Summer show 2013, the script’s Fool had a loyal dog. Jason was cast as the Fool’s best friend, except he’s a Clydesdale. Handsome, shy, a bit of a loner amongst the herd, and gentle as a 2000 pound herbivore can be. I took on being his handler.
Jason has an allergic reaction to fly bites. He rubs against trees and fence posts, scratches and bites himself all day. He’s rubbed his mane into a mohawk and has a mullet for a tail. I would brush his coat and pull burdock from his hair. Avon ‘Skin So Soft’ bath oil is a remarkably good, non-toxic bug repellent. Applying it everyday I went through several bottles of it. I soothed his sores with zinc cream.
He liked carrots and apples for hitting his mark. Long, slow entrances with the actress, staying calm while she rode him bare back. Backstage he would flap his lips at me knowing a windfall apple was in my pocket as I’d lead him off to the hitching post in the forest.
Once in a while, during his first entrance, he would lift his tail upstage and take a dump. It was something I could see happening from backstage but couldn’t stop. The actress leading Jason on would come to a stop, realize there was no moving him and stifle her own laughter, while yelling her lines – partly because she was way upstage and as an attempt to mask what Jason was doing, which never worked- until he was finished. We tried really hard to not let him get comfortable doing it but over the years I’ve noticed the horses enjoy upstaging the actors, taking extra long entrances, or dropping their dongs at opportune moments. Horse people tell me you can train this out of them but when it only happens a few times in the run, the unexpected turn generates a breathtaking surge of energy as the audience roars with laughter.
One night right before an entrance at the end of act one, a wasp bit Jason on his groin and he went up on the points of his hoofs and danced a spaz in the dark. The actress hurried off without riding Jason in. The rest of the cast quavered in the song, confused and worried, watching her sheepishly stride in. The audience probably didn’t know something was missing but the actors brains synapse when the rehearsed story is broken. I walked Jason through the woods till the venom subsided. Despite the obvious pain he was in, he didn’t rear, he didn’t kick, or gallop off. Steadfast, gentle Jason.
I would pick Jason up in the dry paddock before the show. Luke, the biggest of the Clydesdale’s, always greeted me first and often tried to nudge Jason’s bridal on to his head. When I brought Jason back after the show, Tinkerbell would scratch his neck with her teeth and he would return the favor in the moon light. During the day when they were let out to roam and graze, I found them on set, as if Jason was given the herd a tour of his work.
The first preview was a sold out house. In the curtain call I would walk on stage, take Jason’s lead from the actress and walk him off for their final bows. In rehearsal, seven people clapping and hooting is nothing like the volume of four hundred. As Jason and I turned to exit, he spooked, and side scuttled right on to my foot. In a flash of pain, I heard the house left bleacher gasp. I pulled my foot out as quickly as I could, did a hop, hop, hop to steady myself and continued off the stage, acting like everything was normal. I was immensely grateful I didn’t fall on my face and get trampled. I had to get Jason back to the paddock before I could inspect if my foot was broken. Swollen and bruised, yes but broken, thankfully no. Jason tried his best not to crush my foot.
All the horse people slapped me on the back and said “You finally got stepped on.” One more initiation into their insular club. We re-blocked it for the next night. I caught Jason upstage where it was quieter and we had more room to move. The applause each night was thunderous.
One afternoon Jamie took a bunch of photo’s of me wearing Melody Anderson’s Clydesdale’s mask, reading one of my favorite book/zines Adam Gnade’s “The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Fighting the Big Motherfuckin’ Sad”. I wanted to take a picture with Jason but he didn’t like the mask and after several failed attempts, Jamie suggested I just sit on the porch and maybe Jason would come around. Instead all the horses came down the hill to join him and Luke strode straight on to the porch to say hello and see what I was up to. So, I read to him.
From Adam’s word’s I said, Luke ‘Your friends will carry you home.’
I didn’t think I would be as upset as I was when the show closed. Normally, I say my goodbyes and the ethereal nature of the stage floats off. Weeks after I felt a loss and missed Jason’s company. When Luke passed away in the fall, I heaved with sobs. Luke had been retired for a few years but cancer had grown quickly in his body. He died in relative peace with his pack all around him as the vet put his body to rest.
Being vegan I get conflicted about working with animals. In our domesticated world these horses have it as ideal as I can imagine. It’s a small, social herd with 80 acres to roam and graze, only seasonally put to work in shows with the utmost care and respect. More than half are retired and yet, like Luke are accustom to the work and expect to take part in the shows, or maybe they just smelt the apples each night on Jason’s lips.