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The American Saddle Horse THE LITTLE OLD MAN shuffled into the grandstand and looked around happily. Sometimes a fellow had to do things on the spur of the moment, like stopping off at the State Fair. Made him feel coltish. It had been a long time since he'd seen a good show for his money. A warm feeling came over him as he opened his program to the same page as the other folks had theirs. He could read the big type without his glasses. SADDLE HORSE DIVISION OPEN FIVE GATED CLASS. He wouldn't bother with the tiny flyspeck type. Didn't know horses or riders any more anyway.
The announcer's voice cut in. "Reverse your horses, please. We will now repeat all five gaits going clockwise of the ring. Trot your horses, please."
The old man let himself be lost in the ring. Bay horses, a gray, sorrel horses with flaxen tails, sorrels with dark tails. And then, flashing from behind, a blue-black stallion his coat shining like a beetle in the sun.
"Shades of Rex McDonald!" the old man gasped, his eyes fondling the animal as if some dream had suddenly taken form.
He sat bolt upright, his mind leaping across the years. He was a young man, watching a young horse. No! He was that horse. That blue-black bullet, prancing around the rings, all over Kentucky, all over Missouri. Walking, trotting, cantering, stepping, racking. He was grand champion of the world. He was Rex McDonald!
Eyes fixed on the black image, he fumbled for gold-rimmed glasses, found them, put them on. Now for a look at the entries' names. Number Seven Rex Midnight. "The blood is there; his blood!"
Bay horses, sorrel horses, horses with white markings. Colors blurred in the old eyes like raindrops coming together on a windowpane. How long had they been trotting down there in the ring? One minute? Five minutes? That girl on Number Seven. "Let 'im go, girl. Pick the snaffle to set his head. You're plucking a harpstring, girl. Be delicate fingered."
The announcer's voice was a quick patter in time to the trot. "It's an open class, ladies and gentlemen. Open to horses of all ages, open to all riders. "
Oldtimer's eyes were everywhere at once, comparing, judging. That sorrel with the flaxen tail. Mostly looks. He felt an elbow in his ribs, heard a young voice say, "Look at that black beauty pop his hocks! He's good fore and aft! "
Pride welled up in the old man. "'Course he's good. Got Rex McDonald's blood."
"Too bad he's slow, though."
"Slow? He ain't slow! See that sorrel trotting in front and hopping behind? That's what happens when you take 'em on too fast."
Along the rail grooms and owners were crying to the riders as they went by. "Set his head! Take him on! Gather him!"
The old man cried out, too. "Just let him tromp, girl! " But his voice was lost in the boom of the loudspeaker.
"Walk your horses. Let them walk, please."
Twice around the ring. All the horses going airy and bright.
Oldtimer caught snatches of talk around him.
"Only two amateurs riding, the man on the gray and the girl on the black."
"The black won all his junior contests last year."
"Sure he did, but the trainer showed him then. What can a spindling girl do in big competition?"
The old man bristled. "What can she do? She can let her horse do it, that's what." He ran gnarled fingers through his white thatch, remembering when Rex McDonald walked like this, bouncy-like. But his mind was on tiptoe, waiting. Any good Saddlebred could do the natural gaits. The test was yet to come.
"Canter your horses, please. The judge likes rhythm here, not speed, folks."
Impatiently the old man watched the rocking horses down there in the ring, traveling slowly, smooth as a waltz, never speeding up. He took a breath, waiting.
"Walk your horses again, please."
Twice around. All the horses brisk. No one wilting but the old man. He loosened his tie, stuffed it into his pocket, his eyes on the announcer's box.
"Now slow-gait your horses, please."
At last! Here it is! The difficult man-made gait, the gait that leads up to something. The slow motion, the inheld power. The blue-black lifting the left forefoot, holding it poised one split second. Lifting the left hind foot, holding it as if he spurned the earth beneath. Now the right fore high, now the right hind. Up, hesitate; up, hesitate. The girl on Number Seven is smiling. She can feel each beat of the gait. She knows it's right. It's the stepping pace.
The old man laughs out. "Look at that black devil with the angel on his back she can make him strut in front and squat behind! " He nudges the ribs next to him.
"Young fellow, see that creature walking uphill on a flat piece of ground? There he is, that blue-black Number Seven."
Suddenly the old man grows fearful. He wants yet dreads the next words. He tries to stay them, but they burst forth splitting the air like a bugle.
Bay horses, a gray, sorrel horses. The old man sweeps them all away. Sure. They know the rack is the steppin' pace set to full speed. They can do it. They're all five-gaiters, ain't they? But with the sweat gleaming black the rack seems not a gait at all. It is a kind of glory. He is scudding clouds instead of tanbark, sailing along, passing other horses as if they did not exist. Suddenly at the turn a sorrel cuts in, almost causing a collision. It's the sorrel ahead now, the black trailing.
But on the straightaway.... "By gum, look at Rex pass! He's racking a hole in the ground, leading the whole clang parade!"
The old man is tiring. "Rex can't keep it up forever, judge! Don't you know the strain of it? Tendons ain't pistons, judge. Don't you know it?"
And then, when he can stand it no longer, the loud voice comes to his rescue. "Walk your horses, please. Walk your horses."
A wave of relief washes over the old man. The riders too relax, and the girl gives a saucy flirt of her coattails. He shouts out to her, "Well done, Black Angel!" But he is not alone. The crowd is shouting, too, trying to fill in the eternity of moments while the judge slowly marks his card, slowly steps up to the announcer. "Ladies and gentlemen," the voice raps out," we now have the judge's decision.
The blue and the trophy go....
A lump rises in the old man's throat, but his lips cry the words in unison with the announcer: " to Number Seven!"
Spent and happy, the little old man puts on his tie, squares his hat on his head, and shuffles down out of the grandstand. What a show he's seen for his money!
That's how it is with Saddlebred horses. They are the world's greatest show horses. Beautiful outside and game inside. Today's Number Seven would lack that touch of greatness had it not been for Rex McDonald and others like him. There are others, you know. But don't let the little old man hear you say so. There's Denmark Number One, foundation sire of the breed. His was Thoroughbred blood and he transmitted his fire to Rex and to the blue-black, too.
The American Saddle Horse, with his refinement of gaits and his animation and beauty, does not belong just to his owner or trainer. He belongs to the show ring, where he can bring joy and thrills to thousands of "ringside riders." He is like a Caruso, like any great artist. He belongs to the wide world to you and to me and to the little old man crying his lungs out for Number Seven.
Copyright © 1993 by Marguerite Henry