by Garry Leeson of Kingston, NS
After I had had my riding school open for a year or so I started getting a lot of very young kids showing up for instruction. We were offering very affordable lessons and the word had spread. Lots of inner city kids who couldn’t afford the prices at the old hoity-toity stables were showing up on my doorstep. It was what I had hoped would happen when I began the business but the sheer number of kids was starting to overwhelm my staff.
I had between forty and fifty quiet school horses but they were always being used in the lessons, going out on trail rides or doubling as harness horses for the many wagon and sleigh rides we did. All of the regular stalls in my barn were full but there were still not enough horses to meet the demand.
In an urban environment where horses don’t have access to a pasture it is always best to keep them on the move as much as possible. Traditionally, it was not uncommon for city horses to work ten-hour shifts in the streets with no days off. Idleness was their worst enemy. Old city veterinarians told me that the most common malady that they had to treat was called Monday Morning Sickness. It was a kidney ailment caused by horses standing in their stalls over the weekend. There was no danger of my horses catching that particular disease. Still, even though I worked them six hours a day every day, my waiting list continued to grow.
What was particularly irksome to me was the fact that most of the potential students waiting were the young kids I most wanted to accommodate. It wasn’t just the number of horses that were keeping the youngsters at the bottom of the list. It was a question of size, not the kids but the horses. Most of the school horses were fairly big, fifteen hands and over. The horses were all quiet enough for almost anybody to ride but somehow it didn’t look right to see a little gaffer perched that high off the ground. Basic physics had to be considered, and it was a long way down to the ground should they fall.
When I had designed the stable for the city parks department my plan called for several large box stalls in addition to the rows of standing stalls with very wide access aisles throughout. Now that I was in dire need of more horses I regretted including so much wasted space.
One day my dad and I walked through the stable scratching our heads, mentally trying to configure things so that we could accommodate a few more sorely needed mounts. No matter how I looked at it, even with major renovations I could only see space for two or three more horses. When I gave my assessment of the situation my dad said “You’re thinking too big.”
“What the heck are you talking about?” I said, “There’s obviously only room for two or three more small stalls.”
“I ain’t talking about the size of the stalls, dummy,” he replied. “I’m talking about the size of the horses.”
The old bugger had outsmarted me again. Of course he was right: in the same space it would take to accommodate three big horses we could cram in six or seven ponies.
Dad and my stableman, Dick, set about making the changes we needed while I started my search for some suitable little candidates. As far as the offering of ponies in the region went there was good news and bad news. The good news was that there were hundreds of them going through the auctions and they were a dime a dozen. Twenty-five dollars would buy you the best in the batch. The bad news was that most of them were nasty little devils that would rather eat kids than carry them around on their backs.
It took a while but I persevered and was able to assemble a half dozen ideal little Welsh Pony types. They were a great success; the kids loved them and I was able to whittle away at my long waiting list.
It turned out that there was another aspect to this pony business. Many of the kids became so attached to a pony that they wanted it for their “very own” as they put it. Some parents who could afford it would approach me to purchase the object of their child’s affection. After a long song and dance about how valuable the pony was to my operation I would give in and sell it at a handsome profit. These transactions happened frequently and it meant that I was always on the lookout for suitable replacements.
One Thursday afternoon I made my regular weekly trip to the Kitchener stockyards. As I checked out the line of ponies tethered to the rail in the long low barn, a little blue roan gelding with a black face and matching legs caught my eye. He was well built and about the size I needed so I went in for a closer look. From what I could tell as I ran my hands over him and looked in his mouth he appeared to be a nifty little rig, something special. Apparently someone else had thought the same because unlike the other ponies in the lineup, he was well groomed and someone had even braided a red ribbon in his mane.
The old saying that, “if it looks too good to be true it probably is,” was coined by people being stung doing horse deals so I had learned to be very careful. I untied the pony, took him out of the barn and hopped on his back expecting the worst. To my surprise he was a real little gentleman and went through his paces without a hitch. He even neck reined, responding easily to the touch of the halter rope. I made up my mind that I had to have him but that put me at a disadvantage when the bidding started. The auctioneer, sensing my interest, decided to bump me a bit and I ended up paying the premium price of thirty dollars for him.
When I got him home he went right to work. The riding instructors fitted him out with a little English saddle and for several days he earned his keep while the kids in the classes bounced around on his back. It was about two weeks later when I started to notice something peculiar about him. It was the first time I decided to use him as a lead pony. Parents could rent the ponies and then lead their kids them around on them. We used different tack for this job: fancy little western saddles with a horn for the kids to hang on to.
I was in the barn and Dick had the new pony out in the paddock getting him ready when I heard a group of kids burst out laughing. When I looked out the window to see what was going on I couldn’t help smiling too. Dick was trying to saddle the pony and looked like he had been at it for a while. He would place the colourful saddle blanket on his back and then go for the saddle but every time he turned to pick it up, the pony would swing his head back and grasping the blanket in his teeth, snap it off his back and toss it to the ground. The kids were getting a kick out of the pony’s performance but I could see that Dick was starting to get annoyed so I went out and held the pony’s head while he finished getting him ready. Once he was tacked up he let himself be led away and didn’t give anybody any further trouble.
The pony’s antics were unusual but seemed harmless so I didn’t think much more about him until a week later. Dick had given me a list of the horses and ponies that needed their feet trimmed and the new roan pony was first in line. It was a nice day so I decided to work outside. While I strapped on my leather apron and gathered up my tools Dick led the pony out into the paddock. He lit a cigarette then leaned back against the wall holding the end of a very long lead shank.
I approached the pony and leaned over to pick up his near forefoot and as I did my hand touched his elbow. The pony immediately bent his knee and dropped down into a perfect bow. At first I thought he was trying to avoid my ferrier ministrations but when he bent his head down with his forehead touching the ground as well, I figured there must be more going on.
He stayed in that position for quite a while, glancing up at me out of the corner of his eye as if trying to tell me something. I finally clued in to what he was getting at and decided to try something to get him back on his feet. I just said, “Up” and he did just that, leaping to his feet and shaking the sand off his belly. Dick and I were both intrigued by what the pony had done so we put off the hoof trimming for a while as we investigated a little further.
I led the animal to the centre of the riding ring where there was lots of soft sand to see if I could get him to repeat his performance. No problem. I touched the same elbow and the pony made his bow again. After I got him up and down a couple of more times to make sure it wasn’t a fluke, I decided to try something else. Reaching over his back I touched the far elbow simultaneously with the one closest to me and “voila” he went down on both knees! After I got him to repeat that move a couple of times I decided to up the ante. While he was down on both knees I tried to get him to bend his hind legs and go all the way belly down to the ground. I was a while exploring his body, pressing, squeezing and imploring but finally I found the magic spot on his rump and he obligingly plopped down. From that position it was easy to get him to roll over or to lie upside down with all four feet in the air. Later after we got to know each other better, he would let me sit astride his belly and pump his legs up and down. Dick and I realized that we had a trick pony on our hands and over the next few weeks we both learned more and more about his capabilities.
He was a real hit with my clients and one day when I had him in the ring performing, I unknowingly gave him a signal that initiated his best previously undisclosed trick. I was standing directly in front of him and for some reason I raised both of my arms at the same time, sort of “Moses parting the waters” style. Tricksy, as we now called him, reared up on his hind legs and shuffled stiff legged towards me. I was a little shocked and took a couple of steps backwards but when I did he followed, still walking on his hind legs. He seemed to expect me to stay still so that’s what I did. He moved in on me until my nose was touching his breastbone and his legs were draped over my shoulders. One of the kids shouted, “He looks like he wants to dance!” and as it turned out that’s exactly what he had in mind. As he hung almost weightless over my shoulders he let me spin him around in a weird waltz.
Over the following months I learned more and more about the little blue pony’s marvelous abilities. I could get him to answer yes or no to questions I put to him. He would nod his head for yes and shake back and forth for no. Sometimes I would get him to tell the kids his age by pawing the ground with his hoof. I arranged it so that he would stop at two or three years so that I could then say, “C’mon, Tricksy, be honest,” and then he would give me a peeved look and start scratching madly away at the ground until I told him to stop. Of course there were lots of secret signals necessary to get him to perform these tricks but circus lore prohibits me from divulging them.
I couldn’t believe that someone had simply discarded an animal as clever and valuable as Tricksy so I tried to find out more about where he came from. I couldn’t trace anything through the auction because the person who had consigned him was unknown to them. There was a rumour that the pony had been sold to settle an old man’s estate but I wasn’t able to confirm either. The trail to his past ended there so I accepted that it would always be a mystery and besides, I had other things occupying my mind at the time.
I had decided to sell my business and move on. I would have taken Tricksy with me but the men who were buying my business insisted that he would have to be part of the deal so I reluctantly agreed and the pony and I parted company.
All of that was a long time ago. Nearly forty years have transpired, but often when I’m going through my old photo albums and see a picture of the little blue pony I start thinking afresh about Tricksy’s mysterious original owner and trainer. Since I really have nothing to go on, I’m at liberty to speculate about the type of person he might have been. Over the years I have conjured up scenarios that saw the pony being stolen from a circus or having wandered away from a band of traveling gypsies but the wisdom of years has reduced my speculation to a more plausible explanation. In my imagination I see an old man, probably living alone on a small acreage somewhere. He would have been a heck of a horseman in his time — he would have to have been to possess the talent, patience and know-how required to school a pony of Tricksy’s calibre. He might have been a horse breaker who once dealt with big, strong, difficult horses but now because of the ravages of age was only capable of managing one small pony. Maybe he got hurt near the end of his career, almost all of the old bronco breakers did, and was carrying a fear and reticence he had never known in his youth. The pony would have been his swan song. It would be the repository of all of his knowledge and skill contained in one small package. The training would have filled many lonely hours till that one day when the old man couldn’t make it to the barn anymore. Nobody would know much about the pony when the old man’s assets were liquidated so they would simply have sent the animal off to the nearest auction.
Of course this part of the story is pure conjecture, who knows what really happened, but after meeting hundreds of old-timers just like the one I have described and imagining the satisfaction and joy Tricksy would have brought to an old man in his final years, it’s what I like to think really happened.