By Tony Martins

It was a love-hate relationship from the very beginning. One winter my wife and I attended the California Royal Select Appaloosa Sale to help friends sell some show stock. After a long day of exercising, washing, grooming, prepping and top dollar sales, we relaxed in the sale barn to watch the last few horses run through. A big flashy colt caught my attention when he failed to raise the $500.00 minimum opening bid. Stretching across the aisle to gain my wife’s attention I commented: “That big colt would look great under saddle. Shoot, I’d give $500.00 for him, wouldn’t you?” Sold! That word boomed from the PA system as handlers whisked the big colt from the stage. Apparently the elephant-eared auctioneer heard my comment, and we were now the unintentional owners of a fine Appy colt. Well… almost – there was that matter of the $500.00.

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His registered name was Tommy Dial, but everyone knew him as Monster. He was a show Champion in the early 1980’s and an excellent trail horse in the field.

My wife sighed in relief when the owners informed us they had a $1000.00 reserve price on our colt, and then gave me the look (you know… that look) when they went on to say they waived the reserve since their trailer was full-up for the trip home. After borrowing the cash from my friends to pay the sellers, we all headed for stall #113 to meet our new acquisition. We pulled the top half of the stall door open, and out popped a dark little head with a cute reverse tear-drop white blaze. As my wife reached out to pat the little fella he quickly and expertly nipped her hand. “You little monster!” she shrieked. That was it – the name stuck, and it was a telling sign of things to come.

Shortly after settling in back home, our vet clipped his budding manhood, and I think the little monster forever associated me with that insult. He became a superb trail horse, both in and out of the show ring. His classic good looks, big toothy grin and mischievous personality made him popular on the show circuit. Monster was big and bold, steady and seemingly unafraid of anything including loud noises. I capitalized on this last trait and trained him to be steady to gun shots, often shooting small game as well as Canadian geese while saddled on his back.

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Monster and Tony after a successful hunt for Canada geese in California in the mid-1980’s.

Monster possessed a prodigious and pestiferous set of lips however, and he used them on everything he could reach. He could pick your pocket, drink Dr. Pepper from a bottle, open any gate latch and even unfasten a reverse bull-snap – something I have difficulty doing with 10 fingers! One evening at the Grand National Horse Show at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in the early 1980’s, this last skill was vividly demonstrated. First, he escaped from his stall, and then systematically unlatched a half dozen additional stalls, freeing $100,000.00 worth of horse flesh to run wild in the night. This magnificent performance earned him the additional nickname of “Houdini.”

Both the mind and lips of this horse were always active, and it wouldn’t have surprised me if he had pulled a Mr. Ed, and just started talking one day. Unfortunately, his habit of nipping unexpectedly continued throughout his life. It was usually playful and never malicious, but nonetheless annoying – particularly since he seemed to be delighted with his bad self. During one particularly nippy session, I lost my patience and tried punching him in the nose. I’d probably be arrested for animal abuse today, but back in those days it was no big deal. After all, Cow Pokes poked cows, didn’t they? My impulsive, mindless reaction was poorly executed. As I struck, Monster reared his head and instead of landing on his nose, my punch caught him squarely on the exposed upper teeth of his open (no surprise) mouth. Yeeow!

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Illustration by Brandee Synder.

Medical attention was needed – for me, not for the horse. The impact shattered the knuckle of the index finger on my right hand, and my “trigger” finger has not functioned properly since. High dollar target rifles often have “two-stage” match style triggers for accuracy. As a result of this self-induced injury, I have my own two-stage trigger finger that virtually guarantees inaccuracy. When I squeeze, the damaged cartilage sometimes “pops” (sometimes… not), and this unpredictable twitch is just enough to cause premature release of ejecta from the barrel of whichever gun I’m shooting.

So there you have it – the perfect excuse for all my missed shots. That old monster horse and I were regular companions for 20 years, and he’s been gone for another 20 now. I miss him and his antics, and I think about that big loose-lipped Appaloosa often – including just about every time I start putting the squeeze on a trigger.