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The Christmas horse

Heather Smith Thomas for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 November 2017
Chance the Christmas horse

Chance was a 17-year-old chestnut Arabian, given to my oldest granddaughter Heather by her great-aunt for Christmas in 2000, when Heather was 9.

Even though Chance was well into his teens when he arrived at our ranch, he looked and acted like a much younger horse. He had the wisdom and manners of age, however – the perfect horse for a young girl.

Heather, now 25, remembers that Christmas vividly. “My little brother Nick and I both had huge boxes under the tree from our great-aunt. Nick opened his first, and it was an English saddle. When I opened mine, it was a series of smaller and smaller boxes, and finally, just an envelope.

As I unwrapped all those layers, I was disappointed because Nick had gotten a saddle, and my present just kept getting smaller until I came to that envelope. I thought it was just a joke. Then when I opened it, the envelope contained Chance’s registration papers. I suddenly realized I had a horse!”

She rode the old gelding for the next few years on the ranch and in 4-H and horse shows, winning many ribbons and trophies. He always won the trail class because he was so mellow and did everything right.

Her dad, Michael, found it amusing to be able to take an Arabian to pro-quarter horse shows and see Heather win every class she entered. Chance was versatile and accommodating; anyone could ride him and some of the other 4-H kids liked to borrow him.

Home among the cows

Young Heather used him for roping in classes and he did fine, but his best event was single-cow penning. “We had to sort out one cow and take her to designated spots around the arena, in a certain order, and hold her there a few moments at each spot before moving her to the next place,” recalls Heather.

“Many contestants got their cow too nervous and couldn’t get her to pause long enough at the designated places; she’d be wildly running around the arena. Chance was so relaxed that this job was easy.”

He would carefully move the cow around and back off at just the right time so she wouldn’t feel threatened or get excited, but put pressure on her to make her move when it was time. He was very precise in his movement and his ability to “read” the cow.

This ability was much appreciated when young Heather was sorting cows out on the range by herself, or quietly going through a herd to get ahead of them to open a gate without upsetting the cattle.

During their 4-H years, Chance was as mellow and slow as needed, but when his young rider was more advanced and ready for sports like barrel racing, he could accommodate her with more speed. “Even when we were doing wild, crazy things, I was confident that he would take good care of me.

One time when we were helping another rancher move cows, the cattle were getting away from us, and we had to run as fast as we could across the field to try to beat the cattle to a gate. For a fat little Arabian, he could actually run fast.

“We were going all out and there was a hole he had to maneuver around, and he tossed his head a little to maintain his balance. The reins flipped and were both on the same side. I could still guide him with leg pressure, and we kept going.

Chance takes a nap in the snow

When we needed to slow down, I just leaned back a little and didn’t have to pull on the reins – and then I was able to flip them back into place. He and I were a team and completely trusted each other – and he could read my mind,” she says.

A taste for everything

Chance loved people food and ate anything offered. “Dad was riding him one day and ate a chicken sandwich when he stopped for lunch. Chance was sniffing at it, so Dad fed him the rest of the sandwich. He was a carnivorous horse!”

The gelding’s unique taste in food continued to be a topic of humor, like the day Heather and her mom and Chance were at the fairgrounds during a horse show, waiting for the next class. “A little girl with a plate of warm nachos walked in front of us, and Chance thought the food was for him. He reached out and stuck his nose into her plate.

The poor girl was scared to death; she dropped her plate and ran. Chance looked at her quizzically as she ran away, as if to say, ‘Wow. That’s strange!’ Then put his head down and started eating the spilled nachos. We felt bad that he scared that little girl, but all he wanted was her food, and he thought she was serving it to him,” recalls Heather.

chance and his young owner playing their trckle game

After Heather went to college, the old horse was retired. By then, he was in his mid-20s. He spent his last years living with Molly, another old horse that had become his best buddy. Molly was a mare that Heather’s mom had raised as a foal. When Chance’s vision started to fail, Molly was his “seeing eye horse.”

Brave to the end

During his last three years of life, Chance’s teeth were so worn out, he could no longer chew hay. He spent a couple winters at our place, where I could feed him senior pellets and soft alfalfa pellets that were easy to chew. For a couple years, he did all right grazing green grass in the summers.

His final summer, when he could no longer eat enough grass to keep his weight up, Heather fed him a mushy mixture of alfalfa pellets, senior feed and beet pulp soaked in warm water. He could eat this soft mix without chewing.

Every day, she had to sit there for about an hour while he ate, to make sure Molly didn’t come finish it for him, because Molly ate her senior meal faster. “Sure, it was time-consuming to sit and wait, but during those mealtimes, we had a lot of quality time together – me and those old horses.”

That final summer of 2013 was a gift to those horses and to young Heather – a final chapter in their lives, recalling good memories.

That fall, before cold weather became a hardship for those thin bodies, the family reluctantly said goodbye and put them down. Chance was 29 and Molly was 30.

Michael buried them on a hillside overlooking the meadow where they spent many happy hours together in their retirement. Chance, the horse who came at Christmas, became a special part of the family and stays forever in our hearts.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Chance at age 17 when he first arrived on the Thomas ranch, as a Christmas present for my granddaughter, wearing a red Christmas ribbon.

PHOTO 2: Chance takes a nap in the snow.

PHOTO 3: Chance and his young owner playing their tickle game. Photos by Heather Thomas.

Heather Smith Thomas is a freelance writer based in Salmon, Idaho. Email Heather Smith Thomas

More about Chance, and the other horses through the years here at the ranch, can be found in the author’s book Horse Tales: True Stories from an Idaho Ranch and Ranch Tales: Stories of Dogs, Cats and Other Crazy Critters. The other book in this series is Cow Tales: More True Stories from an Idaho Ranch.

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