Four years ago this month, I lost my heart horse. He was my fifteenth birthday present — a 3 year old thoroughbred with an opinion on everything. The first week I rode him, I fell off five times, in the same number of days. He was like an overgrown toddler, and would finally concede to learning new things with an “fine, I’ll do it because it want to, not because you told me to” kind of attitude.
But over the course of some 20-plus years, he was my constant. He was there the first time a boy broke my heart, when I started dating my now husband, when the twin towers fell, when I got married, when I had my babies, when I had miscarriages, when my dad was diagnosed with cancer (and when he was pronounced “cured”). Every major moment in my life, he was where I turned.
While he wasn’t perfect, he was perfect for me. He wasn’t the fanciest horse, but won more than his fair share of ribbons. He was lazy (with a wild streak), and had a heart of gold. He basically raised me. So, when I lost him, it left a hole in my heart I cannot even begin to describe.
It took a solid year before I was ready to start looking for a new horse. Fortunately, I borrowed my daughter’s pony on the regular in the meantime. I knew I could never find a replacement, but the search for the right partner was harder than I expected. I firmly believe buying a horse or pony is a lot like finding a human friend – there is a personality component to factor in. Just like people, we don’t all get along.
Due to budget constraints and my ammy-fear-of-dying, I had a challenging wish list.
What I wanted was: large green pony that I could put some miles on and then hand down to my daughter when she outgrew her pony (the one benefit of having the shortest legs in the history of ever), gelding, bay or chestnut with chrome, and ideally a welsh/TB cross.
What I got was: a 4 year old, hony (I’m still trying to convince myself he will measure a large). Quarter Horse palomino gelding, with a host of issues including, but not limited to: questionable joints, an overactive brain, a high maintenance lifestyle, and incredibly sensitive to everything personality!
But what he also was, and still is, is unbelievably kind and willing — that trumps everything else.
Here is a moment of truth that I don’t think I’ve ever said out loud. I think I was so hell-bent on getting a green bean, because it gave me an excuse. I’m an adult ammy. I have unfounded fears and physical limitations, but my brain refuses to acknowledge that. In my head I am still as good of a rider as I was at 18. So (and follow my non-logical logic, here) as long as I was on a green bean, I could blame my mistakes on training a green pony.
As in “I know we left from east Egypt for that jump, but he’s just a baby and hasn’t learned to rock back and balance to fit in that extra step.” Convenient, huh? Or “I know we missed that lead change, but he’s just a baby and is still learning how.”
The trouble is that it’s been four years, and I am still saying he’s a baby. He’s eight now. I remember a similar moment with my two legged child when I told a friend “the baby is asleep…” but the baby was five years old. I don’t like to acknowledge that my babies are growing up (maybe because that means I am getting older too).
I got complacent in my belief that I had to adapt my riding to suit the baby pony. He is naturally a worrier and reallllly sensitive to all aids. Often this is great – if I need to slow down, I don’t even really need to touch the reins, just saying a quiet “easy” will often do it. Need more pace? A quick cluck-cluck does the trick. Need a lead change? Flex your pinky on that side and it’s done.
What ended up happening though, over the course of several years is that I quit actually riding. I was just so focused on not telling him to do anything aside from what he was currently doing, that I was actually telling him nothing. And being as kind as he is, he generally let me get away with it. If we came to a jump and I was up off his back (because he “didn’t like it” when I sat which often led to unplanned lead changes if I shifted my weight – did I mention he’s really sensitive?) with ZERO leg on, and found a funny distance, he would pat the ground and get my butt to the other side in one piece.
One of the greatest things I have learned recently about my yellow-hony-I-never-knew-I-needed is that he is a humongous tattle tale. As the jumps have gotten bigger, and I’ve stayed true to my don’t-offend-the-baby-by-not-actually-riding plan, there have been a few times when I have cantered up to a jump, leaned up his neck, with zero leg on and he’s tried…honestly tried to get me to the other side. But you can see his forehead wrinkle and feel him say “mom, I just can’t.”
I’ve hit the ground more in the last 3 months than I have in the past 20 years. To fix that, we put some leg on and the honest boy that he is was like “Ok, mom says go faster!” and then we overshot all the jumps.
So now I am learning that I can sit, without driving; have leg on, without squeezing; and hold him in the bridle without whoaing. And if I forget any of the puzzle pieces, he will throw me under the proverbial bus by responding to exactly what I asked him to do. He’s a trainer’s dream, in that there is no need to second guess what I did wrong when we mess up.
My yellow pony is still my baby, but he’s not a baby anymore. He needs to learn how to be a grown up hony. He’s happy to do it, I just have to ask. I’ve learned that he actually relaxes when I put the right amount of leg on him. He prefers a little bit more contact on the reins (I think he feels like I’m holding his hand).
Just like my two-legged children, he is growing up on me, even though I don’t like to admit it. He is perfectly capable of doing what is being asked of him, but I’ve been holding him back. I know it’s all in my head. I know I need to stop being afraid of screwing up, and help him be successful. But it’s going to take me realizing that his age can’t be my excuse anymore. I am going to have to take ownership for my mistakes. The good news is that he is game for whatever, and never holds a grudge.
He never did become the kid’s pony (but I might let her borrow him some in the future) because I’m kind of selfish and decided I don’t want to share him. I’m excited to see where this next chapter takes us. We have plenty of time to work out the kinks and our trainer has plenty of patience (at least so far!) to help us get there.
I think life has a funny way of working out just the way it was supposed to. When I lost my heart horse, I couldn’t imagine loving another horse the same way… and I don’t love them the same, but I do love them equally. If I hadn’t had to say goodbye to one, I never would have found the other, and I can’t imagine a life without him. They both (along with all the others in between) have shaped my life.
These two, in particular, have challenged and pushed and stretched what I believe to be true, and I am a better person because of it. Sometimes we need to shake things up a bit in order to learn and grow. Thanks to a funny yellow pony, and a very patient trainer, I am going to do just that. Funny that it took a baby pony growing up, to help me grow up and see my own mistakes.