Thursday, January 10, 2008

happy birthday to a four-legged once-in-a-lifetime

Today I want to write a very long post about a very special someone who was born twenty-two years ago:

I first met Zzari (Ben Rabba x Ariezad) when I was a sophomore at UC Santa Cruz. In truth I had no business looking for a horse to buy, since I was a starving college student (well, okay, not exactly starving. I gained the freshman 15 just like anyone else who routinely over-indulged in the all-you-can-eat dining hall that first year away from home. The vat of Cap'n Crunch was particularly inspiring). But I digress.

At the time I was lucky enough to be working at a local dude ranch, giving group riding lessons to up to 40 students a week using the string of trail horses and ponies that belonged to a surgeon/Western trainer who had decided that I was qualified to do such a thing. Paul's favorite mare was a young chestnut Arabian named Missy, one of the only horses allowed to bunk in the barn, rather than out in a paddock like the rest of the string. I'd spent my share of time admiring Arabians as a kid, since some of the rich-kid riders in my neighborhood rode them, but I'd always figured they were out of my league as a breed.

For one thing, Arabians were exorbitantly expensive in the early 80's, when investors were able to use their herds of "living art" as nifty tax shelters. Those were (allegedly) the days of cocaine-laced barn parties, and of big-haired trainers taking in huge sums to show the million-dollar horses at Scottsdale, and Nationals, and the Egyptian Event. Then came Reagan's tax laws, and before you could say "Drastically de-valued investment" there was a glut of clearance-priced purebreds on the market (and in the slaughterhouses) - "living art" that came with much expense and little financial return. At least, that's my understanding of the whole mess. I was in high school during the heyday of the breed, mostly unaware of the goings-on in the industry (except for occasional word of one superstar stallion who lived just miles away from me - Bey Shah). Also, I'd fractured my arm badly coming off my first horse (who was not at all to blame) just before entering high school, so, in truth, I had let myself be spooked away from horses for about a four-year stretch.

By the time I turned 19, however, I was ready to dive back into the world of horse ownership. People told me I was crazy to buy a horse while still in college, and they may have been right. They told me I was sacrificing way too much in the way of time and convenience when I should have been having the time of my life. Well meaning, I suppose, but in my heart I knew that the time of my life could only be had on horseback. I'd been one of those grade school kids who was always scheming up ways to buy a horse, always begging my parents to please fill in the swimming pool so we could keep one in the back yard. I'd ridden my first horse (an old Appy mare that I'm pretty sure my parents bought for my thirteenth birthday for $100) barefoot, bareback and helmet-less through the hills north of San Francisco, disappearing for hours on end before riding her to our house and letting her graze in the yard while I alternately swam in the pool and sunbathed on her back.

But, again, I digress.

I didn't know exactly what I wanted in a horse in 1989. I think I called a Morgan breeding farm first. There was also an ill-fated dream to own a local gelding who was sold out from under me when I was out of town. One of the things I liked best about that horse was that he was being sold cheap - and for good reason, I later learned: He was a rank little beastie who eventually threw a girl against a fence post, tearing open her chest.

By the time I called a farm out in Watsonville from my dorm room, I was starting to get antsy. The owner of the place said she had a three-year-old gelding who sounded like he might be what I was looking for. He was green, she said, but as gentle as they come, and with a fondness for standing on her front porch and looking through the windows. Basically, he knew how to longe, and that was about it.

I remember driving out to the farm a few days later. It was a huge, gorgeous place set into the green hills of some of the most fertile agricultural land on earth - Steinbeck country. There were white fences everywhere, massive pastures, and an enormous red barn that opened up into an arena full of nice sand footing and plenty of jumps. The owner of the place, Jill, led me out to one of the big front pastures, where some horses were grazing. She pointed to one of the chestnuts.

"What's his name again?" I asked her.

"Zzari." Then she pointed to an ancient horse standing near Zzari. "That's his grand dam, Rollicka," Jill said. "She needs a home, too, if you're interested." At the time I didn't realize that I was looking at one of the most historically treasured mares in the country. She was a grand old gal of thirty, kind-eyed and sway-backed from her years as a mama (and also, unfortunately, from some time spent neglected by previous owners, which just goes to show that no horse is immune from hard times - even the national treasures).

I asked Jill if I could just sit in the pasture and watch the horses for a while, and she told me I could. I must have spent the entire afternoon out there, thinking, watching and figuring how I could possibly make this work. After a few hours we brought Zzari to the wash rack so I could spend some time grooming him. Then Jill turned him out in the arena with one of his brothers, so I could see him move. We had to work a bit to get Zzari moving, since he was clearly a non-stereotypical, mellow Arabian. She was still trying to sell him to me at that point, but what she didn't know what that she'd had me at hello. I was a goner for the somewhat scrawny, barely-three-year-old gelding the moment I'd laid eyes on him. Long story short: She told me his price, which was way out of my range. But, she was willing to take payments (horse people usually are), so I spent the next several months giving as many riding lessons at Paul's place as I could to pay him off.

Paul helped me start Zzari under saddle later that year, scoffing at the flat-seat English saddle I insisted on using: "Why don't you take that pressure bandage off the horse and put a real saddle on?" Most of Zzari's early training happened on the loamy trails of the Santa Cruz mountains, where you can ride under redwoods and massive old oak trees, heavily hung with great swaths of Spanish moss. I taught him to walk right up to whatever was spooking him and investigate. In return, he taught me to be patient when it came to crossing wooden bridges over rushing creeks, and to read his body language - from his breathing, to the muscles of his back, to the position of his ears. While I'd put in lots of riding hours on my first horse, I'd never trained a youngster. Zzari and I learned the ropes together.

We moved around to a few different boarding facilities in the next couple of years and so got to try new things, like poker rides, parades and polo practice. Zzari's trail skills increased to the point where I decided to enter him in a limited-distance (25 mile) endurance race when he came of age according to AERC rules. I had to hire someone to haul us to that first ride in the San Jose foothills, and I slept in an abandoned chicken coop at base camp with Zzari tied outside, watching me all night. We did a few more LD rides after that and then gradually moved on to the 50-mile races. We completed several more endurance races in subsequent years - in California, Utah and Arizona (where, at one ride, we were the first locals to cross the finish line and so won a membership to join the Flagstaff hunt club. Those fox hunters are maniacs, let me tell you. But they have some serious fun).

(Scottsdale All-Arabian Show, Hunter Pleasure Open)

Meanwhile, Zzari and I were continuing our education in dressage, which had first captivated me when I was nine and took riding lessons at a snooty private school stable. It's hard work, dressage, requiring the full use of a rider's mind as well as her body. After graduating from UCSC, I moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area, where I apprenticed with a Grand Prix trainer who had competed with the US Olympic team and had, more importantly, apprenticed with Alois Podhajsky, of the Spanish Riding School/Miracle of the White Stallions fame. Richard had some fantabulous Hanoverians, but he'd also purchased a few young Arabian geldings which he planned to use for endurance. He needed someone with a bit of racing knowledge to help train them in exchange for hours spent on one of his massive schoolmasters. Around that time Zzari and I competed in our first NATRC ride, a sport which was fun in places, but which ultimately proved too retentive for my tastes. That was the year I dressed up as the Headless Horseman for Halloween and rode Zzari throughout the neighborhood (called Sleepy Hollow). Big hit, especially since the pumpkin container I was carrying was filled with candy for the gawkers.

When it came time to move to Arizona for graduate school, Zzari came with me (natch). I cover that move in a bit more detail here. In Arizona I continued to pay my rent by training horses and riders in Flagstaff, which proved to be a fertile source of students - from the Pony Club to the Forest Service to private horse owners and horseless riders who learned astride Zzari. I also managed to find places to rent where I could keep Zzari with me, rather than boarding him out.

We did some parades, showed at some of the class A shows (mainly Hunter Pleasure and Show Hack), and explored the mountain trails around Flagstaff together, especially enjoying some free-wheeling cross-country jumping over natural obstacles whenever we could.

I continued to seek out as many dressage clinics as I could, and even took a hair-raising clinic with the trainer of the New Zealand Olympic Eventing team. He was less than amused with my little Ay-rab crammed into the line-up with all those ginormous Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods - he even went so far as to call poor Zzari chicken-hearted (which came out as "cheeken-hatted"). But we showed that Kiwi. Yes, we did:

It was around that same time that Zzari got a chance to use a talent I had noticed in him several years earlier when we were still living in Santa Cruz. I'd been introduced to the girlfriend of a fellow creative writing student, and when she told me how much she loved horses I invited her out to the stables. What made that visit unique was the fact that this girl had, the year before, been involved in a nearly-fatal car accident which left her with severe spinal injuries, including the near-loss of her voice and the near-constant use of a therapeutic brace. I could tell she was verging on being overwhelmed when I led Zzari out of his stall and over to the big polo arena. But when I asked her if she wanted to sit on him and when she summoned the courage to do it - that's when I first saw Zzari's gift. Because when my friend carefully climbed up onto Zzari's back - scary neck brace and all - and then eventually took a breath and leaned forward so she could wrap her arms around Zzari's neck, I noticed that he was standing as composed and still as a statue. There was no doubt in my mind at that moment that my still-young gelding knew exactly what was going on, that he realized how delicate the situation (and my friend) were. When she sat back up I saw tears streaming down her face.

In Flagstaff, Zzari got to express that gift in earnest when he became the star mount at a local therapeutic riding program that, sadly, is now non-existent. He packed everyone from mentally-challenged little kids who were initially terrified at the very idea of standing near a horse, much less riding one to severely physically disabled adults who lacked muscle control and therefore needed a rock-steady horse who would not be fazed by sudden violent movement. Time and again I found myself having to convince people that, yes, he's an Arabian. Yes, he's purebred (Do you want to see his papers?). No, not all Arabians are hotheads.

After I got married (Zzari was, of course, instrumental in me meeting my horseshoer husband) and we bred a few horses, Zzari was the one I'd use to pony the youngsters, which basically meant that I'd ride him while leading a colt or filly alongside via a lead rope and halter. In this way, Zzari showed the next generation the ropes of being out and about on the trails and roads where there were all sorts of chances to overcome their spookiness.

(Cinder Hills 50-Mile Endurance Ride)

Today, Zzari shares the pasture at our place with our two other senior geldings (one of whom just turned 27 this week). He's still a fantastic lesson horse, and he's still the one I can hop on and head out on the trails with when life gets too intense. He also saw both kids safely through their leadline classes when each of them was four years old. This year I'm co-leading our local 4-H horse club, and some of the kids don't have horses and will need to borrow a well-trained old schoolmaster. Do I sense more adventure in Zzari's near future when the snow melts and the days get longer and more ridable? I wouldn't be a bit surprised.

Perhaps this whole long and rambling blog post can best be summed up by something I wrote years ago for The Crabbet Influence in Arabians Today. They were compiling a special stallion issue honoring the legendary Ben Rabba, and asked readers to send in stories of their Ben Rabba get and grandget. Here's part of the closing paragraph of my story, which they published along with a cute shot of me and Zzari competing in Hunter Pleasure:

"The transformation in riders who previously were unable to find flexibility or coordination because of multiple sclerosis, or who could not tolerate physical stimulation because of autism, is truly amazing to watch. More than one parent has told me what a miracle Zzari has been in the lives of their children, so I know it's not simple barn blindness that leads me to think he is a particularly amazing horse. When asked if he's for sale, I just smile and say, "Get in line, and expect a long wait." (Apparently, this is a common answer among us Ben Rabba fans, who wouldn't trade our once-in-a-lifetime horses for the world.) I hope to share my life with Zzari for many years to come, and I thank God every day for blessing me with such a treasure."

Okay, I had better stop typing, because I'm getting a little verklempt now.

Happy 22nd Birthday, Zzari - aka ZuZu, Mr. Zzar, Zzariboo - aka my once-in-a-lifetime friend.

'Nuff said.


  1. From a Crabbet/Egyptian/Heirloom/Davenport enthusiast, this was a beautiful touching tribute to your best friend ZZari. May you enjoy him for many, many years to come.

  2. Happy Birthday Zzari! You and Nicole are so blessed to have had each other for so many years and so many wonderful adventures.... and ,thank you, for one of my most beautiful rides after so many years and with so many tears. Here's to many more years for you and your people family to love each other even more. And thank you for having the gift to touch so many lives with your love and patience.

  3. Thanks for stopping by and leaving that nice comment, Jane! For some reason, this birthday of Zzari's seemed like the right time to write down some of our adventures.

    I'm planning to be in the market for a nice performance mare/prospect in the future, and, of course, the Crabbet/CMK/DP lines will be at the forefront of my brain. I've already noticed, though, while doing casual searches, that they can be hard to find.

  4. I knew you'd leave a sweet comment, Ms. "M". I remember that special ride of yours well, and look what it led to: You ended up with our best quality horse in your pasture! lol

    Lucky you, and lucky me, knowing Mr. Roo couldn't have found a better home.

  5. Oh Nicole, I am so glad I stopped in for a read!

    This chokes me up! I love your horse. He reminds me so much of my Champ. He would have been 22 this past spring. I still can hardly believe he's gone, and I will ALWAYS have a soft spot for a pretty chestnut gelding with white socks!

    Our stories are so similar. I got him as a green broke 4 year old and we taught each other A LOT. We did shows and parades and 5 hour trail rides. He packed my kids around when they were little (leadline at age 4) and that hot headed little dude (yeah, 1/2 arab and he was more hot headed than your horse!) was a gentle darling with my kids.

    I loved him even more for that.

    We didn't show as much as you did or take on as many disciplines, but I always felt he never got to his potential with me. I regret that. I regret that so much of our partnership had me an hour or more away from him. I have to remind myself that we got a lot done despite that.

    It really warms my heart to see your Zzari, at 22, in such gorgeous shape. I love your story! Please go out and give him a big hug from a horse crazy girl up here in Ontario who loved a distant cousin of his!

    (I will have another Arab some day. He was my dream come true horse and I'm not done yet!)

  6. I almost forgot- your $100 appy mare was kinda cute. I think the cast looked great with the AC/DC shirt. Aaaand I don't think you've changed much in 20 years!

  7. HOLY COW!!!!! that pic of the dad leading the boy and the horse. It's just like the one of my dad and Champ and me!!!!!

  8. Heidi, I actually thought of you and Champ when I was compiling that post yesterday. I've known so many people over the years who have had profound bonds with their once-in-a-lifetime horses. Those of us who have been so blessed seem to recognize it easily in others.

  9. Well, Bucky, you know how it goes. Cute kid, cute horse, cute dad - they all start to look alike after a while.