Mickey's story is a very interesting one, and it's all true.
It was July, 2001. I had gone to Summerlane Farm's annual foal tour and was enjoying the foals and other horses on the property. As I was touring the barn, something I had done many times before, I stopped short at the stall on the end. Wow! That's all I could say. Inside was a stunning black Arabian. The only way to describe him was as a fire breathing dragon. Every vein in his neck stood out. His neck was arched in the way that only Arabians can do. His nostrils were wide, wide open. His black ears were pricked intently forward and his eyes were round and focused. He looked right at me. Not just at me, but into me. It was an eerie exchange. He looked nervous, but confidently ready for battle at the same time. He was a jaw dropper for sure.
Summerlane Farm's owner breeds some of her own horses and takes others in for training. I knew this had to be one of the training horses as I knew he wasn't one of her own horses. I quietly asked around and found out that he had been in training, but the owner had fallen ill some time ago and abandoned him with Summerlane Farm. A new home was being sought for him. The farm owner heard that I was looking at him and offered to show him to me that afternoon. I knew I couldn't afford him, and I certainly wasn't looking for a second horse, but the owner seemed eager to turn him out and the rest of the guests wanted to see him as well.
Everyone was asked to clear a large path away from the stall since he was very claustrophobic and was going to bolt through the stall once it opened. He did, but the farm owner safely kept hold of the lead and managed to get him into the large round pen safely. To call him halter broke would have been very generous.
A large group of people, maybe 20 strong, had gathered around the perimeter of the round pen, myself included. The farm owner turned the gelding loose and sent him around. I leaned against the fence and rested my forearms on the top rail with my chin in my hands. He was stunning. He started his turnout like all horses will. He bucked and farted and tossed his head and shook his mane. He galloped a few laps around the round pen and then stopped right in front of me.
The farm owner sent him on with a wave of the lead rope, but again, he stopped short right in front of me. The crowd of people laughed while the farm owner sent him on with a wave of the lead. And again, the horse galloped around, but came and stood right in front of me. This time he reached forward very delicately and puffed into my face. He looked me right in the eye and stood rock solid in front of me. At this point, the crowd knew that something very odd was happening.
Each time I tell this story, I get looks of skepticism with eyebrows cocked in disbelief. I swear that every word is the truth. Several friends were with me and even they find this story hard to believe, but they will tell you it is true.
The farm owner tried to send the horse around, but he was absolutely fixated on me. He never looked at anyone else. Not knowing what else to do, I climbed through the fence and stood in the middle of the round pen. I tried to send him away, but that horse just pinned himself to my shoulder and followed me. I've been around horses my whole life and had owned a half a dozen by this time, but I had never experienced a connection like this. I was secretly thrilled at the connection and equally frightened by it.
As the crowd began to disperse, I checked the horse over and asked the farm owner to tell me about him. I learned that the owner had cancer and had recently signed over the horse's registration papers to the farm owner as payment for owed board and training. His name was Mickey Dee. He was six years old and had just been gelded the month before. He was unbroke and wouldn't tolerate being touched anywhere below his back or chest. His feet had been trimmed while he was being gelded as it was impossible to touch his feet. He was sired by Desperado V, son of the legendary Huckleberry Bey. Many, many of today's Arabians have roots that go back to the Varian Arabians. Desperado V is no longer producing, but is a sire of great repute. To have one of his get was a real honor.
As I looked the gelding over, I liked what I saw. His conformation was nearly perfect. His back was short and strong and he had a hind end that went on for days. He carried himself in a lovely uphill frame and looked incredibly solid. He was wild though and as a recently gelded six-year old, he had developed stallion-like behaviors that would be with him always. I told the farm owner that I was interested in him and would call back later in the week.
I thought long and hard about that phone call. I talked it over with my husband. We both agreed that this was a dangerous project. Could I handle this horse? I hoped so, but I wasn't sure. I just knew that this horse had literally chosen me as his owner. He had looked into my heart and decided that I would do. How could I walk away? I called Summerlane Farm but hoped that the farm owner had changed her mind and couldn't fit me in to her schedule. Nope. She was looking forward to my call and set up a time for me to come back out.
I did go see him, and we talked at length about how un-broke he really was. She shared what she had done with him in the time he'd been at her barn. He had arrived with a halter and lead hanging from his head as the owner couldn't get it on and off. She had worked with him enough that the halter could be put on and taken off. He could be led, but going in and out of the stall was still a struggle. He couldn't be tied as he pulled back, hard. This horse needed everything. In some ways he was worse than a mustang off the range since he had developed some serious fear issues.
Hubby insisted that Mickey Dee's registration papers list his name as owner. He wanted to be able to sell him if the horse hurt me and knew that once my name was on those papers, it would never happen. Summerlane farm's owner gifted the horse to me with the understanding that he would not end up in an auction yard if he couldn't be broke. As long time acquaintances, she trusted me to do right by him. I brought the horse trailer over and after some coaxing, she was able to get him loaded. The unloading would be up to us. The drive home was a bit nerve-wracking as he wasn't accustomed to being in the trailer.
It took three of us to unload him.
We Can Do This
Using the "Mickey Cam"
It took six months, but I broke him myself and taught him what he needed to know to be a trail and endurance horse. I used every training technique I knew: treats, approach and retreat, and repetition, repetition, repetition. Before I could even begin any under saddle work, I had to teach him that he could be touched. I spent the rest of that summer, fall, and winter teaching him how to be groomed, how to pick up his feet, how to come to me in the pasture, how to stand tied, and how to load into the trailer. None of it was easy.
By late winter I was finally saddling him and working in long lines. Hubby threatened to sell him when I was thrown violently and sprained my pelvic bone (I didn't know you could sprain that part of your body!). I convinced him that I was okay, and I could finish this horse. For the years that I owned him, I don't remember coming off Mickey again.
On the Trail
Los Padres National Forest
Mickey turned out to be the most surefooted horse I have ever ridden. When I was mounted, we were one unit. I could literally ask him to go over or under anything. He was fearless, brave, and very balanced on the trail. He never tried to dump me and when he did spook, he always kept me perfectly centered in the middle of his back. He trusted me implicitly. I challenged that trust many times on the trail, but he never failed me.
If I was on the ground, his confidence disappeared completely, and he was a different horse. He would spook at loud noises, plastic bags, or anything that he perceived as a threat. He was always afraid of men. I never quite trusted him while tied, and if I wasn't very careful, he would pull back hard enough to break halter and lead rope. If I left his sight, he would panic and call for me until I returned. The instant my car pulled into the barn, he started to whinny for me. Most people laughed at how attached he was to me. I knew that his attachment was actually a problem for him and worked for many years to build confidence in himself. As time went by, he did gain confidence and learned to trust other people.
Fire Mountain 50 Miler, 2006
I eventually began taking Mickey to endurance races. He had learned to stand tied at the trailer and as long as I wasn't away for too long, he trusted that I would come back. My living quarters trailer at the time had a sliding window that I could open and lean out of. He would eagerly look into the window to make sure that I was close by. I took him camping over on the coast many times and rode many conditioning miles.
Some years later, Mickey developed a slight lameness at the extended trot. This is career ending for an endurance horse. I took him to Alamo Pintado, one of the best equine hospitals in the country, for a diagnosis. The fat pad between the joints in his fetlock was wearing away. This injury is caused by repetitive motion, like sustained trotting. I had to face the fact that while he couldn't continue as an endurance horse, he was plenty sound enough as a trail horse. At the time, I couldn't see beyond the endurance world and had no interest in trail riding or in any other discipline. I couldn't afford to keep a horse that wasn't competing, but I felt an obligation to be sure that he had a good home. As difficult as it was, I decided to sell him.
Camping at Montana de Oro
I spent a year reconditioning him into a trail horse. Endurance horses look at the trail differently than the average trail horse. Endurance horses know that their job is to get down the trail quickly. There's not a lot of walking and there is no ambling. Mickey had to learn to stop and smell the roses. He also had to learn that someone other than me was now going to be riding him. That scared me. I didn't know if someone else could ride him, especially someone looking for a quiet trail horse. Fortunately I had friends that helped me out and we discovered that he was a perfect gentleman for other riders. Once I started to look at him as someone else's horse, I realized what a great horse he had become.
I listed him for sale on various sites and sent the word out. I was very honest about his shortcomings as I wanted his new owner to be happy with him. I wasn't in any hurry to sell him and decided that I would trail ride and enjoy his company as long as it took to find the right owner. It took many months, but I finally found his next owner. Or more truthfully, Mickey found her. Much like he did with me, Mickey spotted the woman and chose her on the spot. He also liked her husband. While the woman was grooming Mickey, her husband whispered to me that his wife had cried just looking at his sale photos. That's how much she had connected with him.
As they drove away the day before Thanksgiving, I asked her to keep in touch. She didn't, but I trust that Mickey Dee made a good choice in his owner. I think about him often and wonder ...