When a horse passes who’s been with us a long time, his or her going takes away part of who we are. Yet, Early Pioneer left behind a gift, a plentiful store of good memories. In his quiet way, “Earl” was an unforgettable character. Here are a few of my favorite memories of him.
The 2000 Hollywood Gold Cup on TV. Early Pioneer, the longest shot in a strong field, biding his time patiently until the stretch, putting on a strong run and passing them all, holding off General Challenge to win one of the most prestigious races in the country.
Nine years later, his arrival at Old Friends. Though retired by racing owners Holly and David Wilson, sometimes things don’t go as expected and some years later Early Pioneer ended up in a string of $1000 horses purchased by fair circuit horseman Shawn Davis. His feet were in no condition for racing, and Davis did right by the old campaigner. Cass Dewey fostered him and facilitated his retirement to Old Friends (Here’s Jay Hovdey’s article about it in the Daily Racing Form).
Early Pioneer began life at OF in one of the new pastures in the back 40 acres of the main farm. That herd had some strong personalities, but he swiftly and peacefully made himself accepted among them. Here’s Michael’s description of that social scene at the time. “Futural runs things in that paddock. Siphonizer made a takeover play a couple weeks ago, but Futural took care of that in a hurry. Affirmed Success puts up with all of it with kind of a knowing sigh. As for Early Pioneer, he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. As long as he stays out of Futural’s way, everything’s fine” (Hovdey, above).
Early Pioneer did stay out of the way of that Terrible Two. Futural bossed the herd as he pleased, and his inseparable buddy Affirmed Success wasn’t exactly un-implicated (Affirmed Success now shares a bond with Kudos, both of them pretty mellow these days). Being a horse of admirable good sense, Early Pioneer didn’t contend for leadership. He was too nice. But his feet also weren’t up to the hustle-tussle required of a herd leader. Those feet caused concern and we kept an eye on them, bringing him down to the barn with turn-out in the round pen when he needed extra care.
You’ll have read in the press that Early Pioneer had chronic laminitis. In his last days he also developed symptoms that may point to cancer. We’re awaiting test results about that. But since most people think of laminitis as the acute form that took Barbaro’s life, a few words about chronic (as opposed to acute) laminitis. It’s not that uncommon, and with proper care horses who have some rotation can enjoy good quality of life for years. Laminitis is a condition caused by weakening of the connective tissue (laminae) holding the foot bones in proper position. Its degree varies. Early Pioneer soldiered through sore spells, but he also let us know he enjoyed his life. If there was ever a horse who was always up for friendly doings, it was Early Pioneer.
Never one to call attention to himself, he was quietly quite the character. To Tammy, John and me, he gave one memory that will always bring a smile. When the winter temperatures go below freezing (as now), the horses don’t mind. They have an internal mechanism that keeps them warm, as long as they get plenty of hay in their diet, and plenty of water. Access to plenty of water means going into each paddock twice a day and busting the ice that forms on the waterers. Most of the horses just stand there complacently watching the humans serve their needs. A few stand right at your shoulder, ready to guzzle as soon as you’re done. Not Earl. Climb the fence into his paddock, encumbered by your layers of winter wear, your hammer to bust ice and your strainer to clear it out, and when you’d clambered atop the fence you’d find your way blocked by Earl’s back. He’d put himself alongside the fence as if to say, “Get on me and ride, please!” Maybe at some time in his younger days he’d been fence-mounted. We wish we knew more about that because someone climbing a fence to mount him and their rides seem to have been happy associations to him.
Another happy memory Early Pioneer gave us: our amazing podiatrists, along with Carole’s and Antonio’s tireless care, licked a troublesome abscess, and Early Pioneer got wonderful new glue-on shoes. Thanks to improved technology lighter glue-ons now fit the form of the horse’s hoof more closely. It’s almost like “Look ma, no shoes!” while problem feet get comfy cushioning. Earl loved his “new feet!” He bounced around his paddock, ran races with his paddock mate, Dinard, and threw his weight around a bit as the boss of that two-horse herd.
He was a kind boss. He and Dinard were so cozy together that at feeding time, when most horses each hog a feed tub, defending it from the others, Early Pioneer and Dinard would eat together out of one tub, then both move to the other tub and eat together there.
Nothing lasts forever, but that doesn’t make the good times any less real.
Reluctantly, as the spring of 2017 came around, we all realized Earl didn’t feel as well. He had better days and less good days, but his feet were sore again, and his energy was declining. Archie’s Echo joined Dinard and him because the three were well suited in temperament and age, and Earl let Archie become the new paddock boss. The three of them formed a peaceable relationship. These three lovely old guys, being among those who benefited from an extra meal, got daily lunch and supplements.
It was Carole who took expert, tireless daily care of Early Pioneer, along with Antonio and all the staff. But on a personal note, I want to thank Earl. When Ogygian died, for weeks I wandered around the farm stunned, looking for even a fraction of the love he and I shared for the years I helped care for him. Nobody got it. All the horses just wanted carrots, a back scratch, business as usual. But Early Pioneer got right in my face and gave me the comfort he sensed I needed.
As this year set in, Early Pioneer’s health declined. Moved into the barn for constant attention, care, and shelter. In his last days, Earl had the best of vet care and tending, and companionship from everyone on the farm. When his time came, Carole and others that he loved best were with him.
Early Pioneer, thank you for the gift of your presence. The memories you’ve left with us will be lasting.