Gee Gee was on the line. She had a colorful history that started with the Cole Bros Circus in the forties where she rode a roman team of sixteen horses in spec and adopted the gruff demeanor that brought about success in this tough industry. She had recently retired her husky dog act where she dressed in a revealing furry Eskimo outfit and made an entrance on a dog sled pulled by huskies that caused a sensation everywhere she performed. She still had three elephants. They toured the show circuit with her handler while she stayed home and ran the office. Gee Gee was a savvy operator. From her desk surrounded by 8×10 black and white photographs of circus performers, she coordinated acts with engagements and served as an agent.
“God dammit, Dave,” she shouted over the phone, “you just got to come see these mules.”
My first thought, what in heavens name am I going to do with a mule?
Betty was a jet-black animal with an animated trot and a pretty face. It was love at first sight. There was also a pink-skinned white one with a juggy looking head that did not impress me.
As I studied this black mule, I came up with justification for having her around; ‘She’ll make a wonderful companion for the horse.’
One more mouth to feed wouldn’t be too much trouble. Gee Gee came out from her house, told me the story of how this baby animal came here and soon thereafter, Betty became part of my family.
Through Society horse contacts across the country, conversations occurred for performing opportunities in that demographic. A producer in Chicago explored options for a performance show at the Big D Saddle Horse Show in Dallas. I received a phone call with an invitation to perform at that major horse show. The Big D included not only Saddlebred horses but Morgans, Hackney ponies and Tennessee Walking horses with plenty of categories for each breed.
The four-day event took place annually at the coliseum on the fairgrounds in Dallas. The reason for the special program of acts was to add entertainment as an attempt to appeal to an outside audience, sell tickets and fill the seats. She wanted my act as the performance feature. Class n Sass received top billing among the other performing acts that included Paso Finos, roman riders, rope spinners, a cowboy square dance team on horses and a girl that had a horse that did some tricks.
I recognized this as a major opportunity in my career as a dancing horse trainer and intended to do everything I could to do an especially good job. With plenty of time to prepare before the autumn show, training sessions with my horse took on a new dimension. I had extra energy and motivation with this goal in sight.
An awareness grew in regard to my alcohol consumption and how it might interfere with this professional aspiration. I had developed the pattern of drinking every day. This awareness mixed with my desire to do the best possible job, so I quit all beer intake three weeks prior to the event. The advance publicity efforts designed to generate excitement in Texas did also in me. I enjoyed hearing the news and seeing ads with ‘Class n Sass’ billed as an equine ballerina.
When I arrived in Dallas prior to the event, I had ample time to assess the situation, collaborate with the announcer and the music and lighting fellows. With this team, we came up with the criteria and agenda for presenting my act. The following is what we planned.
Prior to my entrance, the building went dark by killing all the house lights. I was poised in the entrance chute. Our announcement came next.
“Ladies and gentlemen, calling your attention to a special presentation,” the ring announcers voice echoed throughout the cavernous building, “the one and only equine ballerina; Class n Sass, the beautiful American Saddlebred dancing horse.”
“Brought to you here for the very first time for your entertainment pleasure, trained and presented by Dave Knoderer,” he continued, “please welcome this dancing duo.”
Synchronized to start at the end of the introduction, the organist played the theme music from Star Wars. Two follow spot lights came on at precisely the same time. This illuminated one specific area in the pitch blackness and revealed the horse and rider as we entered the arena floor doing the spectacular, elevated trot known as the passage.
We began to cover ground in the cavernous arena with a path that included several voltes, or small circles, along the way. Her gait in perfect time with the music, showcased just one ability Sassy was proficient with. This manner of starting the act also allowed me to acknowledge the entire crowd while we moved in front of the seating to eventually arrive front and center to begin our usual routine.
At the circus, I used every bit of the forty-two-foot circle called the ring. Here, the vast expanse had an obstacle in the middle; a latticework, extensively decorated arbor-like area for the officials, trophies, their attendants, a photographer and the organist. I modified the path of my routine to present all the features of the act in front of as many in the audience as possible. As the loopy path of alternating voltes yielded to the lateral side-passes, the announcer made his running comments about the training of the Haute E’cole or High School horse.
After the final side-pass, the first of the leg extensions began. The first movement was the triple-three-step – three strikes with the same leg followed by two forward steps. The movement looked like left, left, left, walk, walk and then right, right, right, walk, walk etc. The nice thing about this introductory extension exercise was that forward momentum was established and continued as we changed to the other variations that included the three-step, which was similar.
The three-step looked like; left, walk, walk, right, walk, walk, left, etc. The path of the three-step encircled the entire arena so everyone could see. When we once again arrived at the front side, the three-step changed into the march – leg extension every stride – up the front straightaway. We marched forward up the front side and eventually reached the place where we changed direction from a stop.
Our backwards-extension movements were next. The backwards-double-three-step looked like: strike, strike, back, back, strike, strike, back, back, etc. We backed across the arena in this fashion. This preceded the spectacular breakdown bow where I gave her the cue to plant her front feet and she leaned backwards until her front feet were well out in front of her and her chest was just inches off the ground. As she held this position, the organist played a long chord and I made my sweeping style gesture that promoted applause.
We rose up and came out of this pose. The organist did a tease with the staccato opening notes of the popular show tune ‘New York, New York’ and Sassy began her elevated, hesitation-trot gait known as the passage, seemingly in time with the music. She could do this movement all day long. The stunning animation of this exercise was the strongest feature of our presentation. The horse aficionados in the audience really sat up to take notice of this. The focus of their training was typically elsewhere as they perfected rapid animation and speed with their horses.
After the passage around the entire arena floor, we took a bow. She raised one fore leg and curled it underneath her, leaned back until her knee rested in the sawdust. Again, I styled to the crowd as I insisted she hold this position. When we came up and out of this pose, the organist struck up the lively tune ‘Runaway.’ This tune fit as Sassy coiled up and exploded into a canter depart.
We galloped across the front area and around the north end. This animated gait stood out in contrast to the graceful and elegant demonstration of the recently completed passage. When we were halfway down the back side the time came to begin the canter rears. On cue, she stopped in her tracks, reared straight up and struck out with her front legs as I leaned back in the saddle to assist her with weight distribution. Upon landing on all fours, another canter depart transitioned her back into the gallop, but only for a few strides. Then it was time to stop and rear again.
Several canter rears took place across the back of the venue and then several across the front. Racing around the north end, we cantered the last leg of our routine up to a location adjacent to the announcer’s stand where we stopped. Sassy then bowed and when she was down on one knee, I asked her to curl up the other leg. She kneeled on both knees for our conclusion.
After the final announcement, we rose from our pose and began to make our way to the exit gate at the passage. At the last moment, we turned around to stop. We faced the interior of the arena. We made one last acknowledgement to the crowd while the parting announcement took place. I bowed my head with my hat in my hand. I extended my right arm in the fashion that a formal dressage rider uses to conclude his ride. With my head bowed in gratitude, the spot lights went off. I exited in the dark. That was the routine we provided each day of the event.
During dress rehearsal, everyone involved did great job learning and doing their part. The presentation of our act went smoothly. Once cooled out, I put Sassy away in her stall. I Thought I was done until showtime the next day. A couple came to me with a special request. They wanted me to perform that evening at a saddlebred stable north of Dallas in Plano. Prior to the horse show each year, Milligan Stables had their annual Open House and Fish Fry. Their event was scheduled to take advantage of the visiting horse folks who arrived to participate at the Big D Horse Show. The aficionados could see their farm and their livestock. I recognized this request to perform in front of their guests an endorsement of sorts. Instead of relaxing, I had to get ready.
A few miles north of town, I found their horse farm in the affluent suburb of Plano. The party would be for just a few hours. Upon arrival, I was introduced to their plan. I would show my act to the crowd during the only time they would be assembled. That was when they stood in line for the meal provided. In sharp contrast to the high-tech rehearsal now complete, the demonstration I provided here had no announcement, no music and no lighting, Although the horse and I were dressed to the tees, this was a high-grass presentation that took place on the lawn alongside the long line of people who waited for food.
We performed the side-pass, three-step, passage and all the other elements of our routine and received applause from the patient yet hungry crowd. Once Sassy was cooled-out and cross-tied to the side of my horse trailer, I had an opportunity to get some grub and meet the other folks who enjoyed the festivities. By the end of the evening I was back at the stable at the fairgrounds and settled in.
The horse show coliseum was surrounded by metal roofed buildings that contained a labyrinth of concrete walls, a web of metal plumbing, a network of electrical and commercial lighting fixtures combined with rolling wooden doors and barred dividers that made up row after row of horse housing in a maze of stalls. Dirt throughways for horses and their companions covered with sawdust sliced through these areas.
Depending on the size of the participating stable, whole aisles were devoted to a single enterprise as evidenced by the color-coordinated canvas valence with the barns name affixed high on top of the entire length of the stall row. Fancy signs were mounted at each end of this arrangement with a main display in the center. Tack trunks and color coordinated folding director chairs peppered the aisles between stalls along with tables covered with veggie snack trays, small sandwiches, plastic stemware, coolers full of drinks and the occasional coffee pot.
On many of the main intersections of these sawdust arteries were extensive displays brought in by the major stables that included water fountains, floral arrangements, potted plants, stunning horse sculptures. Mounted photos of the exotic features of the faraway stabling facility and their featured stallions inspired awe.
Some of the stalls were completely canvassed off and used as dressing rooms. During the frenzy of the horse show, participants of all kinds were primped into impeccable condition by the many attendants who, like devoted servants, combined efforts to get horse, rider and all the leather, metal and fabric accouterments in pristine show shape. Many of the horses had matching color, false wig pieces that were woven into the horse’s tail to add pure luxury.
The traditional saddlebred tail was surgically altered to prevent clamping down over the bung. Under saddle, this modification caused the tail to assume an elevated position and the augmented, carefully picked out massive feathery appendage undulated while the horse ran through his gaits. It really did add to the appearance in a beautiful manner, especially in the breeze caused when the order was given to rack on, the most rapid of the five gaits.
Two stalls were provided for my needs. I had plenty of time to care for and prepare my horse for our daily presentation. This also gave me ample time to meet the folks around me. As I became familiar with my fellows, I noticed a vast demographic I was not familiar with. These were society horses, referred to as such, for a reason. These equine status symbols were historically considered an appropriate pastime for royalty, and in this case, the very rich. Being around this segment of the demographic, I shared a secret amusement with the professional horse trainers and workers who knew their way around a horse and were here to make a living, and that was that we sometimes watched the obviously inept on incredible horses.
The resulting connection with a portion of the populace who had a handle on how to function and gracefully interact with a horse prompted several friendships in the stable area. During the early morning hours, the grooms, handlers and individual private horse owners were the only ones who stirred, many of whom also slept here. I learned long ago to attend to my animals immediately upon waking and these people were of the same discipline. Stalls were being cleaned and picked out while the peaceful sounds of chewing, nuzzling the bottom of a bucket and the occasional snort added to the meditative state. For the humans, percolators added a refreshing fragrance to the mix.
As the morning grew, the wealthy participants arrived from their hotel rooms and became involved in myriad activities. Special tailored saddle-suits were donned, boots were polished and hair arranged in a bun. Tack was shined, the horse shoer quickly nailed lead weights onto the soles of a horse’s feet, while muzzle whiskers and ear hairs were trimmed. The skin surrounding the eyes were rubbed with oil to produce a deep shine and a special spray sprinkled a slight metal-flake sparkle went on the horse’s slick, curried finish.
I was busy with the grooming practices learned on the circus. I checkered Sassy’s haunch. With careful short strokes using a short comb going against the grain in the slick hair on her haunches, I created a special effect; a checker board pattern on her rump. Next, I glued small mirrors in alternating squares of the pattern.
White leg wraps were securely and accurately wrapped onto each leg between the knee and ankle to accent the visual effect of the action from a greater distance. A special white saddle pad with gold tube edging went onto her back before I laid my dressage saddle with straight flaps down onto her back. The martingale, or breast collar, went over her head and onto her neck next, and then the whole affair was lovingly secured.
With the mare pristine, it became my turn to dress. My dad was a perfectionist and a sharp dresser. His neatly arranged closet was his testimony. Special cuff-clamp hangers held his pants inverted to hold the crease sharp. Padded hangers for his suit jackets were arranged in an orderly row and when he tucked his shirt tail in, an even overlap occurred in precisely the same location on either side of his girth, a technique he learned in the military.
I carried on this family tradition albeit far from the uniform of the clergy. First, I put on the ruffled front formal shirt with a bowtie, tucked smartly into white breeches. I covered my waist with a cummerbund. Then I pulled on my black Dehner boots and strapped on my spurs. Then I reached for my peach colored tuxedo jacket with glass jewels and gold piping sewed onto the lapels, cuffs and tails. After I slipped on this heavy jacket, I snapped into the proper posture and the costume assumed its position. I finished off my look with a matching color Mississippi river boat gamblers hat.
The time then came to introduce Sassy to the double-bits of the full-bridle. I slipped the headstall over her ears, guided the bits into her mouth, attached the throat latch and hooked the delicate curb chain. I circled her one last time to make my final inspection of every detail. The time came to lead her into the aisle and ask her to bow on one knee as I placed my foot in the stirrup. She held this pose as I rose and swung my leg over her. Then she rose. My posture settled straight into the classic seat developed under the tutelage of my many mentors. From this position, we were ready to make our way to the warm-up ring to prepare mentally and physically for our performance.
Lavish parties took place all around these activities as each day morphed into evening. A jovial atmosphere permeated the long days filled with, not only animal care but grooming the horse and rider to impeccable condition along with handling the pipeline of various personal incidentals and necessities consumed by this cross-section of humanity. The variety of age groups attending combined their enthusiasm and were regarded as an important contribution to showmanship.
One couple had a talented Morgan stallion who participated in several classes. They had the same number of stalls I had. They also had all day to primp one horse. They had lots of time during the day to visit. Their home-spun manner of handling the related tasks of life at the show combined with their appreciation of the peers who became friends over the years. Their interest for what I did with my horse prompted much conversation.
The genuine regard apparent in their demeanor was the perfect segue for a shy guy at a new threshold. I was careful in this situation to make a good impression. In this strange new world, Billy and Joanne made me feel welcome, accepted, and significant. They went out of their way to include me in their ever-growing circle of acquaintances. We became friends. After the show, they extended an invitation to visit their farm nearby, called Chesspeice Morgans, to see the operation, the other horses in the barn and camp out for a while.
In the midst of all this conviviality, I refrained from the ongoing offers to have a beer or glass of Champaign but I certainly enjoyed the food and especially the lively rapport. The topic we all loved – horses – spurned many stories from all around. As I listened, I learned much about this facet of horsemanship.
They were curious about my passion too. Encouraged to share anecdotes, we sat on trunks, bales of hay, chairs or simply leaned on a stall door. Nuance of our experiences while training the horse or personality quips of our equine individuals sparked other stories of the past and present from everyone. This heightened the feeling of being accepted and part of this genre.
A nice red-head who was a friend of Billy and Joanne became a regular part of these daily get-togethers. She piqued my interest. Soon we created a welcome excursion for just the two of us. We walked through the many thoroughfares of stalls and acknowledged the many parties underway throughout the facility. We paused at each stall to inspect magnificent horse flesh.
We enjoyed the wonder of the moment, the magnificence all around and especially the sparkle in each other’s eyes. I welcomed her presence each day as I prepared for my act. Her interest in watching me perform while I found my place in this fascinating industry opened up an avenue of hope in my heart.
I learned the discipline of being ready one act before my time to perform on the circus. This habit was necessary for a smooth uninterrupted show, especially when an emergency occurred with the act before. Here at the horse show, my slot to perform was after a different class each day. The length of time a class took was influenced by how many horses were in the class and how long the judges took to select a winner.
With this previously learned way of participating, I was under saddle, warmed up from the session in the outdoor ring and waiting by the rail with the current class underway for differing amounts of time each day.
The first dancing horse performance that took place at the Big “D” Saddle Horse Show was interesting. With the routine in its beginning segment, as I did the three-step around the back of the officials stand, I noticed the mare acted funny. I discovered she was being spooked by one front leg wrap that had come loose and was flapping around. I immediately jumped to the ground and removed the rest of the wrap. With this dangerous situation handled swiftly, to resume the act, I had her bow, then put my foot in the stirrup iron. With the graceful remount that followed, I got an applause that was not planned. I realized this way of getting on a horse was novel to these people.
The emotion that accompanied being on an impeccably groomed horse in front of this large horse-loving audience who peered from their seats and over the rail along the sides prompted the feeling of having arrived. This over-wrote any lingering damaged esteem issues that accompanied me through life and gave me an image of myself that I approved of.
Motivated to excel, I learned long ago that I get my value from what I produce. The acceptance, applause and approval that came from this community pumped a new elixir into my bloodstream as I became a handsome prince on a beautiful and talented steed.
When the first performance was complete, I cooled Sassy out, wiped her down and put her away clean and dry. I had arranged with the video service at the show to capture footage of our routine each day. My new friend and I made our way to the commercial booths in the foyer section of the building adjacent to the main seating area. There we found booths filled with horse related products and information about services.
We saw brand-new tack and saddles, tailored wardrobe, boots, hats, custom barn builder displays, breeding lineage information services, plaque makers, portrait painters, equine books and magazines, truck and trailer brokers, wagon, cart, harness and buggy makers, along with every horse trinket and clever device to make life easier at the barn from the top of your wheelbarrow to the soles of your feet.
As we threaded our way through these hawkers and merchants, we eventually found the video booth of the crew who filmed all the horses and riders to see the recently captured footage of my act. My perfectionistic desire to be the best horseman I could possibly be was aided with the footage I now obsessively pored over.
The first session revued, I discovered the bow had occurred in a place hidden by the central latticed obstacle in the middle of the floor. Now I knew where the camera operators were and calculated the angle they shot from. During the next performance I made a special effort to play to the camera so my footage included all the features of my act.
As each day passed, another performance occurred in the midst of horse classes of every type and filming my act continued. The captured footage became a visual record, a valuable training aid to me and an all-inclusive memento of this highlight of my life.
Early in my relationship with this stunning mare I noticed a mean streak when the time came to cinch up the saddle. I could lay the saddle on her back as she stood calmly but when I started to buckle the girth and tighten up the straps, her ears went back. With teeth bared she tried to reach around and bite me. I realized this was probably the result of a negative experience that occurred in her past. I made a vow to never reprimand her for this behavior and instead respond with pure love, especially because she was so willing to excel with everything else I asked of her.
Gradually, over the years this conduct turned into a game. The cinching process was not painful to her and because I loved her through the process, gradually she changed. After her ears went back and she tried to reach me, she then tried to affectionately lick me. I gradually became able to put my hand in her mouth and she lovingly gummed me. As this behavior became consistent it also evolved into a source of fun around strangers.
One evening after the horse show was quiet, I was alone. I walked from stall to stall and looked at horses. I saw a couple at the other end of the same row headed my way. Sassy’s stall was halfway between us. We stopped and looked into each stall along the way. As they got closer, I was near my mare.
I looked into her stall, feigning not having any familiarity with her.
I said “Wow, this is a nice horse.”
Then thrust my hand and arm between the bars of the stall and up to her face and said, “I wonder if he bites?”
I placed my hand into her mouth. She lovingly gummed me. I acted in a ridiculous manner. I flailed my other arm and acted as if I was being eaten alive. While I secretly laughed at the stunt, I’m sure these stunned people continued their walk thinking I was very strange.
My cousin and her husband lived in the area and planned to attend one of the shows. I hadn’t seen Phillis since we were kids at the annual family Thanksgiving get-together back in Ohio. I was delighted with their presence in the seats on the third day of the show. We were reunited after umpteen years. After the show they invited me to come over for dinner. When I drove over that evening to see their lovely home, Fliss had no way of knowing about my personal non-drinking experiment.
After turning down her offer of a cold beer, she said “one won’t hurt.”
I then went ahead and enjoyed a wet green bottle full. Back at the coliseum, before bed, I found a party still going on and had more.
The next morning, the resulting compromise to my physical and mental prowess was apparent in the video footage taken that final day of the show. Seemingly caught in time lapse, I lagged a moment behind what Sassy was doing. I lost my sensitive feel and the adept ability developed as the result of relentless practice and sobriety.
Taken by surprise, I bounced ungracefully in my seat during the canter rears. This was just one consequence of the fog that impaired my brain. In spite of this, true to form at the horse show, much pomp occurred at the end of the act. In a gesture of appreciation, we were awarded a blue championship ribbon and a silver tray for our unique contribution to the show.
That night with the performance contract honored and having received accolades from legions of horse folk, there was no reason to refrain from the consumption of this accepted and widely available beverage. The final celebration took place with my new friends during the load-out of unneeded horse accouterments while the mare enjoyed one final night in her stall.
How do I begin to describe the longest lasting love affair of my whole life? And how do I reveal the surprising sequence of events that brought about an unlikely segue for this concept to finally happen and impact my life? And how do I tell the story of how the depth of that love influenced my life? I guess I shall start at the beginning.
My search began as a teen but I wouldn’t find true love for years. I had relational frustrations at home and was too shy to talk to girls. Thank goodness I joined the circus. I was set upon a golden path. What an improvement.
Although I started painting festive decorations on the equipment and playing the drums in the circus band, I fell right into tending for the animals. I found a place where I fit. Relationships with animals weren’t so complicated as with the people in my life. I found a plain honesty that worked. I was admired by these simple beings by providing food and water, protection and affection and they loved me back.
While drumming, I became fascinated with what I saw the animals do in the show every day. I saw how the trainers used psychology to enroll the animal to provide the desired response. This symbiosis of performing together was truly an art form. I saw love, regard and mutual respect in action. I was amazed. I still am when I see a group of beautiful performing horses prancing through a precision drill that validates hours of practice, patience and mutual regard.
I began to learn from the animal trainers. After receiving their encouragement, I started a six-pony liberty act of my own. My first teacher was an old cowboy/circus horse trainer who was kind. I watched the lengthy process he used with my ponies. He was patient, soothing and encouraging. He occasionally scolded yet quickly returned to kindness. He was gentle and humane to the animals and they loved him. Progress took place as the result of consistent repetition.
The animals understood his simple honesty. There was no room for the interpersonal chaos that takes place in society. I found the segue to understanding love while training this bunch of ponies into a circus liberty act back in the seventies. I learned my first priority was to not startle them but to be gentle as I introduce them to new things.
Learning circus horsemanship became my passion. I remain fascinated with what it takes to make horses as skillful as they possibly can for the sake of amazing an audience. I appreciate all of the traditional performing art forms of the circus. My devotion took me to the doorsteps of many accomplished horse and animal training masters across this country. Everywhere I went the message was the same; be kind, ask often and praise generously. My demeanor of kindness was established by then. I credit the circus with my foundation of love and regard that began years ago. I applied what I learned in the creative way of an artist; to develop and choreograph a sequence of developed skills in an interesting way to entertain an audience.
I experienced love at first sight while pursuing this passion over three decades ago. I saw a pony-sized jet-black baby mule with an animated trot and a pretty head. Soon Betty was mine. I have had Betty since she was a baby. I began the lengthy process of gentle encouragement and discovered her to be a willing animal. Then, as she began to grasp what I was trying to teach her and I patted her on the neck; she melted; oh, I get a pat on the neck? This wonderful animals’ personality and willing temperament combined with mine and validated all I had learned during my first decade of training animals; we enroll the desired response from our charge with love.
Another plus was that Betty joined me at the beginning of my sobriety. Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. Betty has never been exposed to any harsh or tragic treatment such as would influence a sour attitude. The recovery process required I look at the history of my moral behavior and make apropos changes. Finding out what was at my core prepared my proactive response for my life ahead. I became intentional about living a life based on integrity and noble behavior.
As a freshly sober man, I was introduced to a design for living built on honest morals, consistent, productive and kind behavior – exactly what I learned from my circus horsemanship mentors. In my pure state of awareness, not altered by alcohol, situations with prestigious horsemanship masters materialized. Opportunities for further growth in the relational realm opened up to me.
I acquired a young Saddlebred horse. My awareness and abilities expanded while working with supervision with my new horse and this wonderful mule. Relational challenges took place. I had a place to grow.
Betty was bright, willing and a quick study. But being bright, she was just as quick to realize she could cheat. I had to be on my toes with her all the time because I didn’t dare allow her to learn anything but good work ethics.
Good ole Betty. Can you imagine what was going through her mind? She started her life with this tall, creative guy who had dreams of grandeur and began to coax her to do all kinds of behavior. Betty especially enjoyed her reward; a simple pet on the neck, a soothing word or a carrot. She recognized love. I discovered a wonderful animal who responded to what I discovered was my love.
Betty responded to my kindness with kindness. She learned to run around a ring and responded to my soothing voice. She caught on quick with our lessons as I encouraged her. She learned how to take a bow, pull a towel off her back, turn head-to-tail in a 360-degree circle, lift her front feet to mount a pedestal or the ring curb among many other things. Soon Betty learned all aspects of the liberty training from my repertoire learned from when I had my pony act – plus all the tricks of the ménage horse. She learned to do much more than any of my other performing horses.
My ambition to create an act that showcased all my training skills in a comedy format filled my imagination. The format of an animal seemingly outwitting the trainer is irresistible to most children. The theme of a prospector and his mule companion seemed to fit. I put together a specific sequence for all these tasks. She proved to be an incredible student. I named our act “Gol’Dust and the Old Cuss.” I had ideas and patter for our skit and would teach her things to support my demeanor as a grumpy old guy.
At this time my career as a motorhome artist was taking off like a rocket. Mule and horse training became my hobby for the off-time. As the years went by, just to stay in the game, I booked an occasional tour on a circus. A five to eight-week engagement made sense as a destination for my ambition. During these performing tours, Betty and Souveran willingly went into hockey arenas, convention centers and armory gymnasiums. We performed in front of grandstands, on theater stages and in auditoriums. We continued to make progress although Betty had to stay flexible, not staying in any stable situation (sic) for long. In our years together, we three grew. While I trained them to do even more, credible mentors influenced my ability with my animals. We experienced connection. We had bonded.
We spent each winter in Florida. We practiced before and after my winter season serving RVers. When I was busy as a motorhome artist, she enjoyed leisure time at a boarding farm nearby. Her abilities grew. Our combination of stagecraft became a developed act. We performed together until the bug to perform went away.
She spent the summers in Michigan at a farm with other horses. She was a big hit with kids. One of the first times I saw a little hand offer her a carrot, I noticed her lips carefully feeling around for little fingers before she took a bite. In that instant, I knew I had a really nice animal.
Over the years she learned to let a kid ride on her back, pull a cart, run barrels at the rodeo and go from room to room at an old folks’ home. Betty accepted each new situation and willingly met others along the way.
I am not of the current mainstream opinion that animals are abused in the company of the circus, as is being perpetrated by a powerful movement in this country – and that the socially engineered masses are buying. My experience working alongside men and women of the circus has been the discovery of capable, sensitive people who love their animals and want only the best for them. From them I learned functional discipline and reverence for others while becoming an animal trainer. The process of living with and guiding another member of the circus family through these art forms, both animal and human, keeps these healthy relational qualities alive.
These qualities seem to be watered down between many people in this era of expanding worldwide insanity. At one time children were taught simple honesty and to respect authority. Now they are being brainwashed into a blind conclusion with no foundation in truth. I fear another agenda is behind those lies.
Bettys willingness and regard for others inspired my growth through recovery and vice versa. I had a home by this time and entered into contemporary life as part of the community. I became inspired to contribute to society using wholesome moral behavior and to be relationally functional. I am inspired to write, speak up and demonstrate with my behavior – living in love.
Betty became a lawn ornament, happy to spend leisure with her companion of two decades: Souveran the horse. When his condition deteriorated and the time came to put him down, Betty was heartbroken. She grieved for her big friend for weeks. My painting career resumed covering the country during the summer as a motorcycle artist. Betty moved next door where another horse would have a companion. She outlived him too.
As she entered into her thirties, my pretty jet-black mule developed tinges of gray that hinted at her age. I was busy. I was gone all summer. The relentless Florida humidity, heat and fungus took a toll. Her feet softened and wore away. When I was home, I attempted to sterilize and restore her feet. She began the era of moving stiff and showing her age. I became aware of my responsibility. I called my animal loving friends and admitted what was going on and the responsibility I had become present to. They provided comfort along with stern advice.
Brenda, a family friend with Arabians and Whippets told me, “look into her eyes and ask her to tell you when it is time.”
Kathy my long-time riding instructor said, “You don’t have to go through this alone, I will come and spend the day with you.”
Anne, my friend of performing high schoolhorse fame announced, “I’d rather put them down too early than too late.”
They knew part of having animals involved going through the emotional spectrum – from incredible joy to immense grief. Having their advice and these affirmations kept my responsibility at the forefront. With my season looming, I knew what I had to do. I called my Vet Sally. She would meet me on Thursday.
I called my sponsor and revealed all that was going on. I told him what Kathy said about spending the day with me.
He said, “you are going to let her come and be with you, aren’t you?”
I hadn’t thought it necessary. He pointed out that this is how we bless others, by sharing our time with them. When I allow her to provide me with comfort at my time of need, she gets to be a blessing. We set a date. I had a Tesla to stripe the day Kathy arrived.
The next morning, Kathy and I met Betty prior to Sally arriving. Betty was happy to get petted and eat our carrots. I was emotional at the brink of losing this wonderful animal. She had been my companion for thirty-two years. Betty taught me a lot. We had been through much together.
We three stood in the shade of a grandfather oak at the edge of the pasture. Sally arrived. She gently introduced us to the procedure as Betty trusted us. My fingers made affectionate shapes in the fur of her neck while Sally talked. Soon the time to begin arrived.
Sally took the first needle and inserted it into her neck. Soon we saw droop come to her lip and attitude. Betty moved to lay down. Allowing for the change in posture, Sally, Kathy and I provided her our love and a source of comfort. I stayed where she could see me, attentive as I could. This wonderful animal trusted me as the moisture welled up in my eyes.
Sally introduced the other needle. I guided Betty’s head to the ground as she drifted off to sleep. Sally was in no hurry. She felt her neck, noticed an involuntary inhale and then an exhale. Then she took her stethoscope to listen for any heartbeat. She calmly announced that it was over.
All our love combined for this outcome. Now it was over. Sally remained cordial as she put her things away and headed out. I had a plan of rigging up a skid to get Betty to where my neighbor Gary had a hole dug in my yard with his excavator.
Joe Read showed up with his tractor with a pallet on the rear forks. We rolled Betty onto the pallet. I walked alongside and held one ear so her head wouldn’t drag as Joe drove over to my yard. Kathy held one hind leg.
In my side yard, Joe coaxed the tractor over next to the hole. A quick roll off and Betty landed at the bottom. Kathy and I retreated to our unfinished coffee on the porch. Gary filled the hole with dirt and smoothed it off. The event was over. An hour had passed. I began to wonder about all that I had learned from Betty.
Betty taught me volumes. In an effort to honor what I found with her; I have a new aspiration; to live in love. I wondered how can I live a life of being in love all the time?
There are proven formulas for creating happiness. I had been given a unique combination of principles from my horsemanship mentors, the process of recovery from alcoholism and a jet-black mule named Betty. The most obvious is to stay calm, be encouraging and give praise frequently.
There are also things to avoid; typical mistakes people make. Recalling a blunder from the past indicates an inability to forgive – whether real or imagined. Often times we are focused on the behavior others produce. We must be careful as this qualifies as self-righteousness and a diversion. Being on the lookout for distractions that keep us stuck is prudent. Finding beauty, something to admire and being quick to approve is key to the formula that restores trust, regard and qualities that bring us into harmony.
There is a song that plays throughout the kingdom – from the smallest subatomic particles to the vastness of the galaxy filled universe; the still small voice. In order to have access to this song we must monitor what we allow in our minds. We must let go of prejudices, forgive all violations humans have produced and become fully present to this moment. Any lingering thought, resentment or fantasy interferes with my ability to notice. For this moment is the only place we can be in relationship with the qualities that add up to love.
I must become completely empty. When I become completely still and become the observer; remarkable things happen. I become like a child – completely uninhibited by beliefs, pre-conceived notions or prejudice. My imagination is not tainted. I am free to play, find and appreciate what is in the moment. I use all of my imagination. I am completely free. Through clarity I access the song of love first demonstrated to me by Betty the mule. In gratitude for this long-eared miracle, I live in love for the rest of my life.