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Life After Racing: Airborne, Again!
Wednesday, January 25, 2017 - by Charlotte Gelston

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Standardbreds are consistently showing their versatility, whether it’s riding or driving, for show or for pleasure. Hoof Beats is happy to share stories from readers about their favorite Standardbreds. This month, Charlotte Gelston writes about Mr Artline, now known as “Rhythm,” who used a dressage maneuver to avoid a driving trail obstacle.

Photo by the author
The author's horse may not look like a Lipizzan, but he has been known to take a cue from that breed's playbook while pulling this cart.

The snow had mostly melted from the first real snowstorm last winter, and the sun was shining. I asked Elizabeth, who was visiting for the morning, if she would like to go for a cart ride. She had never been in a horse-drawn vehicle and was excited to give it a try. The horses were out in the pasture when we approached the barn.

“Come on, Rhythm,” I called. “Time to go for a drive.” 

He promptly lifted his head and started trotting toward the barn. He was already waiting for us at the stall door when we came in, banging his hoof against it in anticipation.

We groomed Rhythm—registered as Mr Artline--and I put on his Easyboot Gloves.
He stood calmly the entire time I was harnessing him.

“He looks as if he is dozing!” Elizabeth said. “Is he going to be able to pull both of us in the cart?”

He did look rather apathetic standing there with his head down, eyelids lowered, and one hind leg cocked.

“Don’t let him fool you,” I replied. “Once we get going he will wake right up.”

I decided to drive the “five-mile loop” which was a nice combination of woods trails, dirt roads, and paved roads. Rhythm has an aversion to repetition, so I am careful to mix up our routes to keep him from being bored.

After walking down the driveway, he picked up a brisk trot as we headed down our road to the woods trail. Elizabeth was thrilled with the increased speed.

“He’s not asleep now!” she said. 

I cued him for a canter as we went up the hill into the woods.

“This is really exciting,” she called out gleefully. 

We trotted through the woods, dodging trees and rocks, and came out onto the dirt road. It joined the paved section of the road a quarter-mile ahead, just before the intersection with the next road.

As we rounded the corner, I realized my mistake. I had forgotten about the mound of snow the plows left at the end of the paved road, effectively blocking the dirt road. While most of the snow elsewhere had melted, there was still a pile at least two feet high and three feet wide at the base directly in our path. With dense woods on either side, there was no way to get around it.

“What will we do now? Turn back?” my friend asked.

“I think we can figure out a way to do this,” I answered confidently. “Even downed trees don’t stop us.”

Our protocol was to halt in front of the tree. I would get out of the cart to lessen the weight, then ask him to “step over.” When the wheel stopped at the tree, I would say, “big pull” and he would lean into the breastplate. Up and over the cart would go, with me helping to lift if necessary. He always stopped and waited for me to get back in. 

”If he can climb over trees on the trail, he can do this, too,” I assured Elizabeth.

I stopped him in front of the mound of snow. 

“If we both get out of the cart, I think he can pull it through the soft snow without too much trouble. I will lead him,” I told her. 

She stayed behind us as I led him up closer. With the end of the reins in my hand, I walked through the edge of the snow pile, right next to the tree where it was the lowest.

“Come on, Rhythm,” I said. “You can do this.”

He studied the predicament, looking right and left. You could almost see his mind working. As partners in our adventures, I always give my horses time to consider each new situation. He looked down at the base first, and slowly moved his head up as if judging the height.

“Rhythm, step up!” I said. 

I was expecting him to plow through the snow just as I had done. It was soft due to the mild temperatures, and without any weight in the cart the pulling would be easy.

Rhythm had a more dramatic idea. He very deliberately lifted his forequarters up off the ground in a perfect “levade.”  Perhaps I had put too much emphasis on the word “up.” Next, he catapulted off his hind end, up and over the bank of snow. He and the cart were airborne once again!  At least this time I was not a passenger.

He touched down near me with a proud expression on his face. I had to give him credit; he certainly had done it, although not in the manner I had anticipated. He stood perfectly still, basking in my praise, as I picked up the reins, which had disappeared from my hands during his amazing stunt. He waited while we climbed back into the cart.

“Incredible! How did you ever teach him to jump with the cart behind him?” Elizabeth asked. 

“I didn’t actually teach him to do this particular maneuver,” I confessed. “It was quite a surprise to me when he did it the first time, but it was entirely my fault.” 

I explained how I had unintentionally allowed him to get buddy-sour by consistently driving with another horse for two months, and then compounded the problem when he balked at leaving, which we covered in the January 2016 issue of Hoof Beats.

At the time, I had facetiously said, “Now, if I can just get him to do it nicely, on cue.” 

I never imagined those words would be prophetic, that four years later he would remember his spectacular capriole in harness and use it again to my advantage. In fact, this time he did do it on cue.

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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.