Back in 2003, I had just opened the racehorse placement program. Each weekend, I walked the tracks, looking for horses that need new homes, trying to build relationships with race trainers. I love the track and all its vivid personalities, both equine and human.
One August day that year, Keith, an engineer-turned-race-trainer, led Tulsa Mambo out of his stall at Retama racetrack. Tulsa was a dashing black thoroughbred with two white hind ankles. His face was wise and he carried himself with a certain bemused air, as if he found everything entertaining.
Keith was worried that Tulsa wouldn’t find a home before the race season ended. “He won’t pass a vet exam, with his racing ankles.” Charmed by Tulsa, I jokingly comment that I’ll take him if no one else does. Keith looks relieved…and thoughtful. Tulsa nuzzles my arm for a peppermint, making Keith smile.
Sure enough, Tulsa didn’t find a home in time (I suspect a conspiracy between Keith and Tulsa), and suddenly I was the unexpected owner of an ex-racehorse.
Tulsa arrived at the LOPE ranch soon after. He was magnificent, full of energy, and liked to gallop around the fields for fun. At the track, Tulsa had a reputation for running away with his exercise riders – but only the ones he didn’t like. It took me weeks to work up the nerve to ride him.
Slowly I inched my way from lounging to saddling to mounting him, while Tulsa dozed out of sheer boredom at my snail’s pace. When I finally rode him, he was kind and willing. Sometimes he was spirited during the pre-mounting phase, but more due to his twisted sense of humor than true misbehavior.
You had to be able take a joke, a pretend spook as you stepped into the stirrup, in order to ride Tulsa. Once in the saddle, he was a perfect gentleman. Still, I remained alert, his amused eyes and reputation as a runaway always in my mind. I didn’t fully trust him.
Until one ride – on a windy October day – when Tulsa spooked violently, then balked, as I tried to urge him forward along a path with a brush pile. Tulsa refused to move, looking over his shoulder at me, then pointedly staring at the brush rustling in the wind. I stared at him from the saddle, perplexed. Then I finally looked at the brush – where a rattlesnake was undulating in strike position, full of rage, its rattling lost in the wind.
Right then, I resolved to keep Tulsa forever – he is mischievous, has weak ankles, and is the most unlikely of Lassies. But he is the first horse to ever save me from a rattlesnake.
And hopefully the last.