One of the consequences of choosing a pony over a horse is that your children will outgrow the smaller animal just as surely as they outgrow their shoes and clothing. With any luck, a child-friendly pony will be passed along from one loving home to the next, giving a succession of children their first joy of horse ownership. When my son was five, however, a pony came into our lives that would put a new spin on this notion.
Her name was “Bandy,” short for abandoned, which she most certainly had been. Dumped off a truck into a barren oil field in Fillmore, California, she was little more than a battered skeleton with no food, little water, and a scant desire to keep on living. Some people across the road watched the pony standing motionless in that field for the better part of a week before they got it in their heads to call someone.
At the humane society, volunteer vets gave Bandy a 50-50 survival chance, all the while pumping her full of fluids and antibiotics, smearing her wounds with salves, and taking a “wait and see” approach. But a lone farrier, working on the pony’s cracked and overgrown hooves, sensed the heart of a fighter pumping deep within her frail chest. The farrier started appearing daily with an astonishing array of groceries for the pony. Equally astonishing was the rate at which the little animal made them disappear.
After the two-week limit was up for her to be at the Society, the farrier took the pony in and started making calls. When one is looking for a suitable mount for a child, word gets around. Before long, my son John and I were strolling down to the farrier’s paddock to “look a gift horse in the mouth.”
Let me stop a moment and address some of the issues in the last paragraph as they relate to choosing a mount. First, rescued and emaciated horses are not always the best choice for a new rider. As their body condition improves with better nutrition, so may their temperament change or—more accurately—begin to finally emerge. Second, as I’ve already stated, a “suitable mount” does not necessarily need to come in a pint size. In fact, the smaller the horse is the more headstrong and feisty he may be. In the wild, this fierce determination may be what keeps him alive. Third, a free “gift horse” may come with considerable baggage—from lameness to behavioral problems to use restrictions—all of which need to be factored into the equation. You may end up spending more on maintenance with a free horse than you would with a horse you purchased.
The first time I laid eyes on Bandy, tears rushed into them. She was without a doubt the ugliest pony I had ever seen. Her head was three sizes too big for her emaciated frame, her backbone loomed like a small mountain range, and her angular rump seemed borrowed from some miniature bovine. An unevenly shedding coat seemed to start with a base color of brown, over which a maddened graffiti artist had gone wild with silver and white paint. Standing straight up and out from her body and going from black, to white, and back to black again, her mane and tail gave Bandy all the gravitas of a Mattel toy. Finally, white hairs ringed her pink eyes, heightening the suspicious stare with which she regarded all things in her world. Dreamy childhood images of a sweet and corpulent Shetland pony faded from my brain as Bandy cast me a sullen look and moved to a distant corner of the paddock.
“She’s a bit shy of people but won’t put up too much fuss about being caught,” the farrier told us. The phrase “Too weak to resist” crossed my mind as I watched her amble in slow motion around the corral, her mouth just inches above the ground. And so, just four weeks after her rescue from the “field of horror,” we took Bandy into our care.
At the feed store, I watched with misgivings as the cash register total climbed into the triple digits. Free pony, my you-know-what, I muttered as I opened the back of my SUV and loaded in about four cubic feet of grain, supplements, and medications.
To her credit, the little girl could eat. In all the time we had her, I never once saw her turn down a morsel of food. In fact, once her own portion was consumed, it was a never-ending source of amusement for us to watch her commandeer whatever food her pasture mate couldn’t gobble down in time. Raising herself up to her full eleven hands, Bandy would scream so loud and so high, it was a wonder that packs of dogs didn’t instantly appear from all directions. There was never any fight. With the noise she made and the skill with which she maneuvered her hind end at him the Arab gelding she shared space with could do little more than flee in terror.
I had no tack for a pony, but finally managed to locate a pony-sized shocking pink nylon bridle with a diminutive curb bit and took my son for a first ride on his very own pony. As we climbed a small hill in the pasture, I looked back just in time to see John slowly siding off Bandy’s rump, accompanied by many tufts of shedding hair onto which he had been desperately grasping. In the quiet of the breaths he drew between howls, I explained that he was now just two spills away from “bein’ a real cowboy.” He and Bandy both stared back at me in hostile disbelief as I announced he would need to get right back on for the spill to count.
Sadly, the day eventually came when I realized that my son was not going to be the young horse lover I had been and had hoped he might become. By this time, after over a year in residence with us, Bandy had grown into an athletic and robust firebrand, a shining example of her Pony of the Americas breeding. Her energy and drive far exceeded my child’s endurance and abilities. Ever more frequently, we were returning from trail rides exhausted—John physically and me emotionally—from trying to keep the pony controlled and the rider safe. It was clear that our little girl needed a home with a child better suited to Bandy’s emerging powerhouse personality.
I put an ad in the local paper and turned down a few dozen phone callers who were looking for a quiet “bomb proof” and “dead broke” pony. Not Bandy, I politely told them, and felt like adding that there was one down on Main Street outside the market if they had two quarters. Finally, a suitable home appeared and I arranged to bring Bandy over for a 30-day trial lease. I had great hopes, as my ad had caught the eye of a woman with three young daughters who had Pony Club experience and wanted to compete in gymkhana events. Of course—gymkhana! Racing around barrels and poles would be a perfect fit for an energetic, athletic pony. I drew up the lease papers, faxed them to the woman, and waited for the weekend, I would take Bandy to what I hoped was a forever home.
The night before she was to leave, I let myself into Bandy’s paddock, armed with a carrot. I had done this nightly for the past year and a half. The treat usually bought me time for a furtive hug of the stout neck and the opportunity to bury my face for a moment in that Mattel-made mane. In my heart, I knew I was saying goodbye to more than just my son’s pony. Bandy had become the dream horse I would have wanted at his age.
Normally, my drawing close to her made the little mare nervous and she would always move away to a safe distance. Tonight, however she stood still for my embrace long after the carrot had disappeared. Her stillness seemed to hug me back and say, “It’s okay, Mrs. Jackson, don’t cry. I just outgrew you is all.