The Giving Horse

Leslie and Rowdy. Xpress Foto. Leslie and Rowdy. Xpress Foto.

For a children’s picture book, Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree is devastatingly poignant. It chronicles the relationship between a tree and a boy, with a narrative that spans the boy’s growth from youth to old age. At each stage of his life, the tree selflessly gifts the boy a part of itself: its boughs to play in, its apples to sell, its branches for building a house, its trunk for building a boat. And with each gift, the sentence: “And the tree was happy.”

In the final pages the boy (now an old man) and the tree (now a stump) meet once more, whereupon the tree laments that it has nothing left to give. But the boy only wants “a quiet place to sit and rest,” which the stump can provide. The story ends, once more, with now solemn words: “And the tree was happy.”

As equestrians, if we’re very, very lucky, we may encounter a “giving horse” in our lives: a too-good-for-this-world equine spirit who loves without condition, trusts without question, and offers without any expectation of return.

For me, that horse was Rowdy Intentions.

WNC Photo.

WNC Photo.

He was my first “real” event horse, bought with my own hard-earned teenage money, who picked up where my lower-level horse left off and carried me on his back into the larger arenas of the sport.

I found him — or rather he found me — in 2000, when I was just out of high school. Rowdy was at a farm outside Austin, Texas, a 6-year-old thoroughbred bought off the track by the lovely Grosvenor family for their 13-year-old daughter Rachel. He was a puppy on the ground but a bit green under saddle for Rachel so they reluctantly put him on the market.

Rachel and Rowdy. Photo courtesy of Carol Grosvenor.

Rachel and Rowdy. Photo courtesy of Carol Grosvenor.

I still have no idea what it was about the VHS footage of him cantering crossrails in a dusty round pen that compelled me to travel over 1,000 miles to see him. He was the first and only horse I looked at but I knew immediately, if inexplicably, that he was “the one.”

The Grosvenors sent him away tearfully but the hand-off endeared us to one another for years. I proudly sent them updates on Rowdy’s new life, and they had me back out to Texas from time to time to teach Pony Club clinics. Rachel is now married, still rides and is a vet, the “when I grow up” dream job I remember her telling me about all those years ago.

As with most things in life, Rowdy immediately embraced my sport of choice. We went out once at Novice then sauntered on up the levels. At times it felt like the blind leading the blind, but he tackled each new question with a well-proportioned ratio of thoughtfulness and bravery.

Photo courtesy of Leslie Wylie.

Leslie and Rowdy. Xpress Foto.

Leslie Wylie and Rowdy Intentions. Photo courtesy of Leslie Wylie.

Leslie and Rowdy. Photo provided by Leslie Wylie.

When I reminisce about Rowdy, eight years worth of ribbons and trophies don’t even make the cut. Instead: Seeing my reflection in his intelligent, liquid brown eyes. Whispering secrets into his ear. The rocking horse swing of his canter. Summer bareback trail rides. Winter morning fox hunts. The confidence coursing through my body when we approached some massive cross country jump because the obstacle was framed between Rowdy’s pricked ears. I knew that if I did my job he’d take care of the rest.

Ironically, this is one of my favorite Rowdy photos. Him so focused on his job that he hasn't yet even noticed that I'm about to go swimming... it was a long, soggy trek back to the barn, and it horses could talk I'm sure he'd be grumbling: "I had that course in the bag, mom. All you had to do was grab mane and hang on but instead...." Photo courtesy of Leslie Wylie.

Ironically, this is one of my favorite Rowdy photos. He’s so focused on the task in front of him that he doesn’t even notice I’m about to go swimming. It was a long, soggy trek back to the barn and if horses could talk I’m sure he’d be grumbling: “I had that course in the bag, mom. All you had to do was grab mane and hang on, but no … I better get some extra carrots for this.” Photo courtesy of Leslie Wylie.

Which is to say, I didn’t always do my job. A consequential, but not in the way you’d expect, example: some years later, during a clinic with a big-name jumper trainer, on the approach to a 4-foot-who-knows-what square oxer during a clinic. Leg off, loop in the reins, crooked approach, Sunday stroll of a canter … I was demonstrating every mistake in the book.

Rowdy, sensing I was going to be of little assistance, took matters into his own hands, balancing himself, putting his feet to the base, and leaping it so gingerly that I could have balanced a tray of champagne in one hand.

After we landed, the trainer raised an eyebrow: “If you ever want to sell this horse, let me know.”

Trying to sound like a cool, wise-to-the-biz professional (I’d recently started doing horses full-time), I laughed, “Well, any horse is for sale for the right price, right?”

“What’s the right price?” she quipped.

I pulled some large, silly number out of the air, just playing along with what I assumed was a game. A few days later she called me up and said she had a client she thought would be a perfect match for my horse.

I hung up the phone and broke down crying. On one hand, if I sold Rowdy, I could get my fledgling teaching/training business off the ground. I could invest in some young prospects. I could have a decent chance of making it in the shark tank of the sport.

On the other hand, how do you sell your best friend?

Meeting the Callahan family immediate assuaged my concerns. There was instant chemistry between Rowdy and Amanda, a hard-working and gifted young rider who was looking to graduate from the pony ring to jumpers. He would live at their quiet, mountaintop mini-farm, his stall just steps from their front door, and want for nothing.

The Callahans know a thing or two about special horses, and I think they sensed that they were getting a buy-one-horse, get-its-previous-owner-free deal. The family welcomed me into their life like an adopted daughter and encouraged me to stay involved with Rowdy’s training program. I gave Amanda lessons and coached her at shows, and they’d send him to me for tune-ups when they were on vacation or Amanda was swamped at school.

Whether competing on the A-circuit, making their eventing debut or just tackling a difficult schooling exercise, nothing has ever made me prouder than watching my old partner showing Amanda the ropes and, in turn, him thriving on her love and enthusiasm. I don’t have kids, but I imagine it must be something akin to the feeling a parent has when, after raising a child to the best of your ability, you send him or her out into the world only to discover that they’re even more amazing than you realized.

Photo courtesy of Amanda Callahan.

Amanda and Rowdy. Photo courtesy of Amanda Callahan.

Photo courtesy of Amanda Callahan.

Amanda and Rowdy. Photo courtesy of Amanda Callahan.

The late teens are precarious years in any girl’s coming-of-age story, and just as Rowdy was a rock through that epoch for me, so was he a rock for Amanda. He saw her through all the same things I’d cried into his mane about so many years before: stressful classes, dumb boys, the more complicated questions of life.

Amanda took him to college at Sewanee with her but, being a serious student chronically prone to stretching herself too thin (she’s now in law school at Tulane), she respected Rowdy too much to watch him collect dust. Once again, a door opened and the perfect home appeared.

I am forever in debt to everyone who has played a role in caring for Rowdy over the years, but none more so than his final “mom” Kaleah Travis. Conventional wisdom advises against investing, emotionally and otherwise, in an aging show horse. Even with no expense spared on maintenance the clock is ticking on a career, and then there’s the commitment of caring for the horse through the twilight years.

That didn’t stop Kaleah from falling head over heels in love with Rowdy, who was by then in his late teens. She recognized that he deserved to be cherished and crowned him the prince of her beautiful Someday Came Stables, even giving him a front-row seat at her wedding.

Kaleah Travis and Rowdy. Photo courtesy of Kaleah Travis.

Kaleah and Rowdy. Photo courtesy of Kaleah Travis.

In return, Kaleah had the honor of accompanying Rowdy through the swan song of his competitive career. She was the last one who would experience the rush of galloping out of the start box on a horse who truly knew and loved his job.

Photo courtesy of Kaleah Travis.

And was always willing to try a new job! In addition to eventing and jumpers, Rowdy even moonlighted on occasion in the hunter/eq ring. Photo courtesy of Kaleah Travis.

Rowdy was always a master of adjusting himself to whomever was on his back, doling out what they needed whether it was a challenge, a confidence boost, or simply “a quiet place to sit and rest.” His final shape-shift, following his show ring grand finale, was into a gentle and patient teacher, introducing Kaleah’s tiniest students to the joy of flight.

Here is Averi jumping Rowdy Intentions during our Summer Camp! Averi is an excellent rider and is always so eager to learn! This young lady is well on her way, keep up the good work!

Posted by Someday Came Stables on Tuesday, July 14, 2015

It would be his final gift. Someday came for Rowdy last weekend when he passed away in colic surgery, brave and stoic to the end with Kaleah at his side.

The good ones always leave too soon although, as Amanda’s mother Becky pointed out: “In a way his passing suddenly is not a surprise. No old age and slow failure for Rowdy; he left this world a fighter just like he lived.”

When I say Rowdy found me, I mean I think he was in all of our lives for a reason, at a specific time, to give us something we needed. I don’t know how I made it into the inner circle of young women’s lives whom he transformed, forever, but I’m grateful. Without him as my anchor, my confidante, my sanctuary, my soulmate, I’m not sure where I’d be today.

But the full weight of just how many lives he touched didn’t hit me until this week, after his passing, when condolences, photos and 15 years of memories came pouring in from every direction, a vast constellation of grief and love bound together by one special equine’s spirit. As Becky put it, “Rowdy didn’t have owners, he collected people on his life’s journey.”

And to all of us, he gave and gave and gave.

To Rowdy the lionhearted, who touched so many lives and was my best friend and partner in flight for so many years, no horse was more loved than you. Godspeed. You are missed. — Leslie

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Leslie and Rowdy.

Rowdy, you taught me how to fly and how to trust. You took care of me on the cross-country course, and got huffy as I did when we practiced dressage. You willingly were my mobile sofa when I would collapse on your neck at the end of a lesson. You brought so much into the lives of your riders and I will always love you and miss you. Rowdykins, I hope your days are now filled with endless fields for you to fly over. — Amanda

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Amanda and Rowdy.

Thank you to my best friend, to the one who always made my heart smile. There are no words to thank you for everything you have done for me, you have made me who I am today and taught me everything I know. You were always the tough one who kept me calm and held it together for me even in our last moments together. You were my rock for so long that I am completely lost without you. There are people all over the world mourning the loss of this sweet soul, from past owners and trainers to acquaintances. Rowdy was truly a once-in-a-lifetime horse that no horse could ever come close to replacing. It breaks my heart that in the end, even after all he has done for so many and all the lives he touched and changed forever, no human hands could save him. God must have needed a new horse because he chose the greatest, most loving, selfless horse there was, my Rowdy Intentions. You will always be loved and missed by many. See you soon my love. — Kaleah

Photo courtesy of Kaleah Travis.

And the horse was happy.

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