Calling Mr. Ed: in a Bizarre Custody Battle, Larry the Horse May Need Legal Representation

updated 12/10/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/10/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

A horse is a horse, of course, of course, unless it's a case of divorce, of course. Then a horse—even a gentle 12-year-old—can become a hot potato. That's just what has happened in the not-so-gentle divorce proceedings between crusty rodeo veteran Montie Montana, 74, who annually serves as a marshal of the Tournament of Roses Parade, and his wife of 12 years, Elly, 65. Although the Montanas will divide some $4 million in community property—including a 16-acre ranch about 100 miles north of L.A., and Elly's $32,000 sterling silver saddle—the central issue is: Who will obtain custody of their pinto gelding, Larry? Says Elly, "I want him 100 percent. Not joint custody, absolutely not. He's my horse." Says Montie, "I'll never give him to her, never ever, and never in my wildest dreams did I say, 'I'm buying that horse for you.' " The matter may be settled during a closed-door custody hearing, requested by Montie and scheduled for Dec. 12 in San Fernando Municipal Court. Says Elly's lawyer, ubiquitous hired gun Marvin Mitchelson, "A custody hearing over a horse, behind closed doors? That's the strangest thing I've ever heard."

The judge may need more than horse sense. Montie claims he needs Larry for the traveling rodeo show he puts on at parades and fairs: "He's the leader, that's why he's important." Counters Elly, "There's no reason on God's green earth that he needs that horse. He has 10 other wonderful trained horses." Montie says that Elly is actually "scared of horses." Elly responds that "anyone who tells you he's not afraid of horses is a liar." Besides, she says she loves Larry like a child, adding that she believes there is another motive behind Montie's tenaciousness: "The only reason Montie wants Larry is so he can give him to that girl," she says. Aha.

"That girl" is Montie's assistant, Marilee Young, 36, who is married and has two children. Claims a riled Elly, "She and Montie spend all day long riding together on our horses, using our tack, and he let her polish my silver saddle." Montie retorts, "Marilee and I work together and we're friends. I hauled some hay for her. Elly and I just don't get along and that's irris...what do you call it? ...irrevocable differences."

Pending a settlement, Montie and Elly still live together in their two-bedroom ranch house, which is covered, floor, wall and ceiling, with Indian headdresses, six-shooters, arrowheads and pictures of Montana riding and roping with Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, John Wayne, Gene Autry, Jimmy Stewart and Roy Rogers. Rows of Montie's custom-tooled boots stand ready to march out of the guest bedroom that he now uses as his own. "It's a museum; I tried to make it like a tribute to him," says Elly. "Who would have thought that at age 65 I'd be fighting for custody of a horse instead of a child?" Says Montie, "She cusses me, but I sleep a good night's sleep 'cause my conscience is clear."

What does Larry think of it all? "He don't know and he don't care," says Montie. "He's just a horse."

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