|Chubby in his stall|
It's a wonderful name, Braveheart Romeo. And the first time I heard it, I nearly swooned to know that the horse I'd pinned my heart to was so romantically christened. Unfortunately, I had already owned my sturdy gelding for six months by the time I learned his registered name, and by that time his less than appealing "barn name", Chubby, was firmly ingrained in my habitude. So Chubby, the nickname he's gone by for over thirty years, has remained his every day moniker.
Chubby is an Oldenberg, a large warmblood (half draft horse) with German roots. In fact, Chubby was born in Germany in 1980. He came to the United States when he was six years old and became a champion eventer on the "A" circuit here, specializing in dressage and jumping. Eventually, Chubby injured a foreleg. His owners must have been quite wealthy, because they paid for stem-cell replacement therapy to help heal the injured leg, and soon he was back to competing. A few years later, Chubby injured the other foreleg in competition, and this time he was sold following his convalescence.
Chubby's new home was a private boarding school in Owings Mills called Garrison Forest School. As a "school horse", Chubby picked up some annoying habits, like walking off at the mount, biting as he was girthed up, and tossing his head wildly to throw a rider off balance. These were likely attempts to keep the students from wanting to ride him. How well that worked for Chubby I am not certain, as it was another injury to his foreleg that caused him to be put "out to pasture" and up for sale at Garrison.
Along came a lovely woman named Janet Korotki. Jan was just learning to compete in eventing and needed a horse who knew the ropes. She bought Chubby from Garrison Forest School and brought him to Gaitaway Stables in Randallstown, Maryland, for boarding. Standing at an enormous 17.2 hands at the withers, Chubby was tall but woefully underweight when he arrived at Gaitaway in 2002. The owner of the stable, Trina Vogelsang, said her first order of business was to add 400 pounds to Chubby's emaciated figure. He was 22 years old then, and still had a lot of life left in him, if only she could nurse him back to health.
|Trina Vogelsang, owner of Gaitaway Stables|
Once Chubby was back to a sufficiently healthy 1500 pounds or so, Jan used him to practice her eventing technique. That was fine with Chubby. He loves to jump -- and he can execute highly technical dressage moves like the pro that he is. But Jan couldn't take Chubby to competitions without risking re-injury to one or both of his forelegs. So Jan bought another horse to compete with and Chubby was put out to pasture once again.
It was the fall of 2003 when I happened to come along. Chubby hadn't been ridden in almost a year and was a little rough around the edges. Although I had always adored horses and had done some riding here and there through the years and had even had a lesson or two along the way, I'd never owned a horse. So when my neighbor's13-year-old niece announced one day that there was a horse "free to a caring owner" at a stable down the road where she volunteered, I was intrigued. I didn't even know there was a stable so close to my home. Could I afford the expenses associated with owning a horse? Would I have sufficient time to devote to caring for one? Would I love having a horse as much as my childhood fantasies had suggested a half-century ago? Turns out my neighbor was posing similar questions to herself. So we approached the seller together. Would she let us "rent" Chubby for six months to see if we liked horse ownership? Jan was extremely gracious. Not only did she allow us to lease Chubby for six months, but she gave us each a tack box filled with grooming gear - brushes and curry combs, ointments and hoof picks and sweat sticks. Sweat sticks? (It's a squeegee). I had a lot to learn.
Our six-month lease began in January 2004. My neighbor and I opened a joint bank account, our "Chubby account", and with the money we pooled we bought a saddle and bridle, a halter and other gear. We divided up our turns with Chubby by the days of the week. I rode him on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, and my neighbor rode on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Monday was Chubby's day of rest. I started volunteering at the stable in exchange for riding lessons from Trina. I soaked up Trina's sage advice like a sponge -- everything from Chubby's hoof and skin care to how to check for injuries and hoof abscesses. All of it was new to me. And all of it was fascinating.
|One of the picturesque trails on which I ride my horse|
Being at the stable, helping with the early morning feeding of 45 horses three times a week, had a magical quality. Set way back from the highway, Trina's Gaitaway Stables is 70 acres of old-fashioned charm. Stepping into Trina's 150-year-old Amish-built "bank barn" (so named because the barn is built into an embankment so the front opens on one level and the back opens on a lower level) is like stepping back in time. No television, no radio, no vehicular encroachment save for Trina's John Deere tractor, the environment smells only of hay and leather and... horses.
In the winter months I used a hammer to break through the ice on the surface of the horses' water buckets. I relished the contented sounds the horses made in the early morning chill as they munched their grain. I learned to muck stalls and shovel sawdust for bedding. I loved being there, in such a wholesome environment, so much, in fact, that even though it's been years since I've needed a riding lesson, I still volunteer at the stable three mornings a week before work, just for the sheer joy of being with the horses and reveling in the rustic serenity of life on a farm.
At the end of June all those years ago, when our six month lease of Chubby was up, my neighbor had just given birth to her first child and decided, understandably, that she could not continue with Chubby. I, on the other hand, was smitten, and on July 1st, 2004, I bought Chubby from Jan for one dollar.
|Riding Chubby yesterday|
Eight years have passed since that fateful day. My love affair with Braveheart Romeo has never waned. Although Chubby still likes to jump and still rocks his dressage moves, I have no interest in competition. I use Chubby only for pleasure riding. Chubby is 31 years old now, and no longer has any of those annoying habits he picked up as a school horse. I figure it's about time he got to relax a bit. Trina's property backs up to thousands of acres of county wilderness. On any given weekend, Chubby and I go off for an hour or two, wandering at our leisure through shady forests dotted with ferns and deer, traversing creeks, cantering along hilly trails and grazing in the pristine, grassy meadows of mid-Atlantic wildlands. Even in temperatures surpassing 90 degrees Fahrenheit, like yesterday, Chubby and I found cool relief in the deep shadows of ancient woods. Riding my horse is a pastime of sheer joy for me and, hopefully, for Chubby, as well.
|Riding Johnny this morning|
Occasionally, I will ride one of Trina's horses. Trina specializes in Tennessee Walking horses. She competes at horse shows with her horses -- and she does very, very well. A personal favorite of mine is the horse I rode today. His registered name is Prince John McGruder, but we all know him as Johnny. Standing at a good 16.2 hands, this twelve year old gelding is Trina's tallest Tennessee Walking horse. He is a dark-haired beauty with a flowing mane and a tail that reaches clear to the ground.
Adopted 2/15/13. Yippee!!
If you would like to adopt a horse of your very own, there are two rescue horses at Gaitaway Stables right now who are available for immediate adoption. Dakota is an 11-year-old gelding, a Tennessee Walking horse who is very gentle and mild-mannered. He stands about 15.2 hands tall. The other rescue horse, Jazzy, is a thoroughbred mare straight from the race track. She is nine years old, stands about 15.2 hands high and was recently abandoned by her owner. You can go to the Gaitaway Stables website (www.gaitawaystables.com) or you can call Trina at (443) 251-1821 for more information about Jazzy and, if you're not quite ready to take the ownership plunge, there are several horses available for lease at Gaitaway, too. Try it out, like I did. You'll be hooked!
When I'm not hosting dinner parties, attending the symphony, doing research for my job or volunteering as a park ranger, you'll find me on a horse in the woods. It is most definitely a childhood dream come true. When I'm out in those woods astride my gentle steed, I am the happiest girl in the world.