Authors: Judy Andrekson
n the months to follow, Heather and E.W. were extraordinarily busy with the new baby, the running of the ranch, and Heather’s eventual return to work as an emergency room nurse at Touro Hospital in New Orleans. Heather’s father was now having health problems, and Heather found herself returning the favor he had given her, spending time with him while her mother worked at her job as principal of a school in Picayune.
E.W. continued training Profit, progressing now to basic work under saddle. Heather was more than eager
to get back into the saddle. When time allowed, she would assist E.W., taking her place aboard the headstrong colt. Profit bucked when the spirit moved him, shied at every opportunity, and acted like the immature teenager that he still was. But between pranks and acting up, he was learning the ways of a saddle horse, and the foundation training they gave him in those months would take him a long way in the years to come.
The more Heather worked with him and got to know him, the more she liked him. He still had growing up to do, and he could still make her angrier than any horse on the place, but he was slowly working his way into her heart. He reminded her of another horse she had loved and lost, the first horse she had called her own and became seriously competitive on.
Ebony Winsalot was the reject of her father’s stable, a bad-tempered, large black mare with a blaze running the length of her face. Heather rode all of the horses in her father’s stable, but Ebony became a favorite and, for several years, she was Heather’s mount of choice. The spirited pair had been a regular sight on the Gulf Coast show circuit, and Ebony was Heather’s first Superior All Round Horse, a title she coveted and hoped to earn again one day. Now, as she felt Profit moving out beneath her, long and smooth, responding to her
lightest touch, as the bond between them began to develop, she wondered if she had been given more of a gift then she had realized.
The name on Profit’s registration papers was PBJ Decks Smokin Gun, a name that honored one of the greatest-ever Paint horses, Colonels Smokin Gun. Heather started calling him Gunner, which was easier to say than that son-of-a-gun. As soon as E.W. heard her starting to use the nickname on him, he knew that this little horse would not be sold and would be making them no profit at all!
Like his parents, baby Wesley was destined for a life with horses. They bought him his first pony, a little buckskin gelding named Buttermilk, when he turned six months old, and he spent as much time in the stable with Mom or Dad as he did in his nursery. He was able to sit a horse almost before he could walk, and most of his early childhood adventures involved a horse.
Buttermilk became Gunner’s favorite companion, and the pair was nearly inseparable. Gunner threw a fit every time Buttermilk was out of his sight. He spent that winter growing into an elegant two-year-old, but mentally he was still very much a baby. Buttermilk was young enough to be a playful and entertaining companion, but old enough to be a calming influence and a teacher
when the need arose. Gunner was always more settled when the pony was close by.
As Gunner approached his second birthday, Heather was setting her sights on getting back into the show ring. She knew she wouldn’t have time to put the finishing training on Gunner that he’d need in order to start his career, however. She simply couldn’t fit it in with her work at the hospital and the demands of a baby. She decided to contact a trainer from Texas who had worked with several of her father’s horses and was well respected in the show scene.
Mike Stable had a reputation for bringing out the best in young horses without burning them out by asking too much too soon. The horses he started would still be in the show ring years later, not breaking down mentally or physically, as so many young horses would under the pressure to perform. Mike’s specialty was the all round horse, or a horse that could work on the ranch, roping and cutting cattle, then take it’s owner for a safe and mannerly trail ride, be used in pony club by the kids on the weekends, and have beautiful manners when handled from the ground. In short, it could do anything it was put to, in either English or Western style, and be able to do it well. The all round horse needed to be versatile, athletic, and well trained. The American Paint
Horse Association, like many other breed associations, liked to offer classes and awards to show off the versatility and superiority of the breed.
This was Heather’s passion as well, and it was the Superior All Round Paint Horse title that she would be chasing in the coming years on Gunner.
Gunner was far from an all round horse when Mike first started working with him. He was a green-broke baby with a good solid foundation, but little more. He was still far more interested in playing then he was in working, and he was constantly trying Mike’s incredible patience with his antics. But he was a fast learner … and even though he often got into trouble, Mike loved his personality and his willingness to learn. Most of all, he admired the young horse’s natural athleticism – an essential quality in the all round horse. Within a short time of starting with him, Mike was convinced that they would go far with Gunner.
Mike was as certain of Heather’s talent as he was of Gunner’s. He had watched her grow up on her father’s horses and knew she could ride anything with fur and four legs and make it look easy. She was fearless and bold and was able to impart that same confidence to her mounts. He also knew that she would put in the time to give her horse its best shot. So many of his clients would
send him a horse to have it trained and prepared for a show, and then ride it for the first time in months just minutes before the class. They’d then complain to Mike, wondering why they didn’t do as well as they’d hoped. Mike and Heather shared a similar motto – if you want to drive a car, go buy a car. A horse was a living, breathing, unpredictable creature … and even a talented trainer like Mike couldn’t turn a horse into a car.
Although they were in different states, Mike and Heather were in close communication in the coming months about Gunner’s training. Mike was putting more polish on his basic walk, trot, lope, and reverse, working toward quick response times, smooth transitions, and a soft, balanced way of moving. As the colt developed muscle and skill, Mike began adding lead changes, low jumps, obstacle work, and showmanship handling to the colt’s training. Later they would ask for more, but Gunner was still just a youngster, and Mike didn’t want to put a damper on the colt’s spirit or hurt him physically, so he kept it fairly simple that first year.
By the time Heather flew out to work with them early in 2002, Gunner was a different horse. He had grown, now standing just over fifteen hands high, and his body was muscular and lithe. Mike had him in peak condition and groomed to perfection when she arrived.
Heather could hardly believe that this was the scruffy brat that had given her so much grief not so long ago. Mike was quick to assure her that there was still plenty of brat in him, but they were both excited about the show year ahead, and Heather couldn’t wait to try Gunner out.
Heather took him home for a while that spring and started him at a few small, local shows, to give him exposure to the show atmosphere and to help them get to know each other again. He did well in the Hunter Under Saddle classes that year, having a natural, long, smooth trot and nice style over small jumps. This would be one of his strongest classes in the years to come, as his natural abilities and way of moving served him well in this work, but he was soon proving that he could hold his own in just about any class.
At home, Gunner reminded his owners that he was still that same mischievous, troublemaking colt that they had known. It seemed that they were constantly getting him out of scrapes, catching him when he had escaped, finding things that he had destroyed, or patching him up when he tried to destroy himself. Heather and E.W. agreed that they had never met such a curious and annoying colt, but the very personality that had once caused Heather to dislike him so much, now made
her love Gunner all the more.
The following winter, Gunner again returned to Texas, this time with the plan to start his show career in earnest. He was almost three and looking better than any of them had expected. His body had balanced out and muscled up and no longer seemed out of proportion. The potbellied, shaggy baby of the past was now a gleaming, handsome show horse.
Heather was competitive and took her career seriously. She was excited to have a horse that challenged her abilities and had the talent to go the distance. But, she also had a full-time job, a baby, and family demands to juggle, so she had to choose a path that would suit her situation and still give Gunner the chance he deserved.
She could keep him home and continue attending the smaller shows in their region. The competition wouldn’t be as tough and he’d do well there, but it would mean that she’d have to do most of his training, and they’d be on the road almost every weekend, both of which required the one thing she didn’t have enough of … time.
If she sent Gunner back to Mike, she could focus on the big stock shows … the giants of the Quarter Horse, Paint, and Pinto Worlds. There’d be fewer shows, but each one was a big deal … and they led to the one she
really wanted – The World Paint Horse Show. She and Mike agreed that Gunner had the quality and the talent to compete at that level, and the schedule worked better for Heather’s situation.
2003 was a growing up year for Gunner. From February to July he trained with Mike and Heather and traveled the Gulf Coast in style. The shows they attended – usually one a month – were enormous affairs: the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo in February, the Houston Stock Show and Rodeo in March, off to Louisiana in April, then a warm-up for the Worlds at the Memorial Day Classic in Iowa, the World Pinto Show in Oklahoma in June, and finally, the World Paint Show in Fort Worth in July. Gunner seemed to sense the seriousness of these events, and in the show ring, he put aside his antics and gave his all.
In between events he trained and lived the pampered life of a well-loved show horse. He ate the best feed, enjoyed regular baths and daily grooming, and wore sheets to keep the flies at bay and the sun from bleaching his rich coat. His tail was luxurious and his hooves carefully trimmed and shod. He enjoyed massages and soothing leg wraps, deep bedded stalls, and leisurely playtime in meticulously cared-for paddocks. Gone were the days of muddy pens and rolling pastures full of frisky babies.
This was the big-time!
By the end of that season, Gunner had matured greatly and was looking more promising than ever. He had wracked up several top-ten placings (out of hundreds, in some classes), a reserve championship, and had won a beautiful new saddle. Heather was pleased with him, and with herself for managing to accomplish as much as she had with a busy three year old in tow. Wesley traveled almost everywhere with her and was a going concern in the barns and on the sidelines of the show ring. Always curious, always into something … it was like constantly having two Gunners. But Heather loved having Wes there and wouldn’t have traded those days with her little son for anything.
After the last show that year, it was time to rest young bones and tired muscles. Gunner enjoyed the autumn with Buttermilk and the other horses, fresh grass, a cozy stable at night, and a bit of freedom to be a regular horse for a while.
That autumn, he got kicked out of the working-horse barn! E.W. kept a string of ranch horses, used at roping events and for work on the farm. They were mostly big, tough, level-headed Quarter horses, used to working hard and staying out of trouble. Gunner was a spirited young show horse with a silky, polished coat
and a penchant for trouble. Heather fussed and worried over him and gave E.W. heck every time something happened, as if it were his fault.
One day, Heather brought E.W. a nice lunch and left it in the barn where he would find it when he was finished working. Unfortunately, she had left it sitting a little too close to Gunner’s stall, and by the time E.W. came for it, it was completely destroyed. Gunner got caught up in wire that no other horse could have found and gotten into in a million years. He squashed a kitten, broke fence rails, and was constantly wreaking havoc with the other horses.
The trouble was, the problems all seemed to occur when Heather was away working or visiting her mom at the Picayune farm. (Her father had passed away recently and she was spending more time there than usual.) When Heather was home, Gunner was better behaved.
The final straw came one night after Heather returned from a conference to find that the tip of one of Gunner’s ears had been bitten off. E.W. heard about that even before Heather had a chance to make it back to the house. Wesley ran ahead of her shouting, “Mama’s steaming mad at you, Daddy. Why’d you let Gunner get hurt again?” E.W. was not impressed, and Gunner found himself living in the little show barn in Picayune just a
few days later.
The issue remained a running joke between the young couple for the rest of their marriage. E.W. would not allow that sissy show horse in his roping-horse barn, and he was loath to care for him whenever Heather had to be away, knowing that something was bound to happen … and something nearly always did!
Not all of Gunner’s antics were harmful though. One afternoon, while he was still at the ranch, Heather and E.W. were cleaning stalls in the barn as Wesley played in the stable yard – or so they thought. Gunner and Buttermilk and a few other horses were in the paddock by the barn, where there was a very enticing, large brush pile, just right for exploring.
Suddenly, E.W. and Heather heard a ruckus. They could hear Wesley’s squealing and yelling, but couldn’t, at first, tell where it was coming from. Then they saw Gunner crashing out from the edge of the brush pile with Wesley dangling – airplane style, arms and legs spread-eagle and “flying” – in front of him. The little horse had Wesley by the back of his pants and Wes was laughing and hollering to beat all.
“Gunner, put him down,” shouted Heather, running toward them, and Gunner instantly dropped the boy with a thud. Immediately, the unharmed child was up and back in the brush pile in hot pursuit of something. Before they could reach him, Gunner had grabbed Wesley again, pulling him down from a high branch and “flying” him back to safety.