A sad day at Harrogate

 

All horses are special. I really believe that but at the risk of tapping into an Orwellian vein, I must confess that some horses are more special than others.

At Harrogate, we were lucky to have such a horse for the past 12 years.

It almost didn’t happen though. I remember Sarah Mark coming to tell me about this awesome horse named Grandpa that we could have and that he was an open jumper! I still remember looking at Sarah and with perhaps a bit too much exasperation, explaining I needed an open jumper in the school like I needed a hole in my head. I guess the vision I had was of a highly strung, possibly difficult to handle athlete that would be hard pressed to find a job in a riding school that caters to many beginners and novice riders.

Sarah was insistent. She explained that Grandpa didn’t want to jump big fences anymore and his owner had another horse now and wanted Grandpa to have a good home. Sarah made a great case for the fact that this horse would be a perfect fit and so finally, I thankfully agreed.

It was the spring of 2006, the trailer arrived, the back door opened, and out stepped possibly the most beautiful horse I have ever seen.  He stood calmly at the end of his lead, surveying the property and politely waiting for instructions as to where he should move to next. The rush of emotions I felt was conflicting and almost overwhelming. First, how could it be that this beautiful creature now belonged to Harrogate and secondly, how could I have been so impossibly stupid to have almost turned him down.

And so began a wonderful adventure with a wonderful, kind horse. He was just spectacular but without a hint of arrogance. He was being treated like a king at Harrogate and yet despite the reverence bestowed on him he always maintained his kind, polite, and gentle demeanor.

One of my favourite memories of Grandpa was at a little schooling show that we held at the farm. A young, fairly inexperienced rider was taking him into the crossrail division. She had been practicing and doing very well but show nerves got to her on the day of the competition.

She guided Grandpa over a little jump near the end of the arena. Her next task was to guide him diagonally across the arena so that she could make a nice easy left turn, pass the open door of the arena and head back down towards the far end of the building to jump her last fence. Despite all her practicing, she forgot to look where she was supposed to go next. Rather, she looked up at where her parents were standing, which was to the left of the large arena door. Grandpa obliged and cantered down to the left of centre line towards them. The little girl realized her error but it seemed too late. In order to get to her final jump, the big horse would now have to canter through a left turn that was barely six metres away from the wall. To say it would be a tight turn is an understatement.  In desperation the little girl twisted her body, looking longingly at the jump that now seemed impossible to reach.

And then it happened.

Grandpa, feeling her turning to look, began to canter on the spot, never breaking his rhythm, carefully pivoting on his hind legs and in a series of leaps he turned his body towards the jump. The little girl closed her eyes, probably feeling a moment of terror at the sheer explosive power she could feel was contained in this huge horse. Even people who knew nothing about horses gasped in awe as they watched this beautiful horse perform an almost perfect canter pirouette right in front of them.

By the time the little girl opened her eyes Grandpa was dutifully cantering down to her final jump.  I could only hope that the little girl understood how lucky she was to have the opportunity to ride a horse that was so honest and knew his job so well that he was able to translate her somewhat confusing signals and, on her behalf, get the job done.

We would take him to horse shows and always, people would ask if he was for sale. He was 18 years old when we go him but he looked like a horse in his prime. His trot was not the greatest, in fact, it was a bit choppy. However, you don’t jump huge fences from the trot and when he cantered, he could take your breath away. Sometimes at shows, if he had a less experienced rider on him he would forget himself and leave a few strides out, covering distances in three strides when the course demanded five. But even though it was an error in the hunter ring, it was hard not to enjoy watching him effortlessly open his huge stride and hit every distance flawlessly.

I often wondered what he thought of his new job. He must have found it so easy to skip over those tiny little jumps, especially after the time he had spent in the Grand Prix rings. To his credit, he never lost his work ethic over fences even when his job entailed hopping over crossrails or fences only 2 feet high.

In the last few years the toll on his front feet from all those big jumps caught up with him, and we retired him. But he seemed to become a bit depressed by not having a job to do anymore. He wasn’t really sound enough to ride but he craved the attention he used to receive. Students at Harrogate, (special mention and thanks to Scotia and Adrina) rallied to the cause and a number of times a week he was groomed and walked in hand around the arena. It made a huge difference to his enjoyment of his twilight years and I am so thankful for the kindness of all the students who made the effort to spend time with him.

In the last year, he had a mass of some kind growing behind his left eye and while it did not seem to cause him any pain, in the last few months it did start to impact his mind. His first episode was in April when he was unreasonably afraid of the noise the gate made when it opened. He was fine for a while and then three weeks ago he was frightened once again by something that none of us could see. As an exceptionally calm and brave horse, this was all completely out of character for him. On Friday, his fear was taking over as he kept turning to stare in terror at the back wall of his stall. There was nothing there. By Sunday morning he refused to eat and had not taken a drink all night. To see him stressed and agitated like that was heartbreaking and to let him go seemed the only fair decision to make. We really appreciated Dr. Potter coming out on a Sunday to help him find peace. Grandpa was 30 years old.

We always new that “Grandpa” was a nick name and we still want to research what his show name was when he was in Europe. We are a bit closer now because we recently found out that his name, while competing in the United States, was “Bull Runs Blew By U”. I confess his name made made me smile because it reminded me that but for Sarah’s insistence he could have easily blown by me too.

Perhaps I should be embarrassed but I always, unabashedly, called him G.P.S. The acronym was short for “Grand Pa’s Special.”

He was and there are many of us who will never forget him.

RIP GPS.

And thank you.