An Angel Called Rocky

Read about a farrier’s own horse in Horse Tales for the Soul V2. An Angel Called Rocky is a story about struggles with business and horses and relationships. It’s about learning to see things in a different light and gaining respect and admiration for the tubby, difficult, backyard horse that many farriers love to hate.

Rocky was my husband Rob’s horse that he acquired as a teenager. He was a skinny yearling, bought from some irresponsible backyard breeders who ended up starving his dam to death. Rocky ate grass as if there would never be any more. I have never seen a horse eat so quickly, vigorously and constantly. It was as if he thought he’d never get a chance to eat again.

Rob was a typical rebellious teenager, and having a horse probably kept him out of serious trouble. He and Rocky’s relationship was not without pitfalls, however. Rocky was left a stallion until he was four or five years old. Rob had no horse background, or any parental knowledge concerning handling or training a horse, let alone a young stallion, and I think there were a lot of violent encounters as the two testosterone filled boys vied for control.

©Rob Rocky Testosterone
Rocky as a stallion and Rob as a teenager, plenty of testosterone here.

To Rob’s credit as a trainer, Rocky was handy on the trail, sensible in tight situations, and always a cheerful, willing horse. He only knew how to neck rein, and would careen around on a lunge line at a dead run as long as you let him. After finally talking with Rob about Rocky’s training, it made sense to me why riding him with a snaffle and trying to direct rein him was such a struggle. Each time I rode my arms ached from pulling so hard to turn. I thought he was just being a jerk. But… I learned… he was a Quarter Horse – Quarter Horses ride Western. Western horses NECK REIN. I have no idea how Rob broke him to ride without teaching him to direct rein first.

©Rocky w-Rob shoeing
Rob’s farrier business grew quickly. More work time = less riding time.

When Rob went on to become a professional farrier, he was so busy shoeing other people’s horses that Rocky was rarely ridden. Then Rob had to give up horseshoeing because of a back injury, and our son Jordan was born, so Rocky was put on the back burner again. Our horses were properly fed and maintained, but that was about it. My own horse died of COPD during this time. I felt so guilty, because I thought I could have taken better care of him, but I had a new baby, a full-time job, and a mail order business. He was sicker than I realized – until it was too late.

©Rocky steaming.jpg
Rocky could not be turned out with mares. In spite of having been gelded for years, he still behaved like a stallion, and would run himself and the mare half to death. Here he is steaming after doing just that.

Although he still had studdy tendencies and I could handle Rocky without problem, I could tell that deep down, he did not view me as a worthy leader. He behaved because it was relatively convenient for him – usually. But not always. One time, in an effort to avoid being put in the barn, Rocky plowed through the gate, knocking me out of the way. This was not the first time he had done it (a previous incident resulted in a compound fracture to mother-in-law’s arm), and it really ticked me off. I eventually cornered him in the barn and was preparing to work him over for his flagrantly disrespectful misdeed (something I am not proud of). He knew he was in BIG TROUBLE. In an instant, that horse had me pinned in the corner with his butt. I still do not know how this happened. I literally could not move and I certainly was not going to hit him while I was in that precarious position. He could have killed me right there. He knew exactly what he was doing; telling me that he would not tolerate a beating, deserved or otherwise. It said volumes about his good nature – as I was furious; poised with the axe-handle twitch – and he knew what was coming. We both knew that the fact that he didn’t finish me off right there was his gift to me, and things were different between us after that. I treated him with a less heavy hand, and in turn he was more respectful of me.

©Jordan Rob & Rocky.jpg
Jordan is the only one who is happy here

When Jordan got a little bigger, I started wanting to ride again, and my only available mount was Rocky. At first, it didn’t go well; he preferred grazing to exercise, although it was apparent that he enjoyed all of the other attention. Rob was so bitter about having to give up  horseshoeing that I would sneak behind the barn and trim the horses’ feet myself so I wouldn’t have to ask him to do it. I think he would have preferred getting rid of the horses altogether, as they were just a reminder of a promising career ended too soon. After one particularly frustrating ride, I jokingly threatened Rocky with selling him for slaughter. Rob said “go ahead.” I think he meant it. It was a very low point in our lives.

©Rejected horsesSo, I started thinking of buying another Arabian. I looked on the internet, and made some friends in the process. I complained to all of them about what a pig Rocky was and how I hated riding him, believing all along that I was just riding him to get back in shape for another, better horse. I searched for over two years, with a ridiculous set of rigid criteria: over 15 hands, chestnut, four tall stockings, blaze, Crabbet breeding, etc. I wanted to duplicate my Arabian who had died. He’d helped me through my teenage years, giving me confidence as I rode him to hundreds of show ring wins. He learned and performed in spite of my lack of skill; he made me feel competent by being a challenge, but always giving his best and never being so difficult that I couldn’t prevail.

©Gina Tawney western
Arabfield Kahn (1973-1994) & I circa 1980; I spent 2 years searching for his replacement. Jerry Sparagowski photo

While I obsessed over horse shopping Rocky began to look thin and miserable. He wasn’t eating with his usual enthusiasm, so I called the vet. He pronounced it worms (despite a regular deworming program) and sold me some additional dewormer. I noticed him urinating often, and called another vet. She suspected a bladder tumor, and said considering his rapid decline in condition, that it was likely that he had cancer in his internal organs. A horse his age could probably not be helped with the expectation that he would live much longer.

I was at a complete loss for what to do. All those years that Rob was a horseshoer, I had scorned other, less experienced horse owners for their management and training blunders, their stupid mistakes. Now I was one of those people. I injected penicillin, I fed exotic (expensive) supplements, I read veterinary books, and consulted as much internet as I could with the dial-up connection of the nineties. I felt ignorant and helpless as Rocky wasted away to a skeletal version of the cresty, rotund gelding that he once was. I couldn’t even come to a decision that it was time to put him down.

Some days Rocky still looked like his cheerful self, but a horse can’t go forever without eating. When he went down in his stall and couldn’t stand, we finally called the vet. Rocky wanted to go outside, but he couldn’t stand long enough to take more than a few steps. Rob helped him outside, which seemed to put him more at ease. We put a blanket under his head and gave him water. When the vet finally arrived and did the procedure I could not hold back my tears, even though I’d been preparing for this day for months. Rob borrowed a backhoe and buried him under the big trees at the back of the barn lot.

©Tawny-Allarista comparison
My new horse (bottom) 1997 Arabian mare Allarista – I succeeded in finding a duplicate of my old horse (top) in appearance only

In the meantime, I had finally found a three-year-old Arabian mare for sale in Wisconsin. She seemed like the one. The breeders were sincere, the price was fair, and the horse fit all of my tedious criteria. We drove to Wisconsin to see her, and I closed the deal. Allarista was delivered to our farm on my son’s 8th birthday. She was perfect and wonderful.

I wasn’t going to make the same management mistakes again, so obsessed over her health, and when she urinated and it looked dark, I panicked. I got on the internet to find out what could be wrong. As with all google searches for health maladies, the worst rose to the top. Leptospirosis could cause bloody urine. It also causes uveitis. I flipped out. There I was – out in the barn waving my arms at her, trying to determine if she was blind and scaring the hell out of her in the process. She also had a runny nose – likely from the stress of the move. The vet said penicillin twice a day for a while would help almost anything that could be wrong. My feelings of equine care inadequacy were at an all-time high. My new horse and I were both a hot mess.

©my bruiseI wanted her to like me, and her new home, so I spent as much time with her as possible. When I went to the barn lot to visit, she and our pony always greeted me eagerly. One day, she pinned her ears at him, and suddenly started to wheel and kick him. I tried to get out of the way, but didn’t make it. She hit me squarely in the back of the thigh. I was uninjured (mostly) though the blow resulted in an impressive bruise. Eerily, we were standing on Rocky’s grave when she kicked me. After that, I was really leery around her, in spite of the fact that she never again displayed an inclination to kick.

My tension, along with getting an antibiotic shot twice a day, made Allarista really nervous. After one injection in her stall, she started rolling her eyes and bowing her neck. We bailed – and witnessed the biggest fit I have ever seen a horse have. It was terrible. She seemed afraid of the lead rope dangling from her halter, and then just crashed into one wall after another. Her nose was bleeding and her face was all skinned up before we finally got the lead rope unsnapped. My new horse was insane. I sat down on a bale of hay and bawled. The breeder had given me a one-year return option, so I decided to send her back. Ironically, Rob – who had no tolerance for stupid equines – encouraged me to give her another chance.

©lightning rod flyer portionI had been doing some reading about relationships (the people kind) and read that children and pets often become “lightning rods” for tension in the home; acting up when times are stressful. The day of Allarista’s meltdown, a strange van pulled into our driveway. It was a LIGHTNING ROD SALESMAN. He gave me a bizarre pamphlet describing the dangers of living in an unprotected house. Just out of curiosity, I called the phone number on the pamphlet – it wasn’t even a valid number. I think it was God’s way of telling me what I was unable to see. He sent that salesman to deliver the message; my horse was acting as a lightning rod for my unresolved anxiety.

I cried and wished Rocky were back. I regretted that I had taken him for granted, and wished that he could know that I felt that way. I was sorry for every 4-H kid I’d criticized for being afraid of their horse when I wasn’t, and every wealthy horse owner with all the resources who was afraid of their horse when I wasn’t. Now I was afraid of my horse and I knew how it felt. Solving that problem was not as simple as a new training trick or the right piece of tack.

Healing Shine – a book that has touched the hearts of many folks with “unreachable” horses

I still thought I would send Allie back or sell her. Then one day, I was walking to the barn to feed, and I heard a voice that said “Don’t give up, you can get through this.” I was reminded that Allarista was a beautiful, well-bred mare who still had the potential to be a wonderful partner. I was encouraged –  still fearful and without confidence – but I didn’t give up.

Years later, I was astounded to learn that Michael Johnson, author of Healing Shine – had heard that voice, too. And to think I was so embarrassed – I never told anyone – but Michael was brave – and wrote a best-selling book about his trials with Shine – and the voice that kept him from giving up.

I read somewhere that horses have an excellent sense of smell, so much so that man has not begun to fully understand it. It said that it was not uncommon for a horse to react suspiciously for months or even years to the spot where another horse has died. I surmised that being in Rocky’s old stall may have contributed to Allarista’s uneasiness. The barn aisle where he struggled, outside the door where he collapsed and eventually passed and where he was buried surely all held the smell of his death. Maybe she thought we were going to kill her! Maybe she thought the daily injections were our way of doing things – and that she was going to get them forever? It was a logical explanation, but it did little to ease my anxiety or her tenseness.

I look back with regret at all of the times when I was arrogant, and not compassionate toward others who were having trouble with their horses. I think of Rocky, who was cheerful and dignified his whole life, even as he was dying. I learned a lot of lessons from him, but not so much the horsemanship kind. I am still struggling with Allie, and I know that there are still many lessons that I have yet to learn.

I thank God for sending me an angel called Rocky.

©Jack & Rocky rainbow
Rocky and Jack in the pasture. Note the rainbow over Rocky’s back

This true story is one of 45, submitted by horse lovers from all walks of life, read the rest in Horse Tales for the Soul Volume 2


  1. Beautiful story. I too had a horse named Bud, TB, fifth generation Secretariat, also wasn’t gelded until he was older. As you had with Rocky we had some budding heads in the beginning, but he became my teacher and my best friend in this life. Nobody, human or animal has taught me more or I have loved more. We were two hearts with one soul. I lost him five years ago, and still my first thought every morning is “Bud”. So Gina, your Bud was Rocky. Of course we make mistakes, sometimes we get frustrated, we’re only human, but the horse understands we did the best we could, and no matter what, they feel the love we have.


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