Life in our Foothills April 2023 – One Fine Day

Published 1:40 pm Wednesday, April 26, 2023

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Every one of us who lives long enough to reach full maturity possesses past experiences that shape us. Our history defines our current idiosyncrasies, quirks, and consistent behavior. 

Bad habits die hard. Our noble qualities elevate us to new levels in relationships with four-legged herd members and with our human partners. 

I am a lucky pony. At age 13, I am home for the duration of my life with my mistress, Heather Freeman, and my pony pal, Sedona. No matter how naughty and persnickety I choose to be, I am loved by my family beyond compare. 

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I wish this was the case for our two new arrivals into our HERD rescue, Dustin, and Gatsby. We are hoping that one fine day, they will both find the love that was meant to be.  

On one of those incredibly cold winter days of 2023, we saw the down-on-his-luck, cute dark bay pony, Gatsby, being ridden roughly at a livestock auction. This Morgan cross 14-hand pony donned a large western saddle that covered his back. A leggy rider filled the seat amply, steering Gatsby for a walk, trot, and canter demonstration. Gatsby was described as a 10-year-old pony who was well-trained in the Amish country of Pennsylvania. He had a dense winter coat from spending his winters enduring the elements.  

Valerie Lowe with Gatsby after a grooming session.

Right behind Gatsby came a bigger, 15-hand, handsome red dun gelding, Dustin. He too rode well in his cameo appearance. There was fear in both equines’ eyes as they performed for their life. Any horse that misbehaves at these last-chance feed lots ends up on the meat truck bound for slaughter across the border. Many perfectly good equines end up shipping out to a terrible end. Lucky for Gatsby and Dustin, our nonprofit contacted the horse dealer and bought them. 

Gatsby was said to be a 10-year-old on his paperwork. Dustin was age eight according to the auctioneer. Both steeds loaded easily into a trailer that delivered them to North Carolina foster trainers, Beth Harrill and Kailey Greene. Upon Gatsby’s arrival, Beth called Heather instantly to inform her that the pony was cute and sweet. He appeared much older than his video footage portrayed. 

“Heather, Gatsby has a drop to his back; sway-backed is the correct term,” warned Beth. “On the positive side, he comes when called and does have a stellar personality.” 

At his vet appointment, he stood like a perfect gentleman, waiting his turn for a full examination. No doubt about it, he charmed the vet staff. They confirmed he had no unsoundness issues. His back was a cosmetic issue. It did not cause him any discomfort to carry a rider. The big western saddle had hidden this blemish from view. 

Gatsby tackling the teeter-totter challenge with ease.

One other major finding was Gatsby’s age. His teeth revealed he was between the age of 20 and 25. He also had a respiratory infection from his time at the auction. The vet prescribed antibiotics and rest for Gatsby to recover from his runny nose and cough. We decided that once he cleared the vet, with a health certificate for travel, he would come to stay with Heather. With us, he would be pampered and be able to put on weight over the winter months. Older horses and ponies are harder to home, especially if they are thin and shaggy.  

Dustin was quarantined at Kailey’s farm for two months. He also had a bad respiratory infection and lost weight through the ordeal. Kailey confirmed he was friendly, with enormous kind eyes and nice big feet. His thick bones and substantial size meant he would be well-suited to carry a larger rider. However, Dustin was a bit pushy and disrespectful on the ground. Once a rider was in the saddle, he behaved well and moved out easily with little pressure. 

Dustin learning to trust Scott Homstead.

Unlike Gatsby, Dustin was a wiggle worm. He pawed in the crossties and refused to stand still for the vet and farrier. He was also age 13, a bit older than described at the auction. However, he was full of energy once he entered the training ring. It was clear from his fearful behavior that someone had chased him frequently with a whip in a round pen, applying too much pressure on him. Once the training line was unhooked from his halter, Dustin would gallop at full speed, lap after lap, avoiding contact with humans. This was going to be a project to help him overcome this ingrained mindset.

Dustin needed to move with Gatsby to our ranch for months of groundwork training. Scott, Heather’s husband, is an expert at this task, having worked with many feral horses over the years. Until the ground manners were better, there was no need to ride Dustin. His quirky behavior had to be addressed first.

Gatsby and Dustin settled right in here with us, sharing a big pasture across from my digs. The HERD volunteers enjoyed riding gentle Gatsby, however, we all worried that at his older age, he would be harder to place safely in a forever home. Kids outgrow ponies and move up to horses. It seemed likely that Gatsby would need to stay with us to live out his golden years. 

Then a miracle happened. Heather received a call from a woman in the Raleigh area that needed an older, sound pony, specifically over the age of 15, to be a companion for her 18-year-old driving steed. She was losing her second pony to Cushing’s disease and needed a kind, gentle replacement as soon as possible. It was a plus for her that Gatsby was also rideable. Heather sent the prospective new home lots of photos and videos of Gatsby in action. 

As I pen this column, the adoption process is underway. Transportation arrangements are in the works for Bessie Bell Transport to deliver Gatsby to his new home.   

As for Dustin, Scott is working his groundwork magic with him. Then he will graduate to under saddle training with a professional. The hope is that one fine day, he too will want to settle down.   

Dustin making his way over the teeter-totter with Scott.