"Quit it, you big thug," I hollered as Togwotee tried to barge into the underbrush.

We had been walking trails for a couple of weeks, and Togwotee’s spirits had improved with each passing day. His enjoyment was obvious, but his mischievous side had been uncovered as well. "This is not working anymore," I thought, as I pulled the reluctant gelding around to lead him back to the barn. I attached the cross ties to his halter and headed for the tack room.

I rummaged through several old boxes, peeked under some dusty blankets, and was finally able to scrounge up a saddle, bridle, and helmet that looked suitable. "Don’t make me regret this," I muttered as I tightened the girth.

Leading the prancing gelding out of the barn, I called down to the round pen where Joanne was working with one of her yearlings. "I hope you don’t mind, but I borrowed some of your gear. We’re heading over to the ring."

"Wow, this is your first time up on him isn’t it? Do you want any company?" she asked.

"No, we’ll just take it easy. But if I’m not back in an hour, call an ambulance, OK?" I replied.

Togwotee and I made our way to the riding ring and aimed for the mounting block at its center. "All right, buddy," I said placing my left foot in the iron and swinging onto his back. He danced sideways for a few steps but then settled down into a relaxed walk around the perimeter. After several laps, I eased him into a trot. He tossed his nose up and down, and I could feel his anticipation building.

"Whoa now, this isn’t a post parade, you know," I told him.

We cruised around the ring in both directions until he settled down and was thoroughly warmed up. I gave him a soft nudge with my legs, and he broke into a canter. Every few strides, Togwotee pulled on the bit, asking to go faster. Through the reins, I repeatedly told him "no." After several minutes, he stopped asking. I slowed him to a walk and steered out of the gate. Togwotee plodded back towards the barn without protest.

We stopped near Joanne as she was turning the yearling back out to pasture. "How’d he do?" she asked.

"He was really well behaved, but I can’t say that he seemed to enjoy himself much. He asked to run a few times, but when I made it clear that wasn’t in the plans he seemed to lose interest."

"He probably just needs some more time," Joanne said.

"Yeah, could be," I replied, swinging my leg over his rump and dropping to the ground.

After removing his tack and cooling him out, I turned Togwotee back into his paddock. He ambled over to his hay pile and started to eat. Looking into my rearview mirror as I drove away, I could see that he hadn’t budged from his meal.

Fall rapidly gave way to winter. Togwotee and I had been spending a lot of time in the ring working on basic dressage and even trying a little jumping. He did everything that I asked but still didn’t seem to be having much fun. Today’s brisk air was perfect for a trail ride. "Maybe that’s what he needs," I thought as I parked beside the barn.

Togwotee playfully nuzzled my hands and pressed his head into my chest while I groomed him, but when I appeared with his saddle and bridle he just stood quietly. I mounted and guided him towards the woods. After walking about a quarter of a mile down the trail, he stopped and tried to circle around back the way we had come.

"No, friend," I said, straightening him out. "Let’s keep going."

Togwotee sighed as I urged him into a trot. A few minutes later, we reached a split in the trail. He veered to the left, heading for home, and I decided to let him take us back.

I was picking out Togwotee’s feet when Joanne came out of her house and headed our way. "Hey, I met that new vet you hired," she said. "She seems great."

"Yeah, she’s fitting in well, and her enthusiasm is infectious. It’s hard to be cynical around someone who still gets excited about floating teeth," I laughed. "I’ve also been able to cut back on my hours, which has improved my attitude."

"Really?" teased Joanne. "You were less of a drag even before you hired her."

"Very funny," I retorted, "but I guess I’m ready to admit that you were right. Togwotee has been a big help. But actually I’m a little worried about him."

"Why’s that?" Joanne asked.

"I don’t think I’ve found his niche yet. He seems bored with flat work, jumping, even trail rides. I’m at a loss for what to try next."

Joanne thought about it for a moment. "Maybe a change of scenery would help. Let’s turn him out in the back pasture. Piper is there now. They’ve always seemed to get along."

"It couldn’t hurt," I replied. Togwotee followed me into the field and trotted off towards Piper when I released him. Joanne and I leaned against the fence and watched as the two squealed and stomped their feet a few times before settling down to graze side by side.

"Well, I need to get back to the clinic," I said. "Would you mind bringing him back in this evening?"

"Of course not. I’ll talk to you later," Joanne replied.

I had just locked up the clinic and was walking into the parking lot when my cell phone rang. Fumbling through my bag, I assumed it was the after-hours service and answered, "This is Dr. Elliot."

"Karen, you aren’t going to believe what I’m watching," cried Joanne. "Togwotee and Piper are flying around the pasture. Every time he passes her and she slows down, he circles around and nips her on the butt. When she starts running again, he pins his ears and thunders past her again. I’ve never seen him look so happy, but I think I might need help cooling them off before they’re put up for the night."

"I was just leaving. I’ll be there in a few minutes," I said and hung up.

When I arrived, Togwotee was lathered with sweat and standing by the gate. I approached, but instead of dropping his head to allow me to attach his lead rope, he snorted and took off for the far end of the field. He galloped easily into a broad left hand turn and started back toward me. Rather than slowing as he neared, his pace quickened and he rounded into a second turn. After pounding past his imaginary finish line, Togwotee slowed to a trot and headed back towards the gate. He stopped in front of me and stared proudly into the distance.

"Are you posing for your winner’s circle photo, bud?" I asked. He danced at the end of his lead rope as I walked him back and forth alongside the driveway.

Joanne fell in beside us a few minutes later. "I saw his last performance. Was that amazing or what?"

"Yeah. I’m still a bit thunderstruck. Could that have been his way of putting in a vote for what we should try next?"

"What do you mean?" asked Joanne.

"Getting him back to the track. He sure hasn’t shown much enthusiasm for anything that I’ve tried with him. Maybe all he needed was a few months off and some T.L.C. to rekindle his love of racing. Do you think you could call your brother and see if he knows any trainers who might be willing to give my washed-up old claimer a second shot?"

Joanne pulled out her phone and started to dial.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Olga_i / via Shutterstock