Tower’s Last Ride

By April 15, 2013
Sara and Tower streak along the hilltops of California.

Tower of power: high above Rancho Indalo.

Horses have had a special place in the heart of a young girl whose life has been transient.  As the eldest child in a military family, I was relocated every two years and home was where the U.S. Army sent us. One of the few things I could count on was riding.

Whether in America or overseas, my father would always find a stable where I could train. (Maybe it’s called “stable” for a reason.)
As with many riders, when I went off to college, and then started a career, horses took a back seat. There was an eight-year stretch, living in Los Angeles and then Washington, D.C., where I didn’t ride at all.

When I returned to Los Angeles last year, a chance encounter with Mary and Anthony De Longis of Rancho Indalo changed all that. We met in Las Vegas at Combat Con, a convention “where history meets fantasy.”Anthony De Longis does stunt work with equine and weapons specialties, and I was there doing research for a screenplay (and, yes, indulging my love of things involving swords, knights and armor). Anthony invited me to the ranch and said that they would take my riding “to the next level.” I had no idea at that moment just how true that statement was, never mind how life-changing my friendship with these people and their exceptional animals would be.

My first experience at Rancho Indalo was Latigo. A brilliant horse who, I was told, “takes good care of his cargo.”  I remember well going up what was affectionately called the “Big Boy” hill on the first ride. I lost a stirrup and thought I was going to die. Trial by fire, I suppose, but exhilarating, too, and looking back, one of the greatest rides of my life.

Then I moved on to Hightower. Hightower was, well, Hightower was something else entirely ― an ancient Thoroughbred who, when I met him, was already thirtysomething. He looked like the horse Nightmare from the tarot card game “Magic: The Gathering.” He was slim, thanks to years of long life and great runs, with bones protruding and a mane and forelock that had a tendency fly askew.

Sara Warner's portrait reveals piercing turquoise-blue eyes.

Sara Warner reconnected with riding at Combat Con, a convention for fans of historical reenactment.

The first time I saw him, he plodded around the sand arena like a handicapped old man just waiting for death, dragging his hind legs and the whole bit. Any time he came into his stall for food, or stepped out of it for that matter, you could count on hearing the resounding thunk, thunk, of his hind legs hitting the threshold because the old man didn’t seem to care much about picking his feet up.

But the first time I rode him I fell in love. He was brilliant, he was smooth and, God help me, he was easy. He was a gentleman. The ol’ fart had me at hello. As I was to discover, he also had a mischievous side, and was a delightful schemer.

After a few tranquil rides, he began to scare the ever-loving piss out of me on a regular basis.

December 25, 2011 was the last time that Hightower really scared me. We’d gone down to this spot in the hills that was nice and flat, into a fenced area where we were just going to do a little cantering. And the old man was just full of himself that day. He kicked up and bolted and I still hadn’t quite found my seat much less my confidence and I was absolutely terrified. I was terrified enough that I actually cried. After that I switched back to Latigo and let another barn friend ride Hightower.

I was trying to get my skills up to where they’d been eight years ago, nevermind trying to “take them to the next level.” I was re-discovering my balanced seat, how to handle the reins, how to keep my feet under me, and newly discovering how to do all of that on the unforgiving, ever-changing and rather extreme terrain of California’s Canyon Country.

Tower went down on a hilltop under another rider sometime after the Christmas ride. He’d run too much, and the hill tired him out. We all thought he died that day. He just laid right down on the hillside and didn’t get up until Anthony came walking over, and boy, did he shoot up fast when he caught sight of daddy. I still laugh thinking about it. After that, De Longis decided to give the old man a rest. No one wanted to ride him anymore.

But it broke his heart to not go out with us. He’d watch us take off with sad eyes. That was when I started to ride him again. Was I scared?
Hell yes, I was scared! But I started to ride him regularly anyway.

Every ride was a challenge, but for the first time I began to really ride him. He was a racehorse. Retired? Clearly, he didn’t know what that meant. Tower never retired, he just stopped racing on the track. And I’ll tell you something, those of you who have ever been on the back of a horse who truly taught you something, who challenged you and reminded you what it means to ride and ride well, you’ll perhaps relate to those moments when I could hear my fellow riders behind me saying, “Well, she just became a passenger,” as Tower  kicked up, launched forward, and ran away with me.

Those moments were laying a foundation on which my horsemanship was being built. Every time he ran away with me, I learned something. And yeah, I’ll be the first to admit that the first lesson I learned was how to sit a horse that’s not slowing down, and the reason he’s not is because you’re not convincing him that he should.

Then things started to change. The break-aways became shorter and shorter. I learned to ride. I learned every single time I was on him. Tower became mine, and over the time I rode him I earned his respect. He certainly didn’t offer it easily, but once we got in sync, it was magic. The old man lumbering around the sand arena became a horse half his age once we were out on trail.

We would have excellent conversations. I knew his body, I knew his heart, and I’d like to think I touched his soul, because he most certainly touched mine. I knew what it meant when he dropped his handsome head and went onto the bit. I could feel him get excited when he approached somewhere he knew he would be allowed to run. And the quieter moments when I’d go out with a feed bucket, or some alfalfa, or special treats. He’d stand patiently with his ears pricked forward, looking and waiting. Then he’d start nuzzling. He was my boy ―a little boy and a dear old man, who never stopped teaching me and never stopped taking care of me.

We ran one last time on September 1, 2012. He wanted to go, so he did. He was about to run away with me. He wanted it so badly. He was trotting and slow loping and putting up a fight to pass another horse and rider in our group. It was one of his favorite stretches ― up past the storage bins on the narrow left side of a tall hill. And he was having none of my holding him back. I like to think he knew. That he knew that up there, at the crest of that hill by the water tower, the end of his track in this life awaited, and that this was his last chance to really show me something.

Sara Warner and Tower ride the high country against a bright blue sky.

"Every ride was a challenge, but for the first time I began to really ride him..."

As soon as I grabbed mane and released forward, Hightower kicked up, reached out, and punched himself past the limitations of his mortal old heart. Here you go, girl. Here we go! Let me take you on a real ride, this one last time. Let’s make it count. And it did. I’ve never soared so fast.

The other horses disappeared behind us, and as I looked down over the drop to our left I thought surely if he misstepped even once, that’d be the end of both of us. But Tower was sure-footed as they come and up the hill we went. Wind whipping, hooves deafening. It was like there wasn’t any hill, and all we were on was flat earth,  we went so fast. And when it was done, I even had time to laugh and reach for my water bottle at the top of the hill.

And that was when Hightower went down. My old man, my teacher,  my sweetheart, my dear friend. I wept. I held his head and begged him not to leave. The others gathered around and stroked and petted him. We held him and talked to him, and we did our best to ease his passing as the spark in his big, dark eyes was subsumed by glassy vacancy. That was the end of a champion, and of a horse who changed my life.

The galloping shall continue until your riding improves – or I die.

Rest in peace, beautiful old man. And gallop among the stars where you belong, leading the herd. And don’t you dare let any of those other legendary old souls steal your food.

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