2006-08-19 / Columnists


Mary Milton's Last Horse War Xeno To Retire After 20 Years
by Candice C. Dunnigan

Young Colton Fisher of Mackinac Island has a horse sense beyond his tender age. At last week's Mackinac Island Horse Show, he noticed a lean, lone, bay gelding tied to a white birch tree, half asleep in the afternoon sun. As I walked past Colton in search of a bridle, he said to me, petting the dozing animal, "This is a nice old man. I'm going to go and give him some more water. He likes me."

I replied,"That's Xeno, Mary Milton's last horse."

And so it seemed fitting, on that lovely Sunday in August, that an old trooper named War Xeno participated in his 20th

consecutive Mackinac Island Horse Show. When Xeno first came to the Island, Mary Milton was a fit and 59-year-old equestrian. Mary never took a backseat to anyone. She was a crafty, sometimes cagey, but solid and versatile rider with an already legendary assemblage of horses everyone knew - Cream, Satin, Firsky, Sam, and Blue.

It did not take long for Xeno to become one of her favorites from the Milton's stable legacies. The horse, a bright bay Polish Arabian, is a direct descendant out of the stallion Witez. That prized animal was rescued by General Patton's troops in the same operation of the Lippizaner rescue, and became a foundation stud. Xeno's build and looks have the same mold. Xeno, in his youth, however, had plenty of spunk and fire that even a seasoned Mary did not bargain for, and Mary could ride.

James Dunnigan and the late Mary Milton with Ms. Milton's horse, War Xeno. James Dunnigan and the late Mary Milton with Ms. Milton's horse, War Xeno. The young horse had a habit of running away with Mary's husband, Bob, especially in the broad grassy expanse behind Fort Mackinac. Bob Milton also knew how to ride. Xeno would pull this stunt on Mary, too, with the pair of them splitting the difference. He was a handful on the trails, so Mary always had to lead when riding him. Her barn boys were never quite so fortunate, for Xeno would take off with them and do what horsemen refer to as "the old drop the right shoulder" routine. Off they would fall, if Xeno was in the mood for a little sport.

Mary persevered, and Xeno developed into a truly fine riding horse, one of the best. He also was taught to drive, and Mary and Bob purchased a lovely Meadowbrook carriage for him to pull, complete with a fancy red plume to wear. He was a wonderful driving horse with the exception (and probable devilment in him) of sideswiping mud puddles in his shafts. This made for some exciting drives, particularly after a rainstorm on Crooked Tree Road. The Milton's children, especially their daughter, Susan, enjoyed him, and so did her children and the rest of the Milton grandchildren and clan.

One day in August 1992, I received a phone call from Mary Milton that came out of the blue. It was true "Mary-style," direct and brief. She and her husband both had arthritis. They had decided to sell their last remaining horses, Sam and Xeno, and we were to buy them. At the time, I was the mother of a two-and-ahalf year-old boy and a sixmonth old daughter. I remember my husband and I looking at each other, dumbfounded. Then, we did the only correct Mackinac response - we called her back, got a sitter to watch the children, and went and rode those horses. Two days later, we not only were the parents of toddlers, but the new owners of Xeno and Sam.

Henceforth the two Arabs became part of our household. We worked out an arrangement with good Island friends that enabled us to keep them into the fall months and on the East Bluff (where we lived for part of the time). Our children, like Mary's grandchildren, learned to ride on them. We moved them from wintering in the Upper Peninsula to a stable four miles from us. In 2000, Sam died, but Xeno kept going strong, and when we bought our farm, Xeno was the first to enter the gate.

The Arab took to fox hunting and rode first flight his first year. I earned my colors with him at the end of the second season. In 2000, Xeno was the centerfold in the magazine Traverse. Xeno did very well on a high school equestrian team and at a USPC show jumping rally. He took numerous first places at the Waterloo Hunter Trials, Hunter Paces, USDF shows, and overall championships at the Mackinac Island Horse Shows. Xeno also served as a favorite mount for several handicapped riding programs downstate. He seemed to sense when a child was on him, and never pulled any tricks. Those were saved for the adults.

One early evening this past November, my son and I found Xeno very ill in his stall. He was listless and out of sorts. He had not touched his feed. We immediately suspected colic. We got him out of the barn out to our ring, where for more than three hours we walked him in the dark and cold. He finally seemed to heave a sigh, color came back into his gums, and his temperature went back to normal. He was fine. The following evening, we had a phone call that Mary Milton had died. It was a very odd and eerie coincidence.

Last Sunday, for the first time ever, I had to tell Xeno, "Wake up, it's time for your classes." He seemed to prefer to stay where he was, with Colton. Again, that eerie feeling overcame me. With a dip of his head, he accepted his bridle and, after some coaxing, he picked up his characteristic brisk, ground-covering stride. Show time. Xeno had no problem finding his place in the ribbons again, pinning an easy second place in trail. He was all game, jumping in his former master's newly created class, taking a third. Then Xeno carried Joan Fox Goodwin to a ribbon in her family's Goodwin Memorial class.

Yet, when he and I entered the ring to present the dedication to the Milton family, I sensed that we both knew that time was up. Last day to take a final bow and retire without too much fuss. It was a long and glorious 20-year career, and Xeno, you went out of that ring with heart and with style. Mary would have been proud.

Candice Dunnigan is an active member of the American Equestrian Association, the Waterloo Hunt, and the Mackinac Horsemen's Association. Seasonally she resides at Easterly Cottage.

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