(Posted January 1, 2022)
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When my youngest daughter, Miabi, was about eight years old, she developed an intense interest in horses. She started reading about horses, talking about horses and dreaming about horses. In very short order, she became a walking encyclopedia on horses. I thought that her horse-love was a passing fling and would soon be replaced with some other obsession like campaigning against animal cruelty or becoming a total vegan. She had already graduated from a dog obsession phase, probably because we had become proud owners of a genuine mutt, Pepper, who was already lording over our household, replacing me from my legitimate perch as the family head. Surely the horse obsession too would pass – and soon.
But it didn’t. Apparently, during my frequent absences (read, behind my back) my wife had been fanning the fire. She had enrolled Miabi (and herself) in a riding school at a nearby stable. I became aware of this development when one Saturday, my wife had a car trouble and I was asked to drive them to the stable. Imagine my surprise when I saw my little girl atop the mountain of a four-legged animal, closely followed by my wife on the back of a yet larger mountain, with an ear-to-ear grin. I could only stare at them with awe – from a safe distance, of course.
Little did I know then that I had not only lost a battle but would soon lose the war as well. Let me go gently into the story of that war.
A couple of years went by, with my role being limited to that of a smiling and admiring father. I attended several “shows” every year, featuring events dressily named as “dressage” or showy competitions like “show jumping”. My daughter also was continually teaching me the differences between English saddle and Western saddle, between trotting and galloping, and I was dutifully nodding like I understood everything she taught me. Fortunately, my wife did not enter these shows or competitions; she was content with mastering the basics of riding and not aspiring to any higher calling. Miabi also taught me that after a strenuous exercise or run, a horse should not be allowed to have too much of water or food. I was further taught that horse pastures should not have rye grass, and horses should never be fed grass clippings! I have long forgotten the medical reasons for such stern warnings, because I was not an attentive student.
By the time Miabi turned eleven, her interest in horses had progressed from simply riding horses, assigned to her at random by the instructor at the stable, to having a horse of her very own. I was aghast at the thought of building a stable in my backyard, and I started vocally objecting to the challenges of getting necessary permits from the township, securing consent from neighbors, working with an architect and what not. Miabi gave me the kind of smile that only an eleven-year-old girl can give to charm her doting father, and said gently, “Silly, you don’t have to worry about all that. Mommy has already found a stable where there is a vacancy, and I will keep my horse there.” Obviously, there was a conspiracy afoot in the family to convince the old man that owning a horse presented no problem whatsoever. When I wondered out loud that how would an eleven-year-old take care of a 1000-pound animal, her smile became beatific. “I take care of Pepper, don’t I? And Mommy will help me, she said,” was her answer. And, guess what? The mother nodded a silent but powerful yes to Miabi’s claim to adulthood. For the benefit of the reader, I should add at this point that Pepper weighed about 30 pounds. And Miabi’s mother took care of the dog, not Miabi.
Resigned to my fate, I meekly asked, “Where would you find a horse to buy?”
This was moving to adult talk, so Miabi gracefully allowed her mother to explain all the details they had already worked out. All I was permitted to do was to say yes or nod in affirmation. A horse had been located already through a horse agent. He, meaning the horse, was of the right height for an eleven-year-old girl (very petite, I might add). And the stable was ready for the horse. Finally, the mother declared with supreme satisfaction and pride that the stable was on the way to Miabi’s school. So Miabi could visit and take care of the horse several days a week on her way back from school – with her mother’s help with the transportation.
I had been cornered but I was not ready to give up. “How do we move the horse to the stable from his current home? Do I have to rent a U Haul? Do I have to get a ramp for the horse to get into the van?” The mother-daughter team were astonished at the level of my ignorance. “The stable arranges everything. You don’t have to think about any of that. All has been taken care of,” the team declared.
Almost vanquished, I had to use my last – and most potent – ammunition. “How much does the horse cost? How much will the stable charge for room and board?”, I raised money matters, a discussion my daughter was not comfortable to enter into. But my better half had no hesitation on such matters, so she gave me the details. The horse would cost a few thousand dollars, the agent would charge a “small” fee for finding the right horse, and the stable would charge $550 per month for boarding – not including the food which would be extra.
This discussion was taking place almost thirty years ago, so the figure of “$550 per month for boarding only” was a bit hard for me to swallow. But swallow I did, convincing myself that I would have to cut back elsewhere to support the passion of the apple of my eyes.
But the apple’s passion got costlier by the day. The next day I was told that a vet had to do a full-scale “health examination” of the horse before it could be transported to the new stable. This was necessary to satisfy the requirements of the new stable -- and to “protect our investment” (to make sure that the horse did not have a hidden defect like a bad leg). How the heck do you take a horse to a vet, I asked, totally bewildered. The answer was a gentle rebuke. “You take the vet to the horse”, was the answer. But how would the vet determine that the legs are sound? The vet will take a portable Xray machine to the horse! Of course, I should have known that. But how much will the vet charge? We will have to pay the full amount, $550 to be exact, since we did not have any insurance – yet!
“So, what kind of a horse are we getting?”, I asked, pretending to be really into horses now. But deep inside, I knew that I was totally ignorant about horse matters. So, I quickly changed my direction. “I mean, what color?” “Brown”, came the quick reply. “I wish it was blond in color. I like that color”, I proclaimed with some pride, because I thought I could show off some knowledge of horses.
If looks could kill, my daughter would have killed me instantly. “There are no BLOND horses, Daddy! The color is called palomino, not blond,” the derision in the eleven-year-old’s voice was clear. A short lecture on horse colors followed, and I learned that “pinto” is used to describe horses with patches of colors like black and white or brown and white.
“Are you getting a pony? That would be best for you”, I added with great father-like gravity and wisdom.
“Oh, no! Not a pony! Ponies are for little kids,” she was almost shouting. After calming down a bit, Miabi informed me that she was getting a quarter horse because that’s what she preferred. “A QUARTER HORSE? So why are we paying all the costs – in full?” I knew some timeshare deals included quarter-share ownership of vacation properties. Quarter ownership of horses should be much more affordable, I figured in my practical mind.
By this time my wife was also ready to kill me. She was probably thinking, “Thank God, none of my friends are here to see how clueless my hubby is!” Together, they took time to educate me about “Quarter Horses”. These are horses specifically bred to run in quarter-mile races, they explained. But my ignorance ran deep. “What does a quarter horse do after it runs for a quarter mile? Just stop?”, I asked because I was truly clueless. “Daddy! They go on with their life. They don’t die after a quarter-mile run. They can produce quick bursts of energy so they can run very fast for a short period of time. You won’t want to use them for a long race”, came the stern lecture.
So, on one fine Sunday, the horse got transported to his new home, a large stable in the Martinsville area in New Jersey with several paddocks and a couple of arenas/rings with bleachers for family members and visitors to watch training sessions or horse shows. The whole family, including my two other beautiful (and thankfully never horse-obsessed) daughters, drove over to the stable to welcome Smokey Badger Bar to the family, albeit under a different (and costly) roof. A majestic looking animal, 15 hands tall, with shiny brown coat, blond (or is it palomino?) mane and tail. (Don’t get me started on why horse’s heights are measured in “hands” or what a “hand” means in this context).
As everybody gathered around the new member of the family, petted him and admired his looks, I maintained a safe distance and wondered why the horse had such a weird name, Smokey Badger Bar. But I had learned my lessons. I was not going to show more ignorance on my part by asking additional questions. Unfortunately, that question never got asked, and to this date I don’t know how horses get their names (and if their last names change after they choose their life-partners!).
That was a happy beginning – but not the end of our horse adventure.
That evening I left for London on a business trip. On Monday afternoon I was in a meeting of the Board of Directors of the company, engaged in a serious discussion. My secretary quietly entered the room, an unusual occurrence during such a high-level meeting, and handed me a note. It read, “Your wife wants to speak with you. URGENT!” I immediately excused myself from the room, raising a few eyebrows as I exited the room, and went to my office and called my wife.
“What’s up?”, I asked. My voice must have carried traces of annoyance.
“Smokey has run away!”, a deeply worried reply came back from my wife. Apparently, she had been notified an hour or so ago by the stable manager that Smokey had broken through a barbed wire fence and run away.
“How can that be? The stable is responsible for safe-keeping of all the horses! What are they doing to find the horse?”
“They are saying that they can’t do anything. I should call the police.” My wife was close to tears. “And I have called the Martinsville police. They said they can’t do anything until the horse has been located. They can then try to catch the horse.”
In the boardroom, I was in the middle of a heated discussion about an insurance liability lawsuit. I had left half of my brain in the boardroom, and I was not thinking clearly. In that half-suspended state of mind, I advised my wife with all seriousness, “Take your convertible and drive up and down on I-78 and see if you can find Smokey. That highway is right next to the stable, and if he starts running on that highway and gets into a car accident, we could be exposed to a huge liability.”
There was a long silence on the other end of the phone. Then came a slowly uttered but clearly articulated response, “What do you expect me to do? Take a lasso with me and catch a running horse on the highway, cowboy-style?”
“No, no. I didn’t mean that …”. I stuttered. She hung up on me. That was the treatment I deserved at that moment.
For the next three days the situation remained unchanged and deeply worrisome. A 1000 pounds animal was loose and could easily stray onto a busy interstate highway. But the police, if they were doing anything at all, had nothing to report. The stable had washed their hands of all responsibility. They even suggested that our horse was the “new ringleader” and was a troublemaker, thanks to his run for freedom! My wife did drive up and down I-78 several times but did not catch a glimpse of the horse.
The good news came on the fourth day. A farmer, about three miles away from the stable, had noticed that one of his mares had a new boyfriend and they were happily munching on apples in his orchard. He had called the police, and the stable had sent a van with a horse-catcher to retrieve Smokey. The stable had already notified the vet to come and check out our horse because he seemed badly wounded from his encounters with wire fences and thorny bushes and trees. Nevertheless, happiness returned to the Chatterji household, and Miabi was smiling again.
I hastily returned from London, and Miabi, my wife and I made a pilgrimage to the stable as soon as Miabi’s school day was over. We met with the veterinarian who had finished examining our wayward horse (with his portable Xray equipment in tow, of course) and gave us the bad news. The animal had injured his legs so badly that he would be “out of commission” for three months to fully heal his many wounds. Basically, neither Miabi nor my wife would be able to ride Smokey for three months. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Smokey would require daily cleaning of his wounds and application of a wound-healing ointment. And that would require Miabi and my wife to lift each leg of the animal, placing it in a bucket of clean water, thoroughly cleaning each foot, lifting each foot from the bucket, drying each foot with a towel, and then applying the prescribed ointment on each foot and leg. And this routine had to continue for three months – before any riding would be allowed.
As the vet said good bye and good luck to us, he stuck a bill in my hand, for, you guessed it right, $550 for his professional services. Slowly but steadily, I came to realize that for the following three months, I would be shelling out $550 each month for keeping the horse in the stable – without the any of the pleasures of owning a horse.
And that is exactly what happened for the following three months, seven days a week. No riding lessons for Miabi or my wife. No wild running in the paddocks for poor Smokey. But I was routinely drained off $550 each month for three months – and that hurt me mightily.
In my mind, Smokey Badger Bar had become Smokey the Bandit.
On the brighter side, three months of taking good care of Smokey allowed Miabi and my wife lots of opportunities to develop a bond with their beloved horse. And after this prolonged period of convalescence, Smokey turned out to be a delightful horse for Miabi and my wife. They would feed him apples, carrots and sugar cubes, brush his coat thoroughly, take him out for walks, and of course, eventually ride him regularly. But he never warmed up to me nor me to him. As I sat restlessly in the bleachers, I would try to keep myself busy with a cigar or a newspaper. Without fail, Smokey would express great displeasure at these seemingly innocent activities. The trainer would tell me that the cigar smoke was a no-no because it caused Smokey to sneeze. She would also ask me not to turn pages of the newspaper I was reading because the noise scared the big animal. Smokey and I never quite bonded as friends. Perhaps he sensed that while the rest of my family saw him as a friend, I saw him as a large and all-too-adventurous drain on our finances.
Epilogue: At age thirteen, Miabi had to move to London with her parents, so she had to part with Smokey. Another girl with fervent horse dreams leased and then bought him and had him until he retired to a large pasture where, as far as we know, he never got entangled with barbed wire, New Jersey highways, or strange orchards again.
The Curious Case of Smokey the Bandit