In Praise of Older Horses: Part 1 – Oscar

At the age of 18, my elegant, cowardly Irish Thoroughbred Oscar began his third career

Oscar 1

Bred in Ireland with the blood of champion steeplechasers coursing in his veins, this tall, big-boned gelding was imported to Canada as an Eventing prospect. He had a big, scopey jump. Moved well enough for dressage. Came from parents who raced flat-out over jumps they could not see the other side of, trusting in their riders to get them through.

It seemed a logical choice but, alas, the lovely Oscar was not born with the heart of a lion. Or even a housecat. Oscar was afraid of things that went “bump” in the night, “tweet” in the trees, “rustle” in the underbrush. Oscar jumped out of his skin at the slightest provocation, swerved at shadows, and flatly refused to have anything to do with water that was not safely contained in a bucket.

Eventing? Not a chance.

So Oscar became a show hunter. This was a job he could be enthusiastic about. A prettily braided mane and tail and elegant bascules over rustic-looking jumps in the very controlled environment of the show ring – THAT was Oscar’s style. No sweaty galloping. No big jumps at awkward angles. No hills. And best of all, no water! Just polite applause from the audience and the most gentle of guidance from his equally pretty, well-groomed rider. Kisses and carrots after the ribbons were handed out.

And then Oscar got hurt in a paddock accident. The hip healed, but never fully. His show career was over.

That’s when Oscar came into my life. My first horse after too much time away from riding; going to school, having kids and starting my career.  He was 12 and finished. I was just getting started again. We hacked, mostly, wandering along the wooded trails and open fields behind the boarding stable where I kept him. There were deer. And squirrels. And even the odd coyote. And the neighbour’s Percherons! The ground shook as they galloped toward us across their pasture and Oscar turned to jelly.

Oscar had a big spook. A big, nasty, drop-the-shoulder, spin and gallop off in the opposite direction spook. The kind of spook that can leave you sitting in mid-air, wondering where your horse has gone. My theory: Oscar thought it wise to dump his rider in the dirt to distract whatever was in those bushes that wanted to eat him. The beastie, he thought, would be too preoccupied with the rider lying dazed on the ground to bother with that fast, elusive horse high-tailing it across the field.

Oscar’s yellow-bellied cowardice added lots of spice to our otherwise pleasant hacks.

And then, at the age of 18, Oscar lost his spook. He must have decided all that leaping about and running away was simply too much work. Or perhaps undignified. Whatever the reason, he transformed from twitchy to bomb-proof virtually overnight. I kept waiting for the punch-line of his little joke, but it never came, and eventually he convinced me. Oscar was a changed horse.

So the newly mellow Oscar became the very first school horse in our new therapeutic riding program. A packer. A baby-sitter. Oscar walked and jogged around with little kids on his back and never, ever spooked. He held his head low, paid attention to his leaders and side walkers and never got ruffled. He let kids play bean-bag toss from his back, guide him through the obstacle course, and hug his neck at the end of the lesson. Even snow sliding off the arena roof or cats in the rafters barely merited a twitch of his extra-long ears.

Oscar

We lost Oscar when his great yet gentle heart failed at the age of 25, but he will not be soon forgotten. The sweet old soul touched many lives – in his third career as therapy horse most of all.