He stood proud at 16-hands tall. His coat – black as midnight, and sleek – shined under the morning sun. He had been stock-still and quiet, careful not to step on or scare one of his admirers.
It was a public appearance at the Lubbock Children’s Hospital, and each patient was eager to touch the black horse, including the boy in a red wagon.
The little boy had a shiny bald head and could hardly have been four years old. The red wagon he was sitting in rattled on the pavement as his IV cords dragged behind.
The horse’s rider, Ashley Hartzog, graduate student in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences, tensed as she anticipated his next move. With the combination of the noisy red wagon and the trails of IV cords, it was very possible for a horse to spook and hurt somebody.
But by no means is Midnight Matador a normal horse.
He let the little boy – wagon and all – come right up to him and take a picture without as much as flinching.
The son of a world champion reining horse, Midnight Matador was born into high expectations. Although he did not become a reining horse as intended, by the age of two, he would become one of the most recognizable horses in Texas.
As an icon of Texas Tech University, the Masked Rider horse represents the strength and integrity of his school. He must be level-headed, and of course, he must be cloaked in black to represent his school’s colors. To find such a horse takes time and effort – something Sam Jackson, Ph.D., associate professorin the Department of Animal and Food Sciences,was determined to discover.
“The horse in that role, they’re more or less as recognizable as the person riding them,” Jackson said. “And so they give a set identity.”
Jackson tested each of the potential horses by taking them to a band practice to observe their reaction to the noises, flags and crowd. Despite the broad range in ages and experience amongst the horses, their reactions remained consistent – tense up, chomp at the bit, and get out of there as fast as
That is, all but one horse. A black two-and-a-half year old gelding stood as calm as could be during the entire practice. Catching Jackson’s eye, the horse went on to the next step – the spring football game. After breezing through the game, the young horse soon inherited a new name and legacy.
Midnight Matador had found his true calling.
People spilled into the streets hanging off curbs, waving flags and shouting cheers. Children rushed to the road, stuffing as much candy as possible into their pockets, oblivious to the oncoming traffic. The float in front slammed its arms up and down, adding to the already noisy ruckus.
It was Lubbock’s 100th anniversary of the 4th on Broadway Parade, and Midnight Matador was about to make his big appearance. Head to toe in full costume, the horse proudly pranced down the lane and pointed his ears forward as all eyes turned to him.
Ten years from his first appearance, he still shines in the spotlight. In fact, he has the longest career in as a horse in the Masked Rider program since it officially started in 1954. Midnight Matador travels more than 15,000 miles with about 170 appearances per year. From local parades and events, to rodeos in Houston, and even a football game in Florida, Midnight Matador has put quite a few miles under his belt.
Considering he constantly deals with screaming children, a packed stadium, and sometimes even jet fly-overs at the games, Midnight Matador has
seen it all.
“I can imagine there are many horses that would not know how to handle that,” Hartzog said with pride, “but I think he has to be commended for handling those situations as well as he does.”
When he is not at an appearance or athletic game – yes, football is not the only sport this big guy likes to watch – he can be found at his home nestled in the Texas Tech Livestock Arena. With the exception of an occasional cow, goat or pig, Midnight Matador has the pad all to himself. For the horse, it is oats and hay at 7 a.m., a workout every other day, dinner, lots of grooming, and the occasional treat and scratch under the mane – his favorite spot.
His current rider, Bradley Skinner, senior in animal science, said he rides the mascot just as if he is training any other horse. The horse even goes on the occasional road trip with Skinner to work cattle.
“He’s a jack of all trades,” Skinner said.
Hartzog said she too was impressed with the horse’s range of skills and easy nature.
“It’s just amazing the things that he is willing to do,” she said. “If you bond with him and build trust between you and him, then he’ll do anything you ask him to.”
That trust factor is important in establishing a smooth year for both the rider and the horse. Christi Chadwell, senior in agricultural communications and the Masked Rider for 2010-2011, said it took a few weeks to establish trust with Midnight Matador. But once the horse and rider connected, Chadwell began to view Midnight Matador not only as a friend and partner, but as a mentor, as well.
“Midnight is a great teacher,” Chadwell said. “Almost every time I rode him, it seemed I learned something new about him or about horses in general.”
No matter the relationship, the selected rider must be able to shoulder much responsibility, handle pressure, assert horsemanship skills, and be a team player. Above all, he or she must share the same love for Texas Tech upon which Midnight Matador thrives.
He stands amidst a sea of red and black. Chants of “Raider Power” erupt from the crowd, flying tortillas whiz through the air, and the band strums with energy. Yet, despite all the sounds, he only hears one thing – his heartbeat. Like a ticking clock, it counts down the seconds as every ounce of his body tenses with excitement. The red and black pulses through his veins, his ears point forward, and he tosses his head.
It is time.
Every horse has his or her special form of release, some factor that makes life worthwhile. For Midnight Matador, the thrill of running down the football field is his obsession.
“It’s intense,” Hartzog said. “It’s like the equivalent of being in starting blocks if you were about to run a race and you are just having to stand there the whole time and be ready.”
Once it is time to run, the horse takes his job very seriously – all seven seconds of it. For in those few seconds, he gets to be the prized jewel, a loose cannon streaking across the field in a blaze of black.
All eyes are on him as he represents the true meaning of a Red Raider.
“If you think about a horse,” Jackson said, “to me he embodies a little bit of strength, and the flare and the passion, and the speed and intelligence, and everything you want in a mascot.”