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School Horses: Onlooker
Onlooker The Consummate Professor
All school horses are teachers; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t last long as school horses. Most horses are as much a teacher as the person standing in the middle of the arena, yelling; many of them even more so.
That Onlooker was a school horse in England was his first lesson to any rider. In a country of bays, greys and chestnuts, he was a buckskin, a well defined, picture perfect buckskin. Unlike the tan of a New Forest, or the mealy Exmoor ponies, Onlooker’s colour was that of a finely tanned glove of, well, buckskin. Not only that, but in a school barn of thoroughbreds, warmbloods and sport horses, generally starting at 16+ hands, Onlooker was a dwarf at 15 hands, although he weighed nearly 1,600 pounds. He was an American Quarter Horse, whose rump was on a par with any European bred horse, equally powerful over jumps, fox hunting, and a special gift for tackling any cross country fence a course might present. Lesson one: Never let the package mislead you.
He was slow, methodical, golden-hearted, steady and sane. Nearly anyone riding him would have a safe journey out, and come home all smiles. If he had a fault, it was that he was too wide for children, and too short for many adults to ride comfortably. But Looks had other attributes. He considered himself the consummate professor, one who took the passing on of his knowledge as his lifelong duty, his passion. It was your privilege to have him do so. In his eyes, his wealth of knowledge was immense, yours was tiny. You were vastly fortunate to have him as an instructor.
Onlooker’s home was one of the better teaching schools in England. Apart from riding lessons, the school also offered courses for the British Horse Society. These included stable management, basic to advanced first aid, pre-vet, conditioning, and teaching. The end goal was to present for BHS exams at various levels. Toward this end, Onlooker considered himself a professor of highest calibre, and he had mad skills.
Students studying for the British Horse Society exams have to show proficiency at all aspects of equine care, from hooves to lips. Onlooker’s shorter stature made him an excellent model for fitting blankets; he would stand all day for student after student to put on rugs, blankets, sheets, coolers, scrims, sweats and quarter sheets.
He also seemed to know that for something to be truly learned, a point must be made to be remembered. Show him a summer sheet, Onlooker would hang out his tongue and pant. His head would droop, his sides would heave; it was summer, and he needed a light sheet to protect him from the sun. Toss a fly sheet on him and he would begin to “fly-flinch” and fly kick. Put on a heavy stable blanket and he’d go cold, shivering. If you put on a heavy winter blanket, he’d not only shiver, his teeth would chatter.
It didn’t stop there, either. Onlooker was a leg man. Polo wraps? He would tolerate white, black and navy. Pink was shredded, greens were shoved away, and red was stood upon. Exercise bandages would have him prancing in the cross-ties. Shipping boots would get him neighing, loudly announcing to all he was leaving - likely to some important place. If you wrapped for a leg injury, he immediately went lame on that leg. He could go lame on as many as three legs if necessary.
Heaven help you if you wrapped the leg incorrectly - running the wrap backward, or too tight. Then he would groan horribly and refuse to put any weight on the leg. If you walked him, he’d dramatically drag the foot along. If the wrap was too loose, he’d simply remove the wrap with his teeth and spit it out at the unhappy student.
One of the most prevalent health issues with horses is colic. One manner of treating colic is with a hock bottle filled with any of a variety of colic remedies, nearly all of which smell and taste nasty. A hock bottle is usually a wine bottle - because of its size and tapering neck - with leather wrapped around the bottle so it doesn’t rattle on the horse’s teeth. The method of use is to toss a rope over a rafter and snap it to the horse’s halter, then haul on the rope to raise the horse’s mouth. Putting the hock bottle into the corner of the horse’s mouth, one can tip it up, letting the liquid flow down the horse’s throat. It can be spectacular to watch. A raincoat is advised.
Here again, in Onlooker’s view, no teaching opportunity should be wasted. Colic lessons also provided for good clean - sort of - fun. Because colic remedies are not tasty, for demonstration purposes fruit drinks, ades, or even sodas are generally used. Onlooker’s favourite was a particularly sticky orange soda, so a particularly easy to clean, nylon halter was used. Once that particular halter was on, Onlooker would immediately keel over, moaning. He’d get up, kick his belly, lie down, roll, moan louder. He was a sick horse, verrrrry sick. You had better be able to diagnose it correctly as colic and run for the hock bottle, and it better have the right stuff in it, or he’d lay over and die.
Outside riders coming for a lesson when a colic lesson was imminent, would often yell for someone to come help. Some would even go into the stall and try to get Looks back up on his feet. This would make Onlooker’s day. He would struggle valiantly to rise, sometimes making it, sometimes not. Either way the moaning would greatly increase. It could be quite difficult to convince the rider the horse was fine, merely demonstrating colic symptoms for the exams students.
Once the line had been tossed over the rafter, however, Onlooker got down to business. If he was down, he’d jump up. If he was up, he’d raise his lips before the line ever connected to his halter. It was all about that orange soda. He’d lick his lips and finally drool - which he’d then have to slurp back and swallow, or fling on the students. When the bottle finally got tipped, he would suck it like a baby, eyes rolled back, half closed in sheer joy. The bottle would slowly empty, gulps rolling down his throat, until there was nothing left, whereupon his eyes would open, shaded in disappointment. His head would drop to normal position. Only the tucked chin and sucked in corners of his mouth indicated his second, most favourite part of the demo was about to occur.
Like the most stern schoolmaster, Onlooker surveyed his students. It was always the student who had ignored the “suggestion” of wearing a raincoat. The large, soft brown eyes would engage. The nose would inquire gently at the coatless chest, rising to the face. First would come the belch. Before the waft of orange soda and partially digested hay and grain had completely passed, it was followed by the spew and the final insult of a soggy cough. Never again would a colicing horse be tended without waterproof clothing. Lesson learned.
Yes, all school horses are teachers. Some, like Onlooker, are brilliant professors. However, it was decided by the British Horse Society Examiners that Onlooker could not be used for exams - he simply gave students too many “clues.”