He was an impatient, difficult creature when I bought him, at the age of 3. Many of the best horses are like that, less than easy. One of the top hunter show barns in the country sold him, because he was too difficult, too quirky, to suit their plans. That made him affordable for someone like my myself, if that self was willing to look past the fact that one end bit, one end kicked and the bit in the middle bucked.
The first six weeks, we were far from friends. Paul, my Dad, used to shake his head at his black and blue daughter. “Sell him, or train him, but figure him out,” was his immediate advice. Mom looked farther. “Give him some time.” My brother just laughed at his name – on his papers he was named Canadian Pride, but the nickname he came with was Bacon, and it stuck. His sire was Old Pioneer, who held the distinction of being particularly difficult to work with, but never faulting at a fence during his lifetime – that ability to jump came through. I set to work to figure him out, and to learn to get along, because this was the most talented horse I had owned.
Opinionated, defensive of his personal space, refusing to suffer fools – that was Bacon. If the rider got it wrong, the rider was informed of the error in no uncertain terms. Horses go as they are ridden, and this horse entered my life when I was a sponge, eager to learn more and more, to get better. With him, I was privileged to work with some of the best coaches the world has seen. “He can do it, that one,” said LeGoff, “but you have to ride for it.” So ride for it I did.
Until late in his life, Bacon was not friendly in his stall. That was his private place. We’d joke that if he was a person, he’d be one of those teenage boys with the signs on the door: Keep Out. Private. No Girls Allowed. This Means You. Bring him out of the stall, however, saddle him up, and he was all business, all manners. This horse competed in three day events when they WERE three day events, before they altered into what is now called the Short Format. That meant that he was required to produce dressage tests, cover the distance on the Roads and Tracks, gallop on a Steeplechase course, jump round testing cross country courses over solid obstacles, and come back to show jump over coloured fences. Those horses have to be fit, and tough minded, versatile and brave, submissive and bold.
It’s a tall order, which few horses can fill well. Bacon filled it. Bacon loved it. He was a ridden poem, the rhythm and intensity drawing you along. He was a brave and careful jumper, so much so that even my mother could usually bear to watch us compete – although at one notably difficult and upper level event, she and Olympian Peter Gray’s mother took refuge on the hilltop giving each other play-by-play descriptions of our progress, neither able to watch their own child. In those days of VHS, Dad would film him – although in the excitement of watching us, he’d often take his finger off the appropriate button, and the film would cut out at the crucial moment... “You show ‘em,” Dad would say to him, as we readied him to compete. And Bacon did just that.
There was never a course from which he failed to bring me safely through the finish flags. He took me places far beyond the realm of competition. He introduced me to people around the world who shared the passion in this sport. He took me to heady heights. And soldiered on with me through some pretty heady lows. He passed along his own work ethic, and his impatience with poor planning, intolerance of shoddy technique. He dumped me on the ground when I got it wrong. He got me short-listed for the Pan-Am Games when I got it right. When I was injured in a fall with another horse, he was recruited to be a rider’s ‘second horse’ at the Team training camp before the World’s.
As we came to know each other, as he learned to trust me, he welcomed me into his private space, took the signs off his bedroom door. Gave me, willingly, his power, his youth, his courage, his skill. Tried his best at whatever was asked. Became my best friend. Taught me life lessons. Was unfailingly honest. You cannot possibly ask for more. Such gifts are a great blessing, and sharing his life was an honour.
He retired from high level competition when he ran out of places to compete north of the American border. The time and cash to keep competing in the U.S. was prohibitive, and we’d run out of wall space for his awards anyway. Besides, he was no longer so young, he’d had some injuries too, and it seemed unreasonable to ask him to keep offering . Mellower now, he happily picked up the task of teaching new riders – but still with little patience for their mistakes. When David rode him during the opening of the Trans Canada Trail, he refused to wait for the other horses to keep up. He posed for an artists' retreat. He took apples gently from small hands, and let small people stand on a stool to brush him. He looked after Abby when she was weaned. Barb called him "Uncle Bacon."
I promised him mine would be his forever home. I promised him I would look after him. He knew he was safe with me. Knew this was HIS place. He’d follow me about, rest his head on my shoulder when he thought no-one was around to see, whinny when I came to the barn. The true proof of love is trust, and he offered me that, in spades.
Last week, on November 12, I had to keep the final phase of that promise made, the hardest part. Last week, Bacon walked ‘out of his whinnying, warm stable, onto the fields of praise’ for the last time. We laid him to rest on the cross country course he loved so much. Next to Madam, and an old friend, Archdeacon. His family was there. We made a garden. We planted a tree... we said ‘good bye’.
He was 31 years old. Mine for 28 of them. He gallops now in the green fields of heaven, the power and rhythm of his stride and his courage writing new poetry in that blessed place. It’s said that God created the horse from a handful of the southerly Wind... perhaps when horses leave here, they go back into that wind. Perhaps, if you listen carefully, you can still hear hoofbeats drifting away.
June 10, 1978 - November 12, 2009
Old Pioneer -- Velvet Lass
'the best gifts to Man are the Horse, and the Hour'