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Some horse enter your life in the most unassuming of ways but once there change your world irrevocably. Wizard, aka Gilbert was one such horse. He was a 15.2ish Warmblood cross bred by a local stud ‘Riverside’, by the imported stallion Monopol famous for his ability to buck.
I’ve sat down several times now to try and tell Gilbert’s story, or at least the portion of it that he shared with Mum and I. However, it hasn’t been an easy task. Gilbert was a quirky, memorable and unique horse, both in personality and appearance. People often commented on his striking marking, a ‘bleeding shoulder’ which made him popular with event photographers.
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The summer before my final year of high school, it became evident that things were not working well with my current horse – Butler a chestnut OTTB with an attitude. My confidence had been all but decimated by Bulter. It had reached the point that the slightest deviation from my plan would have me clutching his neck in fear. Riding him just wasn’t fun anymore.
On paper at least Gilbert with his quick and spooky behaviour didn’t seem like a great match for me. Yet, we ultimately formed an incredible partnership. Looking back now, I think its fair to say that without Gilbert I could easily have been another teen who left the horse world.
Gilbert had been given to my coach at the time, Tracey, several years earlier to do what she could with him. He had garnered a reputation for his ability to buck, being quick on his feet and generally difficult. After having had her first child, Tracey hadn’t had as much time to work Gilbert, and somehow my mother convinced Tracey to let us take Gilbert home on a trial.
They say that the most talented horses can be difficult to work with and quirky. And this was certainly true for Gilbert. Although he was easy to handle on the ground, he was far from an easy ride, but he had scope to burn. Despite his athletic ability and scope we rarely made it around a cross country course. He didn’t have the heart of a lion, and I wasn’t brave enough to make up for it. Case and point, he is the only horse I have ever know to jump into the water but then stop on the way out.
The stops and the falls
That same athletic ability that enabled Gilbert to turn on a dime between jumps was also used to run out at jumps at the absolute last second. In the early days this ability landed me in the dirt more than once.
The first fall happened under innocent enough circumstances. Mum and I were out for a casual afternoon hack and decided to canter up a gentle hill. The hill was bordered on one side by a wall of sugar cane while the other side was fairly open, with the exception of a small garden shed and a few trees. About halfway up the hill I found myself on my butt, watching Gilbert canter away. After a few strides before he promptly stopped and looked at me as if to say, ‘What are you doing down there?’. That was the first in a series of falls from Gilbert.
Later that same year I had another two falls during training sessions thanks to Gilbert’s habit of ducking out at fences. In the early days, when my legs weren’t ready and my brain didn’t have enough time to catch up. And so I kept going straight over his shoulder. This resulted in two concussions.
These early days with Gilbert that taught me to sit a rapid change in directions, be it a spook or a refusal. But he did still occassionally catch me out, for instance many years later on a trail ride holding the reins on the buckle I found myself completing an unplanned dismount when a phesant popped up out of the cane.
While Gilbert was quick on his feet there was never anything nasty about what he did. I never felt unsafe. And this was integral to rebuilding my shattered confidence.
Ability to jump
Gilbert seemed to take a particular pleasure in displaying his talents. When we moved down to the Sunshine Coast and were waiting for our stables to be built we fed one horse in a timber yard. Gilbert being the older and ostensibly ‘more sensible’ horse was fed in a yard made out of electric tape.
A couple of times I had gone down after breakfast to let the horses out into the paddock for the day only to find that Gilbert was already out. It struck me as being a odd as the gate was still up, but being the teenager that I was, I didn’t give it much more thought. At least not until the day that I came running down the hill only to see Gilbert pop over the electric fence from a stand still. The fence which would have been about 1m high!
And the dressage
With Gilbert I got an insight into what it felt like to truly be in harmony with a horse. You know that state where you and you horse are so in sync everything feels just a bit like silk? The first time I felt this with him was in our dressage test at the Pony Club State Combined Training Championships (2004) which we went on to win. It was one of those perfect rides where the test felt seamless, flowing from one movement to the next. There were many more of these breath taking moments while we were competing at novice level.
As we started to move beyond Novice, we started to struggle, partially due to Gilbert’s tendency to panic internally. While some horses become visually tense and hot, but in the dressage arena Gilbert felt like he panicked on the inside. He could become tight and stop listening. My tension almost mirrored his within the lateral work, as my desperation to make the movements happen caused me to get stiffer and stiffer. This was one of the factors that resulted in me moving onto another horse. That combined with the fact that I was starting to get too tall for him.
Tell us how you really feel
Gilbert wasn’t one to hide his feelings. A memory which is clear as day in my mind, was of washing Gilbert one mid winter’s afternoon in Mackay in preparation for a show the following day, when Gilbert turned around and bit me! I was a momentarily shocked before I realised he was actually quite cold and was justifiably cranky with me for not rugging him straight after his bath.
Several years later on arriving in Toowoomba for the Pony Club State Championships, Gilbert snarled at us the second he saw the stalls and realised the week that was ahead of him. He also became rather grumpy every time he saw his doona rug purchased specially for the occasion. Mum felt this was his way of telling us it was just too heavy for his liking.
There was never any question that Gilbert would live out his days with my family. But when we found Sullivan as my next horse, Mum took over the ride on Gilbert. They had a few great years together until Gilbert started to loose weight and seem less like himself. Like most grey horses Gilbert had numerous melanoma’s covering his dock. Our suspicion was that he had melanoma’s internally that were affecting his ability to digest and absorb his food.
It was then that mum made the decision to have Gilbert put to sleep. She has always been a strong advocate for not allowing our animals to suffer.
It was not a decision that Mum made lightly, but one that she knew was in his best interests. He was a horse that was not only easy to have around, (aside from the need to clip him at least three times each winter) but was so full of personality and gave us both so much. Gilbert left some pretty big shoes to fill and was definitely our horse of a lifetime.