It was while proving my poop handling skills that I met Phoenix. His owner was a friend of the folks I was working for at a barn in northern Virginia. At the time, I was an NROTC student at George Washington University in DC and worked at the twenty stall barn for a little extra cash. The owner brought him in and I tested him out in the indoor arena. At nine years old, he was fairly young but still green. He knew his arena job, but the outside world brought out the snorts and spooks. He hadn't been trained on the trails and what I wanted was a trail horse. However, he had a good mind and responded to praise. It was also apparent he enjoyed attention. I thought he would make a nice trail horse, even if he was a little spoiled and spooky.
Phoenix is a registered American Quarter Horse and was 'saddled' with the registered name "Buckle Pal". Either word doesn't quite roll off the tongue easily, so his previous owner called him Dakota, but a dear friend of mine had just put down a beloved horse with a similar name so I changed his name to Phoenix. He is a golden palomino with a white mane and tail, so the sunny city was the first name that popped into my mind.
His training began immediately. He was from Texas originally so the crowded dark forests of Virginia's Great Falls Park were completely foreign. His most serious spooks happened whenever a leaf skittered across the paved road near the trail. It occurred to me that the sound "tika-tika-tika-tika" was not unlike a Texas rattlesnake. Perhaps that's why Phoenix reacted to that sound. He eventually accepted the vicious leaves as non-threatening. The squirrels and deer moving suddenly proved to be the next challenges. I taught him the words "squirrel" and "deer" to identify those sounds for him. He learned quickly and new challenges were more readily accepted, like the fox that appeared suddenly in front of us. Or the mountain bikes careening over a hill ahead. I discovered he liked water and would play in it at every opportunity. His rubber water trough was a plaything first and source of water second.
As a Quarter Horse, I suspected Phoenix had some propensity for moving other creatures about, such as cattle, but we had few opportunities while I was in college. It wasn't until a year later that I finally had the chance to test him and he proved to be almost too aggressive towards the poor bovines. One day, as a seasoned trail horse now, Phoenix and I were quietly pursued by a wolf hybrid dog that was off leash. Phoenix revved up quickly into almost a full panic when the creature was close to his heels. I stopped Phoenix and spun him around towards the animal. The beast stopped and there was a pause as prey and predator stared at each other. I urged Phoenix forward saying, "get the cow", the same command I used at our recent bovine playdate. There was a brief eye rolling "Are you freaking nuts?" response from Phoenix, but he did take one tentative step forward. The creature stepped back. Another brief pause, and then Phoenix lowered his head slightly, pinned his ears slightly and the new chase was on! The wolf-dog ran all the way down the trail, right back to his owners, with his tail tucked. Phoenix snorted and pawed while I held him at bay and chewed out the owners before riding off. Phoenix practically pranced down the trail after that. I'll bet he couldn't wait to tell his barn buddies what happened. We used the same technique on a German Shepherd dog someone had let loose with the same effect. The park was quite clear about dogs being on leash and those dogs with strong drives definitely posed a threat to wildlife.
Phoenix and my retired AQHA mare, Ellie, became my Navy brats after I was commissioned. We lived in Rhode Island while I was in training and then onto Norfolk, VA. Phoenix and I conquered the trails that Paul Revere rode in Massachusetts as well as Yorktown, VA, Gettysburg, PA and Manassas, VA. We were in a parade in Fredericksburg, VA. Phoenix and I carried the flag for the King Neptune parade in Virginia Beach, VA after I returned from deployment. I even hung lights on him for an evening Christmas parade in Chesapeake, VA and he never flinched. I boarded him on an Air Force base and he was 'jet broke'. F-16s taking off right over didn't phase him, nor did the mortar fire at the practice range. He truly was bomb proof now.
Phoenix was part of our wedding reception when my husband and got married. A year later, I gave this trusty steed to my husband and they make a good team. Phoenix is our farm's horse mascot and has given many first rides to children when we have a Farm Day for families from our parish.
He is unusual for a horse because he loves to have his face petted and even hugged. I took him to a medical supply repair facility and he was shown every possible medical device. He never flinched. Soon afterwards, I took him to the local Veterans' hospital to visit with the long term care patients. He put his head ever-so-gently in a wheelchair patient's lap, closed his eyes and enjoyed the attention. He is that sort of horse. A rare gem of a horse that seems to know what's needed.
Most recently, Phoenix went to our son's Catholic school for Cowboy Day. The Catholic daycare next door even brought the little ones out to meet him. He gladly accepted petting on his nose and head from every child that came up, no matter how clumsy they were or how loudly they squealed with delight. He does a few tricks as well, so that helped entertain the kids. He really enjoys visiting children so it was an easy day for our old bomb-proof trail master.
At 22 years old, Phoenix has slowed down a bit and has a few minor ailments, but we try to keep him comfortable and happy. He is officially retired from harassing the cattle, but we still take him out for trail rides. The older cows still respect him. He is a great family horse and worthy of all the attention he gets.
I still do side work as a professional animal waste removal engineer, but only on our farm. I would have never met Phoenix if I hadn't had that little college side job shoveling horse poop. One should never be too proud for a humble job as a stablehand. You never know when you might meet the horse of a lifetime.
Winter fuzzy picture
Our son's first ride.