I wan’t looking for a Missouri Fox Trottter, in fact I wasn’t looking for another horse…

But I was looking AT horses.  I was always looking at horses, for sale or otherwise.  As soon as I could read I started reading the “Pets and Livestock” section of the classified ads in the local newspaper.  With the internet I graduated to all sorts of sites that offered horses for sale. It was like a drug for me. I would critique the pictures, trying to find the “hole” in each horse; the conformational defect , the attitude.  I would read between the lines. “Endurance prospect” no longer meant this is a horse that will go all day for you but that this is a horse with no brakes and plenty of acceleration! Phrases such as “more whoa than go” and “needs confident rider” became part of my vocabulary, as did their translations.

But I wasn’t looking for another horse…

Perusing the “Horse For Sale” ads, whatever the source, is therapy for me.  When I have a moment at work and need to be taken away it isn’t Calgon I turn to but to the many websites  with pictures and descriptions of horses that just don’t quite fit the home that they presently occupy. I try to find out what’s wrong and mentally explore ways that I can “fix” this horse to make it the perfect riding partner.  Some I look at for the pure enjoyment of admiring a horse that is so far out of my price range I feel like I should have to pay just to look!

So…I was just looking at horses for sale.  I came across a picture and my first thought was, “How do they expect to sell a horse with such a poor picture?”  She wasn’t cleaned up. She wasn’t posed correctly to show off anything that might make her attractive to a buyer.  She just looked sad. Her price was way too low for her NOT to have holes, big holes. This horse had to be lame, or mean, or have some perishing disease.  Moving on…

A week later I found a little time to look at horse ads again.  She was still there. I read the text again, looking for clues. Nothing said mean, lame or diseased.  I sent the ad to my daughter, who was only toying with the idea of getting a horse. That is enough for me to take off on a quest, but I wanted to make sure she got a safe horse, so I was always sending her ads for horses that looked safe for my baby girl (who was 35 at the time!)  My daughter said any horse that cheap had something wrong with it and dismissed her immediately. She did have a point. In 2015 $400 was certainly below the market value for any horse that could be presented as “broke”. Way below the market value. 

The next time I looked she was still there.  And the next time. I started praying for a good home for this horse because something about her was haunting me.  Something about her reminded me of Big John, a big, dirty, skinny roan Quarter Horse gelding I had once bought from a drunk cowboy for $500.  Big John proved to be one of the most honest horses I ever owned. With good feed and lots of love he blossomed into a pretty horse too, with legs like oak trees and that million-dollar disposition that took good care of anyone who stepped up into his saddle.  This mare looked nothing like Big John. But there was something that reminded me of him…

Weeks had gone by and the ad was still there.  I finally broke weak and called on the horse, determined that there was something major wrong with her and once I knew what it was I could lay this to rest.  The seller said there was nothing wrong with her. Hmmm… Now I knew that I had to see for myself. So I arranged to drive out to take a look at this black and white Missouri Fox Trotter mare that looked so sad in the ad.  

My daughter and granddaughter went with me.  I knew I was going to find the “hole” in this horse and that it was going to be big enough to drive a semi through and I would go home satisfied and stop thinking about how sad she looked.  I had asked the seller not to have her saddled and tacked up as I wanted to see how she was from catch to put-away. As we walked around a big barn the seller told me that they had taken her on a 3-hour trail ride the day before.  I went around a corner and there she was! My first thought was, “If this horse doesn’t fall down, I’m taking her home today”. Now wait a minute! I don’t ever make decisions about horses like that. And she was no beauty, either.  She had been put away after the 3-hour trail ride while still sweaty and the sweat had dried and in some places combined with dirt. Her feet were in horrible condition. She was standing next to another horse with her ears pointing out to the sides in the posture of a horse that is relaxing and not at all interested in these new people that just interrupted her nap.  I was very disappointed with the seller for the neglect this horse portrayed and that she didn’t at least brush the horse prior to my appointment. She took me too seriously about not preparing the horse for showing!  

I asked the seller if we could saddle her up and she started to put the pad on right over all that dried sweat and dirt.  What?! Trying to be diplomatic, I asked if I could see how the horse responded to being brushed before tacking her up. The seller’s expression was more of, “Well, OK.  If that’s what you want”. We got her brushed and saddled and the seller’s teenaged daughter climbed aboard. The entire time this mare was acting like she could not care less about us.  I asked the young rider to take her straight away from us at the walk and have Phoebe go into her gait coming back. The surface she was riding on was hard-packed dirt and gravel and with those overgrown and cracking feet  I hated to put the horse through that but needed to see if she was sound and how she moved. Well, she moved all over the place! I had ridden quite a few Tennessee Walkers in my youth but had never even seen a Missouri Fox Trotter close up and had no idea how they were supposed to gait.  But I knew this horse wasn’t doing it. I asked her to go again and try to make her go straight away and straight back. As she complied, still following more of a snake trail than a ruler, I leaned over to my daughter and asked her, “How do you like my new horse?” I had to smile at her shocked response.  She had been with me on many trips to look at horses for sale and had watched me spend hours watching how the horses moved, running my hands all over them looking for lumps and bumps and riding them through every test I could think of to see how they responded to their rider and surroundings. Her eyes were big as she said, “But you haven’t even ridden her yet!”  

“I’m buying this horse today”. 

I didn’t think I would even need to ride her.  I was taking her home. She wasn’t going to be my horse. I had a great Morgan mare that I was happy with.  But I climbed into the saddle anyway and started her off down the road. She zigged. She zagged. She walked funny (I later learned this is called a “Camel Walk”).  When I asked her to go into her gait she went into something…but I wouldn’t call it the smooth ride of a gaited horse. But I felt her asking questions. Horsewomen reading this will know what I mean.  “What do you want from me. If I understand, I will do it”. She had been ridden by so many people that didn’t know how to ride that she was lost when it came to understanding. I was asking questions of my own.  A little more leg. Yes. That’s right, go that way. A softer touch. Yes. She felt it and responded. The “try” was there and I was buying this horse!

Now to the negotiations.  Yes, I did try to talk her down from the price.  I don’t care how low, I will always try! The seller was standing firm.  I pointed out that Phoebe’s feet were in bad shape (it’s best not to use terms like “terrible” in the negotiation process) and asked her to knock $50 off the price to cover her first, much-needed trim.  The seller started to tell me how she could not afford to take a penny less than $400 and how strapped she was for money. I looked around. Big house. Five other horses. Huge barn and shops on a large property in a beautiful area. But she had  neglected this good horse. No mercy. I pushed a little harder. The seller made a phone call and an ex-husband appeared almost immediately pulling a horse trailer, from which he unloaded a young Tennessee Walker filly that proceeded to whinny, neigh and make all sorts of distracting noises and movements while he pulled out some farrier tools and began to trim up Phoebe’s feet.  Well, this is a sale with a sideshow! His suggestions of how she should be trimmed/shod next fell on deaf ears. My focus was back on getting this horse out of there. I asked how soon I could bring Phoebe home. The seller’s mother was having surgery the next day so I told her I would call the next evening to make arrangements to pick her up the day following. I had a mental pause regarding giving the seller a deposit, but the price on the horse was less than any deposit  would be and this lady was crazy so I decided to chance it. She had said only one other person had come to see her. (I would think they thought the same as my daughter, a horse that cheap can’t be good). I asked if the number on the ad was the best number to call back. The seller said it was her daughter’s cell phone number and was the best. 

I called the next day and left a message saying I hoped the surgery had gone well and I would like to set up an appointment to come pick up my horse.  No response. Well, she did say her mother was elderly and having surgery. I will be polite and call again the next day. I called the next day. No response.  I called five times that day and never received a call back. The following day was a repeat. I’m starting to get aggravated. I printed up a bill of sale and drove straight from work.  I stopped at my daughter’s and there must have been something in my expression because she immediately said, “I’m coming with you!” and jumped in my truck. I blustered all the way up the mountain to where this woman lived, thinking she had sold my horse.  When I arrived I walked straight to the barn with the stride of a woman on a mission. The seller met me with “There you are! I was beginning to think you had changed your mind and I have been telling callers she sold”. I told her to look at her daughter’s phone because I had called many times and left many messages.  Before she could answer I asked her if she had a bill of sale and when she said no I handed her mine and said, “Read this. Sign it ” and I counted out four portraits of Benjamin Franklin. I was in no mood for small talk. I told my daughter to call and get the trailer on its way and then realized that since I had come straight from work I didn’t have a halter!  So much for looking like I was in control of “Operation Free Phoebe”! I asked if the seller had a halter and lead rope I could borrow. She started in about how poor she was and found a disgusting old faded yellow halter and began braiding baling twine to make a lead rope. I went straight over to Phoebe. I told her I was going to take her away from this place and take very good care of her and keep her until she drew her last breath.  

By the time my son-in-law arrived with the trailer the lead rope was braided and I immediately began leading Phoebe toward the trailer, hoping she was easy to load.  As my son-in-law stepped out of the truck the seller’s dog bit him! Can this day get any better?? The seller started shouting to my son-in-law that if he is nice to her dog the dog will be nice to him.  My son-in-law reminded her in a very loud voice that he was being nice to her dog, he had just stepped out of the truck and was attacked! My only thoughts were, “Keep moving, Phoebe”. As we approached the trailer the seller asked me for some hair from Phoebe’s tail so she could make a bracelet from it.  Are you kidding me??? This horse is filthy and you obviously didn’t take good care of her and now you want a sentimental souvenir? I told her to give me the scissors and deliberately cut from the backside of her tail where all the dried manure and discoloration was, handed her the dirty tail hair and loaded up my horse.  She walked in like she couldn’t wait to leave either. We got her home, settled her in and my son-in-law later told a friend that he had hauled a horse for his mother-in-law that if he had seen her first he would have bought her himself!

I’ve had Phoebe four years now, and was she ever a surprise! As I said, I had no intention of riding her.  But she became a fabulous lesson horse. I ride with a young woman that is a very good hand with a horse but had never ridden a gaited horse before.  She had no complaints when I told her we would trade and she could ride my Morgan and I would ride Phoebe until I got her gaiting smoothly and then we would trade back.  While my riding partner rode her Phoebe refused to pass my Morgan. She would not gait, even if I rode far ahead and she was trying to catch up. I started working her over ground poles and riding her like I used to ride the Tennessee Walkers my grandfather raised and she started gaiting!  She also lost the camel walk. I rode her more and she started moving to the front. She got smoother and smoother and is an incredible trail horse! Now she’s the only horse I want to ride!

She is like Big John!  I can put my young grandchildren on her and she stays right underneath them.  I can put a riding student on her and she tells me exactly what cues they are giving her and I know right away if they are correct or not.  I can ride her and have a wonderful trail experience on a horse that does not shy at trail obstacles that would make a lesser horse head for the barn.  

When the seller was telling me about her she told me Phoebe was not a “people horse” but was “aloof”.  Even then I knew she was wrong. Phoebe just needed love. She now knows that she is the much-loved mare and comes right up to me when I go outside to feed or catch the horses. She WILL stay until she draws her last breath, and until then she will get the very best of care.  

Marcia Burkard