Chicho and Solo-- Photo by Steve Bishop

Chicho and Solo

Chicho and Solo


Horse trading at its finest

Solo landed in my student Liz's hands through pure luck. I saw an ad in a tack shop for an older Andalusian. Because of the small size of the equestrian community, it turned out coincidentally that Solo's owner, Jan, was a friend of a very good friend.

It only took one trip to see Solo to decide. He was standing in a snowy field, looking like exactly what he was, a 29 year old retired Andalusian, swaybacked, protruding hips and a little ribby. He was under-muscled from retirement, but was otherwise in great shape for his age. Underneath that shaggy winter coat, he bore an uncanny resemblance to my own horse, a half Andalusian named Narsisco Caballeroso, or Chicho. We saw something else, a majestic stance, a gleam in his eye, the Andalusian tendency to pose as if for a marble statue.

When I got on for a test ride, Solo was light, correct, and forward in everything he did. He was barefoot, and remarkably sound. Although he had no muscles to carry out the FEI movements, he clearly remembered how to do them, and do them right.

"Who trained this horse?" I asked. "Nuno Oliveira trained him to a large degree," Jan said.

Nuno Oliveira, born June 23, 1925, died February 2, 1989, is "regarded world-wide as the last of the Old Master Trainers, always devoted to the principles of the Classical Trainers of old" ( Oliveira is considered the last link to the Old Masters of the 19th century. Solo is a living link to him.

To sit in the same seat where Nuno sat, to feel the same things that Nuno had felt, to learn from Solo what Nuno taught him opened up a world of classical riding I had not even dreamed. On that Rocky Mountain winter day, in a boulder strewn field behind a back yard barn, I found out what true lightness was. We could argue classical vs. competitive, Baroque vs. warmblood, but there was no longer a question in my mind. I have sat on some very nice horses, but Solo was the best trained horse I had ever been on in my life and ever will.

He was the lightest. To shoulder in, I merely had to turn my shoulders. For travers, I simply brought my leg back. For half pass, I pulled a little into my inside heel. I actually looked like I could ride a little bit.

I am not proud of my history as a horsetrader. My father was a horsetrader years ago, and I was his test rider. I know all the tricks of the trade, the haggling, the countering, the picking apart of faults, real or imagined. But, I can never bring myself to say bad things about the sellers' horses, horses they usually love and sometimes worship. On the day we bought Solo, I surpassed myself.

Jan said, "make an offer. I only want him to have a great home."

My student Liz said, "$500." There was a long silence. Jan was thinking hard, and was ready to take the offer. She only wanted the best home for the old man, a home where he could have the attention he deserved. The silence grew longer and I started to squirm. I couldn't let him get away. Forget the papers, the bill of sale, the vet check.

"What about $700?" I burst in. "We don't want to insult you."

Solo was ours.

Talk about smart bidding. I had just made my own counter offer. Now, no one lets me go to horse auctions anymore.

Fighting Skepticism

The barn owner did not even want to bring Solo home. She said that he should always wear a blanket or a sheet, to hide him. She said that the swayback must hurt. She said that he should never be taken off the property or shown, for fear that someone might see him. She stuck him in the furthest stall of the worst barn, so know one could see him.

I tried to tell her that Solo loved the work, and loved the attention. She asked how I could know.

I still don't know how I know. It's because he rushes to the front of his stall when I show up. It's because he gaily offers piaffe at the drop of a hat. It's because he shows off every chance he got, always offering more than asked. He loves his work and he loves people. It shines in his eyes.

We talked to a few vets. They all said the swayback did not hurt him. They said it was important for the older horse to exercise, since muscle atrophy often gets an old horse in the end. Without exercise, the muscles degenerate, and the horse might have trouble lying down and getting up. One vet said, "oh, yes, walk and trot lightly every day."

I said, "well, he doesn't exactly walk and trot. It's more like piaffe and passage."

One vet said that with correct dressage work, Solo's back would come back up. Even I, the eternal optimist, had a hard time believing that.

Taking care of Solo

The vet looked at Solo when we got home. Solo had a "wave mouth" where his top and bottom teeth had worn away unevenly. At his age, he was lucky to have teeth at all. The vet prescribed a diet of Mush. We started slowly, but when we got him up to full feeding, it was something like this:

breakfast: one pound Equine Senior.

one half cup rice bran

one pound soaked beet pulp.

All of this is wet down liberally and soaked. two flakes grass hay, which he won't eat, but we try.

lunch: mush same as breakfast. One flake alfalfa, which he loves.

high tea: mush same as breakfast.

dinner: mush same as breakfast. One flake alfalfa. Two flakes grass hay.

Dividing the meal into four parts makes it easier for him to digest. Wetting it down makes it easier to chew. Although it seems like a pain, Liz and I make enough Mush for one day, then just divide it as the day goes by. Solo goes out in the morning, but comes in early for lunch and high tea. It's easy since either Liz or I is at the barn in the afternoons.

Exercise started light, one gell pad under the saddle. Finding a saddle that fit was not as hard as it could have been, even with the swayback. We walked a trotted for about six weeks, with a little canter to build his wind. At first Solo had a hard time holding the canter. He did not like to pick up the right lead. After six weeks of slow conditioning, real training began, most of it mine and Liz's.

Evoking Memories

Solo had so much knowledge stored. Some of it was in his genes, 600 years of Andalusian selective breeding. He was bred to be kind and gentle, yet spirited. He was bred to piaffe and passage.

Some of his knowledge was locked in his muscles, in muscle memory. Countless repetitions in prior training meant that his muscles knew, deep inside, how to do the tempis, how to canter pirouette. But in the beginning, his canter was labored. He quickly became short of breath. After a slow warm up, some work sessions were only 15 minutes, just enough time to review old memories of shoulder in, haunches in, and half pass. We worked a few transitions, asking only for prompt obedience and correctness. There was no drilling allowed. No one was allowed to try to "put him on the bit." Instead, we let the movements bring out the collection. There was never a moment of resistance. Solo's desire to please supersedes any arthritic pain or stiffness he might feel.

Over time, Solo's cardio-vascular system improved. His muscles became "cut" and veins started to pop out that hadn't been there before. It took careful conditioning, quiet riding, good food, and lots of love to bring back the pleasant memories of his prior training.

Not all the memories are pleasant. Solo is extremely insulted when the rider picks up a whip. One touch with the whip might elicit a squeal. The first (and only time) I put Solo in long lines, I saw the best piaffe in America. I also saw a side of Solo I had not before. He was afraid. Some of it is surely sight related. Solo does not see so well any more, and the sight of the lines behind him startled him. Some of it was fear of the longe whip I quickly dropped.

All of our work is done in the snaffle, without spurs. Solo is so light, we've never seen the need for spurs. He is so correct, we don't seem to need the double bridle. I usually ride with a dressage whip in my right hand, but only because I wear a metal ACL brace on my right knee. Solo breaks a lot of rules anyway, so if we want to school FEI in a snaffle, without spurs, who is to say it is wrong?

Solo and Chicho

When I first introduced Solo to my own Andalusian, Chicho, it was a mirror image. Solo looks exactly like Chicho should look in 15 years, kind of a fuzzier image, a kinder soul and a wiser eye. Solo is so quiet sometimes his presence seems to slip. I might honestly think he is standing in his stall when in fact he is in the pasture.

Chicho has always been a rugged individualist. He is a people horse. He cared so little for other horses, that I always had to put him out by himself. He would often kick, bite and drive the other horses away. But, for some reason, he instantly sensed a kindred spirit in Solo. He greeted him with a whinny. They touched noses and became the best of friends.

We moved to a new barn, and because of Solo and Chicho's relationship, they settled in very quickly, since we continued the same routine. Now Solo has the care he deserves, the biggest box stall in the best barn, instead of being hidden away. He greets everyone over the top of his Dutch door. People immediately recognize his wise eye. The new barn owner calls him "The Storybook Horse."

Solo lives side by side with Chicho. They go out together every day. They lead in as a pair. They perform a pas de deux so close that Liz and I touch stirrups constantly. Solo is Chicho's stablilizing force. Solo calms Chicho when his Spanish blood gets hot. Chicho is Solo's playful side. He keeps Solo young. After watching Chicho run and buck when turned out, Solo bucks and runs too, playing like a colt. If animals can indeed love, these two show more respect for each other and more fidelity than many humans.

When one leaves the stall, the other stands and calls. Someone once did an intelligence test for horses, where one aspect of the horse's intelligence is determined by how quickly the horse will find his way to the gate when the feed is set on the other side of the fence.

Solo's and Chicho's stalls have runs in the back facing the pasture. When I lead Solo to the pasture first, Chicho goes to back of the run to watch Solo. He knows he is going out next, and he stands in the back of the run watching, waiting his turn. Chicho can not get out through the back of the run, and I have to go in and lead him out.

Solo, while maybe not smarter than his "little brother," has more horse sense. When I lead Chicho to the pasture first, Solo goes to the front of the stall. Although he can not see Chicho from the stall, he knows that I have to come into the front of the stall in order to lead him out that way. Rather than standing at the back of the run like Chicho, he stands, nickering, by the stall door, waiting his turn.

Solo is 31 now, and winning blue ribbons with a new 10 year old owner. Chicho is 20, and they are closer than any horses I have ever seen. Solo is a little blind and a little deaf, but Chicho watches out for him. Once a 4 foot bull snake slithered through their pasture. Solo didn't see it. Chicho saw it, snorted, then started to run. Then, he looked back. Chicho turned back, nudged Solo, and herded him to the far end of the pasture, away from the snake. You read about it in books....