BFF Cody - A Horse Story
When I first met him, he was called "King", a sooty chestnut with Appaloosa roaning across his sides and flanks, and a beautiful, but rare, coon tail. His breeder had hoped to campaign him as a stud, but as he was unable to gracefully transition to fully activated hormones, he was gelded and put up for sale. In the meantime, he was shown at halter, at which he was reasonably accomplished, although it took a minimum of an hour of lunging before he was settled enough to enter his classes with proper show horse manners.
My husband, daughter and I had just moved to our new farm, with plans of bringing home my daughter’s horse, Rufus, who we thought needed a companion. My husband was immediately smitten with King, a long yearling at the time, who was temporarily staying at the barn where we boarded Rufus. Even though all the workers at the barn were afraid to go into King’s stall when he was in it, my husband had visions of King being his western pleasure horse prospect with his near perfect conformation and size.
It was obvious to me that King was petrified and there is not much more dangerous than almost a thousand pounds of fear in a prey animal, when the need to survive and feel safe could mean fight, especially if they feel cornered. Yet my husband would go into King’s stall and pet him with long smooth strokes down the length of his neck. Everyone was surprised when it only took a couple minutes for King to lower his head, showing his trust and relief at being able to forget his fear even if for just a few moments.
My husband determined, and uncaring that everyone else thought he was crazy, bought King, and we brought him home to our new farm with Rufus. I seriously had my doubts, along with a few nightmares about the perceived threat to my own safety! It didn’t take too long before my daughter dubbed him “freak boy”, with good reason. A simple thing like moving my hands while talking at the other end of the barn would put King into a state of panic. We learned a bit later that, as we suspected, King was abused by the barn manager at the breeder’s facility to the point of fracturing his skull.
Since my husband was traveling for work 3 out of every 4 weeks, I had plenty of time to get to know King. My lack of experience with horses was probably a blessing, because I didn’t have any preconceived ideas of how to help him get over his fear. I was alone most of the time, so feeling self-conscious wasn’t an issue either. Over the next few months, I simply played with King, quite silly sometimes, intuitively using approach and retreat techniques.
One evening when talking on the phone to my out-of-town husband, I informed him out of the blue that I had changed King’s name to Cody. King’s Appaloosa Horse Club registered name is "Impresive King Cody", thus Cody seemed like the ideal choice for a new name. I thought, “You can’t be buddies with a King, but you can with a Cody.” The new name stuck. Cody took to his new name like it was a second chance at life for him, where he could start to heal from the post-traumatic stress of the abuse in his earlier days.
Not long after that, it became obvious to everyone that Cody chose me to be his person, much to my husband’s chagrin. Yet, my husband still hadn’t lost hope of making Cody into a western pleasure horse. Cody slipped into the role of being a riding horse with not even one buck. However, it took only a few more months before he made it quite clear that he didn’t want anything to do with going slow.
My husband gracefully gave up his western pleasure horse dream altogether and bought another horse for gaming. Naturally, we started training Cody for gaming too…what else are you gonna do with a horse that likes to do everything at a dead run? My husband’s advice for the first few years was, “Don’t get him in too good of condition or you’ll never be able to control him.” Best advice I ever got! Even without condition, Cody was a handful, with way too much energy coupled with a streak of willfulness. I look back at those years and wonder how I got through them without a scratch. Being a rider with minimal riding experience attempting a sport like barrel racing on a green horse seems ludicrous to me now. I’m sure you heard the cliche, “Ignorance is bliss”. Ha! Ignorance minus the bliss.
Most times I was so overcome with the fear of falling off, that I would forget to breathe as we started each barrel run. I was literally running blind, until I finally took a breath after turning the second barrel. Eventually, after 3 seasons, I had to accept that I didn’t have any competitive edge and was more relieved when I lost a preliminary run, because then I wouldn’t have to run again. I still wasn’t any less afraid of falling off, even though I never had, and I continued to forget to breathe!
Fortuitously for us, a friend asked if I would be interested in distance riding. I had already taken Cody on a few trail rides, which he absolutely loved, and found I too was enjoying it so much more than doing arena work. That spring we attended a distance riding clinic and we were hooked! That is where I got my second best bit of advice … “Most horses don’t get their brains for the sport until they are 8 years old.” At that time Cody was 7. That started our career … after 5 seasons of competitive trail, an event with time parameters where the goal is pacing your horse and crossing the finish line in the best condition, we competed the next 4 years in mainly endurance riding.
Cody’s true love turned out to be endurance riding. At heart he is more of a racer than a pacer, although he will always let a lovely mare cross the finish line ahead of him! I learned that, for Cody, it wasn’t about winning the entire competition. It was about the mini-competitions along the way, the camaraderie with horses he met along the trail, showing off his unbelievable extended trot with his wild Appaloosa mane sticking straight up, seeing varied country sides, conquering challenging terrain.
And through it all, I admired his fierce determination to overcome his fears, although his survival instincts never dimmed. He was always aware of the smallest change on the trails from the last time passing that way, or when anyone else entered the trail system, even if they were miles away. He had an incredible internal GPS that got us home, or back to the trailer, numerous times when I was completely lost, even if it was our very first time on those particular trails.
This is not to say it was an easy relationship … far from it. I shed many a tear, despairing of ever having the horse/rider partnership I yearned for … it seemed to be a constant battle of wills and a never-ending quest for the perfectly balanced seat … but somewhere deep within I knew that if I gave up on Cody, I would be giving up on me. I learned to allow him to decide how he wanted to handle his scary boogies, and he learned that everyone and everything was not out to “get him”. In spite of it all, Cody was, and still is, always there for me in a way that is most needed at the time, repeatedly forgiving my humanness, challenging me to continually grow and to be the best me I can be.
A long time ago, an older gentleman told us that “a coon tailed horse will never do you wrong”. And he was so right! Cody is my mirror, my best friend, my staunchest ally and my toughest teacher. He’s shown me the way to the deepest part of myself. And most importantly, Cody has taught me how to lose the fear and free the love. Often now on the trail we blend into one, an unseen communication between two souls, a dance of grace and ease. If I could ask for one miracle, it would be to reverse Cody’s gelding and gift him with his freedom to round up his very own band of mares :-). Thank you Cody for being the definitive blessing of my life!