A woman loses her heart to an Arabian stallion.
Thursday, July 18, 2002
Photo by Randy Tunnell.
There''s a picture of Sir Galant Valntino propped up on my desk. He''s nuzzling my neck, and I''m smiling at him longingly, staring into his big brown eyes. Valntino''s a bay-colored Arabian stallion. His mane and tail are black, his coat is brown burnished with reddish-gold, and his lineage can be traced back more than 3,000 years to a hardy band of Middle Eastern desert horses. He is also a former U.S. National working cow horse contender. He''s my one that got away.
A girl never outgrows horses, even if she gives them up sometime around the time she buys her first lipgloss and decides to concentrate on boys and shoes. Yes, I was one of those girls who asked Santa for a horse every Christmas. (I didn''t bother with birthdays because I knew my parents would never come through.) Santa didn''t either.
I started riding when I was 12 and my best friend Tobi Sundermier introduced me to horse camp-a week of group riding lessons, trail rides and games on horseback. And, of course, mucking stalls. It was a week of bliss. For seven days every year, I could pretend one special horse belonged to me alone. My favorite was Oliver, a retired Thoroughbred Grand Prix jumper who stood 16 and a half hands tall. We had our own dog and pony show, Ollie and I. I''d kneel with a carrot sticking out of my mouth and angle my head up towards his. Ollie would reach down and take the carrot. It looked like a kiss. When I was old enough to work as a camp counselor, the kids loved it.
My sister tells me I weaseled my way into private riding lessons in a very big-sisterly fashion. My parents gave her lessons for her twelth birthday. I watched her first hour with the trainer, whined loudly and scored my own.
I''m hoping to pull a similar maneuver today as I drive into the Mt. Toro foothills on my way to meet Sir Galant Valntino. (The Arabian Horse Registry of America only allows 17 characters in a name.) It''s a scorching hot Tuesday afternoon-90 plus degrees outside and even hotter inside my black Jetta. Sweat drips down the back of my Levis as I climb the steep driveway. I''ve heard Valntino''s a real lady-killer, a stud with a soft heart who likes to have his tongue scratched.
Valntino''s the son of the four-time U.S. and Canadian National Champion horse Sierra Ramu, a silver gray stallion who sired more than 100 horses-including one Reserve National Champ and several national contenders.
"He won in trail horse, stock horse and cow horse," says Ramu''s owner Madaline Mastroianni, who runs Monterey Bay Equestrian Center with her husband Michael. "Even in his retirement, my husband used Sierra Ramu as a carriage horse for weddings. So he didn''t just sit around and go to waste."
Like his sire, Valntino competes in shows all over the state and the Western U.S. In a prior phone conversation, Valntino''s owner, Terrie Foreman, has told me that most recently, he won the Arabian working cow horse championship at the Monterey National Horse Show.
As I pull into the River Road drive there''s a huge chicken coop that could house a family of four on my left. To my right, Foreman, a solid woman with fiery red hair, holds a blue lead line and strokes Valntino''s nose. He looks exactly like the horse I always dreamed of. I had heard of sweet, mild-mannered Arabian stallions, but I had assumed they were an urban legend. Stallions are known for acting aggressively, dominantly and macho. Valntino, who was born on Valentine''s Day, is a lover. "My baby," Foreman calls him. "I''ve had friends tell me, ''Terrie, we would kill for our geldings to act like this.''"
It smells like horses up here-a combination of dust and animals, a smell I had forgotten. I had also forgotten that I like feeling sweaty and dirty around horses, and I''m generally not someone who likes to get her hands dirty. I touch Valntino and my hand turns brown. Foreman says she had intended to bathe and groom him and his sister, Ra Sara Ra. An emergency project held her up. I don''t mind at all.
I''m trying to pet Valntino with one hand and takes notes with the other. "Both Valntino and Sara (pronounced Sy-RAH) went U.S. National Top 10 in working cow," Foreman says. "He pulled a muscle in his back and still went Top 10."
In working cow, a horse and rider run a cow up and down a fence. Then the horse runs the cow into the middle of the arena, "circling it up." If you''re riding an Arabian, this event is called working cow; on a Quarter Horse it''s called fence work.
Team penning is Sara''s event. In involves 30 cows and three riders. The cows are numbered 0 to 9, and when the timekeeper calls to start the event, the riders are given a number, 5 for example. They then have to remove all three number 5s from the herd and move them into a pen.
"That''s a blast to ride. Sara''s better at this one-she prefers the timed events," Foreman says. "She''s the adrenaline junkie."
Sara was on the winning cattle sorting team at the Monterey Nationals. Sorting requires riders to separate, or sort, numbered cows from the heard, as opposed to penning, which involves both separating and moving them into a pen. Sara also placed among the top five teams for team penning, which qualified Sara and the rest of the four-horse team to compete at the Salinas Rodeo-a first-time event for Sara.
Valntino won''t compete, "but I have ridden him in the Rodeo parade," Foreman says. Technically, this is illegal. For obvious reasons, "You''re not supposed to ride a stallion in the parade," Foreman says, adding that when his bridle''s on, Valntino''s a very good boy. A saucy little mare could sidle right up to him and he wouldn''t so much as flare his nostrils.
Foreman''s explaining the intricacies of team sorting versus team penning when Mr. Lover Horse feels he needs a little more attention. He chews on the end of the lead line. "Stop, sweetie, that''s a nice lead line," Foreman says. He slowly lowers his head onto my shoulder. It''s difficult to take notes when you''d rather be hugging a horse that''s rubbing his head against you. He knows a softy when he sees one.
Both Valntino and Sara have won more awards in more prestigious horse shows than Foreman can remember. They both finished top five in Regionals (the semi-finals of horse shows), and then qualified to compete in the U.S. Nationals (the Superbowl). "They''ve won me buckles," Foreman says. "I have ribbons packed away. Sometimes at shows you win a blanket and a cooler and a little purse money. I have crystal."
Now Valntino''s tongue is out and Foreman''s scratching it down the middle. Valntino''s head lowers and his eyes droop. "He''ll fall asleep like this," Foreman says. She promises he does get "studdy" once in a while. To prove her point, Foreman brings out Sara, who happens to be in heat. Foreman says Sara''s in love with Valntino. Apparently Valntino has the hots for her, too. "Now you''ll see him get studdy and flirt," Foreman says.
As soon as Valntino can see Sara-he''s on the enclosed side of a tall fence-he starts making himself look sexy. He jumps around, holds his head high and arches his tail. He''s breathing heavy and making lots of noise. "This is why we have a high fence," Foreman says. Sara''s interested-she makes little noises, flips her tail to the side and "winks," opening and closing her labia. Unfortunately, neither horse will get any love today.
Valntino''s sired six foals, four of which live in the county. Two of them, both two-year-olds, live in back of Foreman''s barn. Sir Razzmatazz, who got his name by blowing raspberries with his mouth when he was hungry, was born during the hot summer of 2000. He almost didn''t make it to the cooler months ahead. He stopped nursing almost immediately and dehydrated within 20 minutes because of the extreme heat. "We had to milk his mama to feed Tataz," Foreman says, calling the young stallion by his nickname. Two blood transfusions later, a Davis vet told Foreman to put him down. She didn''t.
Today, he''s a playful baby who looks like his sire and likes to toss orange parking cones around for fun. Foreman doesn''t know if Tataz will ever be able to carry a rider. "But you make a commitment," Foreman says. "If he can''t be ridden, well, I guess I''ll just have a 1,000-pound puppy dog in my backyard."
My playtime with horses ends because Foreman has to get back to work. "You should ride with us sometime," she says. I seize the opportunity. "How about tomorrow?" I ask. "You could show me working cow horse moves and I could ride?" my voice trails off into a hopeful question mark. We''re on. And I''m in. I make plans to come back and ride Sir Galant Valntino tomorrow.
I drive away and call everyone I know-starting with my sister-to brag about my good fortune. Tomorrow I get to ride a national champion contender. I''ve never ridden a horse like Valntino. He''s more than a step up from retired camp horses and old trail-ride standbys.
But like my old Christmas wish, my tomorrow never comes. On Wednesday morning, I wake up smiling. I come to work early carrying my Levi''s and Frye boots. I count the minutes.
At about 2pm, Foreman calls me with bad news. She has to work late. She won''t be home until 11pm, but I''m welcome to come out Thursday instead. My cruel editor refuses to bend my deadline regardless of my screaming and crying. Wild horses won''t keep me from filing my story on time. Neither will the chance to ride Valntino. I settle for a rain check. I am crushed.
When I was seventeen, I quit riding lessons and working as a camp counselor at horse camp to cheerlead full time. Looking back, I''m not sure how jumping around on the sidelines of a smelly, sweaty gymnasium won out over my weekly dressage lessons and trail rides up in the Salem, Ore. foothills. I don''t ride much anymore. In fact, I''m lucky to go on a trail and beach ride once a year. I still check "advanced" on the skill-level/insurance release form. And I''m still waiting for my noble, Galant steed to ride away with me.