That same Arizona festival weekend, I got my first opportunity to ride an OTTB (off the track Thoroughbred). River was a tall, black, gorgeous gelding, who was only about five years old. He was much better mannered than I had anticipated, because my very limited exposure to race horses had left me with the impression that they had no ground manners and could only go fast and turn left. The Barn Boss had picked him up at an auction after he’d been retired from racing. Apparently, River wasn’t the fastest horse on the track and, therefore, not worth much. Being young and already broke was a plus, because that meant that the Barn Boss would get several years’ worth of work out of him.
At that stage of my riding career, I was still into tall horses; I hadn’t been exposed to small, agile cattle ponies yet, so of course, when given my choice of wrangler horses, I chose River. He reminded me of my favorite wrangler horse back home, RC, who was also a tall black gelding. River and I got along fabulously during the first day of the festival and he did everything I asked of him. He was easy going and calm, even when I asked him to drag an eighty pound bale from one point to the next. He just let me hook up to the bale, take a dally around the horn and dragged that bale like he’d been doing it all his life. To this day, I can’t remember why we had to move the bale, but we did and he pulled it like a champ.
Even throughout the chaos with the trailer getting shot at he was easy going, so it was a cinch that I’d choose him for day two of the festival. Once we were set up, again working out of the stock trailer, I mounted up on River, who had to be close to seventeen hands – he was honestly one of the tallest horses I’ve ever ridden – and backed him away from the trailer. About three steps back, I laid the reins across his neck to turn him left, fully expecting him to pivot on his hindquarters like every other trail horse I’d ever ridden. He knew what I wanted and attempted to comply, but had no idea how to do it. His whole life had been forward driven; shifting his weight to his rear end to free up his front end was a concept he’d never even heard of. He tried, though. His weight shifted left, his right leg crossed over his left, which stayed planted where it was, and we began our slow topple to the ground.
I’ve been bucked off of horses; I’ve fallen off of horses. Heck, I’ve even been on a horse that has fallen down, but I’ve never been on a horse that just…tipped over and didn’t try to save itself. It was like riding a slowly falling giant. I had time to kick my feet out of the stirrups and wait as he fell. Once he tipped over far enough for my foot to touch the ground, I just…stepped off and that was it. He lay on his side for a minute, like, “what just happened?” before struggling back up to standing.
Turns out, River had horrible arthritis in his left shoulder, so when I asked him to pivot to the left, his shoulder just couldn’t do it and locked into place, which is why he didn’t scramble to regain his balance. The poor sweetheart couldn’t do it. Had his weight shifted to his rear, it might have been a different story, but since his weight was still forward, his front legs basically had the movement of dried cement. I damn nearly cried, but he picked himself back up and was ready to go. I felt guilty riding him the rest of the day, even though he didn’t seem to be in pain and was more than willing to do everything I asked without hesitation. Probably, his arthritis wouldn’t have flared up if I hadn’t used him to drag the bale the night before, but who would have thought that such a young horse would have such bad arthritis?