A police horse from the Midwest learns
to dance with leaping children

Horses, like people, prefer a bit of routine. They get used to a certain rider and environment, and it’s not so easy to change—especially all at once.
                But that’s what happened to Shady Maples Rocket, a pure-bred Belgian gelding from Michigan. He had to leave everything behind, including what he knew about carrying a rider. That ain’t so easy for a horse at the ripe old age of 8.
                Until December, Rocket was Rocky, the well-loved mount of a policewoman in Michigan named Joan. She had acquired the draft horse about five years ago from a fellow police officer who had put him through police training. But a change in the law made Rocky too big to be a police horse.
                He led a good life nonetheless, working parades and drill team and resting at a community stable behind Joan’s house. He was well loved by his owner and popular in the community, which is why everyone got worried when the woman from New Mexico showed up.
                She arrived with her family and started talking about buying Rocky, after Joan put her horse up for sale because she had developed a condition that kept her from riding. After learning more about Rocky, Valerie Carter of Las Vegas, N.M., set out across the country in the family car, certain that he was just the horse she was looking for.
                Carter belongs to the Corrales-based club Albuquerque Vaulters, which needed a new horse.A circus-related sport from Germany, vaulting consists of gymnastic and dance moves on a cantering horse. Merry Cole of Corrales introduced the sport to New Mexico in 1970, and started her children’s club, for which Carter serves as a lunger, the person who leads the horse around the ring.
                The club had been looking for a horse to relieve its competitive star, a 14-year-old Percheron pinto named John Boy Joe. Carter excitedly told Cole about Rocky.
                A horse trainer as well as a lunger, Carter naturally has a way with horses, which Joan sensed right away. Sight unseen, she offered to lodge the whole Carter family during their visit. Valerie thus got to spend two days working with Rocky, lungeing him and trying out her vaulting daughters, ages 10 and 15, on his back.
                “He didn’t care—he was OK,” she reported to Merry Cole.
                “She could see a lot of possibility,” Cole related.
                Joan, too, saw the potential, and was so delighted that her beloved horse would get to work with children that she donated him—on condition that Cole pay for his transport and return him if it didn’t work out. She even included a whole bucket full of his equipment, not so easy to come by for a horse so large.
                “Horse people recognize each other,” explains Kathleen Garrett, an equestrian who works with Albuquerque Vaulters. “Valerie is so calm and loving with horses—and that’s what you really want as a horse owner, more than the money.”

                Poor Rocky, however, was in for the trip of his life. A transport company planned to take him as far as their headquarters in Colorado Springs before Christmas. Loaded in a semi trailer, the horse spent 32 hours on his feet, swaying down the highway. He was supposed to remain in Colorado until after the holidays, “but we really felt that, because he’d been with one owner, Val ought to go and get him,” Cole said.
                So Carter set out again, this time with her big-horse trailer, dodging winter storms for two days to reach Rocky. “He was not interested in getting in that trailer,” Cole sighed—though he seemed quite happy to see familiar faces.

                Not surprisingly, when Rocky was unloaded in Corrales after this second trip, he just wanted to lay down and roll. A group of children had gathered to admire him, and after making sure it was safe, down he went. It was a blustery gray day just before Christmas, and he had come a long way.
                “Now we are working with him,” Cole reported in late January. She renamed him Rocket to distinguish him from other vaulting horses named Rocky, and took him out—probably too soon, she admits—riding on the ditch.
                “He was worried at first. He was nervous.” But now Rocket is doing just fine. He is training with Valerie, and every Saturday the kids work with him a little before going through their paces with John Boy Joe. After four sessions, Rocket was already trotting as the kids flung themselves on and off!
                It’s no small thing for a horse to learn vaulting. Instead of paying attention to the rider, he now has to focus on the lunger leading him around the ring. Even when a rider falls off, he has to keep on cantering in a circle as one, two, or three riders mount, sit, stand, roll around, and “fly”—hold one rider aloft.
                Luckily, the police training took most of the spook out of him, Cole says. “He has a roomy, flat back. He doesn’t mind people on his neck, or rear, or hanging off”—not bad for a horse who hasn’t acted in a single Western.
                And he took an instant liking for his stable mate John Boy Joe. “They seemed to realize right away they were the same kind of being,” Cole says. At his new home, Rocket has the company of three other horses, but he still whinnies a bit when other equines pass by. He misses his old friends.
                “The mare loves him,” Cole notes.
                The kids also love their handsome new partner. In competition, vaulters are judged on the horse’s performance as well as their own, since they’re all part of a team. Albuquerque Vaulters has competed in the World Equestrian Games, and goes to the national competition of the American Vaulting Association every year.
                Their next contest will be the Region IV competition at Expo New Mexico (state fairgrounds) at the end of June. They’ll also be performing at the “Spirit of Vaulting” exposition in the Expo NM Dairy Barn (http://avaregion4.org/sov.html), where the public is invited to sample what vaulting is all about.
        “He likes children, and he likes Wheat Thins,” Cole concludes. “He’ll do real well.”