“You expect it but you’re never ready to accept it.”
Those were Tommy Manion’s words when I spoke with him a week after the great stallion Smart Little Lena was euthanized after suffering a stroke at Manion Ranch in Aubrey, Texas. The stallion had lived there for 27 of his 31 years, and even though modern breeding technology assures that there will still be babies born in the future, his loss truly is the end of an era.
It’s safe to say that Smart Little Lena is the best-known horse in the cutting world. Even though his grandson, High Brow Cat, has passed him as the leading cutting sire, there’s no doubt about Smart Little Lena’s impact on the horse industry and his effect on people.
There were signs from the start that the colt would be different. His breeder, Hanes Chatham, has told stories of a young Smart Little Lena chasing butterflies to entertain himself. His trainer, the late Bill Freeman, called him the smartest horse he’d ridden. The horse was eventually syndicated, and although legal problems erupted several years ago and the syndicate was plagued by controversy for some time, Smart Little Lena’s legacy remains untarnished. (Check out a story on him in The Arena section of the November issue. To subscribe, click here.)
In a world where some people view horses as strictly investments and business properties, and big money is at stake, it wasn’t surprising that the stallion became his own corporation. Smart Little Lena was unaware of the hubbub. He was, after all, a horse. But, as good horses often do, he knew he was special.
That was apparent in 2002, when the stallion and Freeman were honored in a tribute at Will Rogers Memorial Center in Fort Worth, Texas, during the NCHA Futurity to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their own win at that event. When Freeman turned Smart Little Lena loose in the arena and the spotlight was on him, he acted like a colt. Trotting and loping with a spring in his step, and occasionally stopping and turning with the same style he showed on a cow, the 23-year-old seemed to know all eyes were on him. (To watch a video of that tribute, click here.)
At home, Manion says, Smart Little Lena was “a courageous little horse” with a big personality. When he was turned out in his run, no one could catch him until he was ready to come back in. When Manion’s wife, Chris, checked on the stallions each night and snuck them the occasional carrot, Smart Little Lena would throw a fit if he wasn’t visited first. If he got the first carrot, there wasn’t a peep out of him. And he had a favorite mare: the great Autumn Boon, now 17. Manion says the blue roan was “his absolute girlfriend” and he could spot her a mile away.
In the end, Smart Little Lena was comforted by Chris, who held the stallion’s head as Dr. John McCarroll—the horse’s lifetime vet—prepared to euthanize him. Manion says the stallion looked up at Chris and nickered.
“It brought chills to me,” he says. “It was just like he was saying, ‘Boy, I’m really glad you’re here,’ or, ‘I’m going to be OK.’ They had a special relationship.”
All the statistics and the money and the controversy fade away when you hear a story like that. He was, after all, a horse. But what a horse he was.