Enjoy this story by Montana horsewoman, Kathe Mensik.
This article is dedicated to all the great backyard horses who will never have the opportunity to grace the pages of the “big” equine magazines, but demonstrate every bit as much heart and talent as the high-bred, high-dollar horses who have become household names to those in the horse industry and horse-lovers alike.
Shadow is our little, black Morgan horse, who we have owned since 1989. Having been sold for overdue board at one time, he doesn’t have papers. However, from his foundational confirmation and the signature Morgan “gait”—which he will break into whenever he’s especially happy—it is obvious that he is purely bred from quality Morgan stock. If one uses Horse Racing’s standard of January 1st as the universal birthday, Shadow became 33 years old this year. I began thinking about Shadow’s diverse and remarkable career recently as I reread a letter I’d written in 2008 to a fellow Pony Express reenactor. When one factors in his two miraculous medical recoveries in 2007 and 2009, it is clear that he has lived an incredible life and deserves to be remembered as one of the all-time great “backyard” horses!
Shadow was our daughter’s first horse. Kristy had been dreaming about and saving for a horse since she was about 3 years old. In early 1989, we bought a rundown 5-acre farmette. Its only redeeming feature was the 50-year-old, classic gambrel-roofed barn. Six months later, we got the farmhouse livable and moved in. Kristy, less than two months shy of her 11th birthday, along with 13-year-old brother, Bobby, figured they’d finally saved enough to buy their horses.
The ad in the regional advertising paper read “9-yr.-old black Morgan, $800 including tack.” Even in the fall of 1989, that was an extremely reasonable price! We arrived at the horse farm and discovered the farm’s owner had decided she “just wanted him gone!” She confessed no matter where she put him, he’d break down all intervening fences until he was back in with the mares.
He currently belonged to this woman’s friend, an inexperienced rider in her twenties who was thoroughly terrified of Shadow and hadn’t seen him in the last two of her three months of ownership. Before her, he briefly belonged to another inexperienced, first-time horse owner; a woman in her early 60’s who—in a mere couple of days—had been summarily bullied by Shadow and was wholly frightened of the prospect of ever mounting him again. That ownership only lasted a few weeks!
While investigating Shadow’s roots, we discovered that immediately prior to the older woman, for about five years he belonged to a man who boarded him at an upscale barn about an hour north of Chicago. He came out to ride Shadow once or twice a month during the warmer months of the year. The stable owner told us Shadow seemed to be a very nice horse with quality breeding; but unfortunately, his owner didn’t know much about horses or riding. He liked to think of himself as a cowboy, but his riding technique consisted of “all hands”; he thought a rider’s legs were only good for “kicking him to go faster.” Shadow was abused in the way many horses have been by selfish riders. “He literally was ‘rode hard and put away wet’”, the stable owner told us as she relayed this sad part of Shadow’s story. In the last few years at her barn, his owner began losing interest in him, showing up less and less frequently. This disinterest coincided with board payments arriving more and more sporadically. Eventually, they completely stopped. When Shadow’s overdue board bill equaled his value, he and “his belongings” were sold to the older lady, who sold him to the current owner, the woman in her 20’s.
We, of course, knew none of this when we came out to look at Shadow. The horse before us was a gorgeous, black, well-muscled Morgan with long flowing mane and tail. To me, he seemed much too spirited for our own inexperienced 10-year-old daughter. But when Kristy looked up into my husband’s eyes as only a daughter can, pleading, “Pleeeeeeeease, Dad—I love him,” Bob was completely undone. With another family waiting in their truck for the opportunity to look him over, Bob’s skilled bargaining plans were immediately abandoned! $800 was promptly exchanged and a Bill of Sale written. The ornery little horse with the Great BIG Attitude that nobody could get along with had finally found a real home and a “forever” love that only a 10-year-old girl can give.
All went well for the first two weeks. Then overnight, the attitude appeared along with a well-practiced dance of powerful rearing and lunging. Our 65-pound slip of a daughter tried to “ride through” the behavior, but she was quickly becoming his third victim. Brother Bobby, who only saw Shadow’s antics as pure “Fun” with a capital F, volunteered to trade horses with her until the behavior ended. After two weeks, they traded back; and Shadow and Kristy became inseparable—his rearing never again scaring her. For the most part, he decided he wanted to please her; but stop signs, flapping banners in an arena, and other occasional “surprises” did cause this former bully to incongruously shy in terror.
Before Kristy went off to college, she participated in 4H and U.S. Pony Club, riding him both Western and English; but he was an exceptional jumper and she focused mainly on English riding. She set up a jump course in our paddock which she would ride him through bareback and bridleless, mixing up the order of the jumps so that he truly had to pay attention to her cues. They competed in many horse shows in English and Western classes, winning several All-Around Grand Championships; but they both enjoyed the mini-events of dressage, cross-country, and stadium jumping the best.
They even got invited to participate in a Foxhunt one cold day in November 1994—well, more accurately, half a foxhunt. That just happened to be a day he decided to resurrect the Big Attitude. As first-timers, he and Kristy were placed near the back of the pack. This was not at all what Shadow had in mind, and he defiantly began running through the bit, galloping far ahead of his assigned position until he’d joined the lead horses. It was at this point that the Hunt Master requested they leave the hunt and ride back to the clubhouse—in humiliation and disgrace!
We were still living in IL while Kristy was in high school rodeo. At the High School State Finals in June 1996, she won the Illinois High School Rodeo Queen title. That same year, the State of Illinois was actively bidding to bring the National High School Rodeo Finals to their new facilities in Springfield the following two years, so they wanted to feature rodeo heavily in the current year’s State Fair events. They contacted us about an opportunity they had created for Kristy, making her the Fair’s Ambassador for all promo events leading up to the Fair in August and at as many Fair Events as possible.
Harness Racing is huge in Illinois. There are five days of racing during the State Fair including several very big stakes races on what is considered “one of the fastest dirt tracks in America”. Along with their other duties, Kristy and Shadow—both dressed in their fanciest red-white-and-blue—pranced out onto the track 10-12 times each afternoon, post-parading the country’s finest Standardbreds. Kristy and Shadow found themselves the subject of at least as many photos as the winning horses during the 5-Day Meet.
While Shadow couldn’t come close to Kristy’s little Quarter horse, Sugar, in barrel racing ability, Shadow was chosen over Sugar for a major High School Rodeo honor. That same year, December 1996, the Chicago Christmas Parade’s equine committee contacted us, inviting the IHSRA to ride in their nationally televised parade, whose entries were juried and strictly “by invitation only”. As the horse of the Rodeo Queen, Shadow proudly led the IHSRA riders down Michigan Avenue to the delight of five-million spectators lining the streets of Chicago!
When Kristy left for college in the fall of 1997—a proud member of the Northwest College Rodeo Team—Shadow joined Sugar in the trailer, heading off to college himself to begin haute ´ecole with the college equestrian team for a year. We also moved back to Red Lodge as a family that fall, and Shadow became a Montana resident for the first time when the brand inspector arrived at our place, giving him a permanent MT brand inspection.
After his year at college, he found himself without a fulltime job as Kristy focused more and more on Professional Rodeo; but family members often chose him for various “specialty”/fun assignments. For the next ten years, Shadow was involved in a variety of equine endeavors from backcountry riding and camping to carrying real U.S. mail between Express Stations as a Pony Express Reenactor Horse.
During the Home of Champions Rodeo each July 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, beginning with his beloved Kristy in 2001, he often carried the reigning Miss Rodeo Montana down Red Lodge’s main street during the daily Rodeo Parade. In 1999, he was the Norwest Bank Sponsor Flag horse sporting their green and blue logo painted on his neck by Colorado artist, Kurt Isgreen, in sparkly glitter-paint that perfectly matched his sponsor flag and fanny banner. Because of his reliability and fancy gait, he carried the American Flag both down Main Street and into the Arena for the Rodeo’s 75th Anniversary celebration parade and rodeo performance.
He was a very sure-footed ski-joring mount, and each Christmas Day—with an antique collar of fine jingle bells—he gave sled rides to our grandchildren.
One of his most favorite jobs was when he spent several years over in Missoula as a lesson horse for little girls! When he first arrived at Laura Bakker’s barn, she would come each morning to find all her horses wandering around out of their stalls. She could not figure out who was behind this prank; so one night after chores, she determined she would hide herself in a good vantage point and expose the culprit. It wasn’t long after the horses had finished their evening meal when Shadow began lipping the latch on his stall door. Once out, he happily went down the alleyway setting everyone else free too! The next day I got a half-laughing, half-exasperated call from Laura. “Kathe, I thought you told me Shadow had no vices,” she said as she proceeded to tell me how he’d been letting all her horses out every night. “Oh yeah,” I sheepishly replied; “I’d forgotten about that one; but it’s been a long time since he’s been stalled at night…”
In 2001, when Kristy became Miss Rodeo Montana, she sold her good barrel horse, Tom, back to Joyce Loomis-Kernak in OK, but after 12 years as a member of our family, we couldn’t let Shadow go to strangers. So Bob and I officially bought Shadow from Kristy although I doubt we ever exchanged a bill of sale. This transaction, of course, made her very happy, knowing he would always be waiting at home to see her.
In January of 2007, Bob was working down in Miami FL; and I was preparing to join him after the MT Circuit Finals. Kristy, who was living in Stevensville MT at that time, happened to be home in Red Lodge and offered to trailer Shadow across the state to take care of him for the 2-3 months we would be gone.
Montana was in the middle of an Alberta Clipper, and it was well below zero on Sunday when they left Red Lodge for Stevensville. I would drive over from Great Falls to see them both for a few days before saying goodbye and flying down to FL. Outside of the bitter weather, it was a routine trip across I-90. Kristy had given Shadow a good breakfast before taking off. She stopped in Bozeman for fuel, checking on Shadow in the process, and all was well. Somewhere between Bozeman and Stevensville, he apparently aspirated a piece of grain he’d retained in his cheek to “slurp on”—another of Shadow’s unusual but normally harmless habits. To Kristy’s horror, she discovered Shadow shivering in the trailer with frozen icicles of saliva hanging down to the floor from his lips when she arrived in Stevensville. She took him straight to the vet, who worked on him for the next four hours. He gave Shadow a guarded prognosis if he survived the ordeal without developing pneumonia. I arrived Monday morning about the same time the vet told Kristy Shadow’s temperature was now 106, and he had developed pneumonia during the night. He told us that for a young , healthy horse the odds were very poor; he felt the most realistic choice would be to put down this 27-year-old horse. We asked what could be tried because we both felt Shadow had earned the right to have a chance. Over the next three days, the vet never expected to find him still alive when he arrived in the morning, but each day—although extremely depressed and lethargic—he was still hanging on. The medicine and vet care was quite expensive; but on Wednesday afternoon, the vet offered us a special opportunity. He said he was so impressed with Shadow’s will to live that he wanted to see Shadow recover and would treat him for free; all we had to pay for was the medicine. What an enormous blessing—financially and emotionally—with the vet pulling as hard for Shadow as we were!
By Saturday, although not yet normal, his temperature was much improved, and he was eating with relish. The vet felt he could be discharged if he had a stall to move into as the weather was still below zero. A makeshift “hospital” stall was quickly erected in Kristy’s pasture. There he remained, a patient, for the next 6 weeks. The vet was genuinely amazed by his miraculous recovery; and when March rolled around, he said Shadow could finally be let out for some exercise by hand-walking. However, because of the pneumonia, Kristy needed to be very careful that he didn’t overexert himself. So for the next few days, Kristy cautiously and carefully hand-walked him and monitored him. On the fourth day, she opened his door, expecting the old codger to walk around searching for the occasional new sprouts of grass that had begun to appear in the March pasture. Much to her surprise, the old boy broke into a full gallop, racing across the 5-acre pasture, bucking like a colt! Apparently, Shadow felt just fine!
Bob and I returned from his stint in FL in April, and we begin investigating places to board Shadow because we had sold our place south of town and were living in a spec house on the Red Lodge golf course. We chose Bill and Kristin Crabtree because of their excellent reputation, as well as a loving appreciation for “senior citizen” horses. In October of 2009, when the swine flu epidemic was raging, Kristin called me to say that Shadow was very sick with watery diarrhea. We drove over immediately to take him to see Dr. John Beug. John’s prognosis wasn’t optimistic. Shadow was now 29, and his GI system was probably giving out on him. Again, I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, so John sent us home with diatomaceous clay and antibiotics. This was Wednesday night. On Thursday, and again Friday morning, we didn’t see much change, but he was still hanging on. As we drove to Billings Friday afternoon for the second of my twice-weekly lymphatic therapy sessions, I told Bob I was preparing myself emotionally for the worst. I called Kristin right after my appointment to see how he was doing. She said, “He’s turned the corner and appears to be fine. In fact, Bill says he’s as ornery as ever!” That was the best news I could have heard! When we returned that evening, I couldn’t believe it! It was as if he’d never been sick, and his attitude was definitely present! I truly believe Shadow had caught swine flu as his symptoms matched all my human friends who went through the same ordeal.
It was also that fall that all his grinding teeth fell out, so I began researching a balanced diet that could be made into a gruel he could slurp. At that time beet pulp was still available, so after much research and number-crunching, it turned out to be a very simple equation: 5# Senior complete feed, 2.5# alfalfa cubes, 2.5# beet pellets, and 1 scoop EquiPride soaked in water twice/day. When beet pellets were no longer available, we switched to a 50-50 mix of a grass/alfalfa cube and Senior feed with his two scoops of EquiPride. As Shadow still has his nippers and 2 or 3 grinders, he enjoys picking through the pile of grass hay he gets every day.
On a cold November day the previous year, Shadow hurt his right hip just being ornery when he was supposed to be lunging. Therefore, he was only lightly ridden on his very best days by Bobby’s two children, Bobby III and Brynn. After being on his extra-special diet all fall, winter, and spring, he came out of it better than ever. The first thing we noticed was how much foot he was growing, needing a mid-winter trim. His winter coat was exceptionally long and thick—even for a Morgan! As it shed out, it was replaced by the softest, most luxurious, velvety black summer coat he’d ever grown. Best of all, the hitch in his right hind step was noticeably absent. Because he was feeling so healthy, we felt it would be no problem for him to attend Luther Community Church’s Vacation Bible School that summer. As it was being held in “Ancient Rome,” Shadow arrived on the final day dressed in full Roman War-Horse regalia, ready to give 60 youngsters rides around the churchyard, never taking a lame step.
We were amazed and grateful that his health was so good! Ever since that summer, Shadow’s health has remained exceptional, and the only way one might suspect his true age would be the grayhairs on his cheeks, the lack of teeth in his mouth, and a slight sway back.
Little Bobby has always been exceptionally fond of Shadow. Born on April 4, 2003, he was sitting unsupported by summer and old enough for rides on Shadow’s back. Yet even before this, he would let his parents know by emphatic grunting sounds and pointing toward the horses that they needed to take him over to pet Shadow before entering our house. By age 3, he no longer needed to be led and was riding him independently. However, something huge changed in their relationship in the summer of 2010.
Bobby and Shadow were practicing the barrel pattern while I schooled them and set up tipped barrels. At one point, instead of having me reset the barrel, Bobby slipped off Shadow’s back and reset the barrel himself. I was preparing to walk over and give him a quick leg up when Bobby moved Shadow against the panel fence, climbed up, and dropped down onto his back. I was astounded! While this is generally a routine assignment for many horses, Shadow always resisted this task. Sure, it could be done; but for some unknown reason, Shadow never willingly cooperated. You always needed to be vigilant, insuring that Shadow didn’t sidle away any farther than your leg would stretch. I asked Bobby what he did to get Shadow to cooperate. He said, “Nothing, Gramma.”
I replied, “Do you realize what he just did? He’s never liked someone dropping on his back from a fence. Run another pattern, and then try doing that again.”
Bobby took him through the pattern, slid off his back, and took him over to the fence. Up he climbed as Shadow stood patiently parallel to the panel. Again Bobby dropped onto his back without Shadow so much as flicking an ear. I watched in amazement. “Well, Bobby,” I said, “I think you just became a horse owner! Obviously, Shadow has chosen you to be his new master.” And this has filled us both with great joy! Shadow seems to understand what he’s accomplished in choosing Bobby as “his boy”, as CS Lewis would put it. Although strong and healthy for his age, his entire demeanor changes when Bobby comes out from Billings as his heart wills him to be a young horse again. Together they jump over logs and ditches, run the barrel pattern, or travel for miles along the backroads outside of Red Lodge. Because of his obvious love for little girls, Shadow has also made a confident rider out of Bobby’s little sister, Brynn.
Over the past 13 years that Shadow has been a member of our family, he has demonstrated more personality than any other horse I have known. He has been maddeningly ornery at times, but he never ceases to surprise us and cause us to laugh over his antics—after the fact! Each night as Bobby and Brynn prepare for bed, they remember him to their Heavenly Father, praying, “Thank You for Shadow and for letting him live so long. Even though he’s gotten to live longer than he’s supposed to, please keep him healthy and let him let for a few years more.” To this, I say, “Amen!”