Tuesday, September 05, 2000

Whisper - Barb Thomas

It was November, 1971. The tiny black Morab filly with a white blaze stood dejectedly in the pasture and stole the heart of a fifteen-year-old girl. At six months and just weaned, the barn manager said she`s just a whisper of a thing, so Whisper became her name. Dr. Alatis and his family of Vienna, Virginia owned Whisper. Dr. Alatis owned a Morgan stallion named Little David (or King David?) and an Arabian mare. Not content to live in separate fields, the mare joined the stallion for a secret tryst. On May 12, 1971, the "secret" was born and Dr. Alatis named the filly David`s Bethsheba, after the biblical story of David and Bethsheba. Somehow, to me, the name didn`t fit; the mare should have been Bethsheba, not the baby. So I stuck with the name Whisper. Working cleaning stalls and flipping burgers, I was able to save the $275 it took to buy her. Whisper shared a 20-acre pasture with a dozen other horses until she became ill with a respiratory infection. There were no stall available, so the stable owner boarded off the end of the barn aisle, put in a gate, and viola!, a baby stall! Throughout her illness, she was a great patient but when she was better, she let the whole barn know by standing in the back corner of her "stall" and jumping out over the front wall! She`s hated stalls ever since and from then on always made her wants very clear to her human companions.

Whisper was a teenage girl`s dream come true. Living out the romance of owning a horse, she was my constant companion. After school, I`d lead her everywhere…to the local store, on the trails, to the swimming hole, back to my suburban tract house about 2 miles from the barn. One of the traits of a Morab is their love and trust of their owners. There wasn`t a place that I took her that she wouldn`t follow willingly. Often the lead rope was just tossed over her neck and she followed, stopping only to eat grass. (Another Morab trait…never starve yourself!) Not only was she a young filly fulfilling my own My Friend Flicka dream, she was going to be gray on top of it all! Don`t know what it is about young girls and gray horses but I think it`s the dream of a beautiful gray, flying over jumps and galloping across the field that puts stars in a girl`s eyes. She was every shade of gray…blue roan, steel gray, dappled gray with a black mane and tail, and finally, flea-bitten with a dazzling pearl white mane and tail. As I look back now, that poor horse had to suffer every idea of "proper care" that a fifteen-year old could inflict. Legs were wrapped, bell boots on, blankets, sheets, baths, braiding, mane pulling, primping, spraying and shining, all patiently tolerated. She was shown "in-hand" in grooming and conditioning and color classes at local shows as a yearling. We were all showing pony hunters at the time, so of course, that would be her "career".

The hunter circuit of the 70`s followed many Thoroughbred track traditions for training. Horses were "backed" at 18 months, ridden at 2 and started showing under saddle soon thereafter and Whisper was no exception. Another Morab trait is intelligence and ability to learn. Having watched other horses ridden and being ponied by them, when I bitted and saddled her she said, "OK". When I backed her, she stood and said "OK". In fact, she wouldn`t move at all! So much for the bucking bronco theory! Throughout her training, she never said no. As a two-year-old, with just two weeks of riding, she won her first pony hunter under saddle class. I have to admit I was quite the little pony hunter snob! We had the Crosby Prix des Nations jumping saddle, the rolled English bridle, the Pytchley riding coat, leather boots, proper pads, leather splint boots and bell boots. I bought everything except the coat out of my after school earnings. The coat was a gift from my mom, who was terrified of horses, puzzled by her horse-crazy daughter, and who I`m sure said many rosaries and prayers for my protection! Whisper tolerated it all but down inside, this just wasn`t her thing.

Fortunately, her size (or lack of it) changed her career path. She matured at 13.3 hands and I was rapidly approaching 18 years old. After 18, I was no longer eligible to show pony hunter. Give up Whisper or give up the potential of the hunter circuit? Easy choice, good-bye show ring!

I`d heard about this sport called Competitive Trail Riding from a friend, Heather Horn. Heather and I went to the very first Old Dominion Endurance ride in Leesburg, VA. to help out with the ride. No one warned us that it only takes once to become an addict!! We began riding trails and at the age of three (almost 4), Whisper was Grand Champion at the Doncaster 20-mile judged pleasure ride. When she was four, she completed the Doncaster 40-mile CTR. On both rides, she was a nut case...just not in front of the judges, smart girl! She wanted to go! Forget this 5 or 7 mph pace, she made it clear that endurance was her sport of choice!

We did a few more CTRs, then took a break while I went to college at Penn State. There, Whisper became a mom, producing a beautiful blood bay colt (geez, another romance!) by a Polish Arabian stallion named Valentez. Jesse was a ham, with his mother`s personality and sense of humor and his father`s stature and handsome looks. Unfortunately, an illness took him from us as a late two-year old and he died on Christmas Eve…a gift to Baby Jesus, I always said!

College was over and I started my "real job" with a medical research firm in Virginia (and later cancer research and pharmaceuticals). Whisper was now grossly overweight (like I said, they`ll never starve themselves!) and out of condition. I attended every available seminar on endurance and conditioning, worked on rides, and slowly brought her back into shape. In the summer of 1980, we did our first 50-mile endurance ride, finishing strongly and in 11th place on the Old Dominion 50. She was a firecracker, never wanting to stop, pulling as hard at the end as she was at the start. It was there that we discovered another "gear" at the trot! Never before had she done this, but her Morgan blood kicked in and there was this incredible Roadster trot! Her tiny feet barely touch the ground and she pushed off her hindquarters with amazing strength. It was like riding a sonnet. Perfect cadence, perfect balance, absolutely airy and smooth! We were passing seasoned horses with riders` jaws dropping as we flew by at a trot to their canter. One man looked at her and said what she was doing was impossible, the length of stride was too big for her little size. I just smiled and waved as we went on down the trail.

Now 50`s were fine, but we were ready to try a hundred. The Old Dominion Hundred to be exact. It was the first year the ride was held in Front Royal, Virginia. We were told it was tough and we prepared for it carefully. Being Miss Independent that I was, I chose to ride Cavalry, without a crew. Being young and foolish and having an iron butt, I also rode it in jeans and the Crosby Prix des Nations. It was breathtakingly beautiful with mist rising from the fields as we trotted along the dirt lanes in the silent coolness of the morning. Crossing the Shenandoah at McCoy`s Ford was a delight. The water was bathtub warm and up to Whisper`s shoulder. I carried little baggies of grain and tubes of electrolytes for Whisper, Gatorade, trail mix, and a sandwich for myself. Things were great for about the first 60 miles, then, for the first time in her life, Whisper said, "whoa, what`s going on here. I don`t think I like this anymore!" We were alone for about 15 miles and Whisper "hit the wall" mentally. We caught up with Rick Hill just before a vet check, which perked Whisper up, and we rode the rest of the way together. Now, Rick was a local resident and rode the trails often. Good thing, because I was never so grateful to have a big white Arab butt in front of me as I was that night in the pitch dark over Sherman`s Gap! Rick was wonderful and at each vet check when I wanted to pull, he`d encourage me. The vets looked at Whisper, declared her in great shape and kicked me out of each one, threatening to close the next check if we didn`t move along. For those of you who have ridded the OD and wonder about the cut-off times at the holds, you have Rick and I to blame for them; we set the slow pace! We crossed McCoy`s in the moonlight and Whisper said, "Hey, I know where we are and home and food is over that way!" We flew that last 12.5 miles! Just before the last climb, there was a wide creek. I got off in the water to cool Whisper down and planned to tail up the climb. I hopped back on until we got to the hill and found out that getting wet was a big mistake! My legs were numb and I couldn`t get off the horse. My sweet little pony carried my dead weight up that mountain like a trooper. We finished in 23.5 hours. I slid off and got the saddle and bridle off. By then my legs hurt so bad, I could hardly move, my hands were shaking and numb. I went into the tent to get my wet jeans off. Forty-five minutes later, I was still trying to get them off. Matthew Mackay-Smith came to my tent and told me I only had 15 minutes left to present Whisper for final vetting. He saw my plight and offered to trot her out for me. I looked at him tearfully and said "You can`t, I`m riding Cavalry!" He was very sweet as he gently explained to me that I was not in contention for the award since some other riders top-tenned and could he please help me and trot Whisper out for me. We walked over arm in arm in the early dawn and I watched as my little Morab with a big heart trotted soundly and passed the final vetting.

We continued in endurance for a few more years and finished every ride we started. Then my life took another path and I stopped competing for a time. Whisper remained my riding companion and produced a filly, again by an Arabian stallion, Jazz Singer. Jazz at Dawn was sold as a three-year old to a woman in New England. Whisper taught all my nieces to ride, plus a few neighbor kids. The highlight of her teaching career was teaching a young girl who was blind. Krissy was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare form of eye cancer, at age three and within a year, lost both eyes to the disease. She would come out with my friend Cathy and "see" Whisper with her hands. Whisper sensed that Krissy was a special child and never did anything to frighten her. In one lesson, Cathy was leading Whisper and looking ahead when Whisper slowed and stopped. Kathy looked back and Krissy had slipped sideways in the saddle and was halfway to the ground. Whisper knew her little friend was in trouble, stopped, and patiently waited for help. No spooking, no mis-step, just plain old Morab common sense.

Through all the good and bad times of my life, Whisper has been there, moving with me on the east coast and finally here, to California. Though she`s always been a feisty and opinionated mare, she`s always given 150%. At age 27, she foundered severely and I thought it was going to be the end. She fought back bravely and after almost three months of barely being able to stand, she turned around and pulled out of it. Last year, at the Norco Endurance rides, we held a five-mile retired partner`s honor ride. She was back in her element and took off with me for the entire 5 miles! She was 28 and her feet had completely recovered.

Now, at age 29, with Cushings, she`s beginning to slow a bit. We still go out on little trail rides and except for a bit of arthritis in her right front, she`s sound. In the last few months, it`s been harder to keep weight on her and she`s eating wet Senior feed as a necessary part of her ration for the first time. I know the time will come for us to say good-bye and I pray that when the time comes, it will be peaceful, with her head on my shoulder, looking out to the trails she loves so much. After that, I will fly back to Virginia with her ashes and we`ll climb Sherman`s Gap together again. She`ll stay there, welcoming every horse from the Old Dominion at the top of the climb.

Only once in a lifetime is someone lucky enough to have a perfect relationship. Mine started at age 15 with a tiny black Morab filly with a white blaze.