[the day he arrived, ten years ago]
i may have felt it coming. or maybe not. there was no calm before it, the storm that is, that hit my life last saturday night while i was riding the train to the airport. in fact, i’d been in an uncomfortably anxious state since the tuesday just three days prior. an inexplicable state of anxiety had enveloped me for reasons i could (and still cannot) hardly begin to decipher. maybe it was my instincts brewing, as if i knew something horrible was on my horizon. impending doom, if you will.
it was one week ago yesterday that my core, that intangible space that resides within us all, gave in, or out, however you prefer to look at it.
i had, just days prior, booked a trip to southern california. palm springs, to be exact. there’s only one reason (that i can think of) that a girl like myself would ever fly to palm springs for a “sunday visit.” that reason would be to spend a day at a horse show hanging out with a very special horse named Corvester and with a group of very special people who ride at a barn called Legacy. i first began riding at Legacy at age ten and to say that horses have been an enormous part of my life ever since (eighteen long years) is a major understatement. anyone who knows me knows my love of horses and riding is extreme. if you’re a horse lover yourself, you’ll be familiar with the concept of having caught “the bug” when you started riding horses. it’s like a disorder, a bad habit, and an addiction all rolled into one :: and it’s the best disorder, bad habit, and addiction i’ve ever had. in so many ways, i truly believe that horses have saved my life (regardless of the fact they’ve been “responsible” for breaking at least six of my bones).
let me tell you a little something about this very special horse named Corvester. he is tall (17.2 hands in horse terms), he is dark brown (dark bay in horse terms), has a tiny white star on his big beautiful face, and loves to eat bananas (peel and all). he is extremely charismatic. he is affectionate. he is smart (smarter than a lot of people i’ve met, actually). he is strong, tough, wise, and silly. he will stand there waiting for you to saddle him up and wiggle his nose enthusiastically left, right, up, and down. the first time people witness this nose wiggle they usually wonder if something is “wrong” with him. no, there is nothing wrong here, trust me (there’d be something wrong if he weren’t doing his nose wiggle). he’s been doing this since my family purchased him ten years ago and he first walked into my life as a spry, wild eyed, and at times devilish ten year old. there was a time (about the first five years we owned him) that he was affectionately nicknamed “killer.” he has thrown many well known, well established, and extremely talented professionals on the ground just because he can and he probably just “felt like it.” he has a wild side to him that cannot be easily predicted, denied, or avoided. he will be turning twenty years old on May 18th and i am proud to say that in the last two weeks he has successfully thrown two different people on the ground at the horse show (one of whom he tossed off twice in the same day – sorry, Diane!).
it’s not that he’s a bad horse with a bad heart, quite the opposite. he’s the f*cking best horse with the biggest heart i’ve ever known. it’s just that, sometimes, i think he feels it necessary to remind everyone around him who’s really in charge. it’s easy to take Corvester for granted because he’s such a good boy. beginners and professionals alike can ride him around without trouble. he’s ready, willing, and able. he’s the perfect teacher to any beginner (because he’s both calm and patient) and the perfect challenge to any professional (because he’s so well schooled). but, but, he’s got this tremendous fire in him that still, ten years later, has yet to fade. and i love him more for that and expected nothing less from him.
we imported Corvester from Portugal in April of 2002. i had spent two short days in the south of Spain “trying” horses, in an attempt to find a horse suitable for me to buy. after sitting on fifteen (if not more) some odd horses in two days, Corvester was the last horse i sat on. i had tried many great horses, many of which i thought would be suitable for me. but, none of them felt quite right. none of them were “the one.” trying horses is like dating men, forever in search of the perfect match. you may kiss and date many that are wonderful, but until you feel you’ve found “the one,” your instincts will tell you to keep looking.
[the nose wiggle + banana]
i’ll never forget that day, in the south of Spain, ten years ago, when i first rode Corvester, who is now known around the barn as Mr. Bigs, due to his stature and personality. the man we purchased him from was a 6’6″ portugese man. that is a very tall man, very tall indeed, and he fit Bigs perfectly. at 5’8″, i am not considered to be a short female, but i felt very much like a fly on Corvester’s back when i first sat on him. my first impression of Bigs? this has got to be the most uncomfortable horse i’ve ever ridden. it’s true, it’s a fact. he’s a bumpy guy. when i rode him around that large grass field of a warm up ring under a beautiful spanish sun, i was impressed by his energy, build, and power, but for the love of god – he was so f*cking uncomfortable i was damn near ready to cry and throw in the towel. my back, legs, neck, everything were hurting so badly. his trot was absurdly bouncy and his canter was downright painful. it took all of my muscle mass to sit on his back quietly, so much so that i spent the majority of this first ride standing in my stirrups to avoid, as best i could, his poor suspension. it felt as if i were riding an unstable locomotive that had just been derailed. and he was wild as all h*ll. his ears were perked up and he was chomping on the bit, eager to gallop and run a muck. of all of the horses i’d sat on, knowing he was the last one i had the time left to try, i was sure he was not going to be “the one.”
and then, and then, we started jumping. we began jumping low (around 3′) and in less than five minutes, i was sailing over 4’6″ oxers with Corvester below me. over the fences, he was more than just comfortable, he was like butter. the higher the fences, the smoother he felt. the ride between those fences were of absolutely no concern to me. that intense discomfort that i’d previously felt (and the oh my god this horse’s stride is literally going to snap my spine) completely dissolved. i had the opportunity to take him around a course of 12 or so 4’6″-5′ fences in a large grass field and all i can really remember is emerging from that grass ring beaming. the smile on my face could not be erased. and then i knew it, i just did. he was “the one.” the trainer who was with me sensed my euphoric state and said, “ok. that’s it. pack it, ship it, and deliver it.”
however, when “trying” horses, it’s not that easy. a horse must be put through “the vet” test. x-rays, blood work, flexion tests, and the like need to take place so that the buyer can feel rest assured that this horse is sound and in good health. i stood there while the vet performed his various tests. they were all speaking Spanish and Portugese, i had no idea what was going on. i was terrified that he wouldn’t pass the vet inspection, that some ailment would crop up (as it does in many cases during a vet test), and we’d be told he was no good, not worth buying.
what happened next i will never forget for the rest of my life. i was standing there, with my trainer, the vet, Corvester’s then owner, and Corvester’s personal handler. his personal handler was an old (well over sixty), wrinkled, and weathered man who was no taller than my shoulders. he had been Corvester’s handler since Corvester was around two years old. this old man loved this horse. i could see in his eyes this deep deep sadness at the prospect of Corvester no longer being in his care. while the vet ran his tests and did his thing, this man stood there solemnly holding Corvester’s lead rope. his eyes were filled was tears, though i never saw a single one roll down his cheek. i felt this horrible sense of guilt, like there was no way i could take this horse away from this man. but at the same time, i felt that i was there to receive Corvester. that it was my time to put him into my care and that i would be the next chapter in Corvester’s life. i wanted this man to know that if Corvester passed the vet check, he would be in the very best hands. this man did not speak a lick of english, nor i portugese, but i shook his hand. i embraced him tightly, and i cried. he put his hand on my arm as if to thank me and i do believe, at this point, he understood that if Corvester was going to go home with me, he would be well taken care of for the rest of his life. actions speak louder than words, do they ever.
so, now that you’ve “met” Corvester, i will tell you the tale from last saturday night. i was riding the subway (the BART) headed towards SFO to catch my plane south. during this train ride, i received a call from Shelly. Shelly is the gal who i have been riding with for eighteen years. she and i keep in fairly good contact, but we have not regularly called each other since i moved to san francisco. i knew that she knew that i was headed south, so i figured she was calling me about staying at her rented house or what have you. i was completely unprepared for what fell from her lips.
“Corvester is very very sick. he has a really bad case of colic. the vet will wait until the morning to see how he is, but the vet’s given him a 15% chance of survival at this time.” rational jessi kicked in immediately and merely replied, “oh my god. i’ll take a taxi directly to the show grounds – see you in a few hours.” Shelly was going to be spending the night there and i was going to join her, no question about it. the ride on the BART to SFO is about 45 minutes. those were possibly the worst 45 minutes of my life. i broke down in tears. i clutched my duffel bag. i rocked back and forth in the train seats, plenty of people staring at me. i willed the train to move faster so i could get to the airport faster so i could get to the plane faster so i could get to Corvester faster. my whole world blew up in my face. i couldn’t call anyone, i didn’t want to plant such a seed with anyone. i didn’t want anyone to know what was happening. that Corvester was likely going to be put down come morning, according to the vet. i wanted this to all pass like a bad bad dream.
i forced myself to call my mother from the airport. i needed to cry to someone. i sat there, at my gate, clutching my carry on bag, rocking back and forth, tears streaming down my face. i was in shock, panic, disbelief. losing Bigs would be like losing my own child. losing Bigs isn’t as option. it can’t happen. not like this. and then it all sort of hit me in a strange way. why had i so suddenly booked my tickets south? why had i just a week prior started painting his portrait on a huge 5’x5′ canvas? on any other saturday night i would have very likely been sitting in my apartment and hearing this terrible news with no way to get to palm springs quickly. this sequence of events was all so visceral. it is at a time like this that i thought and said to myself, “i was supposed to book those tickets. i am supposed to be with him. this is not a coincidence, this is something larger.” along side that train of thought, i kept repeating to myself, “please wait for me, Bigs. please, please wait for me. please, don’t go anywhere without me. i’m coming, i’m coming, just as fast as i can. please hold on until i get there.“
[my tack trunk “bed”]
i finally arrived at the show grounds around 11:30pm. Shelly greeted me with an intense hug and i visited Bigs. there was an IV in his stall for him, but his state had improved a considerable amount from the time that Shelly first called me three hours prior. she was in a state of disbelief over how much better he suddenly seemed to be feeling. i just kept thinking, “we’re not out of the woods yet.” colic in horses is vicious, it can begin slowly and turn fatal without much warning – and vice versa. it’s a hell of an ailment that many horses suffer from. hearing your horse has a bad case of colic is more or less like hearing your horse is likely on their death bed.
Shelly wandered off to a heated room off the main aisle in the barn to catch some rest. i grabbed a dirty saddle pad (to act as a pillow) and two wool horse blankets and curled up on the tack trunk outside of Corvester’s stall. it was under 40 degrees and my whole body was hurting, but i was exactly where i wanted to be. Bigs watched me and i watched him. i think i got around 2 or so hours of sleep that night (interrupted). every sound i heard stirred me alert, fearing that Bigs was feeling worse. he munched on his hay and drank his water. i got up about every hour, just to hug him and hold him tight. i was a mess of tears, but next to him i felt stronger. i felt that we, together, would be able to make it through the night. he knew i was there and i do believe my being there gave him strength to recover. at 3:15am i heard a bang, bang, bang on his stall door. i awoke suddenly, bolting to my feet, to see what was going on. his head hung out of his stall and he just stood there staring at me with a twinkle in his eye, a twinkle i hadn’t seen when i’d first arrived. i raised up my arms and looked at him and said rather sarcastically, “what do you want?” he just stared at me and went back to munching on his hay.
but that’s Corvester. he would do that. he’d bang on his gate to rile me up, just to make sure i was still there, and then go about his business. i cried when he did this. i cried because i saw that sparkle in his eye and i knew he’d be okay. i knew he was back. not 100%, but i knew the worst was over. he’d just gone out of his way to bang on his door to wake me up only to ignore me and eat his hay. that is the kind of thing he would do, being the character that he is. he woke me up just to tell me he was going to be okay, i’m sure of this.
that’s when i rose from the trunk i’d been trying to sleep on, found a bike, and took a ride around the show grounds. horse shows are my old stomping grounds. i’d never actually been to Thermal before. years prior it was at another show grounds, called Indio – somewhere i had been. so, in the pitch black, i rode this
stolen temporarily borrowed bike to the grand prix ring. i parked the bike and walked the next day’s course, in the dark. i took a handful of the sand footing in my hands and gripped at it, allowing it to fall through my fingers. i walked the entire course and counted all the strides. then i rode back and continued to lie on the trunk outside his stall, keeping one ear open at all times.
4:30 rolled around and Shelly woke up. the grooms came in around 5:00am. and by 7:00am the vet came around. he checked Bigs over and was in disbelief. he looked at me with a completely straight face and said, “your horse is a miracle. i really really didn’t think he’d make it to see the morning.”
euphoria swept over me like, well, like nothing i can describe. Corvester is my miracle horse, my miracle man. he is my world. the vet said he should be walked every two to three hours, just to make sure his tummy kept things moving to insure a full recovery. so, every few hours, i put a helmet on my head, a bridle on his, and took him for a thirty minute stroll (saddle free) around the show grounds on both sunday and monday. being the great horse he is, he still got frisky with me. he perked up and pranced with me on his back. i took him to the grand prix field on sunday afternoon to watch the grand prix (the big event of every week – the event that he and i used to compete in together). he got so amped up he damn near dragged me into the grand prix ring while the big class was going on. can we say best horse ever?
[mr. bigs, in all his glory. the love of my life. the day after surviving a near fatal case of colic.]
this horse is my life. he is me. he is my love. without him, i am not me. he and i are like one united force when placed together. as many stunts as he has been known to pull with other people, he hasn’t pulled them with me. we have an understanding. we have an unrivaled love for each other. he’s my Mr. Bigs. there’s nothing that will ever get in the way of a girl and her horse, i assure you of that.
2 responses to “ode to Mr. Bigs, the long version.”
love mr. bigs – he’s a beautiful brave old soul…
Such a beautiful tribute to a beautiful horse by a beautiful soul.
Bigs is so many things to so many people. It must truly be astounding to share your life with such an animal. Having been Bigs massage therapist for the last ten years, I know firsthand the magnificence of this animal. As you say, he is proud and noble but also silly and affectionate. His body has been a landscape that I have cherished and I have learned a great deal from the hours I have had the pleasure to spend with him. I cannot think of you without thinking of all the wonderful horses you have had over the years and picturing you riding around the ring on Tickles or Will or Bigs. And even though I have watched you limp out of the aisleway nearly crippled from that washing-machine trot of his…I have never, ever seen you anything less than glowing in his presence. I am sorry you did not have more arms around you during all of this…it broke my heart to picture you crying on the train, but this is what it means to love so deeply. The depth of our love is often discovered during the deepest of sorrows. I am so glad you and Big pulled through once again.