember that day as never being on solid ground. Once in the woods, run off water ran down the trails like shallow creeks. We were soon drenched and passing one discouraged rider after another, nearly every one saying they had never seen conditions this bad before. Okie and I pressed on at a fast trot, the other riders barely able to walk their horses over the flooded trails. Because of the rain it was often difficult to see. The course was marked with ribbons, but we went so fast that we missed several and had to backtrack. I let Okie feel his way through the rain, boring ahead, still electric.

I knew we had it won and slowed Okie to keep him safe. Then we approached the water crossing. To my horror, the torrential rains had raised the stream to a level that looked like it was over my head. Muddy water drove and swirled like through a storm culvert. I didn't know if we could make it. And, there was another problem. I had never tried to cross deep water with Okie, I had no idea what he would do. I could see the ribbon markers on the other side, leading downstream. I considered waiting for another rider, but thought I was probably a half-mile ahead of the last one we passed. I looked around for a better place to cross but it was the same, equally bad up and downstream.

Apprehensively, I cued him forward. He sniffed the water, looked at it with one eye then the other and walked in. Struggling in the soft mud bottom, Okie pushed ahead. I could only wonder what he was thinking about the mud sucking his feet. As the water got deeper I nearly turned him around, but decided to let him make the call. I urged him gently ahead and the water rose to his flanks. I thought it couldn't get any deeper but when he moved ahead, I was wrong. Just before the midpoint, my English riding boots filled with water and Okie went all the way down.

To my amazement, Okie began to swim. I let go the reins and held on to the pommel as the chill water rushed around my waist. I couldn't believe what was happening and got ready to slip from the stirrups and swim for it. But Okie kept swimming, his neck crested and reaching forward like he'd done it all his life, which I was sure he never had.

Suddenly, we were rising again. Water streamed from both of us as Okie brought us higher. We had made it, but there was another problem. The new stream bank was steeper with rotten mud. Okie stopped and, frankly, I was about to hop off and crawl up. I had pretty much forgotten about the event and only wanted to get Okie and myself out of the water unhurt. I was thinking about that when Okie moved his rear legs loose from the mud and lunged up. For a split second, I felt him fall back. Then he caught himself; I don't know how, and lurched again and again all the way up the bank.

I immediately dismounted and emptied my boots. Okie stood there dripping, eyes alert. I led him downstream along the ribbons, about a hundred yards. Unbelievably, the course led back across the stream! There was no way I was going to ask him to do the impossible a second time. We backtracked upstream past our crossing point about a quarter mile to where I remembered a wooden bridge. When I finally found the bridge the water was a good six inches above it and running like rapids. I led Okie across. He snorted a few times and followed me. I mounted him on the other side and we rode downstream to find the course again.

I kept a slow pace the rest of the way and passed one rider who I warned about the water crossing. She looked at me like she didn't understand. Then she said the water crossing had been closed because it had become too dangerous. "Oh," I said, "nobody told me."

Okie and I were the only ones to cross the water that day. We still beat all the other riders by twenty minutes. I had Okie's bridle off and was walking him out when the first ones started coming in. We won with the best time and closest to the ideal time which, of course, was set during ideal conditions. The rain finally stopped when we were driving home. The photo is back at my house, just before I put him up.

That little Appaloosa had done the impossible that day, the most challenging ride of my life. Okie was the greatest horse I ever owned and, after that day, there was nothing else for me but Appaloosas.

That's not the end. I gave Okie to a riding school where I knew he would be well-cared for and ridden under supervision. He's now doing great at his new job - teaching kids to ride and jump. He's become the horse by which I judge all others.

Winning is nothing new for Appaloosas as evidenced by the following:

Team Appaloosa Wins Breeds' Battle

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