Thursday, February 13, 2014

Heather Smith Thomas—Notes from Sky Range Ranch: Chance, Part 1: The Christmas Horse

Regular blog contributor Heather Smith Thomas recalls fondly her granddaughter’s first horse, Chance.

Chance was middle aged when he came into our lives, given to my oldest granddaughter, Heather Carrie Thomas, by her great aunt for Christmas in 2000 when young Heather was 9 years old. His registered name was Omega Chance and he was a 17-year-old chestnut Arabian gelding with a white blaze and white stockings. Even though he was well into his teens, he was still in his prime; he looked and acted like a much younger horse. He had the wisdom and manners of age, however, and was the perfect horse for a young girl.

Heather remembers that Christmas vividly. “My little brother Nick and I both had huge boxes under the tree. Nick opened his first, and his gift was an English saddle. When I opened mine, it was a series of smaller and smaller boxes. I was disappointed because Nick had gotten a saddle, and my present kept getting smaller and smaller. Finally, I got down to the last layer: just an envelope—which contained Chance’s registration papers. That was a big surprise! I had thought it was just a big joke, and then when I opened the envelope I realized I had a horse!”

Chance was a Christmas gift.
Chance came from farm country in Oregon and hadn’t been out in the hills much. My son Michael and daughter-in-law Carolyn rode him the first few times that spring out on the range, just to make sure the horse would be a safe mount for their daughter.

Carolyn riding Chance on the range
“Those rides must have been the first time he’d ever been in sagebrush. When the brush touched his legs and tickled his belly he got scared and upset. For a while we were worried that he wouldn’t make it as a ranch horse or kid horse because he was so skittish in the brush,” recalls Michael. “But he was incredibly smart. After a few days he figured it out. Within a short time Heather was riding him, and getting along just fine.  It was just something new and different for him.”

Heather had started 4-H the previous summer with Jon Boy, the retired horse that her great grandfather rode on endurance rides, but she decided to use Chance as her 4-H project the second year.

Heather and Chance at their first 4-H horse show

Heather and Chance at the Hairy Horse Show

“We took first place in many 4-H horse show events and qualified to show in the State Fair in Blackfoot, Idaho.

State Fair 2001 - Trail Class
Chance and I didn’t win much at State, but it was a lot of fun. Down there everybody had their horses clipped and groomed and were dressed fancier. We got a little more professional every year—and looked the part a little better—but we never quite pulled it off to win,” she says.

2003 State Fair
2005 State Fair ribbons
At home, however, she and Chance won in all their classes and gathered trophies every year.

“Chance was really good at being shown at halter. He would go through the routine perfectly, and stand just right, but he hated it! We always joked that he got the blue ribbons only because when the judge came around to inspect him he would intimidate the judge into giving us first place. He was so crabby, yet he would do everything right,” says Heather.

“The last year that we were in 4-H, Nick showed him at halter. Chance was used to how I worked him, but Nick was more laid back. Nick was distracted and looking up in the stands, not paying attention—and Chance actually picked up his foot and struck at him, just to wake him up.  It was like he was saying, ‘Hey you!  You’re not doing your job!’”

Nick showing Chance at halter
Heather and Chance always enjoyed going through the obstacles in the trail class. “We did really well on the trail course. Even if we’d had a bad showing in some other class we knew we could make up for it,” she says. Heather won the trail course competitions on Chance time after time because he’d do anything she asked of him, and never got nervous or fussed about any of the obstacles.

Chance and Heather in the trail classes
“He’d do everything right. He went over the poles and never stepped on them or hit them. We could side-pass perfectly over to the mailbox and do all the fancy stuff. In the artificial trail course where he was being judged, he did everything perfect. But out on the real trail, he was a little more of a klutz. When we’d go over logs he wouldn’t bother to pick up his feet sometimes, and trip. He wasn’t too concerned.”

Heather also used him in Ranch Roping class. “I never was very good at roping,” says Heather, “but we tried it anyway. He hated when I’d accidentally get the rope under his tail. If I did, I had a hard time getting it back. Roping is judged on how many heads and how many heels you can catch in a certain length of time, and I’d lose a lot of time trying to get the rope out from under his tail. He’d steal my rope and hold it there!” she says.

Heather and Chance competing in the Working Ranch roping
“Our best event was the single cow penning. We had to sort out one cow and take her to several designated spots around the arena in a certain order, stop, and hold her for a few moments before moving her on to the next place. Many of the other contestants couldn’t get their cows to pause long enough at the designated places. I don’t know whether it was the riders or their horses, but they got the cow nervous and she’d just be running around the arena,” recalls Heather.

Working Ranch Class
Chance was so relaxed that this job was easy. “He was so mellow; he would very carefully move the cow around, putting pressure on her to move when needed and back off at just the right time so she wouldn’t feel threatened or get excited. He could be very precise in his movements and reading the cow. Many kids with their traditional Quarter Horses couldn’t get the job done! It really frustrated them to see this little Arabian gelding very calmly and carefully maneuvering the cow,” she says.

“This same quality applied out in the real world because on the range I could handle the cattle very well all by myself with Chance.” He could quietly go through a herd of cows to sort something out and never disturb the herd.

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising HorsesStorey's Guide to Training HorsesStable SmartsThe Horse Conformation HandbookYour CalfGetting Started with Beef and Dairy CattleStorey's Guide to Raising Beef CattleEssential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook. She blogs at

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