Secret Lives of Horses: Taking a Chance

By Nancy Johnson

Sometimes you just have to take a chance; Linda Butler took a big one on a horse appropriately named Cherokee Chance. That was 23 years ago and the 31-year-old gelding is still a big part of her life today.

Linda and her husband now live in Aiken, but back then they had recently bought a small farm in northeastern Maryland and Linda was working at a veterinary hospital.

Chance in his paddock in Aiken, 2021

“One of the clients asked me if I was looking for a horse,” she recalls. “I told her I wasn’t sure what type of horse I wanted. I was considering a project horse for myself, but I had taught hunt seat riding for a number of years and also thought it would be nice to have something quiet enough that my husband could ride and I could use as a lesson horse for beginners.” When the client told her she had a Tennessee Walking Horse for sale, Linda was intrigued: a few years earlier she had started a 4-year-old Tennessee Walker for a friend and found that she really liked the breed.

“I went to try the horse and he was already tacked up when I arrived – first red flag,” Linda says. “I get on him and the first thing he does is rear up three times before I can get him to go forward. Meanwhile, the owner is screaming my name over and over. After his front feet hit the ground about the third time, I just nailed him and drove him forward.”  

After this inauspicious first ride, something struck Linda and she felt compelled to call the owner. “I told her she was going to have a hard time selling him and with his issues, chances are he will probably wind up at the killers pretty quickly.”

But Linda didn’t leave it at that. She went back to ride Chance again, bringing a friend along to videotape. “This time I insisted on grooming and tacking him up myself,” Linda says. “He wouldn’t let you pick up his hind feet without trying to kick you; he wouldn’t let you touch his ears. The horse obviously had not been treated very well somewhere along the line and he had a lot of trust issues.”

Chance’s bad manners and attitude continued as Linda attempted to mount up. “He kept moving, but I wasn’t about to give in. After about 20 minutes, I finally got on him and he was standing still. I quickly looked at my friend and said, ‘I can’t wait to see that video!’ to which she replied, ‘Oh, I couldn’t turn the camera on; I thought he was going to kill you.’”

Linda asked the owner for background information on Chance, but it was very sketchy. “The only thing I really know from his earlier life came from a little slip of paper that the current owner, his third at his then young age of 8, was given when she purchased him. It stated he was a Tennessee Walker named Cherokee Chance, born March 8, 1990; vaccinations were up to date, and to feed him one can of sweet feed and Timothy hay.”

Although Chance may have had papers, Linda never saw them. She decided to purchase him anyway. A black gelding with a uniquely shaped blaze and white on several legs, Linda says, “He really isn’t built look like a typical Walker; he looks more like a stocky Quarter Horse. Plus, he can trot and pace in addition to doing the running walk.”

Linda brought Chance home and started his training all over again. “I did a lot of groundwork with him; and didn’t ride him for almost a year.” As she expected, Chance proved to be very smart. “He wasn’t mean or vengeful, but I found if I pushed him at all, I would wind up taking two steps back. So, I concentrated on doing things he liked and was good at and then would just push him a little to see if he would comply.” Linda believes all Chance’s bad behavior stemmed from his trust issues. “He developed my patience and really made me think about what and how I was asking him to do something.”

The extensive groundwork paid off, and when Linda finally began riding him, she felt quite comfortable. They started out in the ring and then progressed to hacking in a two-acre paddock. It wasn’t long before they advanced to trail riding.  

“We would go to Fair Hill [which encompasses 5,600 acres] twice a week with my neighbor and ride all over the incredible grounds,” she says. “He was excellent trail riding because he was very bold, but he did have a spin that I had never seen in the ring. Because he is so short-backed, it was like sitting in an easy chair, but one minute you were going one direction and the next you were headed the opposite direction.”  

The trails at Fair Hill go through numerous tunnels, and Linda admits she was a bit worried the first time she and Chance encountered one. “My heart was pounding and all I could think of was him rearing in the tunnel.” But Chance never did rear in the tunnels, or on Fair Hill’s water crossings, or bridges. In fact, after that first time she tried him, he never reared again.  

Linda often calls Chance by his nickname BOB, which is an acronym. “Some days it stands for Big Ol’ Baby and other days it’s Big Ol’ Bully depending on his mood. He isn’t really a bully, but he can be a bit pushy!” she says, giving an amusing example.

“One evening I was in the house, while my non-horseperson husband was using a wheelbarrow in the barn area. ‘That horse!’ he announced when he finally returned to the house. ‘He grabbed onto the front of the wheelbarrow and just wouldn’t let go. And then he wouldn’t let me get back into the barn!’ Later he admitted that Chance had maneuvered him into the manure pile before getting bored and walking away. That was just typical of Chance’s sense of humor.”

Chance moved to Aiken three years ago with Linda and her husband. “Chance was in his late 20s when we first talked about moving down here, and I honestly wasn’t sure he would still be around by the time we moved.” Linda has stopped riding him because he was having some tripping episodes and she wants him to just enjoy his retirement at Cathy Newman’s White Rose Farm east of town. She visits him every other day. “Sometimes I take him for a walk, or groom him, and sometimes we just hang out and of course, have treats. In this warm weather his favorite is frozen watermelon.”

Linda says Chance gets along well with the other retired horses at White Rose Farm, especially the mares. “He’s always had a thing for the girls,” she notes. One time back in Maryland, Linda panicked when Chance and a buddy were missing from their paddock. She even called the police fearing a case of horsenapping. But not much later, she was embarrassed to find that the two horses had merely taken a road trip to a farm behind them where Chance was hanging out next to a whole field of mares. “He spent the following week calling to the mares from his lockdown paddock behind the barn,” Linda recalls.

“He is my last horse,” Linda says. Issues with her hip have made riding quite painful, so she and Chance both retired from riding together. “He wasn’t the horse that I ever imagined for myself, and yet he wound up being just perfect. And I believe every perfect gift is from above. He’s been with me for 23 years and this horse has taught me so much. Through perseverance, both of us learned about trust, kindness, and control. He helped build all of those in me to bring the best out in him.”

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