A Horse of Firsts

Anyone who has ridden and owned horses has that special “heart” horse. That one that changed their life forever. Usually there is a fair amount of sappiness that goes along with a “heart” horse. If you know me, you know that really isn’t my style.

My heart horse was a little (or perhaps a lot) more like me: stubborn, opinionated, and never took the easy way out. Through our time together, we had a strong love/hate relationship. I hated to love her and loved to hate her. She challenged me (and every trainer I had) to try better and be better. She had multiple personalities and every day was a different day. In just this one horse I had the opportunity to ride and show about ten different personalities, and none of them were boring.

Here is a little story about a horse who changed my life (and yours if you have ever ridden with me or had a horse ridden by me):

Goldie was bred by my aunt. She had been incredibly sick at birth and it was thought she wasn’t going to make it. Somehow she pulled through. Later we would attest her survival to her unparalleled stubbornness and self-preservation. But at the time, it was mostly a miracle she didn’t die.

At five she was sent to be started by an old, been-around-the-block-100-times cowboy. This man had ridden and seen probably everything you could imagine and then a few. It took him triple the amount of time to start her. Being naive, new horse owners, we didn’t think this to be much of a concern. I was a young teen who was eager, and quite possibly more stubborn, and didn’t know what kind of a challenge lay ahead. Ignorance is bliss, as they say.

She knew nothing and I knew marginally more. Our first experience with cross ties went like this: she walked forward, hit the ties, backed up, hit her rump, bolted forward, hit the ties, backed up, hit her rump, and so on and so forth. Blanketing was an adventure and even a regular saddle pad seemed to invoke an irrational fear. Knowing nothing else, I kept working her, riding her and falling off of her. Looking back, I was “that kid”. The one who is over-horsed and under-educated. (And sometimes I wonder if my parents actually loved me since they let me ride something so insanely wild.)

We struggled is putting it mildly. Briefly, I had a trainer who employed the “starve-and-beat” method of training. He couldn’t out-stubborn her and after a few months, gave up. He gave her back to me a gate-sour stopper who refused to go forward. We spent countless hours stuck in a corner of the arena refusing to go forward…or backwards…or sideways. It took us two years (two years!) to cross the street to the trail. Her athleticism was proven by her ability to start to jump but then slam on the brakes and spin, leaving you hanging, literally, in the middle of the jump. She threw tantrums and threw me off more times than I could count. Her short neck and slightly downhill stature only aided her in her ability to disappear at a moments notice. Her neck was solid and strong and she know just how to throw a shoulder and take off when she had had enough.

She was a horse of firsts: first rear, first buck, first spin, first horse that wouldn’t get in the trailer no matter how much you begged, pleaded, or told. She was the first horse I chased around a show grounds after deciding not to get in said trailer. She was the first horse I had a trainer (and subsequently several trainers) give up on. She was the first horse I had that was irrationally gate sour. She was the first horse I took to a show without a trainer. She was my first experience with colic surgery. She was the first mare that I bred who gave me the first foal that I started. And she was ultimately the first horse I had to put down.

She was the first horse I ruined and the first I was bound and determined to fix.

I would never in a million years wish this kind of horse on anyone, but I also wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. She taught me patience, tactfulness, and empathy. She made me seek out alternative answers to training problems that my trainers couldn’t seem to answer. She challenged me every day to ride better and be better. And at the end of my junior career, we got to jump around the 1.10m jumpers successfully (although we still couldn’t walk into the arena in a civilized fashion). She taught me to measure success not in the ribbons that hung on the wall, but in the distance traveled to achieve the ones received. We had the ultimate love/hate relationship but in the end, my career and life is owed to that single stubborn mare who wouldn’t settle for anything less than the best out of me.