I have a Pool Boy. I am one of those lucky suburban housewives, like those you may have read about in the pulp romances my neighbor writes, or have seen on Sunday night television, who happens to have an in ground swimming pool that regularly requires maintenance services administered by a competent professional. I meet my Pool Boy regularly, sometimes clandestinely - sometimes openly, on an almost daily basis, rain or shine, winter and summer. I just can’t seem to wean myself from the thrill. I have become so obsessed with the fellow that our meetings are planned at all hours of the day and night. I have sneaked literally from my home at two in the morning to fulfill my desire to see him.
I realize that to the uninitiated observer this all may seem a little, well - twisted. What about my husband? Don’t I have a family? YES, all these things are true! This deviant behavior, with a fourteen year old no less, may seem abhorrent to you - try not to judge me too harshly – after all I’m just a woman in love and I just can’t seem to help myself!
NAnd what exactly does all of this covert, not to mention outwardly immoral activity have to do with my life in the equine world? Lest you jump to erroneous conclusions, let me state as clearly as I can that any professional (or amateur for that matter) pool maintenance done around my house is done by my resident Stable Boy (my long suffering husband, Dave)! The Pool Boy to whom I refer is the four-footed kind – the kind with a long flowing tail, expensive shoes, well-pulled mane and gleaming chestnut colored coat - my 14-year-old New Zealand Thoroughbred, Ping (AKA Crazy Horse). How did my poor old equine buddy acquire this dubious moniker? Read on!
Ping and I first became acquainted, by reputation only, during a a dressage show in the early fall of 2003. My old friend Sue, a USDF Grand Prix Gold Medalist, called me and told me she was going to be competing, asking if I would come down and spend the day shooting some photos for her? You may or may not know this but besides being a cosseted suburban female, I am also a professional photographer and have loved working in the Eventing and Dressage worlds for some 20 years.
Sue is a superb rider (people warming up nearby stop their horses dead in their tracks to watch Sue warm up) and gifted trainer. She is also a keen judge of horseflesh and I have been her, as she likes to describe it, personal photographer (wow, sounds really important doesn’t it!) and good friend ever since I interviewed her some 15 years ago for an article I was writing for the now defunct magazine HorsePlay. So when she called me and asked me to come to the show it was really friendship as usual.
Sue and I had been talking quite a lot during that period mostly because I had been trying, for quite a few months, albeit without much success, to turn a Thoroughbred mare I owned into a moderately reliable saddle horse/hack . I really wanted this mare to work out because she was lovely, kind (it seemed at the time I picked her out at least, although we all know that kind on the ground and kind under the saddle can be two different things entirely) and more importantly, gray.
I have heard that car salesmen ALWAYS ask the woman what color she wants because they know that women tend to be more interested in the color of the car than what’s under the hood. This may seem a gross generalization, and you may be right, but in my case (I am embarrassed to admit this) it’s true. I, like many of the horse women I know, love gray horses (although most of the horses I have owned have been chestnuts – go figure). I think my obsession began at the age of nine when I first read Marguerite Henry’s classic King of the Wind, in which there is an illustration of the Earl Godolphin’s lovely gray foundation mare Roxanne. I remember thinking she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen (this may have fanned into life the all consuming flame of my obsession with the Thoroughbred although Secretariat, also a Chestnut, probably had more to do with the mental shaping of my equine ideal) and I have been enthralled by the beautiful gray thoroughbreds ever since.
My problem was that my gray mare (Love at Dawn, a cheesy name for a horse just shy of the rock bottom-of-the- barrel cheesy horse names Blond in the Shower and Rock Hard Ten on the Thoroughbred Cheesy Name Scale. Don’t they have someone at The Jockey Club that checks out these things before they register the name?) really didn’t want to be a saddle horse and, frankly, wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. She wanted to be a brood mare and I was fighting the reality of the situation tooth and nail - that this was her destiny.
We have all been in this situation before? You have this horse and you can just see it moving, quietly in hand, over a Novice cross-country course (I think small because I’m no spring chicken anymore), taking all obstacles in front of us with an effortless grace and a courage rivaled only by the awesome 3-day horses we see at Rolex or Badminton! But the reality of the situation is sometimes painful to accept. Sometimes, it just isn’t going to come together and it’s time to move on.
I was working on the moving on part when I arrived at the show grounds and was introduced to one of Sue’s students, a very nice woman named Sallie with a lovely southern drawl in her voice and a smile in her eyes. We sat around the stalls waiting for this class and that class to be called and struck up a very comfortable conversation about horses and how frustrating they can be. I was lamenting over my frustration with the mare with the cheesy name. Sallie, on the other hand, had the opposite problem – she had too many horses and all of them were talented and beautiful. She was in a transition period in her life and some of her horses were not getting the attention she wanted them to have.
Chatting away that fall afternoon Sallie's and my occupations came into the conversation. Because I am a professional equine photographer and get around some, she asked me if I had ever heard of a horse named Ping? Supposedly, this Ping fellow was brought from New Zealand to Canada or the US for the '95 Pan Am Games and she owned him and was wondering if I had ever seen him in competition? I told Sallie that I had heard the name before (this could be one of those false memories you read about in the police blotters because my best friend since ninth grade happens to have the maiden name Ping so my life has been - shall we say - peppered with Pings!) and thought I might have some photos of him somewhere. She described him to me, chestnut, almost a blood bay, medium, short coupled, nicely put together New Zealand Thoroughbred (ah - the magic word) with a big jump (sounded like a pretty nice little fellow to me). I told Sallie I’d look into my files and see what I could come up with.
Then she proceeded to tell me an interesting story about Ping. It seems that Sallie and her horses lived on an eight-acre estate in the middle of the city. One day there was a thunderstorm and Ping decided the storm scared him (this does not surprise me looking back on the situation with what I now know ). Using that big jump of his, he cleared the paddock fence, proceeding to gallop toward and dive into the in ground swimming pool.
Ordinarily, as we all know, horses are pretty good swimmers, especially when unencumbered by a rider. What made this little trip to the beach a problem was the solar cover floating on the surface of the water. As Ping flailed about, the cover wound around him tighter and tighter. Sallie (a petite woman) jumped into the pool with a knife, risking flailing shod hooves (Ping must be shod all four as he is a tenderfoot – another endearing thoroughbred characteristic), slicing away at the cover until she freed the horse from the bubble wrap and lead him up the pool steps. Thereafter, all who knew him rechristened him Pool Boy.
I thought no more about the horse or his aquatic adventure until a few weeks later when my old buddy Sue called me leaving a rather cryptic message on my machine asking me if I remembered the horse Sallie talked about at the show named Ping? She said I should call her because he was a pretty nice horse and seemed to be just what I was looking for and Sallie had just asked Sue if I might be interested in owning Ping!
This threw me for a loop because I had just moved on from the beautiful but dumb grey mare and was resigning myself to being horseless for a while. Suddenly here was a new wrinkle and another difficult decision to make and I was really tired of making difficult decisions and had firmly decided to be on a difficult decision hiatus for a while! (Can one decide to not make decisions when the very act of making a decision not to make decisions IS A DECISION?)
But, Sue asked me to come down to Sallie’s and take a look at him. I trust Sue. I did what she said. I liked him. I took him home. After all, this was a very pleasant fellow, a very well trained fellow (former 2-star eventer – yeeowser!) And, best of all, as I am a woman living in middle class suburbia with an expensive pool to maintain, the price was right (he was a gift). I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven.
Ping is branded on both shoulders because that’s the New Zealand and Australian Jockey Clubs method of Thoroughbred identification. Here, we tattoo lips (can’t be too pleasant an experience for an antsy two-year old) – there, they brand (also a rather unpleasant experience plus all that smell of burning hair). But, this distinctive shoulder branding makes it easy to pick this redheaded fellow out of a crowd. After I moved Ping to a boarding barn near Sallie’s (it helped ease the transition for her because she was so sad to let him go) people would come up to me and say “Hey, isn’t that Ping? Did you ever hear the story about Ping jumping into the Pool?’ “Yes” I’d reply, “I have,” all the while thinking I’ve gotta get this horse out of this state and back home soon.
After slinking quietly into the night, dragging a horse trailer behind me while crossing two state lines, my little red friend and I arrived at a boarding facility very near my home where I had the pleasure of complete anonymity. I may have already said this but I’ve been around the horse business block for quite a while. I generally always know someone, or at the very least, know someone who knows someone, no matter what barn I’m in. This newfound anonymity so close to home was refreshing. We settled in.
In my little corner of the world better known as barn where I board my horse, we have five or six different farrier coming and going, shoeing many horses. Some are park horse specialists, some shoe mostly horses used in the western disciplines. There are also some all around fellows but all are really good at what they do. Two fellows in particular, shoe the majority of horses in our barn (20 or so head) and generally work in tandem. Shortly after I moved in with my gift horse (he has really good teeth by the way) these two leather-chapped fellows came strolling through the barn one frosty morning looking for the horses they were going to work on that day. They strolled by Ping’s stall, stopped to say hello to me, the newbie, and look over my boy. Glancing at each other, and then me, the first one said “Hey, that looks like Pool Boy.” His partner agreed that indeed “it does look like old Pool Boy! Have you ever heard the story…?“
Now it may seem that I’m a little sensitive about Ping’s past. After all everyone and everything has a past. But, I think that whenever any of us get a new horse, or car, or husband for that matter, there’s a part of us that just wants this object of our affection to be ours and ours alone, not Joe (or Jill) Blow’s old whatever that did this and that back when.
I was rapidly growing tired of the old swimming pool story. I was even getting it at home from Stable Boy who thought it might a be a good idea to bring old Ping over to the house to mow the grass out back except he was afraid the horse couldn’t resist going for a dip and Stable Boy didn’t want to purchase a new pool liner till next year (Stable Boy is a riot)!
One day, several months after I had acquired my latest four-footed friend and I thought the swimming party had finally died down; I was eating lunch in a little diner up the road with my friend Rebecca who owns a boarding barn a few minutes from my house. We were just tucking into our fried chicken specials (they always serve fried chicken on Fridays) when a clean cut, youngish, handsome cowboy complete with Stetson an western cut sports coat stopped at our table and said hello to Rebecca. After spending a few minutes catching up, Rebecca introduced this nice cowboy to me. He smiled, looked at me intently for few moments, and said I looked familiar. Brightening at this attention from this attractive man, I smiled, secretly basking in the glow of the knowledge that quite obviously my fame as a photographer had spread into even the western disciplines, I responded sweetly that I was an equine photographer and got around so that was probably where he had seen me.
The cowboy’s eyes narrowed for a moment, as he seemed be mulling something over. Suddenly his eyes widened with a look of recognition and he blurted, “Now I know who you are – you own Pool Boy!”
Oh well - at least the cowboy bought me lunch!
Reprinted with the kind permission of Eventing Magazine a division of the United States Eventing Association