Now, I don’t really know where this quaint little saying came from. But if someone says it to you, and that someone is wearing flip-flops and holding the halter to a Thoroughbred in one hand and a cigarette and the other, you can take it to mean that they got on the horse in a nylon western saddle with orange baling-twine holding the plastic stirrups on and kicked him down the dirt road for ten minutes.
And that’s okay, because how else are you going to know if a horse really is a sporthorse prospect or not? I mean, really? You can keep your fancy arenas and your fences and your… shoes.
Welcome to Palatka.
I drove to Palatka across miles of national forest land, through “towns” comprised of a fried-chicken joint, a Dollar General, and a gas station, past cars on cinder blocks and sofas on porches and houses on wheels (nothing is as it should be in North Florida; everything is a hybrid of its former self) on a sunny afternoon, in my 1993 Honda Accord named Paul. Paul rattled and clinked, not because he needed work, but because someone had thrown a bunch of ceramic fence insulators in the trunk and forgotten about them, and also because I left a few feed buckets and a bridle in the backseat. Paul had a tan leather interior, Bose speakers, and Equine Junior pellets lining the backseats. He was an abused luxury car. He was my barn sedan.
Palatka is famous for its catfish festival and… and that is all. On a dirt road next to a railroad track, the farm where the Sweet Bay TB Yearling Colt lived was a dusty collection of plywood and two-by-fours which went staggering up a slope from a rusty single-wide mobile home. I parked under a tree and surveyed the cow, the pigs, and the six horses which occupied a pen of deep sand. They gazed back, tails swishing, unimpressed.
The owner came out of the house along with a collection of bare-footed girls, cigarette in hand, flip-flop-shod. “You Natalie?” she asked, friendly.
“Would you like to come in for a minute?”
Oh, no. No, no, no. I demurred as politely as I could, masking my panic. I am not a fan of going into rusty single-wide mobile homes, especially when no one knows where I am. I know, it’s a prejudice which I should overcome.“Okay, well, horses are over here.” She led me over to the edge of the barbed-wire/two-by-four barrier and the horses and cows gazed at us blankly. The pigs stayed in a corner, uninterested. Are pigs anti-social?
The little bay yearling was quickly apparent: he was the horse in the group that looked like an underfed Welsh pony in the middle of winter. His coat hung in great curling locks and he made foal-faces at a grey-muzzled Quarter Horse who had thrown him a dirty look when he approached the herd. Whatever had happened to the Sweet Bay, he wasn’t going to make fifteen hands in this lifetime.
“He’s a sweetie,” she said. “We put weight on him since we got him, but you see it ain’t enough. Not yet.”
She introduced me to the rest of the herd, all of whom were in good shape, until we got to the last one, a tall, skinny Thoroughbred with a startlingly wide, muscular chest. He was nearly black, but the brown around his muzzle gave him away – just another dark bay. His eyes were bright and his overall demeanor was of a challenging, strutting rooster. I was impressed. “Who is this?”
“That’s Packin’ Six,” she said. “We just got him. He was a teasing stallion and we gelded him, but he’s a real good horse. You wanna ride him?”
I did. Very much.
“I rode the tar out of him yesterday,” she went on. “Up and down the road. He ain’t scared of nothin’. Train came by and he didn’t even look. Little crazy, though. Gotta take the bridle apart or he’ll flip over. Not sure what happened.”
“Where did he come from?” I asked. The more I looked, the more I liked. The horse was far too thin, but his coat gleamed and he was built sort of like a Thoroughbred giraffe – great long legs and big flat bones – with an arched neck, a long Arabic throatlatch, and a wedge-shaped head that went from broad between the eyes to a little cup of a chin. A little light behind, but all in all, there was an impression of quality. He was far too nice for this little sandpit.
“Husband brought him home,” she said. “He gets horses from work sometimes.” But she wouldn’t elaborate on where her husband worked. Oh well. I wanted to ride him. Immediately.