Hopscotch and Me: Our Story
So often, my life takes me on roads that I never would have envisioned, but for which I am endlessly grateful. And that is how it has been for me and Hopscotch.
When I met Hopscotch, I absolutely did not need another horse. And it had never been part of my vision to have a western horse, much less a horse as quintessentially western as the one that stood before me.
But I could not leave him there. I just could not leave him them there.
I pulled into the drive that day because my boyfriend Dennis was looking for a polo pony and he wanted me to check the horse out first before he came out to see it. When I went around the back of the house and saw these two horses, an aging Thoroughbred and a young Paint, my hurt sunk. I felt sick.
The Thoroughbred was emaciated. Later, when my vet looked at him he said that Phoenix would have been dead within two weeks if I had not taken him home. The Paint on the other hand was fat. And though he was fat, there were numerous markers in these horses and their environment that screamed neglect. And the more I saw, and the more I learned, the evidence of appalling neglect mounted. And even though I have rescues, I never had to look the person in the eye who were responsible for what had had happened to them. It was incredibly challenging holding it together that afternoon.
Dennis came out to look at Phoenix but the decision was quickly made that he was going home with him. We re-named the Thoroughbred Phoenix because we were committed to watching him rise from the ashes. (And incidentally the little guy did that in spades. As I write, he is bundled up in his winter coat, snacking on a fluffy pile of hay.) So we had a plan for Phoenix. And if we could bring him back, there was all the evidence in the world that he would make a fine mount for Dennis to practice with.
But there was the matter of this Paint. I had taken the time to get to know Hopscotch, and I was afraid of what might be next for him if I walked away. I could not do that to Hopscotch, he deserved so much better than the reality he was living, and the questionable future that lay before him.
You see, Hopscotch was kind. It was this factor, more than anything else that drew me to him. It was later that I came to appreciate his big brown eyes, his vanilla ice cream blaze, and the power that his body was capable of. But it was Hopscotch’s kindness that took my breath away. He was so…open. It was as though his first words to me were, “will you be my friend? I want to be your friend.” I am confident that if he had words those are the ones he would have used. He had the most beautiful heart. His heart was a treasure, and treasures are meant to be guarded, held close, and cherished. So I could not leave him, I could not let anything happen to the light that he held within him.
So this is how I came to bring home a completely untrained, 5 year old, 15’3 red roan Paint Horse. I had no idea what I was going to do with him, and at that first meeting, I did not know what his background was.
As it turned out, Hopscotch had been bred for show. The grandson of Scotch Bar Tommy, he had been born to be an all-around show horse.
Seeing as how I had my roots in a hunter-jumper barn, I had no idea how to interpret any of this information. I did not know pretty much anything about Western showing. I figured that, worst case scenario, I could turn Hopscotch around and find him a home that would be deserving of his kindness.
What I didn’t know is that I was already too far gone J
The first matter was getting his health cleared. This turned out to be pretty scary. Hopscotch had suffered such neglect that it became questionable if he was going to be okay to ride, and pain free in general. The day I spent at my vet’s waiting for answers was a long and frightening one. I sat outside his stall to keep him company and tried not to be terrified for this little guy and for me.
The prognosis was not great, but it was not terrible either. If I got him what he needed Hopscotch could make a turnaround. Now that kind of news I could work with. Phew!
The next matter was training-he had none. I had met a trainer named Terry Brown about a year prior on the recommendation of a woman who lived up the road who owned a big Paint Horse farm. At the time, I was looking for insight into my work with Valentine, my off the track Thoroughbred. The advice he gave me was solid and useful, so when I found myself with this Paint Horse on my hands, he was naturally the one I called.
Now although Terry Brown is known pretty much as a Western show horse trainer, I tend to think of him as an “all-rounder” because both his experience and knowledge base are so much broader than that.
I called him on the phone and asked if he could help me with Hopscotch, he said he was more than happy to, and his excitement about the little fellow grew as we discussed him further, this I was to better understand later. When he came out to meet him, he asked what I was planning on doing with him. Now, as you know, I really had no idea, but what I said was, “I don’t know, maybe use him as a trail horse.”
Terry’s eyes grew wide and he replied, “I can get you a trail horse, but this is a show horse.” It was at this point when Terry gave me some perspective on what Hopscotch’s background and potential were. It was not long after that I started receiving very generous offers to buy him-but it was far too late for that-I was in love.
I don’t trust trainers as a group from the get-go, and I didn’t trust this guy, but I trusted me. I knew full well that, like it or not, I was going to be there every step of the way through Hopscotch’s training and this was after I did my homework on Terry. This is how much I do not trust trainers.
And I was there, for every single training session. Everyday, Terry put up with me sitting on the bench watching his every move. Now of course, he claims it was not a big deal-but I can only imagine how uncomfortable it was working with the pony police watching.
Terry and I are the original odd couple. He is every inch the cowboy, and I am every inch NOT. But he respected my horse, he respected me, he respected my perspective on things and he listened-not just to me, but to Hopscotch. He heard what Hopscotch was telling him throughout and responded. And this is where he won me and my trust.
Terry proved himself to me, I am happy to say. And I am quite sure he is happy that I no longer look over his shoulder every step of the way.
Terry and Hopscotch really gave me a gift. I had never seen a horse develop “riding” skills from start to finish. I could not have imagined how much I would learn from sitting on that bench and watching. Even though the lesson plan being used for Hopscotch was the same lesson plan that has been used with horses for centuries, it is still fascinating that it works.
There were so many times when I really empathized with Hopscotch. There are so many things, things that are standard practice in horse training that if you do not have the context (as Hopscotch, being a horse, would not) seem baffling. There were times that I thought that if were him that I would look at Terry as the loony guy who does nonsensical things that you have to humor until he leaves you alone J
Watching the process really informed my riding, not just of Hopscotch, but of all horses. Understanding how they learned what they learned made me a much better partner, and made me less susceptible to being hoodwinked by some clever fellows pretending they just don’t get it in order to monkey with the silly human a bit.
The process also bonded me even more closely to Hopscotch. We became partners in an even deeper sense. Though I must say I have always had a special kinship with Hopscotch. I “get” him and he “gets” me. There is an ease to our communication, I do not have to work to understand him in the way I have had to with other horses, because somehow we are on the same plane. I also do not have to alter parts of my own personality in my work with him because our personalities mesh naturally, seamlessly.
I tend view my interactions with my horses, whether on the ground or on their back, as a dialogue. It may be a dialogue without words, but it is a dialogue just the same. Hopscotch and I chatter a lot. For example this afternoon he was so eager to gallop. I swear he is proud of himself when he is in that gear, in part because he has not always been able to do it. When I first got him, it was out of the question, due to the physical limitations resulting from the neglect he experienced. But with loving and fastidious care, Hopscotch’s little body has flourished. His movement is pain free and joyful. So, when he said, in his wordless way, “Hey, want to gallop? I would totally gallop for you. All you have to do is ask. Seriously.” I said, “Sure thing, let’s do it.”
He broke out his favorite gear and then we laughed.
And laughed. It may have been soundless, but I promise we were laughing. We were together, we were joyful, and I was abundantly grateful that I took that road I never could have imagined.