This story was inspired by champion rider, founder of the Retired Racehorse Project and Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, who has authored so many fascinating stories about special horses he remembers.
Year 1970: We never had boarders at Mr. Simms place on Beulah Road. Charlie Simms was a gentle 50-ish bachelor who lived in his grandmothers’ old home (which doubled as a country store in times past.) With a 5 stall shed row, a small round pen and an unfenced 16 acres field, we two girls got free board for taking care of his Thoroughbreds he’d occasionally bring home from Laurel Race Course. I had a little Poco Beuno type Quarter cross Carole named Charlie Hot Tuna.
Mister Simms relayed strict orders from the owner that Carole and I were not to ride the arriving “Morgan stallion”, only to lunge him, put him in the pen or crosstie him while we cleaned his stall. We occasionally used leaves from the woods in the adjacent “Gravel Pits” to bed the stalls, a year round ample supply. (Warning: although we kids got away with that then, it’s not advisable to use leaves, because of the danger of botulism or various types of tree poisonings)
We couldn’t wait to check him out.
I generally cut my last class (Spanish) to go to the barn from Hayfield High, a short hike across the pits. Virginia Sand and Gravel Company had extensive land holdings across the area. Later sold off for housing projects, stores and the Lee District Park. So I hot-footed it there as soon as possible to meet my new charge.
Gazing regally over the stall door was a rugged handsome head on a plain rather furry unkempt bay. (Quite large I’m thinking, for a Morgan?) He barely acknowledged my existence as he entered the tiny pen, where he rolled. That’s when it became evident something was missing, he’s a gelding? Yet a crested neck, like a stallion. Now I’m really confused. Is this the right horse Mr. Simms said was coming? Then, upon turning my back, I heard two galloping strides, then quiet, then a landing “thump”! ….and Speck flashed by me, downhill across the field towards the nearby burgeoning suburban homes. Fortunately, he cut back and ran towards me. Somehow I was able to grab him.
Speck had just jumped a five and half foot fence with only two strides to get up momentum.
We crosstied him between the two old oak trees and looked Speck over. Over 17 hands, but couldn’t tell much else, he was filthy and covered with thick matted winter hair, and it was nearly June. When Carole and I got done with him there was a fuzzy pile a foot deep on the mat. Under Carole’s rubbing towel, he gleamed and shone like a new penny, with a beautiful muscular build, long strong black legs, and a wealth of curly black mane and tail. He looked like a Morgan on stilts. His thick dappled neck arched proudly where the spots of sun hit him from between the leaves.
Looking at Carole, I said: “let’s ride him!” She shook her head, “no way!” For some reason, for once our persona’s were reversed. She’s usually the adventurous one, where I always hung back. “You do it”, Carole says. We put a big western saddle on him with a nice long shanked curb, because we were told he was a cutting horse. I jumped up on his back and he rode fine, though not exactly sensitive in the mouth. Nothing we were told was matching up.
After that, I rode Speck everywhere. My poor little Charlie Hot Tuna went unridden, or lent to other riders on the trails as we’d go from dawn to dusk, some days across miles of gravel pit and power line trails from Springfield to South Alexandria. I rode him alone, or with the crew of horse folk we knew. With Mickey Calamarus, who had a stable across the street, or folks from the Huckleberry Stable on Telegraph. The area was full of horse people, with both private and boarding stables. One of the few left nearby presently is Tamarack Stables on Old Colchester Road, now passed on to the owner’s son, Timmy.
We had set up jumps in the Simms field, none were too high for him, though he did have a strange habit of bucking hard upon landing. More on this later.
At a full gallop, Speck took your breath away. We had a fellow who owned a speedy Appaloosa who loved to buzz by us girls, knowing we couldn’t catch him. On the path alongside the railroad tracks on Fleet Drive, Speck and I let them all get ahead of us, then we set after them. Speck knew what his job was. I’d never traveled that fast on a horse before. The feeling of the wind, the images by us becoming a blur, is forever ingrained in my mind. I rarely let him go full speed, as it would get him too wound up and overheated for the rest of the ride. But we sure did injure that Appy’s pride.
I began to think of him as mine.
At this point we took him to the blacksmith who would shoe under the tree a couple times a year next to what’s now called Lane Elementary School. After he shod him he eyed him up admiringly and quickly checked his teeth, and he said “he’s a smooth mouth,-over 20, likely closer to 30.”
Who is this beast?
We found out more when Speck’s owner came to visit. A lovely, slight-built blonde, she drove through the grass right to the barn in a nice white car. When she got to us and rolled the window down, you could see the car was completely hand controlled, because she was paralyzed from the waist down.
At first, admiring Speck’s glowing good health, she turned suddenly and asked “you’re not riding him are you?” I lied through my teeth, and shook my head. She said “that’s good because he’s very dangerous. He is the horse responsible for paralyzing me.”
She further explained that he is a ridgeling, which Carole and I already knew would make a horse three times meaner than a stallion. We had prior experience with Carole’s Welsh pony, who terrorized everyone until he was gelded.
She continued, telling us of his exploits. Turns out Speck had many jobs. He was used at Hialeah as an outrider horse, and could outrun the thoroughbreds when they got loose. Upon buying him, he won countless ribbons, cups and trophies for this girl at rodeos, then later as an event horse, and open jumper. Half Morgan, half Thoroughbred, he seemed to be the ideal horse.
Except, for his habit of trying to throw the rider upon landing from a jump. We were told by her that she was thrown at a show and landed across the spread, breaking her back.
Unlike many ridgeling‘s, Speck never tried to bite, kick or strike. His habit of bucking after a jump was his only vice.
This paralyzed lady took a liking to me and showed me where she lived on Telegraph Road. One day, she took me to see the world Champion 3-gaited horse, he was living his life out peacefully after she had purchased him, the beautiful gray single-footed right up to her when she drove to his fence. Word had it that she had horses like this all over town.
Speck’s personality was never downright “friendly” or affectionate. He had a certain dignity, that champions frequently possess. He always seemed to be gazing off into the distance, like everything else was below him. I respected that, and did not fawn over, hug or pet a lot on him. Speck was a serious sort of guy who loved his work. Lord knows I loved him dearly, and looked forward to seeing him each day after school.
One day his stall was empty. Mister Simms was there, waiting for me. “She died of kidney failure, and her brother took Speck for the funeral. He continued, informing me that he rode Speck across a field and spread her ashes at the end of the field, where he shot him dead. “It was her last request I’m told, so he would never hurt anyone. I’m so sorry Nancy, I know much you liked him”
Any tears, any statements, that I would’ve taken him, that he wasn’t mean, that she should’ve had a better seat so as to avoid being thrown…whatever…would do absolutely no good. I simply stood there mutely, then turned away to clean the stalls.
Looking back, Charlie Hot Tuna did get his attention back, but I’ll never forget Speck. It’s a feeling that stays with you all your life, when you come in contact with an exceptional individual, whether it be human, or animal.
Thank you Speck, for giving me the privilege of being a part of your life. It was your life’s sunset, but only my sunrise, my first truly high quality horse, in a lifetime of working with great equines. Yet, never mine, only in my heart.