Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Balein and the Rose Parade
Copyright Ken Harris 2006

Balein was a steel grey stallion who lived at Bobbi Williams’ stable. He didn’t roam in a pasture with a herd of mares, but he didn’t work very hard either. His main job in life was to be part of an equestrian unit in the annual Pasadena Rose Parade. The rest of the time he hung out in his stall or went out with his owner, Don Branstatter on some trail rides or worked in the riding ring a bit. Life was good for Balein, except for that one day of the year, the day of the Rose Parade.
And this was that day, January 1, 1958. Don had asked us to help him prepare Balein for the parade and then to park his rig while he joined the rest of his unit. We thought it might be fun to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Rose Parade, and that is why we were up at 4:00 a.m. on New Years Day, yawning, scratching, and helping Don and his horse where we could.
Balein stood outside his stall, hip shot and half asleep. Perhaps he was all asleep. No point in his getting up early. He’d had his bath the day before. Grey horses always need a bath. That’s why they are called laundry horses. If there is filth anywhere in their vicinity of a grey horse, it will stick to, cling on, smear up and otherwise sully his coat. Balein slept through the night strapped warmly in his blanket so he could not roll in his own poop and thus enter the Rose Parade decorated with green smears.
I held his haltered head by a lead rope while Don picked up each foot and coated each hoof with black shoe polish, the liquid kind that comes in a bottle with a dauber. Joanne meanwhile brushed his mane and tail. There was no problem there, for she picked up the tail easily with the thumb and first two fingers of her left hand and ran the brush through the hair. Balein liked being brushed.
Then Don took off the blanket and put on the saddle. After that, he attached the breast collar. That keeps the saddle from sliding backwards in the event the horse finds himself facing uphill, as he might do standing on his hind legs. Again, no problem.
But then came crouper time. A crouper is the exact opposite of a breast collar. It is a ring that attaches to the back of the saddle and fits around the horse’s tail and it keeps the saddle from riding forward. Now we had a problem. Balein hated the crouper. Well, think about it. Would you like someone to give you a wedgie every time you went downhill? Balein clamped his tale down so hard that Joanne had to put both hands, arms, shoulders, hips, thighs, and some grunts and curses to lift his tail enough for Don to fit the crouper onto the horse. But on the other hand, Balein was no longer half asleep.
He was no more trouble after that. Once the crouper was attached he seemed to accept his fate and we finished our tasks and enjoyed backstage at the Rose Parade fully. We asked Don how one got such a well behaved stallion. Most of the stallions I had encountered didn’t actually eat human flesh, but you had to be careful with them. They were none of them as mellow as this guy. Don’s answer was as simple as it was brief. “You buy them.”

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


©Ken Harris, 2008
Auburn, California, 1980s. Our friend, Sally Poole, had a nice home east of Highway 49, a few miles north of Auburn. Still has it, by the way. On her property lay an inviting pond, pasture and a huge barn to accommodate her horses. In the huge barn she had some old hay bales that needed to be restacked to make room for a shipment of new hay bales, and here is where Joanne and I enter into the story.

Sally had invited us over for lunch. Or perhaps we invited ourselves. We do that sometimes. In any event, she asked us if we would mind shifting some hay for her.

Out to the barn we went, Sally, Joanne, I and, bringing up the rear, Podge, a marmalade cat. While nominally a barn cat, it had been some time since Podge had actually made an on-site inspection of the place.

We all surveyed the scene. Two-story ceiling, check. Dirt floor but hay on wooden pallets, check. Horses in the barn fascinated by anything connected with hay, check. Barn cat to supervise, check.

I shifted a bale or two and suddenly we saw a mouse. Then two, three, dozens, at least a hundred mice. The floor was covered with squeaking, scurrying mice. We humans stepped in lively fashion. I certainly didn’t want one of those creatures running up my pants leg. I don’t know how those weasel guys in the U.K. do it.

Podge immediately leaped into action, but he was only one cat. Soon he had a mouse in his mouth, then two, then three. We could tell because their tails were still hanging out. Besides that, he had another mouse under each paw and watched helplessly as dozens more scurried around.

Joanne soon joined Podge in the fray, scooping up mice and putting them in a deep bucket. It’s a wonder she didn’t get gnawed. She tells me I helped her, but I don’t remember that.

Very soon the mice disappeared, except for Podge’s and the ones in Joanne’s bucket. Then came the conundrum. What do we do with a bucket of mice. That’s another thing about this memorable day that I don’t remember.

We finished shifting the bales and all returned to the house to ponder our next move. Podge stayed behind because he knew what his next move was going to be.

Sally did not call the exterminator, but she did stop feeding Podge in the house. Podge didn’t object and in fact disappeared from sight for more than a month. When he reappeared, the mouse population was under control and Podge himself looked extremely prosperous.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Two Bits

Two Bits
©Ken Harris, 2008

While we lived in Auburn in the 1960s, we decided to gain fame and fortune raising Ponies of the Americas, or POAs for short. A POA is a pony with Appaloosa coloring.

Appaloosa colors come in several varieties. Some animals are white with leopard spots. Others are dark colored with white, spotted rump patches, or some have
just rump patches, no spots.

Lightly colored but patchless horses may still have darker hair over shoulder and hip bones than the rest of their bodies. These are called varnish marks. Horses lacking even these markings, they may still have mottled skin around the eyes, as if they have some rare Egyptian eye disease. Striped hooves are another Appaloosa indicator.

The curious thing about breeding for color, be it full sized Appaloosa horses or the smaller POAs, is that if you get some color, you have an animal worth some money. It doesn’t matter whether the foal has an even number of heads, an odd number of legs or looks like a space alien. If it has color, it’s worth some money; the more color, the more money. If, on the other had, your foal has no color, it doesn’t matter if it has strength, stamina, beauty, personality, charisma, and a good disposition — you have nada. In France you could sell him for stew meat, but in the USA, nada.

The first thing we needed was some breeding stock, mares. But where to buy them? Not everyone had ponies with Appaloosa DNA. And those we found had some serious drawbacks. We did find one mare, Two Bits. She was possibly 13 hands 2 inches high. (A hand is 4 inches, but we horse people like to have our own jargon just to show how cool we are. I could have said she was 4 feet 6 inches at the withers, but then you would have known what I was talking about.) Two Bits was about 4 feet 6 inches across the butt, too. She looked like she’d lost her beer wagon. Her belly sagged from previous pregnancies. I considered building her a belly wheel. We persuaded ourselves that in spite of these cosmetic imperfections, she showed some signs of an Appaloosa background, possibly around the time of Ferdinand and Isabella.

Someone we knew had a POA stud named Road Agent. We bred the two animals and when Two Bits came due she had her foal in our garage. I opened the door to our garage one morning and here was this dark little colt running figure eights around his mother. We got the two of them into the pasture and saw them settled in. Two Bits was formidable enough that the other animals knew not to mess with her and her new baby.

For the record, we named the baby Short Change. Short Change by Road Agent out of Two Bits. Shorty was a complete miss. French stew meat. Two Bits did not agree.

One day, after Shorty was gone, sold down the river, I looked down at our pasture and saw Two Bits standing motionless at the gate. Two hours later, she was still there. Motionless. Something had to be wrong, so Joanne and I went down to investigate.

Our gate was just a stretch of field fencing that attached to a fence post. You took it down to let livestock go through, and reattached it when the animals were where you wanted them. It was like stringing an 8-stringed bow. We found our gate down and Two Bits tangled with all four legs through the wire. I held her head and spoke soothingly to her while Joanne gently freed her legs, first the front and then the rear. When we were through, Two Bits tested her legs gingerly, then kicked Joanne and bit me. We waited for a long time after that to see if we could catch her in a similar fix. We wanted to go down and bite her and kick her.

It never happened. It just shows how unfair life is. We sell her baby and she turns around and bites and kicks us. You’d think she would have been grateful.