To be an American kid is to love horses. To want to be a cowboy. It’s a national inheritance. For some of us, it seems an incurable disease.
My own first love was the palomino. Roy Rogers of the cowboy movies rode Trigger, obviously the most wonderful horse in the world, not to mention the most beautiful. (I’ve heard there was also some guy named Gene Autry with a horse named Champion, but the gulf between Rogers fans and Autry fans is too wide to be bridged.)
Alas, the loves of childhood rarely outlast the first rush of hormones, so my love migrated to the beautiful thoroughbred, tall, noble, and born to run. Until, that is, I got to know a few. Thoroughbreds are far too often as over-bred, high-strung, and brainless as a runway model. Beautiful, but…
Call me fickle. Over the years, I’ve fallen in love with Appaloosas, Tennessee Walkers, Morgans, and a number of other lovelies. Some are dumber than dirt, some as calm and stable as chihuahuas in heat, and not a few come equipped with their own special neuroses that have to be learned and accommodated. I’ve even met a couple who seemed to be channeling homicidal maniacs.
In our early years, we often look for a romance that will sweep us off our feet and carry us away in a turbulent flood. As we mature, we come to recognize that while that sort of thing is hard to live with on a day to day basis. In my (ahem!) maturer years, my love has passed over to something a bit more, dare I say it, comfortable.
For those who aren’t of the horsey type, let me say right away that the term “cold blood” has nothing to do with temperature. It’s all about temperament.
When we say someone is hot-blooded, we mean someone who is full sturm und drang, a mountain of emotion ready to erupt at any minute. Likewise, the horse. A hot blood horse might get you from here there in the shortest time, but he is equally likely to leave you lying by the side of the road halfway in between.
On the other hand, using “cold blood” to describe a horse is not quite the same a when we describe some person as cold-blooded. For people, we mean someone who is emotionless, perhaps even merciless. For a horse, we mean a breed that is calm, gentle, and good-natured.
What’s a cold blood? As working breeds we call them draft horses. In the public consciousness, the Clydesdales are the archetypical cold bloods.
The first thing you see when you look at a Clydesdale or a Percheron close up is simple: they’re big.
Cold bloods are usually taller (something like 3 hands…a foot taller) than even the thoroughbreds and they can weigh twice as much. However, if you see them from a ways away, they look short and stocky. It’s only when you get close that you realize how simply wide and massive they are.
Long after the fall of the Roman Empire, the farmers of Europe began breeding larger and stronger horses to pull their plows. Some of them were probably hot-blooded in temperament, and some were not.
Come feudalism, and there was a ready market for the big, hot-blooded types. As the knights piled on more and more armor, they discovered they needed bigger and stronger horses. But the big, stocky horses didn’t have the smoothest gaits and they weren’t terribly elegant. So the knights began to ride elegant palfreys (think Rolls Royces) for everyday usage and reserved their spirited destriers (think Hummers) for war.
With the decline of the armored knight, there was less market for really big, fiery horses, so the farmers tended to favor the calmer, more manageable types while the cavalry went for the ancestors of thoroughbreds, hunters, and the like.
The result is that the cold bloods got bigger, calmer and gentler while the thoroughbreds and other saddle horses were eventually specialized to within an inch of their lives.
Today, if you startle a modern horse, the odds are it will run away…if you’re lucky. If you’re not, you might find a couple of panicked hooves waving around your head.
But if you walk up to a cold blood, even in an open field, the odds are pretty good it will amble over to see who you are and gently nuzzle you. To my mind, they seem to radiate a sort of benign curiosity.
I have a book with a picture that captures all I love about these gentle giants. A group of horses are standing in a field. A two-plus year old toddler has come up with something in his hand to feed them. There is absolutely no danger. While two calmly watch, the third leans down and gently, carefully, picks it up with his lips.
There are people who ride the smaller cold bloods. But for the biggest, you’d need a howdah. So I’m afraid I’m a disappointment to good old Roy: What kind of cowboy falls for a horse he can’t even ride?