He was young and full of himself when we set off from Ventura, California on April third, 1974. Born on the first of February, 1970, he was just four years old, still pretty green and inexperienced, but honest and dependable. We had already forged a strong bond and knew each other well by the time we started down the trail. I had raised Gizmo from a six month old weanling, and we had spent several months prior to the ride training hard, building ourselves up to the time when we would leave the Pacific Ocean and head out toward the sunrise on a journey that would last seven months and cover over four thousand miles.
Gizmo never had a bit in his mouth his entire life. He was still losing his baby teeth when we started the ride. Incisors and premolars were being replaced by his permanent teeth, and I had followed the old Spanish method of using a hackamore bridle on him instead of a bit. Hackamores have a rawhide noseband (bosal) in place of a snaffle, curb, straight, or spade bit, so as to free a horse’s mouth while his adult teeth grow in. Once we were on the trail for a few weeks, I sent the hackamore bridle home and simply rode him with his halter, and used a long lead rope for my reins.
He was a registered American Quarter Horse with a diverse family tree. He stood fifteen-one, with a slender build and a handsome, refined head. He was a sorrel—called chestnut by some—with a blaze that ran down from his forehead and widened to cover the entire front of his nose and upper lip. His left front leg had his only white stocking that ran up almost to the knee. Long pasterns with strong slopes down to the hoof enabled him to float freely at the walk and trot. He had a long overstep behind, which meant that each hind foot stepped far in front of the print left by the front foot, and this enabled him to cover ground quickly and smoothly. His front feet were striped with a mixture of dark and light, and his hind ones were all dark. They were small and fit his overall frame. He wore a double-ought shoe (size 00).
A horse’s eye is the first thing I notice when I look at him. It says a lot about his intelligence and signals the amount of trust he carries within himself. Gizmo’s were inquisitive, intelligent, and kind. They were soft enough to be reassuring, yet had enough white showing to display a sense of curiosity. His head usually turned to follow his eyes, and that indicated an awareness of his surroundings and an inquisitive mind.
His dam was a chestnut Quarter Horse named Wayward, who had a flaxon mane and tail and stood fourteen-three. She was a fine example of the classic “bulldog” Quarter Horse—short, stocky, quick, and smart. His sire was a well known West Coast racehorse by the name of Palleo’s Note, who had a lot of Thoroughbred breeding in his background. He was a big, long legged stocky stallion who earned his Racing Register of Merit by the time he was a two year old. Gizmo was destined to follow neither his mother’s ranching heritage nor his father’s racing history. Instead, he became his own free spirit, and he never hesitated to express that essence.
He was a tough little horse who never quit, and was as game a critter as you could find. Horses can be compared with people sometimes. There are those who soldier on by sheer force of will and there are those, like Gizmo, who seem to push forward through the inertia of their own curiosity. A strong will is tough, but curiosity is resilient, and I reckon curiosity is the stronger force.
He quickly learned that whatever I ate, he could eat. This included everything from Snickers bars (his favorite) to hamburgers, apple pie, ham sandwiches, cookies, green chile enchiladas, ice cream, bisquits and gravy, chocolate cake, hotdogs, cotton candy, beef stew, and a whole smorgasbord of other delicacies. He drank water from a gas station radiator filler hose without spilling a drop, and always demanded that I share any sodas, beer, iced tea, or other drinks I had. These included coffee (cold), root beer floats, and chocolate shakes as well, though I drew the line at whiskey shots. I watched what he ate and wouldn’t let him have anything that might hurt him. Things like bananas, celery, oleander, and other equine food hazards were off limits to him. And I never fed him too much of any of the food I ate. He usually only wanted a bite or two, just to be included, but he was known to eat an entire pie or chocolate cake.
Gizmo was a sound sleeper much of the time, though not always. I staked him out at night on a thirty foot rope that was fastened to his front foot by a hobble. I buckled the leather hobble onto his pastern and clipped the rope into it. This let the rope to stay flat on the ground, so he wouldn’t get it wrapped around his hind legs and end up with rope burns. He could easily lie down with this rig, and could even have a nice roll if he wanted to. When he was finished eating and checking out his surroundings, he would generally wander as close to me as he could get, then lie down. I learned early on that I needed to give him enough room, or he would end up sleeping on top of me.
He knew he was something special, and knew we were doing something extraordinary. He took our celebrity in his stride, posing for cameras and enjoying the attention he received along the trail. He didn’t mind when other horses were around, but didn’t seem to care when we left them, either. He was never barn sour or herd bound in his entire life, and I think the ride helped to cement that disposition in him. Horses are herd animals, gregarious by nature. Gizmo was certainly gregarious with people, and he enjoyed being with his own kind as well, but he didn’t mind leaving them behind in the corral whenever I took him out on a ride. He maintained that attitude for the rest of his life.
He was a precocious colt, inquisitive sometimes to the point of being annoying. He was always into everything. If you left a bucket on the ground nearby, or a halter hanging from a fencepost, he had his nose in them immediately. He’d drag my coat away from my gear and just drop it on the ground beneath him. An equine magpie. He didn’t actually want my stuff. He never chewed it or destroyed any of it. He just liked the idea of having unlimited access to it, and he wanted to make sure I knew it.
He came over to listen to the radio if one was playing. Music seemed to be a sort of tonic for him, and oftentimes I wished I had a way to play a radio while we were riding along during the days on the trail. Many claim that horses can feel the music, and have a sense of rhythm. They maintain that the dressage horse in a freestyle can sense the music and will move to it, accordingly. I happen to think that it’s anthropomorphic nonsense, and that a horse has no real concept of music as beats and rhythm—at least, not something he can relate to. Musical rhythm is a wholly human notion. It is the concept of sound measured against time, broken into specific lengths and beats. Horses don’t care about time. They don’t measure the universe in a linear fashion like we do. I don’t think a horse can sense rhythm as we know it any more than we can sense the frequencies of light or sound, except by color or pitch. They affect us, but we can’t dance in time to them because we can’t hear or see their rhythm. And having said that, I know that music has profound effects upon a horse, and upon other animals as well. Gizmo loved listening to music, and responded to it. But he didn’t try to dance to it.
Once the ride was over and we were back home in California, he spent a good deal of time out to pasture, just hanging out with his equine pals. We lived in Santa Barbara for a while and made some pack trips back into wilderness areas around those parts. He was ruined as a show horse prospect, or as a cow or reining horse, though we did help gather cattle now and then, but he was great on pack trips and trail rides. We moved to New Mexico a few years later, where he lived out his days under big skies and open country. When he was twenty two he grew ill. He lost weight, had intestinal and urinary problems, and his disposition grew cranky and erratic. Tests revealed that he had Pars Intermedia Pituitary Adenoma. That’s a fancy medical term for what is known as Cushing’s Disease, which is basically a benign tumor in the brain. Though benign, it causes lots of serious problems, especially in older horses, and there is no cure. It was late in the year and he would have to face the cold and snow. He was twenty two years old and I didn’t want him to have to go through the punishment of another winter.
I spent Gizmo’s last morning alone with him, just talking and sharing some final hours together. It was a cold, bright October autumn day. Spending the hours with him was entirely for my own sake, and I knew it wouldn’t do him any real good, but I played my harmonica for him and just visited with him for a long time. He seemed relaxed and happy, listening to the music. I called the vet out and held him while the doctor gave him an injection. I eased his head down as he gently settled to the ground, and I sat there cradling him as he died. I dug his grave with the tractor and buried him there, on the high desert of northern New Mexico. As I shoveled the earth over him, dark clouds rolled in overhead and it began to snow lightly. But I didn’t see the coming storm as a dark sign or bad omen. The snow fell gently, in big flakes, and by the time I had finished burying him his grave was white. It was a peaceful scene. It felt like he was saying thank you.