`Hot Shot' of a horse isn't slowed by age

Riding: The Carroll County Therapeutic Riding Program's gray-tinged thoroughbred is beloved as "a charmer with a capital C" that some say is the very model of an equine.

October 12, 2003|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

In the 15 years he has helped disabled children in Carroll County's Therapeutic Riding Program, the horse dubbed Hot Shot has become celebrated for his sweet temperament, gentle canter, sturdy reliability and proud showmanship.

"He is a charmer with a capital C," said Becky Herrick, whose 11-year-old daughter rode Hot Shot at a demonstration at Shawan Downs Legacy steeplechase in Baltimore County two weeks ago. "He is gorgeous and moves like a cloud. We think of him as the miracle horse."

That's because Hot Shot is still working at an advanced age. How advanced might be open to debate - with no firm documentation, some who are familiar with the horse say he's about 30, while others say they believe he's in his 40s.

Hot Shot hardly has a tooth left in his mouth, but he's still pursuing trophies and ribbons.

"He is really, really old, but still really frisky," said Susanna Herrick, Becky's daughter. "He always knows what to do, and he takes big, bold steps."

His reputation is such that he was selected to serve as a model for a line of collectible horse figures - some of which will be sold at the Therapeutic Riding Program's 25th anniversary celebration today at the Carroll County Farm Museum.

The details of Hot Shot's early life are something of a mystery to his owners.

On his gums is a tattoo - the mark of a registered thoroughbred - but it is so faded that no one can read it. Hot Shot seems to be a name he picked up over the years. No one can be sure whether he ever raced.

Before coming to the Carroll County riding program, he was used for riding lessons at St. Timothy's School in Stevenson. The school donated him to the riding program about 15 years ago, said program founder Robert Shirley.

Shirley says that Hot Shot was 15 to 20 years old when he joined the riding program.

These days, Hot Shot is semiretired, but he is used for lessons for young riders, including many with physical, mental and emotional disabilities. They ride him in the show ring.

Shirley, who still volunteers, calls Hot Shot "one of the best horses that happened for us."

"He does a wonderful job at making our riders look good," Shirley said. "I have seen him tuck his head way back the way he is supposed to the minute he walks in the ring."

Mary E. Shunk, president of the Maryland Council of Equestrian Therapy, keeps Hot Shot at her Hampstead farm.

Shunk, who has raised horses for more than three decades, says Hot Shot looks to her to be as old as 43.

"Our vet says that it is amazing he is alive," she said. "It is amazing that he is still working. He has gray hair, but he is no geezer."

An information specialist for the Jockey Club, which registers thoroughbreds, said that a 25-year old thoroughbred is an old horse.

Shunk has an explanation for Hot Shot's longevity.

"If you keep horses active," she says, "they will live longer."

Hot Shot's toothless gums cannot keep his tongue from persistently dropping out of his mouth. He weighs a healthy 1,000 pounds and has a hearty appetite for about 12 quarts a day of sweet feed.

At horse shows, judges have deducted points for the drooping tongue, but not for horsemanship, Shunk said.

Overall, most agree Hot Shot is a fine specimen, particularly when he is decked out in his signature bridle, complete with his name on a brass plate.

"He shows beautifully, and judges love him," Shunk said.

Hot Shot's colors, including his characteristic white sock on his hind foot, are being immortalized as his breed's representative in a series of collectible equine models from the Peter Stone Co.

The choice was based more on Hot Shot's deeds than on his equine pulchritude, said Kellie Bontrager, general manager of the company based in Shipshewana, Ind.

"We base our decision on what a horse has done and how he has affected lives," she said. "We are not going to pick a horse that has never done anything for anybody just because he looks good. It has to have special meaning, or else we would be making models for everybody in the country."

The company used Hot Shot as its thoroughbred model, a 1-foot-tall bay with a nearly black mane, tail and legs. Artists handpainted 100 replicas, with only a white hind hoof to distinguish Hot Shot from other bays.

The model, which appears to be galloping, does not depict the star-shaped patch of gray hair between Hot Shot's eyes.

"We are excited that our horse is being immortalized," said Karen Scott, coordinator for the therapeutic riding program. "He has been with us forever and is probably the most magnificent mover we have ever had. There is really no one that he has not been good with."

A collage of photos of Hot Shot will be displayed at the celebration today.

Susanna Herrick, who struggles with dyslexia, calls Hot Shot her horse. She plans to buy a model and keep it forever, she said, "to always remind me of Hot Shot."

She rides her "tall thoroughbred" frequently, and a photograph of the pair performing at Shawan Downs decorates the anniversary celebration program.

Peggy Roland's daughter Megan, who has developmental disabilities, has been with the therapeutic program for 20 years.

"Hot Shot was always Meg's favorite horse for his good, sweet temper," said Peggy Roland. "He was perfect for the program and helped Meg develop her horsemanship skills. Riding has become her life sport."

Hot Shot still steps lively, Shunk said. When the bugle sounded at the steeplechase last month, he took off and milled around with other horses, she said. He leaps into the air and bucks occasionally.

"I know he is not ready to retire yet," she said.

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