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Tower's Last Run
Tower is the "fictional" horse used by Colin Dangaard in his just--published historical novel, TALKING WITH HORSES. Says Colin:"I owned Tower for 32 years, and raced him cross-country and steeplechase for over quarter of a Century. He was brilliant. And now he lives on!"
Here is a Eulogy to Tower written by my friend Sara Warner.
Horses have had a special place in my heart since I was a child. My life has always been transient ... I am the eldest child in a military officer's family, and we moved every two years of my life. Nothing was very stationary. Home was ever where the US Army sent us. I had a few things I knew that I could count on to *always* be there, no matter where I lived. One of these things was the presence of horses in my life. Every time we moved, my father took pains to help me find a new barn to train and ride at. So wherever I was, there were horses. The eight year stretch with school and the start of a career was the longest I had ever gone without horses in my life.
When I returned to Los Angeles last year, I had the opportunity to meet Mary and Anthony DeLongis at Combat Con's inaugural year. They were seated at a corner table in the Tuscany hotel restaurant, and they were all smiles. Dave Baker was also there. I remember being intimidated to say hello, but I did. I remember mentioning that I rode for years but it had been a while. Anthony invited me to the ranch and said that they would take my riding “to the next level.” I had no idea in that moment just how true that statement was, nevermind how life-changing my friendship with these people and their exceptional animals over the next year would become.
My first experience at Rancho Indalo was Latigo. A brilliant horse who takes good care of his cargo, I remember well going up what was affectionately called ‘the big boy’ hill on the first ride I had with Anthony and Mary. I lost a stirrup coming up that hill. I thought I was going to die. Trial by fire, I suppose. Still one of the greatest rides of my life.
Then, one day, I moved to Hightower. Hightower is …well. Hightower is something else entirely. He’s this ancient old thing who, when I met him, was thirty something. He looked like the ‘Nightmare’ from the card game “Magic: The Gathering.” He was slim, with almost all his bulk gone thanks to years of long life and great runs. He plodded around the sand arena like this handicapped old thing just waiting for death, dragging his hind legs and the whole bit. Any time he came into his stall for food – or stepped out of it for that matter, you could count on hearing the resounding thunk, thunk, of his hind legs dragging over the threshold because the old man didn’t seem to care much about picking them up.
And he was such a delightful schemer, that old man. The first time I rode him I was in love with him. He was brilliant. He was smooth and, God help me, he was easy. Should’ve known that was just Tower being a gentleman – because he was. Tower was a gentleman. I remember when I was riding him, Dave Baker was with us, and he said: “Sara’s having a love affair with Tower right now.” I was. That old fart had me at hello.
And then he started to scare the ever-loving piss out of me on a regular basis. December 25, 2011 was the last time that Hightower really scared me. We’d gone down to this spot in the hills that was nice and flat, into a fenced area where we were just going to do a little cantering. And the old man was just full of himself that day. He kicked up and bolted and I still hadn’t quite found my seat much less my confidence and I was absolutely terrified. I was terrified enough that I cried, I think. I switched horses. Took Latigo instead and let Mel Turner have Hightower.
I was getting my skills up to the level they’d been at eight years ago … nevermind trying to bring them up higher than they’d ever been before. I was re-discovering my balanced seat. Re-discovering how to handle the rein. Re-discovering how to get my feet under me. And newly discovering how to do all of that on unforgiving, ever-changing terrain.
Tower went down on a hilltop under Kendall Wells sometime after the Christmas ride. He’d run too much, and the hill tired him out. We all thought he died that day. He just laid right down on the hillside and didn’t get up until Anthony came walking over (and boy, did he shoot up fast when he caught sight of daddy, I still laugh thinking about it). After that, we let Tower rest a while. Broke his heart to not go out with the crowd. You could see it in his big old eyes. And after that, most people didn’t want to ride him anymore. That was when I started to ride him again. Was I scared? Hell yes, I was scared. But I started to ride him regularly, anyway.
Every ride was a challenge, and Tower … well for the first good few times I really rode him, Tower scared the shit out of me. He was all thoroughbred. All racehorse. Retired? What the hell does that even mean? That horse never retired, he just stopped racing on the track. And I’ll tell you something … any of you who have ever been on the back of a horse who truly taught you something, who truly challenged you and really reminded you what it means to ride and ride well, you’ll understand when I say those moments when I could hear Dave Baker with Anthony and Mary behind me laughingly saying: “Well, she just became a passenger,” as Hightower kicked up, launched forward, and ran away with me? Those moments were laying a foundation on which my horsemanship was being built. Every time he ran away with me, I learned something. And yeah, I’ll be the first to admit that the first lesson I learned? Was how to sit a horse who’s not slowing down because you’re not convincing him that he should.
Then things started to change. Every break-away became shorter and shorter. I learned to ride. I learned every single time I was on him until I could rate him next to Natchez, even, and anyone who knows Tower and Natchez together knows what a feat it is to get those two not to race.
Tower became my boy. It became clear that he just couldn’t do things the way he used to. And over the time I rode him, I earned his respect. And I had to work like hell to earn it, I might add, because Hightower never made that easy. But once I found myself with him, we were magic. This old man lumbering around the sand arena turned into a horse half his age once we were out on trail. You wouldn’t believe it. Nobody would’ve unless they saw him. And we would have these excellent conversations. I knew his body, I knew his heart, and I like to hope that I got to touch his soul, because he most certainly touched mine. I knew what it meant when he dropped his pretty head and went onto the bit. I could feel him get excited when he approached somewhere he knew he got to run. And oh the times while housesitting for Anthony and Mary when I’d come out to feed and there he’d be, walking out of his back stall, standing patiently with his ears forward, looking at me, and waiting for his bucket. Or his alfalfa. And then when we started giving him his special treats how he’d start nuzzling. He was my boy. He was my little boy. My dear old man who never stopped teaching me and never stopped taking care of me.
We ran one last time on September 1st, 2012. He wanted to go, so he did. He was about to run away with me. He wanted it so badly. He was trotting and slow loping and putting up a fight to pass Natchez. It was one of his favorite stretches to run. Right up past the storage bins, up the narrow left side of a tall hill. And he was having none of my holding him back. I like to think he knew. I like to think that up there at the crest of that hill by the water tower he knew the end of the track in this life was there, and this was his last chance to really show me something. He had one last run in him and I’d never felt him really charge. But everyone else had. And I like to think he knew it was over, and he wanted to show me something special. I like to think … that as soon as I grabbed mane and released forward, Hightower kicked up, reached out, and punched himself past the limitations of his mortal old heart and thought: Here you go, girl. Here you go. Let me take you on a real ride. Just this one last time, let’s make it count. And it did. I’ve never soared so fast. Natchez was gone in a blink and, coming up that hill I looked down and thought that surely if he misstepped even once, that’d be the end of both of us. But Tower is as sure-footed as they come and up the hill we went. Wind whipping. Hooves deafening. It was like there wasn’t any hill, and all we were on was flat earth we went so fast. And when it was done, I even had time to laugh and reach for my water bottle. At the top of the hill.
And that was when Hightower went down. My old man. My good friend. My teacher, my sweetheart … my good old boy. I cried. I begged him not to leave, right there with Mary, and we held his head, and stroked and petted him. We held him and talked to him, and we did our best to ease his passing as the fire in his big, dark eyes finally went out and glassed over. And that was the end of a champion. And of a horse who changed my life.
It was an honor to be given the gift of Tower’s last flight. It was a moment I will never forget.
The galloping shall continue until your riding improves – or I die.
Rest in peace, beautiful old man. And gallop among the stars where you belong, leading the herd. And don’t you dare let any of those other legendary old souls steal your food.
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