The Pony Farm
By Judy Loop
In the winter of 1958, my mother read a magazine article about a herd of registered Shetland Ponies at a farm outside Chicago. Soon after that, my parents, Mildred and Francis Loop, took a business trip from our home in Colorado to look over the Chicago farm. They returned so excited that they took the four of us children back to Illinois, and by that spring, they had purchased a ten-acre farm in Caldwell for our own herd of Shetlands. Dad bought around thirty head of ponies. He had two goals for the farm: to teach his children good values, which was accomplished, and to make a lot of money, which was not accomplished. During the time Loop’s Shetland Pony Farm operated, from April 1958 through September 1964, the bottom dropped out of the pony market. Even so, we have carried throughout our lives the values we learned while caring for the ponies and helping with all the other work involved in running a little farm.
For me, the ponies became family. Whenever I felt in need of comfort, they were there for me. I would pour out my sorrows to them, and depending on proximity, one pony or another would nuzzle my head or shoulder and make soft low, whinnying sounds. Everything remained confidential, and it was a safe refuge when the chips were down.
I remember clearly the restlessness that overcame me one spring day in 1958, as my teacher at Gem State Grade School elaborated on the importance of learning social studies. That very minute, our first herd of ponies was being unloaded from the railway cars at the stockyard. When the clock reached 3 p.m., my older brother, Jerry, and I sprinted to our bicycles and rode as fast as we could to the stockyards, where our parents and oldest brother, Rich, were coaxing the last few animals out of loading chutes into the pickup truck. The ponies puffed and whinnied as they tried to make sense of their new environment after the journey from Chicago.
Dad decided which ponies we were allowed to ride, which did not include the brood mares. The coat of my horse, Cooky, was a deep milk chocolate color, and she had a white mane and tail. When I went out to the pasture to get acquainted with her, she greeted me with a nip on my belly that left purple marks. I wasn’t sure I wanted her for my horse, but decided to give her another chance on a horseback riding trip with the family. When she trotted, all my teeth and insides seemed to rattle loose, and when when it came time to go home, there was no stopping her. I jostled and bounced all the way. As she came through the driveway, she gave a mighty buck and I flew into a big rose bush.
I really didn’t want to ride her again, but my older sister, Jinna, had a friend named JoAnn who was a rodeo queen and an excellent horseback rider, and who was certain that Cooky was fine and we just needed to learn how to work with her. JoAnn offered to give her a test ride. She confidently hopped bareback onto Cooky, who reared up and dumped her. Sheepishly looking up at all of us, JoAnn admitted that Cooky certainly was a “tough cooky.” Very little training was given to me on fine points of horseback riding, and nothing more was done about Cooky, whom I had to continue riding, and with whom I had more than a few scary experiences.
She was smart, though, as Rich discovered one summer night around 2 a.m., when he was sleeping, as usual, in a cot on the patio. The gate to our yard had a special horse-proof latch, but Rich was awakened by a clomp, clomp on the patio and warm breath on his face. When he looked up, Cooky was gazing down at him. She had gotten lonesome and unlatched the gate to be with him.
One summer, we didn’t keep a close enough eye on her food intake, and she foundered. Jerry and I were given the mission of moving her a mile away to a dry lot closer to our house. We took her onto the road, where I pushed and Jerry tugged and pulled. Poor Cooky’s legs were so stiff that she moved very slowly. Field workers laughed and poked fun at us and our crippled pony. We were glad when we finally reached the dry lot. After a month there, she was allowed in the pasture to graze a few hours a day, but she was never the same and could not be ridden again. Still, she remained a friend.
Springtime was exciting on our pony farm. Every morning, we scanned the pasture to see if we might have a new colt. Sometimes, there were two or three new foals, so cute and wobbly-legged. A newborn was small enough that a ten-year-old child could pick it up and hold it. Jerry and I had the job of taming, halter-breaking and training these new colts to lead. By the end of each summer, we had most of the new colts trained. Every year brought about fifteen colts. Whirlaway, one of the brood mares, was gentle and good-natured, and she had colts that hardly needed taming. Every year, she gave birth to loveable, gentle little animals. Whirlaway was a dappled light brown, with a cream-colored mane and tail and long, light-colored eyelashes over dark brown eyes. She was beautiful. I could sit on her back while she grazed and she didn’t flinch. She was very gracious about it.
On my morning rounds one day, I noticed a fence with a loose, dangling wire and not too far away, a two-month-old filly with a punctured eye. The vet said the eye had been poked out, and all he could do was make sure the socket was not infected. After that, I paid extra attention to “Blindy,” who followed me around the field like a puppy dog. One afternoon, an old couple came out to look for a pony for their granddaughter. As I showed them around the pasture, Blindy tagged along. I showed them many ponies, but they insisted they wanted her. I called Dad at his realty office, begging and pleading with him not to sell her, but after he got home and talked to the couple, he gave them a discount because of Blindy’s eye. As they loaded her into their back seat, they promised me their granddaughter would love her just like I did. I couldn’t stop crying, and it took me a few days to forgive Dad.
Not all the ponies we sold were picked up at the farm. Sometimes, people selected ponies while vacationing in Idaho and we had to deliver them, although we didn’t even have a horse trailer, and had to rent a U-Haul trailer. Once, we delivered several ponies to California but for some reason, the customers decided against taking one little stud, so we were stuck with him. We went on down to Vallejo to see Uncle Glen and Aunt Jose. Luckily, Uncle Glen fell in love with the pony and asked his boss, who owned a lumber yard, to “come see the little fella.” Uncle Glen’s boss bought Little Fella, who became the mascot of the lumber yard.
Jerry’s horse was a Welsh pony called Lassy. When we visited the Shetland Pony Farm in Chicago, Jerry and I had picked her out. She was a bright sorrel color and she was very gentle. We could sit on her back as she grazed, but she was not without her tricks. For example, she loved to run home. She also would puff her belly with air when we saddled her, which meant Jerry had to force his knee into her side and then quickly cinch her saddle. One day, we were both riding her when she decided to gallop, and then abruptly stopped and gave a little buck. At the same time, she let the air out of her belly, causing the saddle to fall off. Jerry and I were both dumped onto the dirt road. I hit my cheekbone on a big boulder. Lassy stood by us swishing her tail, looking proud of what she had done.
Years later, when I was nineteen, a friend of the neighbor boys came riding up on a red pony. “I’m sure I know this horse,” I said. “Do you mind if I ride her?” The boy said, “Sure, but I warn you, she may run home.” That’s exactly what she did, and there was no stopping her. I got off her and said, “Lassy, I knew it was you.” I hugged her neck and kissed her velvety nose. That was the last time I saw her.
The first summer on our pony farm, one of our little mares had an extremely small filly, a cute little Palomino. She was just twenty-two inches tall. We checked with the Center for Registered Shetland Ponies and discovered Blondy was the smallest full-term colt to survive in many years. A News Tribune reporter came out and took her picture and wrote an article about her. She was a little doll and had a sweet disposition. Three years later, she developed a green, runny nose during the summer. One morning, Jerry and I were horrified to find a huge lump the size of a grapefruit on the side of her neck. The vet rushed out, and announced she had distemper. He gave her a shot and lanced the lump. After he left, Blondy calmed down enough to eat some oats and drink some water. To our horror, all the food and water came out the hole in her neck. The vet made an immediate return visit and concluded she must have eaten a foxtail weed, which probably burrowed into the side of her esophagus, causing infection. He told us there was no hope for her. Luckily, Jerry and I went to junior camp in McCall. Before we left, we told Blondy goodbye.
In the summer evening shadows, the ponies would feel their oats. They would kick up their heels, whinny, and gallop wildly around the pasture. The whole herd would enter into the excitement. Often, people driving by would stop just to watch the “stampede.” One afternoon, one of our stallions, Hero Joe Scarlet King, went berserk. He began chasing a half-Arabian, half-Quarter Horse around the pasture. The other horse, Bitty, had been given to my sister, Jinna, for high school graduation. Joe was nipping at her heels and wearing her down. He had a mean fire in his eyes, and Bitty frantically tried to defend herself by kicking at Joe and running. We stood by helplessly watching this scary ordeal, trying to figure out how to intervene. At one end of the pasture was a big gravel bank. Joe chased Bitty onto the bank, where she slipped and fell. The stallion, gone mad, continued his attack. Dad, Rich, and Jerry rushed forward and got a rope on him. Against great resistance, they managed to lead him to an empty corral to calm down. Bitty had bloody scratches and foamy sweat all over her, and she was breathing fast and heavy. Jinna stayed with her quite awhile in the barn, comforting her. It was a very long time before we allowed Joe in the same pasture with Bitty, but even so, she continued to be bred by him, and she had a few pretty colts.
Joe wasn’t all bad. He bred half the herd of mares and gave us offspring every year. He also was very beautiful, with a bright red sorrel coat and white mane and tail. He was very spirited, and we showed him off in the parades, where he pulled Jinna and me in a pony cart that bore our farm’s name in cursive, with a rope design. Joe looked like his heroic first name as he pranced smartly.
Dad bought another stallion named Golden Crescent, a beautiful little Palomino. He put Golden Crescent and Hero Joe in different fields with mares. Once, the two stallions started a fight across the fence, and both got slashed up by the barbed wire. Dad and the guys tore down the barbed wire fence and put up webbed fencing. When the yearling stallions matured into adults, they also would get into some battles with each other. We had to sell them, as there wasn’t room for more stallions.
Every summer, the whole family participated in a big round-up. We would herd about ten ponies at a time into the corral, so Dad could clip their hooves. A couple of us would hold the pony while Dad clipped. It was a big project, and took several Sundays to complete. Another regular job was fence repair. Dad, Jerry, and Rich had that privilege. Shetlands will wiggle through the most unlikely spots. The guys did pretty well keeping ahead of them, although one night, the police phoned at 1 a.m. to say they had just received a frantic call from a lady on Hire Street, who hysterically exclaimed that a herd of twenty to thirty horses was running across her yard. Jerry, Rich, and Dad crawled out of their warm beds to go rescue the poor woman from the “wild” horses. By the time they reached the woman’s home, only a few stragglers remained grazing her lawn. The rest of the herd was merrily trotting down the street. They were rounded up and brought home, a half-mile away. When doing a head count, only eleven ponies had broken out that night. The fences were reinforced the next morning.
Dad was always good at bargaining. One day, he went to a horse auction, where a mare caught his eye. She was a range horse with a lot of spirit, sorrel in color, with a white stripe down her forehead. She hadn’t been ridden very much, but without a trailer, the only way we could get her back to our farm was to have someone ride her. Jerry was elected. It was fun watching him on her as she galloped across the fields, bucking occasionally. He did a good job sticking with her. It was almost like watching our own private rodeo.
The next few days were spent in pampering this new addition to our herd, whom we named Chipper. On the range, she had accumulated ticks all over her body, and we spent many hours picking them off. Once she was tick-free, her coat gradually took on shine. After a few weeks of daily riding and training, Jerry felt she was ready for the road. He asked if I wanted to ride behind him. We didn’t get too far down the road when some hunting dogs came charging out a driveway, barking and biting at Chipper’s heels. This unexpected attack spooked her, and we found out how fast she could gallop uphill, bucking and side-stepping the whole time. My strength finally gave out, and as I fell, I held onto Jerry, pulling him off with me. He fell on his head, and I on my back. Chipper stopped and stood by, placidly watching us try to recover. Jerry had no problems and came immediately to my side, as I spun around in the dirt. The wind had been knocked out of me, and I was nearly in hysterics. He finally had to pin me down to restrain unnecessary movements. When I was able to breathe normally again, we got back onto Chipper, but every step hurt my back. I was glad to get home. The pain was horrible, and I had a difficult time sleeping at night. I couldn’t turn my head or bend over, and my head ached. It took three weeks before I was back to normal again, and it much longer than that before I got on Chipper’s back again.
Every fall, the colts were weaned. To give them extra nourishment during their weaning, Jerry and I brought them to the barn and tied each pony in a stall. We put a couple cups of oats in each of their feeding troughs. They really liked their oats. While they ate, we brushed and groomed them. Every afternoon until spring, we brought them in for their oats.
One year, Jinna tested the possibility of a pony coming to live in the house. She brought one of the smaller ponies into our little adobe home, but Dad did not take too keenly to that stunt, and the pony lasted only a few minutes before being sent back to the field. We kids decided we had better stick to our dogs as house pets.
When I started eighth grade, Jerry was in high school, Jinna was married, and Rich was working. Soon, we would all be too busy to take care of the ponies, and Dad realized the time had come to sell. He hired an auctioneer and scheduled a September Sunday for the event. I was kept busy during the auction, providing answers for the auctioneer and buyers about such details as a pony’s name or who the mother was. The next day at school was tough for me, as I faced the realization that my babies were gone.
When we sold out, we had seventy-two Shetlands. Dad had paid from one thousand to three thousand dollars per pony, some of which were auctioned for ten dollars. But Dad’s loss in money was a great gain for us all, in many ways. The ponies taught me unconditional love. They also gave us fun and adventure, and showed us the benefits of working together as a team until the job is done.