These photos were taken in March 98. We (me and the ex) had just purchased and brought Smoke home. (that’s Jordan, in the background.)
The stories I could tell of this horse. I shall start with the things he did, and later, discuss the ordeal we had in selling him.
The sellers, Joe and Julie Decker of Rochester, WA were willing to tell the ex whatever he wanted to know about Smoke. The ex was looking for a tall, BLM mustang with Appaloosa markings. That’s what Joe said he was. Somehow, this so called mustang had no BLM brand. His papers “had been left out in a sunny window and were no longer legible.” There was no bill of sale from the BLM/US Government.
Smoke had been used as a pony horse at the track. That I believe, because the Deckers stood a Thoroughbred stallion (who, while gentle, was insane from being kept in a tiny, tiny stall.) He’d made enough money on the track to buy a couple mares and begin the Decker’s career as horse breeders.
The rest was baloney. They were so willing to get rid of Smoke (and still make money) that they would have told the ex the horse was Secretariat in Appy drag.
Smoke was, as far as we could tell, half TB and half Appaloosa. He was ‘about’ 12 years old, trained western and english, and was 16.2 hands. When we went to look at him, Julie immediately pegged me as the ”expert’ on horses, and began talking. She never, ever shut up. Every time I tried to get a feel for the horse, get a good look over him, she was at my elbow, talking. She yakked and yakked, extolling the horse’s virtues (and saying NOTHING about his many vices. We discovered those, later).
I couldn’t hear the horse. I was so distracted by her very intentional verbal tsunami that I totally missed the left hind hoof, that was so weak and shelly that it couldn’t hold a shoe. The issue was compounded by buyer’s fever. The ex had his heart set on Smoke. He was ‘exactly what he wanted’. And so we bought him.
For the first couple weeks, Smoke behaved himself. He was merely figuring out who was what. He immediately realized I was alpha mare, and only later on did he try any funny business with me. We boarded him at the Gorsky’s, across the road from our house. June took one look at him and fell in love. But they had three horses of their own. And she did not like my little Jordan, which suited me fine. June was-and is-crazy, too, and she puts out an aura that drives horses nuts-especially smart ones, like Smoke. Because he WAS smart. Oh, not just smart-Smoke was evil, and cunning. There is reincarnation, and in this case, there was an evil spirit in Smoke, one that was gunning to get even.
The ex was a natural horseman…at least, he had a knack for it. The only training he’d had was at the barn we took lessons at, where I found and bought Jordan. The ex was a lot like Smoke-stubborn and refusing to listen to advice. So although I, June and Bruce tried to teach him even the fundamental parts of riding english, i.e. properly holding the reins, Ex wouldn’t listen. However, he was supremely egotistical, and believed he was a horseman. He bought an Australian saddle as he was a huge fan of the riders in “The Man From Snowy River”. He honestly believed that the saddle was what made a rider. This extreme naivete was his undoing, in the long run.
He was taken with Smoke. Smoke was large enough at 16.2 that he fit the ex. Within a couple weeks of bringing him home, Ex took him out-alone-on the prairie.
Smoke tried to run away with him. I didn’t witness it, but what the ex described, later, was nothing but a flat out runaway.
However, Ex didn’t know that. In fact, he played the card exactly as he should have. Smoke had no idea where he was on the prairie, but he had full intentions of scaring the shit out of Ex by running away. And he could almighty god run…….that horse was fast. When the ex came home from the ride, he had a grin wrapped three times around his head. He’d had the most fabulous ride of his life, he said. When Smoke took off on him, the ex wasn’t afraid. He had never realized how fast a real gallop could be. The ex had given Smoke his head. Smoke took that as an invitation to run this guy right off of his back. If there had been trees on the prairie, I’m sure Smoke would have smashed the ex against them. But Smoke realized, too late, that he was running away to a place he’d never been before. And the ex wasn’t afraid. Besides, it was hard work running on that prairie, mounded and sloughed as it is. So Smoke tried to slow down. But the ex was totally enjoying the ride. He stretched forward and yelled in Smoke’s ear, urging the horse to go faster. Everytime Smoke tried to slow down, Ex kept him going flat out. He ran the living piss out of the horse.
Smoke never ran away again. That was him. He had a bag of tricks and never used the same one twice. I could just hear Smoke thinking: hm. That didn’t work, and I wore my ass out trying.
When we would tack up in the barn, we used crossties. This is where I learned that a horse, suitably crazy, can literally tear a cross tie out by the roots. It’s why the Deckers only tied him up, loosely, in their barn, and dodged my questions about his ground manners.
One day we were in the barn and the ex decided he wanted to ride in the arena. None of the rest us wanted to ride.
By this time, Smoke had figured us all out, and where he stood in the horse order in the barn. He had also figured out that being tacked up meant he was going to have to work. He disliked work intensely.
In addition, today’s ride meant that all the other horses were loafing, watching Smoke heading for a workout.
The ex rode down to the arena. Me and the Gorsky’s went down to watch. The ex rode Smoke around the arena once. On the second go round, trotting, Smoke literally went to his knees. He didn’t fall. He stopped and dropped to his knees, and then rolled over onto his side. The ex stepped off. Smoke then stood back up, shook himself and said as plain as day, OK, I got you off. Now untack me. We watchers were shocked. The Ex didn’t think anything of it. He got back onto Smoke and urged him to trot on. I had never seen a horse do anything like that. That’s when I knew Smoke was dangerous, and calculating. He’d shown no anger. No flattened ears, no rolling eyes, nothing to indicate there was something physically ailing him. No, Smoke had decided, I am going to squish you. He didn’t want to be ridden and had decided, off you go.
As the ex kept him going around the ring, you could see Smoke thinking, OK, that didn’t work. He’s still not afraid of me. I’m still trotting around this damned arena.
By now I knew why the Deckers had been so eager to get rid of Smoke. Smoke had vices that were quantum leaps above dirty tricks. They’d always frightened people in the past. He done them to the Deckers. They’d worked. The Deckers had unloaded this dangerous horse on the ex, who admitted to them that he was a beginner. That had made no difference to them. All they wanted was cash money for the horse and get him out of here.
It was in the barn that Smoke showed his true colors.
Smoke would listen to everything we said. The ex would bring him in and put him in cross-ties. As long as June wasn’t in the barn, Smoke was fine. But the moment June came in, he began to a smoulder. June hated me and despised everyone else. She broadcast this on a wavelength that Smoke could hear. I wasn’t afraid of her, but Smoke could smell her venom. That’s the only thing I can think of that would cause his behaviour.
I have this knack of being able to hear horses think. He broadcast as loudly as June did, and his wavelengths were malevolent.
He had a most frightening habit, that of breaking loose.
First he would begin to roll his eyes. Then he’d gather himself, coiling up like a giant snake. His ears would go back and then he would leap BACKWARDS. He was big and powerful and tore the crosstie rings right out of the oak posts. The first time he did this, he ran to the end of the barn, where the closed doors stymied his efforts to escape. The ex collected him without comment, and re-tied him to a second set of cross ties, and recommenced tacking him up. Smoke took it without complaint. He was thinking. It had worked. He just hadn’t counted on the door being shut.
We never left the doors open, especially after that. However, it didn’t stop Smoke from breaking loose. The next time he did it, Smoke tore a board loose rather than just pull the rings out of the wall. He raced down the aisle, the boards slapping him in the head. When that happened, he realized he was hurting himself, and he stopped without further ado.
Again, he thought about what he’d accomplished. It took a while, but the third time he broke loose by jumping forward and getting his feet over a cross tie (which were head high). This time the halter clips snapped in two. He did a couple of circuits in the aisle until he realized we were merely waiting for him to stop. He was disappointed-we were no longer running after him. He was merely getting tired.
Knowing he was about to explode was like watching the lit fuse on a stick of dynamite. Ice cold and determined, Smoke’s escapes were always violent but emotionless, wholly without panic. He never broke loose out of fear or pain. No, his breakouts were calculated and perfectly timed. Only the fact that he could not open a barn door made every breakout a failure.
Every time he was about to break, I could hear him. I would warn everyone, “he’s going to blow.” No one ever believed me until he did it. And I could tell, oh, five minutes before hand. June accused me of ‘doing something’ to make him do it until he did it to her when I wasn’t there. Only then did she believe me.
The frightening thing of Smoke was that he never, ever revealed any emotion. None. Not love, not affection, not gentleness. He could mind his manners, but it was never out of a sense of decency. He showed no fear, no anger. Everything he did was measured, calculated, and planned.
He knew he was big. What he hadn’t counted on was that this was the first barn where he wasn’t the biggest horse, and that the humans in it were not afraid of him.
There was never a reason for him doing this stuff. He’d go weeks being halfway normal, and then he’d go a week being a total nutjob.
He was thinking all the time, guaging when the time was right to do something evil. If a horse could be called sociopathic, Smoke was it.
Creek, Bruce’s horse, was Smoke’s hero. He emulated Creek. Whatever Creek did, Smoke would do. Creek taught Smoke how to untie knots. Creek taught Smoke how to get out of the stall. Creek, being a tall “Canadian Warmblood”, would press his head against the top of the stall door, lifting it off the rollers. Then he’d push it aside and be free. He would then go and let Smoke out of his stall. Or else he showed Smoke how to do it. One morning Bruce entered the barn to find the two of them loose in the aisle. Fortunately he always locked the feed room. Otherwise, who knows how sick the boys would have gotten, gorging themselves. Putting a snap on the door latch stopped that little antic. Smoke tried to lift the door, too, but he wasn’t as tall as Creek, and couldn’t reach it with his poll.
Came the day the four of us were tacking up for a trail ride on the prairie. Smoke decided he wasn’t going out on the trail with us. Nope.
By this time, Bruce was getting pretty tired of replacing solid oak posts and repairing crossties. We were fed up with having to pay for it. So we had purchased a panic tie. This was an bungie cord about 18 inches long, with a quick release snap for the wall end, a normal snap on the horse end. We’d also decided his aversion to cross ties was workaroundable, by tieing him up to a single ring.
After tying him up, the ex began to groom him. He said he was going to run Smoke on the prairie. I heard Smoke say, nuts to this, I’m out of here. “He’s going to pop” I said. By now, the ex believed me when I said things like this. We both backed off, waiting for the inevitable. It came.
This time his eye never rolled. He’d done this often enough to not even bother. He coiled up and jumped backward-and the bungie cord snatched him right back, pulling him hard into the wall. Smoke leaped back again, hitting the end of the bungie cord. It propelled him with great force into the wall, nose first. He grunted at the impact and his hooves scrabbled for purchase. He almost went down from the pain. You could see the stars circling his head from the impact. He’d finally hurt himself. He staggered, then steadied on his feet, and shook his head. His eyes landed on mine. I will never forget that look. For one brief moment, I saw demonic, burning hatred in those eyes. He hated humans. It was obvious. We’d defeated him. Worse, we’d witnessed his denouement. We had proved, one more time, that we were smarter than him. Then he shuttered the fire in his eye. But I’d seen it. For that one moment, I had seen an evilness that I had never seen in any animal before.
He knew I’d seen it. I’d won, because he’d revealed his secret to me-that he hated us. Like all sociopaths, he’d learned never to reveal his cards. He’d always been able to count on us to treat him kindly, no matter how vile his actions. Now he knew that not only could I hear him, but that I knew him for the monster he was.
He never tried to break loose again. But I believe that was only because we never tied him up with anything but the bungie cord from then on.
June fancied herself an expert rider. Belle, her last horse, had been a wicked Thoroughbred off the track. She’d taught June how to stick on. Therefore, June figured she could handle something less hot than a Thoroughbred. One day she asked the ex if she could ride Smoke. He said yes. She wanted me to go with her. I didn’t bother to tack Jordan up. I rode him bareback and in a hackamore. She tacked Smoke up in her own saddle, and mounted. We headed for the prairie. Smoke despised Jordan, but Jordan wasn’t afraid of him. I led the way, through the broom that was at least head high-to me. June on Smoke was about fifty feet behind me. We hadn’t even gotten to the prairie when Smoke stopped.
He stopped dead. June was no novice. Smoke knew he couldn’t bluff her like he could the ex. He began to back up. She stopped him and cued him to go forward. He began to walk backwards. He was acting as if there was a bear or a cougar ahead of us, animals that are not unknown here. But Jordan was unafraid and said there were no bears or cougars.
Smoke was merely trying to get out of work. He stopped backing up and turned, facing the barn. He said very plainly, “I don’t want to go trail riding”. June turned him away from the barn and asked him to go forward. He refused. She touched him with her spurs. Maybe he’d never felt a spur before, but it resulted in him jumping backwards. He ran backwards, veering off the trail and towards the gravel pit that paralleled the prairie. June stopped him. She asked him to go forward. This time he reared, straight up. Unfrightened, June gave him a solid smack with her crop.
When he came down, she gave him another smack and he leaped forward, and tried to rear again. This time she caught him before he could do so and gave him a hell of a lick. He tried to shake her off, but June stuck like a tick to his back. She cued him to go forward and he began to spin, backwards. She gave up. It was obvious he wasn’t going to go on a trail ride. I’m going back, she said and turned Smoke towards the barn. I turned around and followed them home. (no more than a half mile).
He broke into a gallop. She pulled him back to a trot and kept him tight in hand. She made him do circles until he stopped trying to run away. She asked me to run up ahead of them and open the arena gate. I knew what she was planning. When I cantered past Smoke doing circles he tried to follow, but June kept him circling. It probably pissed him off because he was working hard but couldn’t go anywhere but around.
I opened the arena gate and hollered so, and she let him out of the circling. They came galloping. Smoke was aiming right for the barn. No lack of forward in him now! But she yanked him in a tight right turn, right into the arena. Then she made him work, hard. He wants to back up? OK, let’s back up. She backed him clear around the arena. He still acted up. Oh, you want to gallop? Let’s GO. She made him work in the arena. She even popped him over the cavelliti, just because. This did not set well with Smoke, but he’d finally met his match: one crazy against another. He stopped fighting her when he understood that she wasn’t backing down.
When she was done, I told her I would walk him cool. He was hot and sweaty. His sides were heaving. You would think he would have conceded defeat, but no. Once again, there was no anger, no fear, no submission. None. There was merely that look in his eye, that scorekeeping look. Okay. You won this round.
The end of Smoke began when he finally got one over on the ex. Ex had always believed that his natural ability to ride, coupled with The Magic Saddle was what kept him on the top side of the horse. He never truly believed us when we more experienced horsemen said Smoke was dangerous. He could not allow himself to believe us. He was as evil as the horse. Sociopaths know full well that we are lambs to their wolves. This was no exception. Smoke and the ex got along because they were both without pity, without shame, without anything but self serving ego.
We four were going on a trail ride: June in front on Tuffy, Bruce on Creek, Ex on Smoke and me bringing up the rear on Jordan. Creek was always crowhopping. Bruce thought it funny. He wouldn’t even take the cigar out of his mouth. Bruce is a fabulous horseman and thinks the finest thing in life is a great big horse with an attitude. Creek always had a little buck in him, but there was no mean in him. He was just a big happy horse. Creek was Smoke’s hero. Monkey see, monkey do. We had just crossed the road on our way to the prairie when Creek crowhopped. Bruce laughed.
Smoke decided that if Creek could buck, so could he.
Smoke gave one mighty buck. I saw those hind feet way up in the sky. The ex went flying though the air, right over Smoke’s head, landing flat on his back.
Smoke spun on a dime and raced past me and Jordan. I bailed off of Jordan to see if Ex was okay. Ex had nothing to say as he had no air in his lungs to speak with. June and Bruce dismounted to help him, and I scrambled back onto Jordan to go retrieve Smoke.
I needn’t have hurried. Smoke had run off a couple hundred feet and stopped. He’d stepped on a rein, and was too smart to hurt himself. He was perplexed. Here he was, free, and none of the other horses were joining him. I rode up to Smoke, bailed off of Jordan and took Smoke’s rein. I looked him straight in the eye and said vehemently, “If you’ve hurt him, I will kill you.” Just that coldly.
He understood me. Every word. And believed me. From that moment on, he treated me with a respect he’d never had before. I led both horses back to the group. Ex was standing now, and looked pale. We made him remount and went for a little ways, until he said he wanted to go back to the barn. Bruce and June continued on. I went back to the barn with Smoke and the Ex. I untacked Smoke as the ex was dazedly trying to figure out if anything was broken. He went home (we lived across the road) and took a hot bath on my orders.
Ex told me later that he’d had no idea the buck was coming. He said his first thought was, the world looks so strange, and then I landed. Then I thought, if I’m hurt, I can’t work, and we need the money. It was the first time he realized that his horse was capable of hurting him, and worse, was willing to.
The time clock had run out on Smoke. The ex rode him twice after that, and only in the arena. He’d lost his passion for the horse, and for riding in general.
We sold him a few months later. Selling Smoke was an ordeal I will cover in a future post, or two.
Never before in my life had I ever met such a malignant spirit in an animal. I understand wild animals, and that they fear us. The big predators don’t hate us. They may attack and kill us, but it’s not out of malevolence. We don’t matter that much to them.
But Smoke hated us, all of us, no matter how well we treated him. He was intelligent, and cunning enough to understand that we apes had control over him. He knew that we fed and watered him. He knew how to manipulate the weak, the fearful, the naive.
I believed, until Smoke, that horses only did these vile things out of fear, or pain, or lack of understanding. Now I know there are horses out there who do things out of meanness. And probably for the same reason that human beings are cruel…because they can be.