My Grandad bought Image in 1993 at the NFC Farms dispersal sale in Texas.
He came home with a handful of young stallions, all chosen for their driving potential, and Image was pretty homely – skinny after a stressful week, with a big jughead, and not really halter broke.
Before they were gelded, Grandad bred each of the young stallions to one mare. Image was bred to Robin, for what would have been her first foal. She didn’t catch, he was gelded, and she was rebred to Valdez – but I do wonder what might’ve been!
Grandad started Image in harness along with a bunch of other youngsters prior to one of our annual open houses/production sales. The first time he was hooked to the cart we said, nope, he’s not for sale anymore, and put him back in the pasture.
The next summer, when we arrived at the farm the day after our last show of the year to unpack the trailer, Grandad told me to go into the barn, he’d found a horse for me to show next year.
Image was in the corner stall, the one with the taller walls and he still had his head up over the edge, with his big bulging eyes wide, and I went out and asked Grandad how tall he was, but they’d just measured him, and he was well under 34” – he just looked like a giant!
I was 15 years old, and Image was my best friend in the world from that moment on.
I restarted him in harness, going through all the steps. I remember Grandma telling me that I was doing such a great job, and she was going to tell Grandad, and I was so proud. I was so careful with him, as he was the first horse I’d done early driving training with, and I wanted to get it right – though of course, Grandad had already started him, which is probably why it went so well!
Shortly before our first show I was driving him and he suddenly leapt sideways (stung by a bee maybe?) ran the cart over the hedge, and tipped it over. He was such a lean thing in his younger days that even with the harness as tight as it would go it still just spun with the cart, so he was very unperturbed while I picked myself and the cart up.
But I was convinced he’d been traumatized by the “wreck” and handled him with kid gloves right up until the first show, so worried about him getting scared and ruining him as a driving horse.
At the show, he managed well for his first outing. He won a reserve champion at halter (his first, and only, halter title, I still have the ribbon!) drove comfortably, and completely destroyed a driving obstacle course he simply wasn’t ready for. I remember sitting in the hitching ring in the cart, feeling so badly about it. A friend came over, trying to cheer me up, and said something like “horses, eh?” like it was his fault, and I was probably more adamant than I needed too be, saying that no, it absolutely wasn’t his fault, he wasn’t ready and I shouldn’t have entered him. It was the first time I really felt so much responsibility for how my horse performed.
Near the end of the show, Image was entered in the barrel race. We were in the ring by ourselves, and so for the first time ever, on the homestretch after he’d turned his barrels, I asked him to really go.
It was like I was flying.
Roadster and the races became his forte. No one was faster than him. He once hit three cones for 15 seconds in penalties in the stake race (because he always thought he was a better driver than I was but would forget to allow for the cart!) and he was STILL the winner with the fastest time.
His very first year driving we took him to the AMHA National (now World) show in Texas. We didn’t intend to, so early in his career, but my brother’s much more experienced horse was dealing with an injury so we all showed Image instead. He did well for an outing like that as a green horse, with the big challenges for him being his complete shock when the crowd cheered at Drive On, and back to back to back Youth Showmanship classes with me and my brothers, which was a lot of standing still for an impatient young horse.
I remember driving him in Open Roadster. It was a huge class, 24 horses in his split, and the ring was FULL and it was SO MUCH FUN to pass horses.
But while he was definitely a roadster specialist, Image’s athletic ability meant he was adaptable. At the peak of his (first) show career the AMHA added the Country Please division to the existing Roaster and Single Pleasure. They didn’t add the rule about crossover entries at first, and it was not unusual for Image to be Champion or Reserve in every single driving division at the show, I’d just drive him a little differently in each class.
While we were winning in driving, his other skills took some time to develop.
Jumping was such a challenge for him. He finally figured out how to jump his front end over the jump, but then he’s just walk through with his hind legs and knock the jump down. The first time he actually got both ends over we were so excited and clapped for him – and we had to start all over because he was so worried about the clapping.
While he did figure it out, jumping was never his speciality – I remember one hunter class at the Nationals in Reno where he launched himself onto and off of the large green block that was under one jump, with a reverberating bang. Needless to say he didn’t place in that particular class. 😉
Image was Canadian National Roadster Horse five years in a row – the first five years that the Canadian National titles were offered at the Calgary Stampede. He got his Register of Merit in Open Roadster, won a High Point Honor Roll buckle in AOTE Roadster, and then got his Superior Event Horse certificate in Open Roadster.
But in between all that winning, he was just my best friend.
When other girls in high school were doodling boys names on their notebooks, I wrote Image.
At one show, in the evening, we were all taking turns turning our horses out into the arena for a play. When it was Image’s turn, he wouldn’t leave me to go run or roll, simply staying at my side as though I was leading him – people got a kick out of my “obedience trained” horse.
He did learn to love liberty class though, once he gained the confidence to leave my side, and would show off his huge trot with his white tail in the air. His liberty song was Hot Rod Lincoln, though I’m not sure he actually recognized “his” music, as he’d be spinning circles with excitement in the hitching ring the whole time anyone’s music was playing.
He also loved grapes, which once got us into trouble. We’d been rolling grapes up the barn aisle for him to chase and eat, a fun game for everyone, until after a liberty class, on his way to be caught at the end, he stopped to pick up a few grapes that had been dropped from the recently moved judges table and was chewing when I put his halter on – I don’t remember if we were disqualified, but I do remember an admonishing from the judge, until I explained that it was their treat that he was eating, not mine! 😉
Image was never the best behaved or most beautiful horse (standing still – he was absolutely THE most beautiful in motion!). My cousin Randi, who was quite little at the time, was watching him paw incessantly while tied to the hitching rail one day and aptly observed, “Image is NOT a patient horse.” And my even littler cousin Taylor, upon finding a copy of his foal papers with baby pictures on the back said, “Oh, I didn’t know Image was a donkey when he was a baby,” in such a matter of fact way that we still tell the story over and over. She was not wrong – he DID look like a donkey when he was a baby!
Image would get so excited to be harnessed and hitched that he was completely unpleasant to work with. Not just wiggling incessantly, he also would bite anything or anyone within reach. “Image, no biting!” has been a common refrain in our barn for the last few decades, because it’s always like he didn’t even know he was doing it, just got so excited that he couldn’t help himself.
He hated baths, pawed when tied for any length of time, and had the most ear splitting whinny when he wanted to get your attention.
But, he was perfect to clip or give a needle to, and absolutely, one hundred percent, the best driving horse I’ve ever had the privilege to sit behind.
One day, getting ready for an upcoming show, we noticed that his eyes were reflecting orange in the sun. I called the clinic and they said we better bring him in for an exam. At the clinic they found that he was virtually blind, and said that it was likely an autoimmune issue, his body was attacking his eyes and the orange reflection was blood in the eyeballs. We took him home on anti-inflammatories, meds to dilate his pupils, and a lot of wishful thinking, as the vets weren’t that optimistic that we could save his vision.
By morning he seemed so good in his stall that I took him out, and he seemed to lead well and know where he was, so I put him in the round pen to stretch his legs … and he walked straight into the fence. It was so discouraging, and I was afraid I’d never be able to drive him again.
But he did recover his sight (mostly, this time) and a couple weeks later I drove him through the hayfield. We were both so happy – I threw my arms in the air like I was flying while he galloped along, with a few of his signature happy bucks thrown in for good measure, and I knew then that I’d never take it for granted anytime I got to drive that amazing horse, and I never did.
He went to the Stampede soon after, still on meds for his eyes, so that we kept a fly mask on him waiting outside and pulled it off just as we went into the show ring. He wasn’t fit, so I didn’t ask much of him, just was so grateful to be driving him in the show ring and having fun. He squeaked into the championship class on a second place, and seemed to still have gas in the tank, so in the championship class I actually drove him and he won the Canadian National Championship again.
At the Stampede one day someone asked me what a horse like Image was worth. I wasn’t sure, so on the way home, in the back seat of Grandad’s truck, I asked him: “How much would Image be worth?” so that I’d have the answer next time someone asked me. He answered, “I’ll tell you what, if you get the paperwork in order, I’ll sign him over to you.” Didn’t answer my question at all, but I sure didn’t turn down that offer! Image was officially mine. <3
One year we took him to Aggie Days in March to do lunch time demos on the weekend. He was lame. Initially we weren’t too concerned, thought he’d slipped on the ice in his pasture (which is likely what happened) but it didn’t improve and so off he went to the vet. Then the physiotherapist.
He had an injury to his SI joint, and though we worked hard, we couldn’t seem to truly get ahead of it.
First, we had to stop taking him to out of province shows, as he’d be lame from the trailer ride. Then even close to home shows became too much for him.
I called an animal communicator at one point, worried that I was asking him to continue showing through the lameness issues for me, and if it was too much for him I should stop trying. She told me that he wanted to know “where did the music go?” (we’d stopped entering him in liberty to save his soundness for driving) and that “if I didn’t stop giggling with my friends at the show and pay attention then we wouldn’t win.” I think that meant he was on board, and also, pretty darn accurate. ;P
For a long time though, I could drive him at about 80% of what he was capable of, and no one but me and Grandad could tell he was off and he’d still be winning. I remember one show, coming out of the arena balancing an armful of championship trophies, bawling my eyes out because I knew it was the end. He wasn’t sound and it was time to retire him.
The first show without him was so hard. I missed him so much and even telling myself how lucky I was that he was still with me, that I could still drive him at home didn’t make it any better.
Once we had friends over to drive around home, and they took turns driving Image, who was on his game at home still. It was a good afternoon. The next day I flew out of province for a friends wedding, and was lying in a strange bed thinking about driving Image with friends and how fun it had been. I could see Image, standing under the big pine trees in the south pasture, sheltered from the rain, and I heard him say, “yep, we really showed them how it’s done, didn’t we?” It was a dream, I’m sure, but the closest I’ve ever felt to actually communicating with a horse.
Gradually, Image’s lameness made it hard for him to drive at home too, and when he no longer seemed excited about it I stopped driving him and he enjoyed retirement, grazing out with the herd. I struggled with driving other horses, mostly Hawk, who taught me how much of my previous success had been because of Image’s innate talent, not my training ability, and I spent a lot of time hugging Image’s neck after another frustrating drive with Hawk in the early days.
It was six years after Image’s last show that Grandad said to me one fall, “That horse of yours doesn’t look very lame to me.” Every day when he turned the geldings out on grass Image would take off bucking and kicking, prancing around with his tail in the air, and then run back and look at Grandad like “didja see me?”
Grandad said, “I think you better drive him.”
So I did.
And I had my horse back.
Full zoom and happy bucks and everything!
I thought it might be a one off, and I was so grateful for the gift of driving him, feeling like himself, again.
But I drove him again, and he was just as good.
Then we were planning to go visit friends and drive horses for Thanksgiving weekend, about four hours away. His history would suggest that he wouldn’t be sound anymore by the time we got there, but decided that it would be worth a try, and still fun to have him along even if I wasn’t able to do much driving.
He was perfect, driving beautifully the whole weekend.
The following year, at 22 years of age, Image returned to the show ring. What a gift.
In the ensuing six years since I’d last shown him, I’d gotten a lot smarter. I taught him to walk, and learned he has a great walk, and used it to warm up his now aged muscles to allow him to float much like he did as a young driving horse. I used transitions to teach him to really use his hind end, and I really wished I’d known then what I knew now, imagining how much MORE amazing he’d have been as a youngster if I’d been better able to help him truly reach his potential instead of simply relying on his natural talent.
But he still did well in the show ring as an older horse, though there was the odd person who wasn’t amused to have their high dollar show horse beaten by a half blind 20+ former retiree. 😉 He once got only 2 of the 3 roadster championships because one judge said we went TOO fast in the slower gaits, which is fair – we both loved to fly.
But at the end of that first show season back he was lean and struggling to maintain his weight. He also had a stromal abscess in his cornea, his eye issues continuing. His bloodwork was a concerning, and his vet was worried about the possibility of a tumour. We scheduled an ultrasound, knowing that if we found a tumour, it was probably going to be the end of the line for him.
I cried all the way to the clinic that day, thinking about the possibility of saying goodbye. I decided that even if they found something, it was Friday, so I’d bring him home for the weekend, love him, and take him back on Monday to euthanize him, before the tumour could strangulate and cause him to die in pain instead of peace.
Because he was a Miniature Horse, the vet was able to ultrasound every bit of his abdomen, and found nothing abnormal. He was okay!
After that everything felt like bonus time. <3
He recovered and was healthy again, but his eye issues continued. We kept a mask on him nearly all the time to protect his eyes, which necessitated a sign on his stall at fair shows, explaining that he wasn’t blindfolded, just wearing his safety glasses.
Finally, he had another stromal abscess that I had treated for weeks and weeks and wasn’t improving. He had little to no vision in that eye anyway, but it was still a very hard decision for me to choose to have it removed. I was sure it was the right choice, but still, it was tough.
I held him for his surgery, because I needed to be there, but having seen enucleation surgeries before, I knew how bloody they were and didn’t actually want to see it on my own horse, so I held his head on the opposite side. I was glad I was there though – when the vet cut his optic nerve and actually removed the eye, even heavily sedated and blocked he gave a big sigh that I interpret as relief. The surgery was less painful than the eye had been. And when the vet examined the eye post removal, she was confident that he had no vision in the eye.
After his eye removal surgery, I brought Image home to our house, where previously he had lived at my grandparents farm. He was the first horse in our new barn, and was an only horse for about six months, before we began moving the rest of the herd over in the spring. He loved it, being an only child with all the attention, and wasn’t that happy about sharing again at first.
He recovered very well from the surgery, and his lack of vision previously meant there really wasn’t an adjustment period for him. His eye was removed in the fall, so it was springtime before he was back in harness, but it was like he’d never missed a step.
That summer, at the age of 24, he attended the Calgary Stampede for his final show, and his first with only one eye. He was Reserve Canadian National Classic Pleasure Driving horse.
Image’s vision in his remaining eye continued to deteriorate, and his final drive away from home was when I had the opportunity to drive him on the gorgeous trails at the Stonebridge Driving Club facility. It was a dream of mine to drive him there, and at first he wasn’t sure. With the trees and shadows his limited vision really affected him, and he went very cautiously, dropping his nose right to the ground each time the footing looked different to him before he proceeded. Which was fine, I was enjoying the beautiful weather and scenery behind my best boy regardless.
But then we came across another driving horse on the trail and Image stood at alert and watched them go by, and all of a sudden he realized that these trails are for DRIVING and off we went, zooming and having a wonderful time.
With Image’s vision nearly gone, he became very reliant on his seeing eye horse, Robin. She did an amazing job of looking after him in his old age, just a year younger than him and with her own health concerns. She raised many foals in her lifetime, and doted on Image just the same. One time I came out to find that they’d escaped from their safe pen into the pasture, and I walked out with halters to catch them, not wanting Image to have to find his way back in on his own. Robin saw me coming, knew she wasn’t supposed to be there, and scooped Image up like she would a foal, and the two of them went tearing around trees and obstacles, through two gates, and back into their pen at a dead gallop, with Image’s nose right on her tail.
Robin developed Cushings and needed a lot of care and medication to keep her sound and comfortable. Image was doing well, if slowing down in his old age, until one winter he seemed a bit stiff, and I thought we better test him for Cushings just in case, and sure enough, he was diagnosed as well. We started him on Prascend, and suddenly, I had my horse back. Not slowing down at all now that he was feeling better, he was back to pawing and wiggling and biting and I loved it!
In his senior years managing his health became a pretty full time job, but between a few laminitic flareups and an ongoing balancing act of his medication he was happy and bright, and still LOVED to drive.
Last spring he was coming off a particularly difficult session of sore feet when I told my veterinary and farrier team that my goal was to drive him for his 30th birthday. And we made it!
While in the midst of the covidtimes, the party wasn’t a big one, but it was so special to me and I’m so grateful that my family indulged me in a whole day of festivities for him. Me and Mom and Carrie and Grandma all drove him, I set out a table including artwork and trophies, and Robin and Image enjoyed some usually forbidden (for horses with Cushings) grazing while the humans ate cupcakes.
I drove Image a few more times last summer, when he was 30, including in our stay at home Stampede Parade, and once with Robin ponied behind the cart. My only real regret is that I didn’t get him hooked up this spring for one final drive at nearly 31.
Image did better this past winter, with only one short laminitic flareup. I wrapped his legs in the coldest weather, and that seemed to help, and I spent a lot of time discussing with my vets adjustments to his meds to try to keep his insulin under control, while not wanting to do anything that would affect his quality of life. In his senior years, if Image didn’t like it, we didn’t do it. I wasn’t going to fight to get meds into him that would prolong his life but make him miserable. But we were able to keep him comfortable and happy, enjoying his turnout time with a buck and floaty trot, that white tail still in the air, and loving his cozy stall every night with his dish of warm soaked feed waiting for him.
Last Friday afternoon, I turned Robin and Image out, and Image trotted off and rolled like always, then got up and shook and started scratching with Robin – all seemed normal. I went back into the barn for 20 minutes, and when I came back out he was down and in distress, rolling, sweating and laying on his back. I called the clinic immediately while trying to keep him on his feet, we got the trailer hooked up, Robin caught to come along (she was a wild woman) and headed down.
I knew it was probably bad, but was hoping for the best. Unfortunately, the diagnostics showed he was in bad shape, most likely with a strangulating lipoma (tumour) in his small intestine. He was unlikely to recover from surgery, especially given his other health issues, even if I was willing to put him through a surgery at his age, which I wasn’t. We very quickly made the decision to end his pain.
It was so lucky though – a strangulating lipoma is a common cause of colic and death in aged horses, and could easily happen when no one is around, and the poor old horse suffers for hours before they’re found. I was right there for Image, and we were able to get him to the clinic immediately. The vet that was available was our friend of 20+ years, who grew up showing horses with us and watched Image in his glory days in the show ring. And while the sudden loss was so hard for all of us who loved him, me most of all, I can’t think of anything better for my old friend than to have a long, happy life and a very short time of pain surrounded by people who loved him and his dear friend Robin while we said goodbye.
Since I thought I was going to lose him a decade ago, I had this idea that I was prepared for his loss. After all, not many people get to have their heart horse for so long – I’m so lucky.
But this has been much harder than I thought. He was such a huge part of my life, for so long, that I’ve felt lost without him here. It took nearly a week before I got my chores done properly on the first attempt. Since he moved here 7 years ago, by virtue of being the first horse here and where his stall is, he’s been the first horse I feed. Which has really thrown me for a loop and made all my routine chores no longer routine. His empty stall was so hard to look at, for me and for Robin. I’ve moved Quix Draw into it, which does help. But it still looks wrong when I walk into the barn, and when I’m this sad then normally I would go hug my horse, but my horse isn’t here anymore. That probably sounds like a weird thing to say, when I have so many horses that are all special to me, but Image was MY HORSE in a way no other horse ever has been.
I’ll be okay, of course. I’m grateful for the life we shared together, and I’m grateful for all the rest of the horses and other animals that force me to go out to the barn even though it’s a barn without Image.
36 hours after we lost Image, Ruble foaled a silver dapple colt that makes me think of Image every time I look at him. He’s not related at all, of course, but my “magical Image baby” was a gift when I needed it most. I named him Zoom, because it’s our Z year and because Image loved to zoom.
I love you Image, you were my wings, my joy, my best friend, and I don’t know what my life would’ve been without you in it. I am so grateful to have had you with me for as long as I did.