The Story of Hightower
By Colin Dangaard.
Malibu, California, spring '06 -- The first jump I take at a flat gallop, then head straight down a hill for several hundred yards.
I just love galloping downhill. It reminds me of chasing cattle as a kid in the Australian Outback. The thought occurs to me, however, that I shouldn't be here. My horse, Tower, is 25 years old and has been laid up for a year. I am 64 years old and I've had so many crashes I should have been put down years ago!
We are here at the spectacular Zacharosa Ranch, in the Santa Monica Mountains of California. It's the first event of the West Hills Hunt Club's annual race meet. We are on the point-to-point. Two miles. A dozen solid jumps. Fastest time. We are racing against a team led by the celebrated Cynthia Shea, who has never lost this race. Her partner is Kathleen Lorden, also a solid rider. Her name appears twice on the winner's cup. Kathleen is on a fine mount, Geronimo, age 15.
More bad reality. I outweigh Cynthia Shea by 60 pounds. Her horse, Artic, is 12 years younger than my horse, and I am 25 years older than Cynthia!
But I am here because I told my good friend, Michael Zacha, who is hosting this event, that I would at least show up. I could always pull Tower if he didn't "feel" right. At least, that's what I told myself.
Behind me now, somewhere, is my partner, retired steeplechase jockey Jimmy Duggan. I had planned to ride with hunt master Mitch Jacobs. But he pulled out an hour before the race. He was reminded by his very sensible wife, Linda, that he was still not recovered from injures incurred in a crash months ago.
I am honored to be on the same team as Jimmy Duggan. He is a legend.
You will see him on TVG commentating on steeplechase and timber races.
At the starting line, Jimmy had asked me, "How should we do it? What's your strategy? What's your style?"
"Style?" I quip. "I'm from the bush, mate. Have no style. I point at stuff and go as fast as I can. Speed is my friend."
I had pulled my hunt flask from its case on my English saddle, took a deep pull of fine port, and offered it to Jimmy, as the start was being counted down. "Nah," he said, "allergic to alcohol."
"Allergic? Wow, what a drag. What happens, if you drink?"
"I break out in handcuffs," he said.
Saddling Tower on this day, I had a feeling that something unusual was going to happen. I had put a half-bucket of grain in him last night, so that he would be nicely "fueled." It took two people to hold him while I climbed aboard before this race, using the wheel well of my stock trailer as a step.
It had occurred to me, during his exercise, that I just might have overdone the grain a tad.
Or maybe he was just excited because of the fluttering flags and the crowds.
Tower is 17 hands, a powerful horse. That much grain might have killed an "ordinary" horse.
When I sat on him, I felt his heart beating like I had never felt it before. He was amped! He took off like he was shot from a cannon, as the flag dropped and my 25-year-old port kicked in.
Forget all the drama of starting, I am telling myself now, this race is ON!
So I'm thundering down the hill, a sharp left. I lose my stirrups. No matter. I level the horse and take two quick jumps with no stirrups, grabbing so much mane I pull out a clump in my hand.
About now I wish I was a little fitter. I am wearing my sweat pants because I couldn't fit into my riding breeches this morning. But I am comforted by the fact that Jimmy Duggan's vest looks a little tight, too.
Regardless, he's 25 years younger than me!
A coop. A log. A tabletop. I am visualizing us clearing each jump and Tower is filling in my vision, as usual.
I look far ahead, never at the jump. It's like I am foretelling my own fantasy. Somewhere out there is a finish line.
I am apprehensive, even fearful, but I am absolutely THRILLED with this.
I am SO alive!
I can hear a bird chirping somewhere. I can feel every movement Tower makes between my legs.
We are a complete riding machine, in absolute unity.
The jumps pass under me like no obstacles at all.
Breathe, I tell myself! Suck oxygen! My arms feel like cooked spaghetti. Or maybe Tower is just pulling so hard. I am barely in control. But he feels great, and I feel exhilarated. He gives up some fight, finally, and I just let him go.
Jimmy is coming up behind me now. He is also flying, but he has lost his reins, I see. The thought occurs to me: a veteran of 2,000 steeplechases shouldn't lose his reins. But then, this is not exactly steeplechase. All the steeplechase courses I've been on had no ditches, or jumps over ditches, jumps uphill or jumps downhill. They're all flat. I make a mental note on Jimmy Duggan: this Irishman sure can ride!
After this race, I would learn that Jimmy Duggan hadn't taken a jump in 12 years. Hadn't taken a drink either.
Jimmy is riding Mitch Jacobs' horse, Max, a strong jumper. I discover there's a lot to shout about when you're doing point-to-point with a partner. I'm yelling at Duggan because I think he's going too slow.
He's yelling at me, says I'm riding like a crazy person, out of control. Right, I thought. Maybe I am! Exhaustion is about all that will control this horse!
More jumps. More downhill. We cross a road. Another downhill, a yawning ditch, we jump off a bank. We take a quick right, then a left, and more jumps, one of them a 4-foot timber log. I'm leading and Tower is feeling incredible. It is as if I am floating somewhere over his withers.
We pull out of another series of jumps, cross a road again, then climb a last high hill. Now I feel Tower's energy giving way, his stride shortening. Jimmy yells, "Move over! Move over! I'll pull him along!"
Duggan passes me, on his more race-ready horse, and Tower lifts his stride, eager to not be left behind.
We cross the finish line and I slide off my mighty horse. My legs are jelly. I can barely stand. Tower nuzzles me and gives me that wonderful purring sound a happy horse makes. I rub his forehead and scratch his neck.
A couple of old guys! We made it!
At that moment, I recall what an old Outback stockman once told me: "Thoroughbreds are always fit- it's their nature." Tower had spent the past year on a two-acre hillside, amusing himself by chasing the other horses up and down the slope, so he kept himself fit.
That night, I would learn we had won by nine seconds.
I left the awards banquet early to check on Tower. There he was, laid out, not moving. A horrifying thought: Oh, no, he's dead! Then I saw his ribs going up…and down. He was sleeping so soundly, he didn't even lift his head when I stood at his side. Then he opened one eye, just for a beat, and closed it. I figured that if he could have talked , he would have said: "You're a crazy fool, but we made it!"
Yes, I thought to myself, this is the one great horse in my life.
Tower is the inspiration for the "fictional" horse portrayed by Colin Dangaard in his 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 too 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, never mind 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 … never mind 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 house sitting 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 miss-stepped 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.