Blackie Mac was a disappointment from the outset – a solid black colt born into a family of Appaloosa horses where if you don’t come with spots we’d rather not have you. Everyone just bit their lip and said nice things about how cute and spunky he was. That wasn’t a lie, but almost all foals are cute and spunky. Here’s a video of one born just a few days ago – this time a filly. She’s supposed to look like her mom, not like this. The mare in this video is Delia, a beautifully colored foundation mare who was so ornery as a filly that we named her after Johnny Cash’s song, “Delia’s Gone.”
Blackie Mac got his name from the white spot on his forehead that looked just like the bit apple on the back of an iMac. I knew we would sell him off, and there is a much better market for a solid grade horse out in Colorado where the C.A. Maxey Appaloosa Heritage Foundation ranch is located. After a few months in Michigan, I saw my chance to send him packing.
Two trainers, both college girls who worked at the Colorado State University Equine Center, had wrapped up their work in Michigan training Delia, the mare in the video above. That is to say, one quit outright when Delia reared up and struck her in the collar bone with a front hoof. The other was finished with a set of riding lessons. So we loaded Blackie and his mother, another color dud named Big Dawn, along with an unmanageable beauty named Mia, into the trailer. All three headed off to Colorado, Mia for re-breeding and the other two for some kind of eventual sale.
All seemed well until about 2:00am when some calls started buzzing in on my cell phone. I don’t arouse well at that hour, so it was maybe 5:30am before I picked it up and read through a text message. It was pretty terse: “Truck dead on the interstate east of Omaha. Horses in a local guy’s holding pen. We’re crossing into Colorado with Morgan’s boyfriend ‘cause we have to be at work/class by 8:00am tomorrow. Good luck.”
Travel logistics was a little harder in the pre-Uber days. There are flights to Omaha, there are flights to Des Moines, but there is no way to rent a car in either place and then just abandon it in Walnut, Iowa which was the town closest to my broken down rig. I was still puzzling over this problem as I boarded a Delta flight with my normal horse rustler carry on – a bag of grain, halter and a lead rope, a pair of bolt cutters, fence tool and a claw hammer. You could take those through security back in those days. To my good fortune, a guy I chatted with in the next seat was so interested in my dilemma that by the time we got to Omaha he said, “Hell, I don’t care when I get up to Sioux City. I’ll take you east on I-80 and then come back around before I go north.” I was very thankful for this, because I would have looked pretty funny walking my little roller bag for 50 miles back up the interstate to Walnut.
I had him drop me off at a Motel 6 at the interchange, thanked him and waved him goodbye because he wouldn’t take any money. And thus began a 3-day internment in a lonely, quiet midwestern landscape where my only transportation was my own two feet. I immediately set out going south into town, because the state police had been kind enough to unhitch the trailer, which they left on the shoulder, and had the truck towed to Louie’s Garage, the only diesel engine shop in town. I would get to know this path pretty well, because although it wasn’t fast, it was exercise, and it consumed time, which I had too much of. It also took me by the only diner I could find that had normal food.
At Louie’s they were waiting for a deposit because they don’t do any engine work without one. I paid him $2,000 and asked him what was wrong with it. He shook his head and said, “A Ford 7.3L Powerstroke diesel? There was never anything right with it, including the fact that when it stops running you can’t get at it without taking everything off down to the bra and panties.” I came to know that Louie conceived the world mainly through metaphors of sexual anatomy, sex acts and genitals. “You didn’t blow a rod and you’re not leaking oil, so let me see how far I can get today and I’ll let you know.” I was sad to think that Louie trash talked my truck. It was actually my dad’s truck but there is a bit of family pride that gets hurt being talked down to that way. Then there followed two full days of sleeping, walking back and forth into town, and then walking other directions just to pass time and hear the woosh of the windmills. The mechanics swore, they ordered different parts, they took off the radiator and pulled the engine out, and at one point, Louie said, “If this next thing don’t go right I’m gonna have to load it on the wrecker and ship it down to Council Bluffs.” He asked me for another $2,000 and let me have a girly pinup model calendar with the shop’s name on every page of the month. I think they must have become unpopular shortly after, because I have never come across another one since.
Then suddenly, at 2:00pm the third afternoon, Louie called me and said he had it done. Time restarted at high speed as if to make up for lost days. I had to go to the bank to get cash to finish paying off the bill, and the truck seemed to have the same old coal roll as I rumbled out of the shop. I backtracked to the last exit behind the trailer and pulled off the yellow crime scene tape and tags the police left on it, hitching it up even without anybody helping me. Then I swung around to the next exit and followed directions to where the horses were supposed to be. I could tell there was something wrong as soon as I pulled into the guy’s driveway. He was a surly, skinny sort of Iowa fellow who didn’t want a wife and who didn’t want my horses either, and charged me $50 apiece per night for all three nights. Then he said, “There’s something wrong with that little one. It don’t walk.”
It turned out that my horses had been sharing a small paddock with another horse for the first few hours, and as soon as they got there in the early dawn of the first night, fighting broke out. Horses don’t always take to each other at first, and Mia always was an ornery cuss. The other mare Dawn was gentle and shy, but when the kicking and biting was done, Dawn was all roughed up, Mia didn’t have a scratch on her but the baby had a badly fractured front leg. By baby I mean Blackie Mac still weighed 300 pounds and it was all I could do to skid him by his back feet up the ramp with his mom stomping and threatening to knock my block off from inside the trailer. I positioned him right at the back with a bale of loose straw under him and took off for Ft. Collins.
Song lyrics keep playing through your mind when you’re driving hard alone into the night. I stopped every so often to gas up, water the mares, and check on the tires that seemed to be thumping strangely sometimes. “On a long lonesome highway, east of Omaha, you can listen to the engine moaning out its one-note song.” Bob Seger – Turn the Page “I been driving all night my hands wet on the wheel…..And it’s half past four and I’m shifting gears.” Golden Earring – Radar Love “Hey pretty baby don’t you know it ain’t my fault, love to hear the steel belts thumpin’ on the asphalt, Wake up in the middle of the night in a truck stop and stumble in the restaurant, wonder why I don’t stop.” Steve Earl – Guitar Town
There are empty overpasses in the shadows of streetlights as I swing down from Cheyenne onto I-25. It’s about another hour south to my dad’s place, the North 40 Ranch in Wellington, and dawn was beginning to spread across the eastern plains and light up the mountains in the distance as I eased Mia out of the trailer. The mom and the baby I left in there because they had an appointment in three hours at the vet hospital in Ft. Collins.
The tight-lipped assessment came quickly after the X-rays. “This is roughly a $6,000 repair. The odds are about 50:50 whether it will hold. You’ve got a grade horse with no Appaloosa color, worth maybe $500-600. We’re recommending euthanasia.” And that would have been the end of Blackie Mac.
But there was an equine surgeon named Dr. Goodrich who agreed to cut her fees in half to plate and fix the broken leg, and the trainers kicked in some money and appeals were made to emotion rather than sensible logic. So I agreed to give it a try. Surprisingly, everything from that point on was a stunning success. The operation went well. The recovery was quick, the horse was able to bear weight on the surgical limb within days without laminitis.
He developed a normal set of gaits, and within a year we found a buyer for him. Today Blackie Mac isn’t black. He’s the color of a wad of lint from the filter of a clothes drier. He is ridden nearly every day, is beloved by his owner, and he’s had a good life despite his unfortunate coloration.
I’ll follow up on this post with an introduction to the genetics of spotting in Appaloosa horses, but please also see this old blog post from the same year the saga of Blackie Mac unfolded. This is 2-year old Delia using her Pleistocene color pattern to hide in plain sight among snow patches and trees. Also note how black she still is in this photo, and how much she has roaned over the last decade. (Compare to her giving birth last week.)
Mia continues to be a foundation broodmare for Maxey Appys, and is shown here with one of her colts. Every story includes a tragedy, and in this one it was Big Dawn. The vet found that she’d sustained several rib fractures in the pounding she took defending Blackie Mac. Not long after that a possible buyer took her for a week trial in case that might be her forever home. She died overnight in her stall a few days later, cause unknown.
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